Are Religions Mixable?

According to a 2009 Pew study:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals… One-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own.

A welcome phenomenon? U. of Miami religious studies professor (and Christian liberation theologian) Ivan Petrella says yes:

We’re a nation moving beyond religious pluralism. A religiously plural nation is a multi-religious nation, one where religions peacefully coexist. But within pluralism, religions are still watertight compartments. People aren’t allowed to belong to more than one or to borrow the ideas and practices of another, without feeling like they’re traitors to their faith. That’s changed. In our emerging religious reality people are shattering the compartments and becoming multi-religious. We’re no longer just a multi-religious nation. We’re a nation of multi-religious people…

The United States has always thought of itself as a great experiment. Let’s not be shy about experimenting with multiple faiths as well.

Another well-known professor of religion, Steven Prothero, begs to differ, saying there are just too many important differences between religions – and our tendency to sample a bit of each smacks uncomfortably of American consumerism:

At their best, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism call us to rethink the world and then challenge us to remake it—and to remake ourselves. But the truths of one religion often clash with those of others, or contradict each other outright. Even Protestantism has carried inside its various denominations strikingly different visions of the good life, both here and in the hereafter. Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion as we search, in love, for the next new thing.

Theological student Yaira Robinson concurs, using the metaphor of language to understand the importance of exclusive religious affiliation:

In order to communicate effectively, though, you can only speak only one language at a time. When you mix and match language systems—throwing in vocabulary from other languages, re-arranging the grammar, tossing in foreign idioms—then communication becomes difficult. Likewise, each religious system is a coherent whole, with all its parts—stories, history, prophets, teachings, and practices—working together to facilitate communication. This is the beauty of speaking one religious language, of walking one religious path—doing so can bring our lives into a clearer relationship with God.

What say you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

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10 Comments on “Are Religions Mixable?”

  1. I like this but I think that it is possible to integrate religions. Not like a mud pie but maybe a very fine gumbo. Even that analogy is lacking. Frequently for me I find that many religions hold on to ego positions, geographic righteousness, useless traditions and most importantly a misunderstanding of Love. If we trade each others baggage then we won’t be better but if we are able to admire the best of each religion and learn from one another then maybe the cream will rise to the top. Thanks, Keep Blogging, Keep Writing.

  2. amy says:

    Excellent thought. But of course many religions are interrelated. Can we discuss Protestant without discussing Catholic without discussing Jewish beliefs? That is just one series of thought and belief. I wish I could say I believed with my heart people in the US were getting over the man-made laws of religion and moving toward the heart-felt basis and true meaning of each religion, but I’m afraid most are just picking and choosing what makes them feel best.

  3. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably said: “No religion is an island”. They have always borrowed, adopted and adapted from each other. A wonderful old example is Genesis telling us that when Melkitsedek concluded a pact with Avraham, he shared with him wine and bread to seal the deal — and we celebrate Shabbat with wine and bread and traditional Christians celebrate the communion with wine and bread.

    I think practices and forms osmose from one religion to another as do the thoughts and concepts that underlie them. Good? Bad? Like it or not? It is what happens. We might as well be conscious and intentional about it.

    David.

  4. Eric Selinger says:

    Has Yaira Robinson never listened to a Bollywood movie? Millions of people mix languages all the time, and communicate with each other. As for the idea that any religion is a coherent whole, that’s just bizarre: theologians may scramble to make them seem that way, and those with power may try to kill the unorthodox from time to time, but all religions are internally varied and complex and incoherent, just like the people who follow them. American freedom of religion just makes this internal variety–and this itch to mix and match–visible and fun. (India makes another useful test case for this.)

    Mixing and matching is a sign of life, in religion as in anything else.

  5. Lesley W. says:

    Eric pretty much made my point about the language analogy, but to expand: languages grow, change and bloom when they mix. Dead languages are the only ones that remain rigidly fixed, without incorporating any new elements. I would argue that the same is true of religions.

    I think theologians see religion in a very different way than the average person. Most individuals aren’t as caught up in the fine points of theology. For them it’s more about folkways: music, vestments, food; holidays and lifecycle traditions. African American Catholic churches have a lot more in common with African American Baptist or AME services than they do with white those at white Catholic churches for example. Yet if an African American Catholic visited a relative’s AME church, that would be counted as “a faith different than their own” in this survey.

  6. Michael Mandel says:

    There are many ways up the mountain (as I once heard a rabbi say), and that’s what I keep coming back to when thinking about this. Sometimes the paths join together, sometimes they remain apart, though always heading toward the same place. When I venture off the path I know intimately to take one not as familiar, the key for me is remembering to walk gently, stay on the trail and always be respectful of everyone and everything I meet along the way, since I’m just a guest. And to always be mindful and alert to the ways that I and other hikers from my trail have messed stuff up on the other trails, and to do what I can to support the rebuilding process while ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

    But yeah, I also recognize that there are times when I would not be welcome elsewhere, and that’s something I need to respect as well.

  7. Lesley says:

    For me, it is the “other” that brought me back to my Judaism. And that allowed me to affirm my faith in prescribed ritual.

    For example: Had I not been a meditator already, it would have never occured to me to ask my rabbi for a Jewish prayer to add to my morning ritual — result, Modeh Ani in sitting meditation and in Child’s Pose.

    Thank G-d for the rabbi who told me “I don’t care who or how you pray to, just pray.”

  8. Eric Selinger says:

    In his book “Border Lines: the Partition of Judeo-Christianity,” Daniel Boyarin makes a pretty convincing case that the split between those two post-temple Judaisms was a top-down phenomenon: priests and rabbis railing at their flocks to stop praying together, etc. I’m very happy to see those walls coming down, here and elsewhere. Xenophiles of the world, unite!

  9. