walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 9, 2012
If it’s December, I’m Presbyterian

On April 13, 2012 Religion News Service carried a story about Andrew Bowen, a 29-year old resident of Lumberton, North Carolina. Throughout the year 2011 he practiced a different religion each month—Hindu in January, Baha’i in February, Zoroastrian in March, and so on. Bowen had what he called a teenage experience of “Christian fundamentalism”. Married with two children, he and his wife lost a third child—an event which plunged him into a crisis of faith. The story does not explain how he hit on the idea of this very original interfaith experiment. Each month he would spend the first two weeks reading up on the designated faith, then turning for the next two weeks to whatever rituals or other practices went with the faith. In each case he chose a “mentor” to initiate him into the scheduled religion. Since Lumberton had limited facilities for a hands-on curriculum in comparative religion, Bowen had to go far afield in his search for instructors (the one for Zoroastrianism lived in Chicago). Following the curriculum turned out to be a full-time job, since it involved intense changes in lifestyle in addition to all the reading. The story was illustrated by photos showing Bowen with a turban and what looks like a sword (the Sikh month?), sporting a Wiccan symbol, and sitting in a yoga position. He stopped working for the year and the family was supported by his wife Heather, who is a nurse (and a Baptist). At first she was not thrilled by her husband’s idiosyncratic experiment, but she says that she came to respect and even benefit from it. Heather’s least thrilling month was November, when Bowen lived as a Jain monk, meditating wrapped in his grandmother’s sheets and carrying a broom to whisk away tiny creatures that might be inadvertently swallowed (following the Jain version of a “culture of life”); worst of all, he did not bathe for the month.

Bowen did not actually convert to any of the faiths he serially tried out, although he continues with some of the practices (he meditates daily and occasionally attends Catholic services). What he claims to have achieved is a measure of peace and a renewed respect for human diversity.

Scholars of religion might want to look down on this do-it-yourself exercise in ecumenicity, calling it superficial or misleading. I think that such an attitude would be a mistake. Bowen’s experiment was a genuine quest for truth after a profound personal crisis. It merits respect. Of course one month of even intense immersion is not enough for an adequate grasp of major religious traditions, some of which embody many centuries of human experience and thought. But one should not underestimate the gain from even short-term theological tourism. I spent considerably less than a month on my one visit to Nepal, but I did acquire a sense of its distinctive synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism. Beyond respecting Bowen, his story is emblematic of American religious pluralism and instructive for understanding the latter.

I have long ago come to the conclusion that the empirical evidence has falsified so-called secularization theory—the notion that modernity necessarily brings about a decline in religion. Secularization theory should be replaced by a theory of plurality—a situation in which many religions co-exist and interact with each other. Readers of this blog have not promised to become familiar with everything I have ever written about religion (which would fall under the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment). All the same, I cannot here develop the proposed pluralization theory. Except to simply state its two principal components, one on the level of religious institutions, the other on the level of individual consciousness. On the level of institutions:  In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, which it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religion—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institution—the “denomination”, which in many ways looks like a “church”, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term “religious preference” nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.

When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhr’s denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.

In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denomination—even Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations.

Last year I happened to come on a Hindu temple in central Texas. It is a large, unmistakably Indian building, plucked down in the heart of the Bible Belt. In India most temples are dedicated to one or two gods, depending on the location. This is not practical in America, where immigrants come from different parts of India. The Texas temple has a large space where everyone can join in common worship (on important holidays hundreds of people come from all over the Southwest). But then there are eight or nine small chapels, where people can connect with the god or goddess of their preference—denominationalism objectified in architecture. A colleague of mine has been teaching a college course titled “Introduction to Hinduism”. She thought that the students would be Americans of any background interested in Indian religion. To her surprise most of the students were of Indian ethnic background, mostly very ignorant of Hinduism. When asked why they had registered for the course, several of them said that they wanted to find out who they are. Logically, this sentence does not make sense: If one is something, one need not find out what the something is; if one has to engage in a project of finding out, then, almost by definition, one is not that something. But sociologically, the sentence is remarkably descriptive: These young Americans want to have information that will help them to decide whether and how they want to be Hindus.

