Multiple Belonging: Thoughts on Belonging to More Than One Religion

I am in the process of articulating how I can be both Christian and Jewish without being a “Jew for Jesus.” Many people hail from a smattering of religious influences and heritages. The current model of religious identification has us choose one or none. But there has to be an intellectually credible, spiritually legitimate way of expressing a dual affiliation.

In the simplest terms I can conjure, I feel ritually, communally, aesthetically Jewish and, in my private heart, spiritually Christian.

I hasten to explain. I regard Jesus as part of a trifold metaphor that is comprised of liberation, motivation, and intention. I see him as an ethical Jewish exemplar, a renegade badass, a revolutionary leader for an oppressed people, a symbol of renewal, and a tool for psychotherapeutic compartmentalization. I understand the God of the trinity as the life in me that wants to be lived; the spirit of the trinity as the joie de vivre required to get out of bed in the morning; and Jesus of the trinity as a way to stay present and not live in constant deference or reaction to the past. In the sense that this symbolic triumvirate is “salvific,” in the sense that I’m conceptualizing my spiritual latticework in a trinitarian fashion, and in the sense that the work of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr (Protestants) and Meister Eckhart (Christian mystic) totally amp my juices, I’m into Christianity. I’m into Christian metaphors. I’ve been transformed by my efforts at making Christianity work with and for me. Looks like…I’m a Christian. There. I freakin’ said it. The first few of a bajillion caveats to my Christianity are that I’m also a religious naturalist, I reject conceptions of a supernatural or sentimental deity, I only see life-giving, liberationist, socially progressive religious expressions as worthy of promotion, and that in the process of being totally grossed out by Christianity I came to know and love my enemy and be transformed by all of the complex beauty I see in her.

As far as being Jewish goes…I’m Jewish. That’s less complicated because it’s the ground of my being. It’s also a choice and an intellectual process, but it’s simpler and far more rational. I go to the places, I see my people, I sing the songs, I do the things. I worked a day job at a synagogue for years and I’ve been a Jewish camp counselor and songleader, readily identified as Jewish since I was 13, traveled twice to Israel; I teach Hebrew school in Boston, research Jewish things for my PhD process, and attend shul on holidays and sometimes Shabbat. I’m just Jewish, it’s what I do, it’s who I am. Habituation takes care of a lot of my Judaism, and American denominationalism (under the aegis of which I don’t have to make wrenching decisions about mechitzot or prosciutto, for example) takes care of the rest. I love the aesthetics, longevity, rationality, reliability accessibility (for Jews) and community (once you’re in) of Judaism.

But when I’m alone, in my private heart, I admit that my Jewishness, let alone Judaism the Religion, does not always occur to me. Often the Divine Presence is personalized in the visage of a single Jew, a compassionate friend and stoic peasant, who accompanies me with utmost gravity and lightness. He is strange and familiar, dear and unusual.

So I’m a Christian Jew (Jewish Christian?). Christians understand this and they love it.

I say this to a Jew, and they totally hate it. They want to barf.

Here we have a power dynamic.

Christians are comfortable to share religions because they represent the dominant paradigm.

But Jews think of double belonging and they think of forced conversions. For lack of familiarity (I don’t blame them for this), they often think of a very monolithic, American Conservative version of Christianity, the Sarah Palin kind. Perhaps they think that if I am a Christian, then I think Jesus atoned for me by being bodily resurrected. Perhaps they think of double religious belonging like someone might think of bisexuality–why then would you be gay? Because you can always choose the easier path, right? Well, no. Because some of us like both; some of us are both. This is a both/and paradigm, not an either/or. This can happen with religion too.

*

How can Double Belonging–or Multiple Belonging–work with religions that demand exclusive commitments? Well, their most orthodox factions do. And the most literal readings of their doctrines do. But as soon as one traverses the spectrum of literacy into metaphor and symbol and relativism and subjectivity, then exclusive belonging becomes not only debatable but impossible. Can you really define a Christian? Identity is always a hybridized and non-hierarchical. What am I more, a Californian or a feminist? An omnivore or a Democrat? A woman or an athlete? British or Ukrainian mutt? A musician or a PhD student? A Jew or a Christian? I am both and all, in different ways and on different levels.

