Double belonging: One person, two faiths

January 14, 2011

Americans have become accustomed to picking and choosing among various religious traditions and practices, selecting whatever is most useful, meaningful or intriguing at the moment. While such cafeteria-style religion is frequently criticized as superficial, it is common in a pluralistic culture with a wide-open religious marketplace. A person may occasionally attend a Christian church but also find meaning in yoga and in forms of meditation inspired by Eastern traditions—and enjoy attending a Seder at Passover. None of this seems extraordinary.

But some people have taken religious pluralism in a deeper and more radical direction. They have embraced two distinct religious traditions and have tried to be faithful to both at the same time. This is a demanding and in some ways confounding path—hardly a cafeteria-style spirituality. If, as John Dunne says in The Way of All the Earth, religious pluralism is the great spiritual adventure of our time, these people are the frontline ex­plorers.

One such "double-belonger" is Paul Knit­ter, whose 2009 book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian has had a large impact on theology and on interfaith dialogue. Knitter taught for many years at Xavier Uni­ver­sity in Cincinnati and now teaches at Union Theo­logical Sem­inary in New York. He was a Catholic priest when, in his thirties, he began to struggle with the Christian faith. Much of what he recited in creeds on Sunday morning gradually stopped making sense to him. He was facing a crisis of faith and vocation. He left the priesthood in 1975, though he remained a devoted Catholic.

In those years, Buddhism became a dialogue partner for Knitter. He studied Buddhism and then began to practice Zen and later a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation. For many years, he was both a practicing Catholic, active in his parish, and a student of Buddhism, engaged in Buddhist meditation practice. Knitter describes this integration of Buddhism and Christianity as "passing back and forth." He would "cross over" to Buddhism and then, using what he learned there, pass back to Christianity, usually, he says, with a richer understanding. Both the study and the practice of Buddhism enriched his Christian faith, and he passionately came to embrace the idea that engagement with other religious traditions is imperative to 21st-century Christianity.

In 2009 he extended his commitment to Buddhism by taking vows at a Buddhist community in New York. As Buddhists would say, he took refuge in the Buddha, in the dharma (the teachings) and in the sangha (the community).

"I realized," Knitter says, "that I was a Buddhist-Christian. I wanted to acknowledge that. I understood that I was part of two communities."

Knitter is adamant that this experience has not fundamentally changed his relationship to Christianity: "This felt natural. It didn't feel like a watering down or diminishment of my commitment to Christianity or my commitment to a Roman Cath­olic identity. I really do belong to both communities." For a long time, he says, Buddhist practice made his Christian practice possible, preventing him from becoming a burned-out believer and enabling him to deepen his understanding of the mysteries of Christianity. "Buddhism was a gift," Knitter says. "It has helped me to maintain my spiritual and intellectual integrity."

Knitter has frequently employed the metaphor of marriage in talking about his commitment to the two faiths. "I have a primary relationship to Christianity and specifically to Jesus of Nazareth that is central to my life. Christianity is both the vehicle and the sacrament through which I feel and experience and practice the Divine.

"At the end of the day," he said, laughing at the direction the metaphor was taking him, "I come home to Jesus."

Knitter said that his students at Union sometimes challenge him by suggesting that his involvement in Buddhism and Christianity is like a "spiritual sleeping around." Is his crossing over into Buddhism a form of promiscuity? Does it show a lack of faithfulness? Is it a transgression?

Knitter has struggled with such questions. But he stresses that he means it when he says, "Without Buddha, I could not be a Christian." Otherwise the crisis of faith that he experienced was such that he likely would not have remained a Christian. Buddhism offered a spaciousness and freedom that enabled him to explore Christianity in a different way. He feels that through Buddhism he became a more faithful Christian, not a less faithful one.

Knitter himself is no fan of "spiritual hooking up"—the casual treatment of other religious traditions. Perhaps the difference between Knitter's experience and that of what he calls the "divine deli" is that he looked to Buddhism not for self-confirmation but for self-transformation.

Said Knitter: "It is one thing to double-belong if you are studying, making an intense intellectual effort, working with a teacher and making an effort to understand what the Buddha taught. It's another thing if you are dabbling, and if by dabbling you are using another tradition as confirmation or justification for what you already think. One is assimilation and the other is exploitation."

Part of engaging another tradition deeply is grappling with aspects of it that you don't like, Knitter said. An important part of the Christian tradition for him has been the social justice tradition. He values the gospel's "strong stress on justice and working toward the reign of God." In engaging Buddhism, he had to confront the idea of nonaction—what Buddhists might call "right action."

