Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church

By Phan, Peter C. | Theological Studies, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church


Phan, Peter C., Theological Studies


A telling sign of the time is reflected in the response by a recent American college graduate who, when asked about her religious identity, answered with an easy laugh: "Methodist, Taoist, Native American, Quaker, Russian Orthodox, and Jew." (1) Whether her "multiple religious belonging" or "hyphenated religious identity" is a thoughtful and coherent response to the contemporary situation of religious pluralism or a self-indulgent, free-floating, cafeteria-style potpourri of mutually incompatible spiritualities, there is no doubt that multiple religious belonging is no longer rare in the West. This phenomenon brings serious challenges as well as enriching opportunities not only to Christian identity but also to interreligious dialogue and Christian mission in general. (2)

In this article I first examine the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging and its underlying theological presuppositions. Secondly, I delineate some of the features that have accompanied such multiple religious belonging that would make it fruitful for contemporary church life. Finally, I highlight a few implications that multiple religious belonging has for theological education. (3)

MULTIPLE RELIGIOUS BELONGING AND THEOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

Before examining the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging and its undergirding theological principles, it would be helpful to state briefly what is meant by this expression. The phenomenon does not refer simply to the process known today as inculturation whereby the gospel, or more concretely, a particular form of Christianity--usually the Western one and not some pure, acultural Christianity (which of course does not exist)--encounters a particular group of people, assumes their language and culture as its modes of self-realization and expression, transforming, and when necessary, correcting them, with Christian beliefs and values, and at the same time is enriched in turn by them. Such a process, explicitly endorsed by the Roman magisterium in our days, is unavoidable and should not be considered as controversial, at least in principle. Historically, it has been taking place in different ways ever since Christianity moved out of its Jewish matrix into the Hellenistic, Roman, and Teutonic worlds, or into what is commonly designated by the general term of "the Western world." Today this process of inculturation is extended, as a matter of principle, to cultures other than Western, in particular African and Asian. In this sense, one may and must be both Christian and Vietnamese or whatever cultural group one belongs to. In other words, a person needs not and must not renounce his or her cultural identity and traditions upon becoming a Christian.

Nor does multiple religious belonging refer to interreligious dialogue in which one engages not only in theological discussion with the followers of other religions but also in sharing life with them in an open and neighborly spirit, collaborating with them in works for integral development and liberation, and participating in religious experiences of prayer and contemplation. (4) Indeed, interreligious dialogue, even in the last form, may militate against multiple religious belonging since as a matter of methodology it requires that participants in interfaith dialogue preserve their distinctive religious doctrines and practices, and that they and show how these are not only similar to but different from those of other faiths.

Going beyond inculturation and interreligious dialogue, albeit intimately related to these two activities, multiple religious belonging or hyphenated religious identity refers to the fact that some Christians believe that it is possible and even necessary not only to accept in theory this or that doctrine or practice of other religions and to incorporate them, perhaps in a modified form, into Christianity but also to adopt and live the beliefs, moral rules, rituals, and monastic practices of religious traditions other than those of Christianity, perhaps even in the midst of the community of the devotees of other religions. …

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