Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging

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As someone born into an interfaith family, I am attracted to synergy, hybridity, complexity, and convergence. Lately, I see a moment of convergence approaching, when my progressive Jewish communities and my progressive Christian communities might begin to engage with each other on the topic of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities. This moment cannot come too soon.

In the Jewish world, conversations about interfaith families have historically taken place as part of a fraught discourse on the threat of “intermarriage” to Jewish continuity and worries about confused children. Meanwhile, a separate but parallel conversation has been occurring, first among Catholic theologians and academics, and more recently in the progressive Protestant world, under the labels of “hybridity” and “multiple religious belonging” (sometimes shortened to MRB). In this literature, there has been a growing realization that multiple religious practice is actually the norm, rather than the exception, in much of Asia, and among many American Indian and other indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, cultural disruption, and diaspora.

And so it was that in 2014, the World Council of Churches gathered theologians and academics in Chennai, India, for a conference on multiple religious belonging. Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson of the United Church of Christ traveled to India for the conference. She then organized two consultations in the US, in order to connect clergy to theologians thinking and writing about this new reality. I was honored to present my research on interfaith families and interfaith identities at the first of these US events.

Now, a new book of essays published by the World Council of Churches, Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging (edited by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam), brings together more than a dozen of these theologians, academics, and clergy, many of them Asian or Asian-American. The academic and theological language here can be dense and at times exhausting for even the most interested general reader (that would be me). For example, I am glad I happened to go to a university that offered a semiotics major, and so had some acquaintance with the work of French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

And yet, this slim volume is essential reading to those of us from interfaith families and other multiple religious practitioners engaged in defining ourselves, and in creating new spaces in which to do that. These essays describe, explain, and restore the religious plurality and complexity found in whole cultures, and in individuals. In so doing, this book has become my new bible, if you will, because it probes, affirms and illuminates much that is positive about my experience as someone with a complex religious identity.

Some of the essays focus primarily on Christians who become dual-faith practitioners after taking on Buddhist or Hindu practices. Others focus on the dual-faith practice in areas of Asia where this has long been the norm. At least some of the essays mention interfaith families as a source of multiple religious practice. Of course, all the writers here are looking at this topic through a Christian lens (or a “Christian and” hyphenated perspective). But after spending so much time defending interfaith families in the Jewish world, it was intellectually refreshing to be immersed in the world of Christianities.

In reading this book, I penciled in a hail of asterisks and exclamation points on almost every page. I could, should, and still may write a whole post in response to each essay in this volume. For now, I am going to simply cite a list of just some of the phrases that made me so excited about this book:

  • “Must claims of double-belonging receive communal authorization before they can be recognized as valid?” Rajkumar (World Council of Churches) and Dayam (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church)
  • “From my location in a seminary, I encounter increasing numbers of religious leaders and leaders-in-training who embody forms of multiple religious identity or practice.” John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary.
  • “Regardless of the resistance of religious institutions in accepting multiple religious belonging, individuals are finding their way to multiple paths without help or assistance.” Karen Georgia Thompson
  • “East Asian ‘both-and’ mode of relational thinking such as yin-yang has no problem in logically including dual identities.” Heup Young Kim, Hanshin University.
  • “…hybridity often functions as a space that allows two or more seemingly contradictory ideas or identities to co-exist without eliminating the distinction between them.” Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybridity is inherent even in what we may be tempted to categorize as ‘monolithic’ or ‘orthodox’ religious faiths.” Sunder John Boopalan, Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybrid entities cannot be understood adequately when viewed through the lens of monoculturality.” Julius-Kei Kato, University of Western Ontario.

The editors, Rajkumar and Dayam, conclude by urging churches to “move beyond tacit obliviousness and engage robustly with the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging.” This book will help Christian communities to do that. But as a bridge-builder, a synthesizer, a complex, hybrid person, I am waiting for the creation of a shared language to communicate with each other across religious boundaries. Specifically, I still wait for the time when my Jewish and my Christian communities figure out how to work together to welcome, engage, and learn from those of us who rejoice in our interfaith identities. I wait for a book like this one, written not with a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens, but by, for, and about those of us with multireligious “both-and” perspectives.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Seven Big Interfaith Family Stories of 2015

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Plexus A1, Gabriel Dawe

 

In 2015, it was a privilege to take part in a conversation with all of you on interfaith families and interfaith identities. Looking back over the past year, I chose what I see as seven of the most important themes from this conversation. I welcome your comments, or suggestions for stories I may have missed.