In the 1980s, Knitter was actively engaged in political struggles in El Salvador, and he was disturbed by Buddhism's proclivity for what seemed to be passivity in the face of injustice. He remembers asking a Buddhist friend, "You mean that you will wait, even with dead bodies piling up in the street? Even when people are being dragged out into the street and shot?"

"Yes," she answered. "We wait for openings."

It took a long time before Knitter could see her point. "Now I think of how many times we rushed to 'action,' our egos flaring, and ended up nipping at each other and accomplishing little. Being in dialogue with Buddhism has helped me to see the paradox."

As this example shows, Knitter does not think that Buddhism and Christianity are at root the same. For Knitter, the claim that religions are "all the same" easily becomes a way for people to inject their own "perspectives and beliefs into another religion." Instead of respecting and pondering the differences, they rush to paper them over.

At the same time, he would say that both Christianity and Buddhism, with their very different logics, traditions and practices, have helped point him toward the "one Holy Mystery," even if the two faiths understand that Mystery differently.

Knitter finds the concept of "dual belonging" apt for his experience. He belongs to two communities—one Christian, one Buddhist. While Christianity remains a primary source of identity for him, Buddhism has an important role as

For Deborah Risa Mrantz, who embraces both Judaism and Chris­­tianity, the phrase "double belonging" is not helpful. "My religious identity is not split or fractured. I inhabit two grounds of belonging concurrently."

The closest parallel that Mrantz can draw is an ana­ch­ronistic one: the apostle Paul who "preached Christ crucified" was a Jew and re­mained a Jew but was converted by revelatory encounter with Christ. Mrantz sees herself as an "inter­testamental" figure.

Mrantz is descended from Eastern European Jews. Her father was born in Shanghai, China, after his family fled from Eastern Europe. Amid the communist revolution in China, the family immigrated to Israel, where her father served in the Israeli air force. Her mother and father met in Hawaii.

In Hawaii, Mrantz attended Punahou School (the boarding school that Barack Obama attended). She describes Punahou's chaplains as spiritual mentors who helped her form a prayer life from a very young age. The school's Christian character  deeply influenced her. Living in the "prevailing ecumenism" of Hawaiian culture, her parents saw no reason to intervene. Mrantz remembers participating as an eighth grader in a Christmas oratorio and being taken by the theme of Advent and the incarnational theology of the Gospel of John.

Her early formation in both Christianity and Judaism percolated as Mrantz went to college and worked as a designer. For years she attended Christmas Eve mass at the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica in Santa Fe, where she had made her home. At a mass on Christmas Eve 2007, she felt a strong call to change her vocation. She embarked on an artistic and religious endeavor that she calls "LOGOS Divinity: Guildworks and Ministries," in which she finds expression for her religious syntheses.

"My religious and spiritual life is dimensional," Mrantz explains, "not linear." For her, Judaism and Christianity are not two distinct faiths but two ways that the one God comes to be known. Her art works articulate biblical passages from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, interweaving themes through layers and typographic dimensions.

Part of Mrantz's challenge is to articulate a multi­dimensional religious faith in a linear and dualistic culture. Her art expresses what she calls "the essentially conservative custom and content" of the mystical traditions of both Judaism and Christianity. While she is experimental as a designer and an artist, she doesn't see herself as attempting something new so much as harking back to something both old and timeless.

Jewish and Christian forms of prayer make up a significant part of Mrantz's religious practice. Through music, she prays Jewish daily liturgies as well as the daily offices of the Christian tradition. She said the service of compline, traditionally sung at midnight, is a time when she feels "the ground shift . . . from the linear chronology or Kronos of the day . . . to a Holy Spirit—infused, charismatic metaphysical presence.

"When I say that I hold to both Judaism and Christianity, I don't mean to imply the standard terminology—that Chris­tianity has been grafted onto my Jewish root. That's only a partially descriptive metaphor. I mean that the modern molecule of my Jewish Christianity cannot be further divided down—the atoms cannot be split in me. . . . There are no smaller subatomic parts making the religious and spiritual whole."

Mrantz finds the question of whether she chose this particular path an interesting one. Her formation as both Jewish and Christian began before she was conscious of it. But if choice means trying to align oneself with the will of God, then Mrantz believes that this is precisely what she has tried to do. Her vocational call, Mrantz believes, is in "living and artistically expressing God's will and word fully as Logos, as incarnation." In her synthesis of Judaism and Christianity the two faiths are as entwined "as a double-strand DNA helix," Jew and Christian in one heart and soul for God.