Beyond the question of hybridized identities, there is the reality that many, many people–increasingly more as society diversifies and religious pluralism becomes de rigueur–hail from interfaith families. They may lead an entirely secular existence and never feel the call to identify or be involved or choose one way or the other. They may choose and stay skittishly away from a side of their heritage, as I did for many years, from my Christian heritage. Or they may, also like me, plunge into many possibilities deeply and think hard about whether and whence and how the twain can meet.

The issue of Multiple Belonging is of acute relevance to the many children of interfaith marriages, whether or not it’s important to the parents of mixed faith, or to the extended family. Religious affiliation is something that even the staunchestly a-religious, anyone who ever has to fill out an official form, has to think of at some point–for hospital, census, taxes, or travel purposes. Even if you only have to choose your cultural religion, you do at someone have to choose–and you can usually only choose one or none. But what if you feel equally devoted to multiple traditions, or you needed the deep exploration of one as a backdoor to your devotion to the other? The logistics of being devoutly Multiply Faithed–liturgically, communally, socially and spiritually–are not only rigorous but lack a forum in most contexts. This is ironic, given how many of us exist in the boundaries, on the margins, alienated from either because we are many. It seems that the pluralist trope of unity in diversity applies on the meta-level (folks love a good Interfaith Lunch Panel) but religious diversity in the individual heart inspires skepticism. And yet, everyone agrees with Gandhi’s wonderful idea that we must be the change we wish to see. How are we supposed to herald a constructively diverse and harmonious society if we are intolerant of warring confessions within our own hearts, within the hearts of those at the borders of our communities? Individual traditions deal well with paradoxes within their own frameworks, but two or more separate frameworks within the same life are quickly labeled as syncretism.

*

Presently, I am living in Rome to do fieldwork, studying the Italian Jews who work and worship right down the street from the Vatican. Today I ate an early supper in Trastevere and visited Santa Maria di Trastevere and prayed in the side room. Then I rushed over to Ma’ariv services at Tempio Maggiore.

Obviously, the experiences are so different. It makes me nervous to admit that I’m even doing this, but perhaps I’m harder on myself than any curious reader might be. Here I want to try and explain how differently these two separate faiths feed me, and why, because they feed me so differently, I feel I can maintain them in concert. Thomas Merton once wrote that it is foolish to try to explain your spiritual experiences to anyone but your teacher or spiritual director. But I will try to, because these prayer contexts demonstrate how I can hold Judaism and Christianity in tension as wildly different, simultaneous, complementary modalities.

At Tempio Maggiore the dome soars over the congregation. The men prayer in the main hall and the women are gathered in the side wing, behind a mechitza (a gender partition). I sit and stand and stand and sit, holding my prayerbook and trying to keep up with the service. “Merely being in the shul, with the laws regarding the respect one must have or it, these designed to give the synagogue a worshipful meditative atmosphere, should be enough to remove all extraneous thoughts from one’s mind” (Aryeh Kaplan). The Jewish prayer, being so liturgical and doubly foreign–I understand neither the breakneck Hebrew nor the very formal Italian of the siddur–floods my brain and forces repose by occupying all of my wits. All my faculties are filled, and thus fulfilled. I become empty to receive God, the God of tradition and community, of time and movement far bigger than myself. With the weight of the siddur in my lap and in my head, I move out of the way and time stops. One is surrounding by other pray-ers, swaying together. One does not think of oneself. One is grasped by ultimate concern, taken hold of by the ground of being, the wholeness of each thing and the wholeness of everything, undivided by conditions or limitations, claiming and claimed by the Shema. Hear, Oh Israel…God is One. Here we are together, and together is how we will stay here.