  1. Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the fourth-largest Jewish movement, changed their policies this year in order to allow the admission and ordination of students in interfaith marriages or partnerships. While the smaller Jewish Humanist and Jewish Renewal movements have long accepted such students, this shift marks a significant moment in the history of accepting interfaith families in Jewish leadership.
  1. Progressive Protestants and Interfaith Identities. Historically, the topic of interfaith families (at least in the US) has been viewed mainly through Jewish, and to a lesser degree Catholic, lenses. So it was exciting when I was invited this year to speak at both a chapel service and an evening panel at Union Theological Seminary in New York. And it was also exciting that the World Council of Churches and United Church of Christ convened a series of consultations on Religious Hybridity, bringing together mostly Mainline Protestant clergy and theologians to discuss how to engage with people with multiple religious bonds. I was honored to be asked by Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson to present my research on identity formation in interfaith children raised with both family religions. I look forward to reviewing a new book (publication date tomorrow!) filled with related essays, Many Yet One: Multiple Religious Belonging.
  1. Unitarian Universalists and Interfaith Families. While Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have long welcomed interfaith families and people of complex religious identities, this year they took that support to the next level, with new resources on interfaith families in the UU world on their website and in a new pamphlet. I spoke about interfaith families at two UU communities this year, and on a UU podcast. And UU religious educators invited me to give the keynote Sophia Lyon Fahs lecture at the UU General Assembly, highlighting the important history of interfaith families in UU communities. The lecture was recently published in an eBook by Skinner House press.
  1. Interfaith Families and the Rise of the Unaffiliated. This year, Pew Research highlighted the steep rise in the religiously unaffiliated, from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. Clearly, interfaith families are a part of this complex story, with some of us who are doubly-affiliated lumped in with others who are alienated from all religious institutions. Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research Institute recently told a White House gathering on religious pluralism that 25% of people in the US said they had a spouse from a different religious background, and 16% said they follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion. This year also saw the publication of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, in which Kaya Oakes writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’,” rather than either/or.
  1. Jewish Communities Engaged with Interfaith Families Doing Both. A slow thaw continues between Jewish institutions, and the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith families educating children in both religions. For me, signs of this gradual warming trend (which I first noted last year) this year included invitations to speak at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on The Jewish Channel, in synagogues and JCCs, at Hillel-sponsored talks, and at The Jewish Museum (coming up in February). I also enjoyed a year (sadly, over now) of being a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward.
  1. Interfaith Families as a Global Rights Issue. While interfaith families in the US enjoy the freedom to marry across lines of faith, not all couples have this right. Many countries still register the religious identity of citizens, and allow religious institutions to control marriage and the religious identity of children. But the global connectivity is helping to highlight the importance of civil marriage as a universal human right. On twitter this year (follow me @beingboth) I came across an interfaith romance novel banned from schools in Israel, a court case over the religion of interfaith children in Malaysia, legislation to restrict interfaith marriage and conversion in Myanmar, the battle to recognize interfaith marriages in Indonesia, and interfaith couples violently attacked by religious extremists in various countries.
  1. Launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG). In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the rise of communities formed by and for interfaith families to deliver interfaith education to their children, principally in NY, DC and Chicago. Since the publication of Being Both in 2013, I have been contacted by couples around the country and the globe, seeking to find or create interfaith family communities. In response, I launched the NIFG facebook page this year, to help couples who want to celebrate both family religions to find like-minded couples nearby. Already, we launched a new Atlanta facebook group filled with interfaith families who found each other through NIFG. At NIFG, you can find contacts listed from throughout the US, from California to Florida, and Wisconsin to Richmond. If you plan to raise children with both family religions (that’s any two religions), join us!

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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