For both Knitter and Mrantz, the integration of two religious traditions has required a great deal of hard work and study. But perhaps neither has paid as high a price for their unusual journey as has Ann Holmes Redding, who embraced Islam after serving for 20 years as an Episcopal priest. Her public embrace of Islam led to her being defrocked by the Episcopal Church in 2009 and thereby losing her ordination and her livelihood. Redding does not stress her personal sacrifice, however. Like Knitter and Mrantz, she describes her dual affiliation as a gift of God.

Redding said she was drawn as a girl to the vocation of priest. When she was ordained in 1984, she was the first African-American woman priest in her diocese. In 2001, while working at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, she was assigned to organize adult education classes on Islam.

"I didn't know I was heading toward becoming a Muslim," Redding recalls. "Christianity certainly seemed to be a path of sufficient challenge and passion. I could have spent my whole life becoming a Christian in the fullest sense of the word. I ­wasn't seeking. That's why I call what happened to me 'convergence' instead of 'conversion.' I didn't leave anything behind."

The idea of being fully Muslim and fully Christian seems like an impossibility to many people. Redding understands and to some extent shares that suspicion.

"I feel like I am always in a slightly apologetic position," she said. "It's a dilemma for me. On the one hand, my experience of the Divine, like other people's, cannot be reduced to words. At the same time, I am the sort of person who has to talk about it. My New Testament professor in seminary always said that when they get up in the morning, New Testament scholars should look themselves in the mirror and say, 'I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.' I feel like that sometimes."

Redding was interested in what the Muslim teachers who came to St. Mark's had to say, but not in any unusual way. Looking back, however, two events were significant. One was when a Muslim asked if he could say his usual Makkah prayers during class, since his prayer time fell during class time. Redding was moved by the simplicity and rhythm of this ordinary prayer. "I had never questioned that there is only one God and that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God, but that experience confirmed my belief deeply, tangibly."

A year later another presenter came to the cathedral and taught the estağfurullah chants that are a form of Sufi prayer. Redding felt profoundly that this meditation practice was right for her. "I had done all kinds of meditation practices over the years," she says. "I was not in the market for a new one. This came as a gift to me. I went home and immediately started trying to practice on my own." One of the chants that Redding learned was the Shahada, with which Muslims declare their commitment to Islam.

The Muslim tradition spoke to her again at a time of distress in her life, after the death of her mother. "I was in the midst of a personal crisis, along with my mom's death, and I really felt like I was up against a wall. The only solution was to surrender myself to God, to surrender my whole life, all of my dilemmas, to God." At this moment, Redding received what she calls an invitation.

Redding noted that the date was March 25, the feast of the Annunciation and the anniversary of her ordination. The mystery of the invitation deepened. It felt startlingly specific. If she would surrender to God, God would teach her to love without hurting other people. "I realized that surrender had to become my mode of being. That, of course, is what a muslim is—one who is surrendered to God. I had become a person who is characterized by surrender. At that point, I said the Shahada. I became a muslim—with a small m. I was not joining a religion."

All this could have been a private matter, but upon returning to Seattle, Redding concluded that she was also becoming a Muslim.

"I am," she says, "unlike many of my fellow Pacific North­westerners, both spiritual and religious." She sought more knowledge of Islam, began to pray five times a day and follow the faith's five pillars as well as to meet regularly with other Muslims. She also continued, as she always had, to attend church, take communion and study the Bible. As a priest, Red­ding's lifelong calling has been to be both personally spiritual and publicly religious—to be a visible representation of the work God was doing in her life. "We are all signs to each other," she says. Now her vocation is to hold these two identities together in a public realm in which Christians and Mus­lims struggle to find what they have in common.

She acknowledges that the relationship between Chris­tianity and Islam is not always a peaceful one, even inside her own head. Few people have been able to understand her attempts to reconcile the two faiths. Her rejection by the Episcopal Church was particularly painful, although not unexpected. One church official said to her, "It is as if you have two bedfellows. This comes down to a question of faithfulness."

Redding finds the marriage metaphor inappropriate. Faith­fulness has been a central priority for her. "If you want to use a familial or kinship metaphor," she says, "try that of siblings. I feel like the mother of two children. Chris­tianity is the older child who taught me how to be a mother. Islam will always be my baby. I learn about one child from what the other teaches me."