“Think of yourself as nothing, and totally forget yourself when you pray. Only have in mind that you are praying for the Divine Presence, You can then enter the Universe of Thought, a state that is beyond time, Everything in this realm is the same, life and death, land and sea,,, But in order to enter the Universe of Thought where all is the same, you must relinquish your ego, and forget all your troubles. …If you consider yourself as “something” and ask for your own needs, God cannot clothe himself in you. God is infinite, and no vessel can hold him at all, except when a person makes himself like Nothing.” (The Maggid of Mezerich)

In Santa Maria di Trastevere, my Christian prayer is wholly personal and intimate. In the cavernous side chapel I am alone and have no book in my hand and no benediction in my ear; I have only a liturgy of wordless organ piping around the chapel, my palms splayed to the air, my knees asserting surrender on a low wooden bench. I take time to relax internally, to feel my questions and anxieties, to account for my personal junctures, to consider how I can sincerely wish my wrongdoers well, to review my gratitudes, to listen for a still small voice. This is formless time spent resting with a trusted friend, the ground of my being, encouraging in its ubiquity and expansiveness. The stillness feels sometimes like a vacuous empty solitude, and I find (recall? am given?) my courage to self-accompany in the face of my utter, eternal aloneness. This practice is one of trusting that my concerns and efforts have some ultimate relevance, that participating in life despite its futility and pain and loneliness is a contract to something bigger than myself (community, history, the phenomenon of pan-species sentience). To achieve the relaxation of that trusted communion takes a lot of concentration. I am not disarmed through complete, grave fulfillment as in the synagogue. I must consciously, repeatedly discharge twittering chatter and tune my ear to a high far wind. I don’t set myself aside but rather offer myself in surrender to something much larger, and I await perspective and reassurance.

The Jewish prayer occupies me, empties me with language and song, and God gets in. Then I am more connected with other women praying around me, concerned and hopeful for them; this communal dimension is also crucial to Judaism. I can rest here because my self is overshadowed by the method, the content, the community. The liberation of Judaism is an unencumbrance of spirit via the encumbrance of tradition. Tradition pins down my self so my spirit can fly. The practice is heavy, grounding. Reliable. Stoic; eternal. It feels rugged, realistic; enduring; persistent.

The Christian prayer balms me as only the deepest familiarity and embrace can. The promise of breaking through the chatter of my discontentments is the wisdom and embrace on the other side. I can rest here because I am surrendering to a realm of massive stillness and remembering how tiny and imperfect my life is. The prayer subsumes my fleeting blip of a life, and I am taken under its wing. I follow a sunbeam as it darts into a realm where only spirit can fly. The practice is light, elusive. Personal; comforting. Emboldening; compassionate; accompanying; reassuring.

Having lived in both deeply, I tend to think of Judaism as a “survival kit” practice, and of Christianity as a “thriving kit” practice. Judaism is so worldly–it has to be, in a world that chases you–which is why Jewish practice is so structured, accessible and reliable. You pick up the book and you’re off. Whereas Christianity, more comfortable in this world, channels a kingdom, which makes its rewards so elusive, delicate, easier to get wrong, somehow more spectacular and impassioning, because the beyond is…beyond. This is also why Christianity can be so dangerous, because the rhetoric of triumph is meant to uplift the oppressed and the channel a kingdom of perfect love and justice into this world, but dominant forces can use that language to advance their dominion.

Everyone will agree that they want to thrive. Sometimes surviving is the bigger miracle.

*

In summertime, existential time, I spend hours every day wondering what the hell I’m doing anyway, researching interreligious relationships and multiple belonging around the world, and why it matters. I’m convinced it matters because, the more that religious pluralism becomes a central Western value and the more mixed marriages become a global reality, the more people need resources to confront this issue, and they need models to look at and recommendations.

