Catholic and Buddhist: Barbara Johnson, Deconstructing False Binaries

My days and nights are full now as I work to meet the deadline for my book manuscript. I am weaving together the stories of hundreds of interfaith families, describing the growing grassroots movement to teach interfaith children about both Judaism and Christianity.

So at the moment, I try not to be distracted by the daily news. But it has become impossible to ignore the story of local art teacher Barbara Johnson, who was refused Communion, because she is a lesbian, by the Catholic priest at her mother’s funeral. Now, the media has discovered an online paper Johnson wrote, in which she described herself as a Buddhist. So the focus has shifted from “Should a priest give Communion to a lesbian?” to, “Should a priest give Communion to someone who claims both Catholicism and Buddhism?”

Suddenly, Barbara Johnson’s story has become yet another “both/and” challenge to the “either/or” world. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, who has covered this story from the start, interviewed Johnson (and her brother) to get Johnson’s own description of the role these two religions play in her life. Johnson says that by the time of her mother’s death, ironically, she “had really integrated my Catholic identity into my larger identity as someone who is very influenced by Buddhist teachings.” She also described how, for her, Buddhism and Catholicism “inform one another in this constant internal conversation.” That conversation will be a familiar one to many of us who are born into interfaith families.

Often, clergy who claim religious double-belonging seem to carry more weight than those of us who are rank-and-file dual-faith individuals. And so, Boorstein mentions Trappist monk Thomas Merton as another Catholic who embraced Buddhism. And she mentions, though not by name, Ann Holmes Redding, a former Episcopal priest who describes her religious identity as a convergence of Christianity and Islam.

Perhaps the best contemporary exploration of religious double-belonging is by eminent theologian and former Catholic priest Paul Knitter, in his 2009 memoir, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter writes, “dualism results when we make necessary distinctions, and then take those distinctions too seriously. We turn those distinctions into dividing lines rather than connecting lines; we use them as no-trespassing signs.” When writing about his own identity, he says, “I have to be religious interreligiously.” As an adult interfaith child, I, too, feel compelled to be religious interreligiously.

As an interfaith parent raising interfaith children, this rising tide of fluid identity thrills me: I feel lifted up, weightless and exhilarated, each time a new wave rolls in. I feel supported by other Jewish and Christian interfaith families, but also by Catholics claiming Buddhism, and Episcopalians claiming Islam, and multiethnic and bilingual and immigrant and expatriate and multiracial families, and all of the many expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation in our world.

In the 2011 memoir Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender, Nick Krieger concludes, “Some people see it as a binary, a spectrum, a continuum, or a rainbow. But when I envision my own gender, it is with my eye to the lens of a kaleidoscope that I spin and spin and spin.” Thanks to Krieger’s metaphor, I can now visualize the complexity of my own religious identity as a kaleidoscope of shifting spots of Jewish belief, English and Scottish and Irish heritage, Jewish ritual, New England Protestant culture, Jewish studies, Catholic social teaching, Muslim immersion, African animist encounters, Buddhist practice.

In Barbara Johnson’s eloquent academic paper posted online, she discusses the dilemma of gay and lesbian teachers in the context of queer theory that is “deconstructing the false sexual binaries of masculine/feminine and heterosexual/homosexual.” And now, by her own example as a Catholic and a Buddhist, I believe that she is helping to deconstruct false religious binaries, as well.

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8 Replies to “Catholic and Buddhist: Barbara Johnson, Deconstructing False Binaries”

  1. I found this blog at a time when I needed it. The words resonate so deeply. As a cultural catholic married to a deeply cultural Jewish man, we often feel sad that our desire to share all parts of ourselves when raising our children (morally, spiritually, culturally) should be suppressed. Thank you, I will keep reading.

    1. I should clarify: we often feel that others think we should suppress! (I.e., you cannot or should not celebrate Christian holidays in our home, only elsewhere, etc.). It is nice to know that there are people grappling with identity issues. For me to silence my traditions, background, or beliefs feels disrespectful and problematic. My children are blessed, not deprived or confused.

      1. Oh, and my children identify themselves as Jews, know their prayers, etc. I feel so proud when they sing the Four Questions so beautifully!

        1. Welcome, Ann! I hope you will find other posts here that reflect your experience. It’s so great to hear from feisty and thoughtful interfaith parents. I look forward to your comments. –Sue

          1. Oh no! I hope I was not too feisty! : )

            I am just so happy to have found a site that gives attention to the joyful part of being interfaith or intercultural.

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