In our fractured era, multiple attributes are sometimes a badge of pride and a promise of healing, everything from biracial to bisexual; but, at the same time, group think and tribal belonging erect protective walls and defenses, powerful forces that militate against unity, and expose the fear of that global community which is our deepest identity and most urgent call.
In this context, the Double Belonging advocated by my friend, Dr. Paul Knitter, the internationally recognized theologian of interfaith exploration, is all the more alluring and timely. For him, this approach means: being ardently and securely rooted in a primary tradition, often of one’s birth and culture, while simultaneously receiving substantial nourishment and inspiration from another religious tradition. Triple and Quadruple are also possibilities, within our human limitations! We quickly note this is not the same as syncretism — merging traditions while blithely picking whatever elements are shiny enough to attract the eye. On the contrary, as long as the integrity of the traditions is respected, with mature guidance and reflection, many wondrous correspondences and opportunities for mutual enrichment are swiftly revealed.
A major practitioner, before the time, of such an approach is Huston Smith, whose textbook “The World’s Religions” is a handbook for anyone seeking light and warmth in this domain. He exhibited not only an appreciative and enthusiastic interest in the world’s religious traditions, but also a lively desire to taste and savor them. In that, he exemplifies the several levels of Multiple Belonging that are open to us.
At the very least, I staunchly assert that every educated person on the planet today needs to have a basic knowledge and sympathetic understanding of the world’s major religious traditions. In our contemporary global community, and considering the unrelenting importance of religion in social and political life, such rudimentary awareness should be esteemed as basic as mathematics or literacy. Indeed, it is spiritual literacy. And if the verdict is not “sympathetic,” then either the religion has not been properly understood, and/or the seeker’s psychological and cultural biases have not been exposed and treated.
Beyond that, according to each one’s attraction and call, we can delve more deeply. The benefits are many, as outlined in Dr. Knitter’s wonderfully candid and personal work, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.” Not only do we have the privilege of mining the inestimable riches of other traditions, but these discoveries can help us to appreciate hidden or forgotten dimensions of our own original tradition, sometimes in ways that would have remained buried otherwise.
For example, Buddhism is often reproached for being impersonal or atheist, whereas there is simply, from the beginning, a refusal to name or categorize what is recognized, especially in Mahayana, as an ineffable mystery. The mystics of all traditions perpetually remind us of this. In our Christian West, for example, this is the apophatic way, from the Greek signifying a refusal to speak. We have become so enamored throughout history of formulas and dogmas and clear concepts, including and especially about God and Trinity, that we need this salutary slap to remind us of the utter inadequacy of any words. St. John Chrysostom wrote a treatise around the year 400 against Eunomius, who insisted that at least the phrase “Unbegotten” could adequately express the divine mystery. St. John insisted rather on the ineffability of God. As St. Augustine famously reminds us, “If you’ve grasped it, it isn’t God!” (“Si comprehenderis, non est Deus.”)
Conversely, the laudable emphasis in the West today on human dignity and human rights, both in politics and religion, as well as on the environment, can be a reminder to Eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism of the call to active compassion in the external arena, the need to uphold and protect the sublime dignity of human beings, and of all life, that is enshrined in their understanding of the world.
Hence, the ideal is for all of us first to know well our own tradition, and enthusiastically share its riches with all our brothers and sisters in the human family, and then also be open to the gifts we can likewise receive. A fair exchange!
And remember, in the celestial realms, there is no competition, only collaboration; otherwise, the realms would not be celestial! One can well imagine and experience that there is an ordering of roles and identities, but this is doubtless at the service of teamwork, and not of hierarchical posturing. And anyway, ultimately All is One, again as all traditions eloquently affirm! (Cf., for example, John 17: 20-26).