Sometimes the two siblings don't speak to each other, and sometimes they fight. But Redding works toward reconciliation. Islam, she said, has given her new insights into the Trinity, and she is able to use her theological training to speak to Muslims about the personhood and divinity of Jesus.

She believes that she can stand at the "fault lines" of the two religions and speak about how Christianity and Islam might find common ground. Becoming a Muslim was just the beginning of a very long journey, and she hopes that she might be of use in a very large, God-in­spired work of reconciliation.

Each of these stories is unique—a product of unusual cultural conjunctions and individual perceptions. Each of these individuals is drawn toward a kind of fulfillment that seems yet to be realized. They all feel called to integrate two traditions both of which are crucial to their identity.

Mark Heim, professor of theology at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, notes that compatibility of traditions is a huge issue for "multiple-belongers." Though it is difficult for people to live with the tensions between different faiths, some people turn to another tradition because they find themselves needing something they aren't finding elsewhere.

Said Heim: "If you look at a multiple-religious culture like China, where Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism have lived side by side for thousands of years, people tend to look to a particular tradition for a particular need. You don't look to Buddhism for reflection on political and social structures, and you don't look to Confucianism for an understanding of rebirth. Each tradition offers something different."

Heim contends that the phenomenon of multiple-belonging suggests that religious traditions are not, finally, expressions of the "same" divinity. The uniqueness of each tradition is what makes a person reach out to embrace it.

Can a person be attached to two sets of beliefs at once? Mark Swanson, professor of Christian-Muslim studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, notes that people can mean very different things when they claim multiple religious belonging. For some, it means that they claim two different kinds of practices. For others, it refers to an eschatological vision of the time when God brings the various religions together. For others, multiple belonging is a kind of mystical experience that resists cognitive and linguistic characterization.

"The call of God is very strange," Swanson said. Some ways of constituting a religious identity do not make sense to him, but he is careful not to reject them out of hand. "Lots of things are hard to imagine and are also true."


Letter from Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit

Amy Frykholm’s interesting look at three different people’s personal testimonies of “double belonging” (Jan. 25) in religious faith should have been—to use the words of the slogan on your masthead—more critical and more faithful. We were left with the assertion that double belonging is “hard to imagine and also true” and hence an acceptable norm of religious identity.

For nearly 40 years I have been re­quired to explain both from the pulpit and in the classroom that there are no Jews for Jesus; rather, there are Chris­tians who though raised as Jews have chosen to accept Christ as their personal savior and therefore are now Chris­tians. If a person accepts Christ as their savior, then that personal choice obviates also living as an observant Jew. Just be­cause the Jews for Jesus, Messianic Jews and some interfaith families say that both faiths coexist in their lives without comprising core values does not mean that the Christian Century should promote their personal stories as the norm.

If you want to move from “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully” to “Thinking Individually, Living Syncretistically,” please tell your readership so we can make appropriate choices.

Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit
St. Cloud, Minn.

Letter from Barkley Thompson

Amy Frykholm’s article “Double be­longing” (Jan. 25) turns to Mark Heim’s thoughts near the end. “Multiple-belongers,” Fryk­holm paraphrases Heim, “turn to another tradition because they find themselves needing something they aren’t finding elsewhere.” This points to the postmodern emphasis on self-actualization found in much contemporary religious practice (and reporting). Neither the article nor its three primary subjects touch upon soteriology or the telos of each religious tradition mentioned. 

In Paul Knitter’s case, it would be interesting to know how he reconciles the ultimately contradictory teloi of Chris­tianity and Buddhism. The one affirms, as the ultimate end of God’s great project, resurrected, embodied life in a good and renewed world. The other affirms the dissolution of the skandhas that bind us to a world ultimately defined by suf­fering. Fidelity to one religious tradition or the other, it would seem, loses its meaning if that faith is unmoored from the tradition’s ultimate aim. As a Christian Bud­dhist, to which telos does Knitter look in hope?

Barkley Thompson
Roanoke, Va.

Letter from James Leehan

Amy Frykholm’s article is thought- provoking, but the double-belonging phenomenon she writes about is neither as new nor as unique as she portrays it. Here in the United States it has been practiced by Native Americans since the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest in the 1500s. For decades Native American Christians had to practice their indigenous religions in secret because they were not accorded freedom of religion.

Many Native ceremonies have been incorporated into Roman Catholic rituals by the Pueblos, to the enrichment of Natives and Anglos alike. Those combining such practices may not be as articulate about their experience as a seminary professor, an artist or an Episcopal priest, but their experience of double be­longing is worthy of study.

James Leehan
Santa Fe, N.M.