Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

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.

Interfaith Couples: No Longer Odd

Last Sunday,  I found myself serving as an après-theater panelist at that lively downtown institution, the DCJCC (Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center). Having spent much of my adult life as a sort of Jewish outlaw, wandering in the wilderness through two generations of intermarriage, I experienced both an illicit thrill and a sense of homecoming when I saw my bio on the DCJCC’s website.

Theater J at the DCJCC produced an affectionate and sophisticated revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 play “The Odd Couple.” Sitting between my husband and my rabbi in Theater J’s jewel-box theater, all three of us were snorting with laughter. I grew up watching “The Odd Couple”  television series in the 1970s, which wasn’t bad for television. But at Theater J, a perfect cast delivered each perfect line with perfect timing.

Then at the end of the show, I got to climb onstage and sit on the couch used by Oscar and Felix, alongside the other panelists: my husband, my two best rabbi friends, a Unitarian minister married to a Jewish woman, a Jewish woman married to a Hindu man, and a lesbian woman raised Jewish with a partner raised Catholic. Rabbi Tamara Miller organized the panel around the question of whether intermarried couples are “Odd Couples” in our society today.

Each of us answered, “no.” Collectively, as gay couples, interfaith couples, interracial couples, step-parents and adoptive parents, we don’t feel odd in 2010, at least not in our urban, progressive corner of the world. In fact, we have the chutzpah to feel we represent the norm. Rabbi Harold White suggested that rather than use the negative term “odd,” we define ourselves positively as in relationship with the “other,” keeping in mind that kadosh in Hebrew means both “holy” and “other.”

Theater J prides itself on pushing artistic and cultural boundaries, so “The Odd Couple” constitutes relatively tame fare for them. The next show to open there will be “Oy Vey in a Manger” starring the drag queens known as the Kinsey Sicks. By reflecting “The Odd Couple” through an interfaith lens, (in fact, by appearing on a panel at a JCC in the first place), I tried to provide a bit of controversy yesterday, though the audience was small. As I have often noted, many Jewish institutions find interfaith issues even more fraught than gay and lesbian issues: there are certainly rabbis performing gay marriages who will not perform interfaith marriages.

After my visit to the DCJCC this week–the first, I hope, of many–I was filled with cautious hope that some progressive Jewish institutions are finally beginning to acknowledge that those of us raising interfaith children really do want to stay connected to Judaism, despite our stubborn insistence on teaching our children about Christianity. During intermission at the play, I asked my rabbi if he would officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. His reply: “Of course.” Perhaps it is slightly, well, odd, for a child with only one Jewish grandparent to plan a Bar Mitzvah. If anyone wants to argue that it is somehow bad for the Jews for my son to learn the Sabbath prayers, bring it on!

Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions

The concept of raising children as “both” continues to raise eyebrows, hackles, and goosebumps. From where I stand, with my second-generation-interfaith children almost grown, the benefits of raising them with both religions seem clear. But I thought it might be useful to sum up my reasoning and experience:

  1. Children have the right to understand and appreciate both cultures and religions represented in their family tree. Withholding information or explanations about this background can create resentment, or a sense of the suppressed religion as “forbidden fruit.” This was my own experience, growing up in an interfaith family without any education about my Christian side.
  2. Children who are equally rooted and equally comfortable with both sets of extended family may feel they have greater family support from both sides. My children, teens raised with both, are comfortable in church with Grandma, and at the Passover Seder led by Grandpa. All of the grandparents participated in my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony, which drew on both traditions.
  3. Whether they eventually choose to identify with one religion or with both, people who are religiously bi-literate, who know the stories and rituals of two religions, will have a greater understanding of world politics, history, culture and literature.  My teens often find themselves explaining religious imagery and concepts to their peers from “monofaith” families.
  4. Some interfaith families abandon religious education altogether when they cannot agree on one religion. But interfaith adults raised with “nothing” sometimes express regret and frustration at their own religious ignorance. If both parents are unified in passing on an atheist, secular humanist or ethical culture perspective (different from choosing nothing), that’s fine. But for me, teaching both is vastly preferable to avoiding religious or ethical education altogether.
  5. Children deeply appreciate it when both parents are equally comfortable sharing their religious traditions, places of worship, and thinking, and when they sense a balance of power between parents. When one parent is the “out” or “odd” parent with a religion that differs from the rest of the family, the child may sense the lack of family unity, and may even interpret one parent as dominant and the other as submissive, misguided, or even in moral danger. I have encountered children who worry and take it on themselves to try to convert the “out” parent.
  6. As parents, we cannot ultimately control the religious identity of our children anyway. All adults can, and many do, switch religious affiliations in adulthood. Giving children some basis in both familial traditions gives them a better basis for making a choice or shifting labels, rather than forcing them to start from scratch in learning a new religion.
  7. Even if parents label their child with one religion, the outside world may reject that label. Jews will either label your children based on the religion of the mother (in the case of Conservative and Orthodox), or based on meeting certain litmus tests of Jewish practice (in the case of Reform). Meanwhile, Muslims go by the religion of the child’s father. Some Christians will label children based on whether they have been baptized, or “saved.” Your ability to control your child’s label is limited once they go out into the world, and the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting criteria in different religions and denominations may diminish your ability to make a particular label stick.
  8. The sense that learning about both religions is radical or controversial actually appeals to teens and young adults, engaging them at precisely the moment when many youth lose interest in religion. I know more than one teenager who has used their interfaith identity as a college application essay topic. The jazzy, rebellious pride exhibited by young “half-Jews,” the reappropriation and transformation of this once-derogatory label, is further evidence of positive energy derived from interfaithness.
  9. The ability to see the world from more than one perspective, the interfaith child’s stereoscopic vision, has benefits beyond the religious domain. Many adult interfaith children testify that their interfaith status predisposes them to become natural peacemakers and bridge-builders.
  10. Celebrating both sets of holidays, and studying the intertwined history of any two religions (particularly any two of the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam), creates a rich synergy. No religion ever sprang full-blown into the world, out of nowhere. Each religion is woven from the strands of previous traditions, and discovering their historical interconnectedness is deeply satisfying to those of us in interfaith families. The rich tapestry of each interfaith family is a microcosm of the lively design of religious evolution through history. Scientists testify to the power of this type of “fractal” design, in which  each small part echoes the pattern of the whole: fascinating, complex, and gorgeous.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.