There are also more multiple belongers like me who come from scattered faith backgrounds and don’t identify as “nothing” or with only one tradition. Naturally, the minority traditions are much warier about multiple belonging because the tendency is to eventually affiliate more with the dominant or easier tradition. Christians, being the majority, are safe enough to love their neighbors as they love themselves, but Jews must, in order to survive, prioritize loving themselves. Christians are less afraid of interfaith dialogue and interfaith services because they are not in danger of dissolution or fragmentation by a dominant tradition. Jews are wary of it because to be “interfaithy” often means to eventually dilute, accede, assimilate, or relativize claims that have only existed in history when held rigorously intact. And yet–and yet–more and more there are multiple belongers. People like me who aren’t just playing with the tallit and the trinity, who aren’t feasting blithely at a chintzy delicatessen, who are serious scholars of both sides, who are constituted and nourished on very different levels by each tradition. “Syncretism” is a sneering charge, and it’s not what I’m doing.

Of course, the two are very linked. Some of the worst ideas of Christianity come from Judaism, such as human perfection.

*

The clashing tensions of my multiple belonging push me forward. I think of the Jewish prizing of makhloket, disagreement, which is considered to be the highest form of human discourse because it can be generative. Samir Selmanovic explains this beautifully in an article from The Huffington Post, “Why Religion Needs Atheism”:

[In discourse] first we recognize our own limits, and then we proceed to clarify our positions as best we can. When we sustain the tension between us, each pulling our own way, we create emptiness between us. In this emptiness, Rabbis say, God creates. As it was in the beginning, so it is today. In the presence of one another, in the moment when our positions of clarity are matched with humility, the possibility of a truly new idea emerges, a solution, a way forward. Creation continues, and we all gain.

My revulsion and attachment for religion itself sometimes traps me in a samsaric karmic cycle of trying to “understand” it all. Surely, I won’t reach sunyata (let alone Nirvana) until I let go of needing to absolutely claim one religion, none, all, both, or any sort of stagnant binary.

Most religions prize the tension of incommensurable paradoxes, and the generative font of those pivot points. These summer days, these existential days, I wander the avenues and think that studying religious difference through the lens of personal relationships, both interfaith friendships and intimacies, is fruitful because it gives us so many clues to intersubjectivity and human difference. The topic points even to all the layers of conflict within the individual heart. Multiple belonging is the ground zero of Interfaith discourse because it starts in the private heart, where we are first and ever shall be most tightly gripped by our ultimate concern.

I do not feel that multiple belonging is wrong, or “a sin.” I would hope that religions (religious people and institutions and doctrines) would be big enough to encompass human reality. I cannot deny my own reality in order to crowbar myself into just one religion. If I do, I am a slave to the conventions of a human dictate, not to the liberating transcendent divine. If one interprets sinning as estrangement from ultimacy, as separation from wholeness, then it is probably more of a “sin” for a multiple belonger to deny all of their own facets, conflicting as they may be. Religion cannot be separated from culture, and culture is a complex fact to be observed and accepted, not judged. The ideology of sin is imposed from the outside. There are of course things about society that should be corrected, that can always be improved. But our basic authentic human complexities, these are factual, and to boot, they are beautiful. I feel the same way about multiple religious belonging. It just is, and it is also beautiful. Of course, it’s also a dilemma. But who among us does not house untold dilemmas in their heart?

A rabbi might say I am betraying Judaism by holding it so close to Christianity in my heart. But if I do not do this, I betray myself. I am both. I am many. Many of us, all of us, I dare say, do contain multitudes, often conflicting ones. I’m a culture snob and a Lady Gaga fan, a queer straight person, a world traveler and a pathetically picky eater, a rather religious person who is generally horrified by religion, a Californian New Yorker who lives in Boston and feels most at home in Italy, and an individualistic feminist who is totally arrested by gentlemanly courtship. “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth,” said Thomas Mann. I’m a Jewish Christian (a Christian Jew?), and this is my manifesto for the both/and of multiple belonging. May all of our lives serve to bring together opposing truths.

*

“Disputation,” a Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars (Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929. Jerusalem, B. M. Ansbacher Collection). Located on WikiCommons. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

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12 thoughts on “Multiple Belonging: Thoughts on Belonging to More Than One Religion

  1. The hesitancy of many Jews in subscribing to a Jewish-Christian identity is very understandable. The Jewish-Buddhist (Ju-Bu) phenomenon seems a much easier one for them naturally, and may be a useful way for you to discuss multiple identity with other Jews (bringing in Christianity as a further strand). On making sense of multiple identities you may well know the recent book ‘Buddhist and Christian?’ by Rose Drew (Routledge, 2011) which is well worth reading. Good luck with the struggles anyway!

    1. Thank you very much Paul! Yes, I have of course heard much about the Ju-Bu community and utilize Western Buddhism very much in my own strife for spiritual progress. I also enjoyed “Without Buddha I could not be a Christian” by Paul Knitter. Jewish halacha (or at least contemporary rabbical responsa) is clear about disallowing multiple belonging but this generally seems to pertain most strongly to other monotheistic practices. People have found loopholes to endorse the Ju-Bu double-belonging. I don’t suppose you know anything about this?

      1. I’m afraid I’m not really a Jewish expert but know some people who may be able to offer answer this, so will ask them. I quite agree that Knitter’s book is excellent – I think its about the most accessible route into the whole question (especially for Christians).

      2. Hi Jenn, I’ve had a pretty full response from a Jewish scholar on this – do you have an email you could send me as I’ll send it on with the attachment. Send to me at: paul.hedges@winchester.ac.uk.

        1. Yes, I would appreciate reading a response to my article from a Jewish scholar. Most of the Jewish responses I’ve received have been extremely emotional and, frankly, enraged. I have been hoping to read something more measured from a scholar. Thank you very much!!

  2. Hello there Ms Lindsay. Firstly, allow me to thank you for your beautiful and stimulating piece of writing. I hope the clarity and beauty of your writing helps to open people up to insights that might otherwise be difficult to digest.

    I thought that it might be appropriate to add a little Islam into the mix. Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi, the 13th century Sufi widely known as “al-Shaykh al-Akbar” (the Greatest Shaykh), has a very widely quoted verse:

    “My heart has become receptive to every form/ A pasture for gazelles and a monastery for monks/ A shrine for idols and a pilgrim’s Ka’ba/ Tablets of the Torah and the codex of the Qur’an./ I profess the religion of love: wheresoever turn/ its caravans, that is my religion and faith.” (Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, 10)

    This is usually quoted as a sort of “let’s-all-get-along” interfaith statement, but it is so much more than that. Ibn al-‘Arabi writes elsewhere that one’s heart must be open to every spiritual insight, every conception of God, every self-disclosure of the Divine (i.e. the entire cosmos). He was a deeply committed Muslim with a love for all modes of spirituality, and many Christian themes can be found in his poetry.

    I thought I’d share this, because I’m an observant Jew (I guess Orthodox, at least by socio-cultural standards), and I have found that it is a Muslim thinker who expresses most clearly the spiritual tendencies that I harbor in the deepest recesses of my being. That having been said, I consider my Jewishness to be absolutely essential to my self, and I make time every day to learn Torah and to daven (to pray Jewishly). I am deeply in love with rabbinic Judaism – which incidentally provides plenty of historical precedent for drawing on non-Jewish (and especially Muslim) theologies. So while I would not consider myself a “multiple belonger”, I do aspire to becoming “receptive to every form.”

    Just thought I’d share. Thank you again for your wonderful insights. I’m sure Meister Eckhart would have experienced great joy reading your post. May we only expand in receptiveness!

    1. Dear Raf, I really appreciate your words. I knew I had to be brave for the responses this post would elicit as I’ve been called an apostate several times today already! And yet my allegiance to God and not religion continually reminds me of the shifting sands of language, perception, cultural context and identification that religion is predicated upon. While I am halachically Jewish, whether or not I am a multiple belonger always seems to shift to and fro as well, as many Christians out there would refuse my Christian identification and I too am confounded by whether to engage the label, predicated as it is on extremely liberal, progressive readings of traditional Christian semiotics. But my wrestling with Christianity has been robust enough at this point to discuss in public, hence this article. Your response has really helped me. Again, thank you, and shabbat shalom 🙂

  3. Hi Jenn,

    I really dig the idea of inhabiting multiple worlds but doing so rigorously and effortfully, rather than sliding into careless, salad-bar religiosity or the easy trap of taking no world seriously on its own. It’s a difficult path, but I’m glad you’re doing it.

    I think the equivalent for myself would be simultaneously identifying as “spiritual-but-not-religious” AND “religious.” It may be a while before I can articulate this little conundrum very well, though. 🙂

    1. Hey Connor :)…I’ve been thinking about your response and I totally identify with the “spiritual-but-not-religious” AND “religious” balance too. I guess that stems from the fact that these religious identifications seem to be constructs, and blurry ones at that. One thing I wonder about a lot, and have asked many people about, is the definitive point of Christian identity. Of course, as with all things “religious,” and especially as with all things from a religion so denominationalized and splintered as Christianity, you gets tons of answers. I have come to think of the Christian identity as more self-defined. Like an artist–if a person strings tin cans together and says they’re an artist, who are you to say they aren’t an artist? Because I have developed a very functional and robust relationship with the trinity–one that is pragmatic and generative for me–I ultimately concluded that, since I actually use Christian symbols in my prayer life, that I must somehow be a Christian. Many, many Christians would object to me being “Christian” identified and honestly, it confuses me too. (And of course, many many religious people find me to be quite the atheist, but I am less confused about that.) Which religion are we practicing, and how is it defined? How much control can you keep over these things, and how far can you take liberal definitions? If you try and drop out of the words of cultural constructs for one freakin second and just be spiritual…are you suddenly an apostate? (No! That’s absurd!) If I think and speak in English, if my prayers strive to be wordless but generally reflect my culturally inculcated upbringing and American mindset and hopes and fears, if I feel totally and utterly out of place in Israel but still…I am a Jew…who finds some Christian archetypes really helpful…(not to mention Shiva and Ganesha)…where is the place for me? Where is the place for any of us who desire religious involvement but, as you will see by this thread itself, do not find most religious contexts to be inclusive of our particular personal constellations? What about the ultimate headmesser, which is the fact that the ground of our beings is not “religious” at all, but spiritual, and that at base I am really just a human who wonders where my place is. Like any of us, I want to know where I can belong. The article is my way of trying to work that out, at least in my own heart….

      1. I think part of the problem that Jenn, Connor, myself and others have with this is thinking beyond the fairly modern and Western conception of closed religious identities – which has told the world’s other religious traditions that they have to operate in the same pattern. In India and the Far East such rigidly closed patterns did not really hold in many places in the same way.

        1. I think that is a really important point, Paul. I wonder if the manner of stringent thinking about religious identity in a Western contexts is most appropriately applied to Western/monotheistic religious affiliations, and the “looser” Eastern ideas of non-identification and the absence of a fixed “self” to the “Eastern religions.” Sorry for all my quote marks and approximations…I obviously feel more comfortable in the latter epistemological category). Thus for me to apply “Eastern” thinking to “Western” religions might be puzzling or offensive to some. I return to my old battle cry of authenticity–that’s how I think, and how I work, and thinking in the former/fixed category is anathema to my approach to religion. I see marks of this type of thinking in Western mystical practices, so I of course am not the first to think about monotheism like this. But I think you’ve hit on a crucial idea here.

        2. I think that is a really important point, Paul. I wonder if the manner of stringent thinking about religious identity in a Western contexts is most appropriately applied to Western/monotheistic religious affiliations, and the “looser” Eastern ideas of non-identification and the absence of a fixed “self” to the “Eastern religions.” (Sorry for all my quote marks and approximations…I obviously feel more comfortable in the latter epistemological category). Thus for me to apply “Eastern” thinking to “Western” religions might be puzzling or offensive to some. I return to my old battle cry of authenticity–that’s how I think, and how I work, and thinking in the former/fixed category is anathema to my approach to religion. I see marks of this type of thinking in Western mystical practices, so I of course am not the first to think about monotheism like this. But I think you’ve hit on a crucial idea here.

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