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  • WigWag

    “But then there are eight or nine small chapels, where people can connect with the god or goddess of their preference—denominationalism objectified in architecture.” (Peter Berger)

    Something mildly reminiscent of this exists in the Old City of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As anyone who has ever visited the Church knows, there are numerous chapels assigned to different Christian denominations and these denominations rarely see eye to eye on how the Church should be operated. Even more ironic is the fact that despite being the site (where tradition has it) Christ was crucified, angry disputes about which denomination controls which part of the Church’s floor space frequently break out. A few years back a brawl broke out when a Coptic Monk moved his chair from it’s traditional spot to a slightly more shady location. This infuriated the Ethiopian Monks who witnesses it; the carnage resulted in more than hurt feelings. Bones were broken and eleven people were taken to the hospital. Recent altercations between Orthodox and Armenian Christians and Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy. If reports are to be believed, the Franciscans guard their prerogatives jealously and frequently instigate trouble with other denominations. Israeli police (who are almost always Jewish but occasionally Muslim) have been called several times to intervene to prevent a riot even during Christian holidays. Of course the keys to the Church are controlled by a Muslim family, the Nuseibeh family.

    I don’t know if acolytes of the different Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu Temple in Texas mentioned by Professor Berger get along but it is pretty clear that the Christian denominations who worship at the site where Christ was crucified do not.

    In fact, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has more in common with the roller derby than it does to a sacred space.

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  • David Naas

    I once lived in a small town which had seven churches on a very short street. Other then the madhouse on Sunday morning, when everybody in town (seemingly) was arriving or leaving at the same time, one might wonder, did they all get along? In a pig’s eye! Several of them believed in an “innerant, infallable, verbal plenary inspited Bible”, and they fought and feuded worse with each other than with the others. Hindu got nothing on America for diversity of (understanding of)God. As the USA confronts challenges to the Protestant orthodoxy, with Catholics and Mormons and Muslims (oh my), not to mention Hindu and Buddhist, who knows, we may actually learn how to give more than lip-synch service to “plurality”, “toleration”, and even “democracy”?

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  • Jeremy Klein

    “…[W]e may actually learn how to give more than lip-synch service to “plurality”, “toleration”, and even “democracy”…”
    The problem is that these are values. One either values plurality, toleration, and democracy or one doesn’t. In fact, like the Founders, I consider democracy a dreadful system; I much prefer a Republic. We still have one, although we’re losing it fast due to willful treasonous ignorance and denial of the Constitution. But I digress.

    Why bother with toleration? It can be inconvenient and takes effort. In fact the only good reason to do so is because under certain circumstances it’s morally the right thing to do, and morality only makes sense when founded on divine authority. Of course there are some circumstances in which intolerance is the appropriate attitude. E.g, I am intolerant of adherents of Al Qaeda.

    It is senseless to sacrifice Truth in the service of ‘getting along’, when the value of ‘getting along’ can only be truly found when one knows the Truth. If we’re the accidental byproducts of a cosmic burp some umpty-billion years ago, then ‘getting along’ is meaningless, like life itself. Might as well go with ‘survival of the fittest’. The lion does not ask the zebra’s permission to have lunch. The big monkey does not ask for the little monkey’s banana; he takes it.

    Just because one group of soi-disant Christians disagrees with another does not necessarily mean they’re both wrong, nor does it mean that there’s something inherently wrong with them passionately defending what they consider to be the Truth.

  • Nicodemus

    One of my close friends introduced me to his relative who was the head of a major Telecom company in a Muslim country in Asia which had once been part of the British Empire.

    During the conversation, he took pains to draw my attention to the following; my recollection of the exact words is failing me. You British he said look disparagingly at your past and your Empire, but we rememeber you well and fondly for the one thing we remember about you is that you respected our Muslim religion.

    Whilst I do not want to claim any unique derivation for that praise as particularly from Christianity, I would like to suggest that the Civilization known as Christian, admittedly whatever that means, made a contribution to what was behind that comment. For whatever your other commentators seem to say/imply and we can all make selections of negatives, true tolerance is how you treat the people who differ with you and we Christians have a not indifferent record of commending that way of living (which is assuredly an “inerrant, infallable, verbally inspired” biblical christian principle to be proud of, whatever the delivery of it)and in fact also with others stand out today in offering that concept of tolerance, as compared to the one that seems to want to force everyone into a straightjacket called “toleration only of the tolerant”, or to put it harshly the concept that nothing is true and no one should state that save the self-selected tolerant ones.

    We Christians seek only to try to drain ourselves of ill-will towards others and then to persuade, and to argue what we believe and thereby restrain, with the desire however failingly that others should flourish. We do not claim that we are better than anyone else and nor do we claim that we will not and do not fail, of course. We should in an “inerrant, infallible, verbal plenary inspired” biblical context (whatever that means) see ourselves as part of the wretched of the earth, out of which if any good comes it is a miracle!

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