At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.
In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:
The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.
The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.
While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.
In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”
But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.
Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.
Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.