There is a famous anecdote from the Taoist philosopher Chung Tzu that goes something like this (translation plucked from an online rendering of the larger work it is taken from):
“Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.”
I’ve always quite liked this story. I’ve also always played around with it a bit in my mind, thinking about how it relates to a multi-religious world. I am sure the lesson I end up taking from this story is one that strays quite far from anything Chung Tzu intended. Indeed I guiltily suspect he would not have approved of my wandering interpretation. Nonetheless, one of the wonderful things I have found to be common to all holy texts and pieces of philosophical wisdom is that they lend themselves to manifold meaningful interpretations. Maybe that is integral to what makes them holy and wise. So with those apologetics stated, here is what I take from the story as it might relate to our religiously pluralistic society.
In the story Chung Tzu can’t be sure whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming it is a man. “One may be the other,” he tells us, intriguingly. There is a waking moment, a transformation moment, separating the two-- but it is not always totally easy to tell which side of waking we are on.
Many contemporary Americans pick and choose practices, scriptural passages, songs and narratives from different world religious traditions. A criticism is that we do this on a whim, each becoming a “buffet style” consumer shopping only for those haphazard items which suit us individually. This criticism is one worth taking seriously. I think it suggests a worry that by co-opting snitches and dabs from different traditions to suit oneself, one ends up a) making religion all about the ego-self, and thus trivializing religion, and b) dubiously appropriating practices without any real understanding of their depth and importance, thus disrespecting the tradition from which they come.
We are right to worry about syncretism, and the depletion of the integrity of distinct traditions that many times comes with it. Yet, I also find a strange beauty in many people’s willingness to draw from the scriptures, stories and practices of varied traditions, while nonetheless locating themselves squarely within one in particular Among my own acquaintance have been all kinds of such permutations: self-identified Jews who are practitioners of Buddhist meditation, self-identified Christians who also celebrate pagan holidays and find inspiration in pagan rituals and texts, yoga-practicing atheists (a shakier example given that yoga in our culture has been quite de-spiritualized in some--perhaps even most?--of its forms, but still...) and dozens of others.
This tradition of semi-syncretism might be seen have tremendous historical precedence. I was recently reading about the absorption of both Jewish and pagan practices into early Christianity-- a historical fact that is well-known and of which much is made. However, I was more surprised to find, in the same text (Paul Lakeland et. al, Constructive Theology, 2005), a paragraph noting that some to whom the apostle Paul preached thought Christians, with their enigmatic “Unknown God,” to be atheists.
Religious identity is a mysterious thing. Christian or atheist? Butterfly or man? Some may see us as being one, some may see us as being the other. And I wonder if this isn’t often a dialectic that also goes on within ourselves. Today I come close to being a Christian Universalist; tomorrow, or twenty years from now, I may feel, with equal conviction, that I am a religious humanist. Some of us have one decisive conversion experience in our life. Some have none. Others of us, however, may be like Chung Tzu, and can expect an ongoing process of transformation in which we are sometimes butterfly and sometimes man. The lesson I take from Tzu is that, if this is our fate, we need not necessarily decide that only one of our identities is the “real” one. Some of us who are generally called “Christians” may need, regularly, to practice Buddhist meditation; perhaps one could even venture to say that a Christian may need to be Buddhist, in some realm of his or her being, from time to time. This is risky, of course, because one does not want to trivialize what it means to self-identify wholeheartedly with the latter tradition, which would seem to mean that one is centered there and carries the tradition’s long history and a fuller sense of its heritage with him or her, which a person such as the hypothetical subject just mentioned would not. So it seems necessary to qualify this, to say that such a person may perhaps become Buddhist *in a certain realm of his or her being*.
This, to me, is the spirit of Chung Tzu’s story. “One may be the other.” It may be possible for a person to be, in some sense, both Christian and pagan, both Jewish and Buddhist-- perhaps even both theist and atheist (more on this in another post, perhaps...), and not all of us can be as sure as we would like which side of the transformation we are on. Maybe then, like Tzu we should embrace this, giving ourselves over fully to what enlivens us now, what enables us to be that which we feel we are--without trying to hold that identity in place as something that cannot change. Butterflies and humans, dreaming and waking, each have their beauties.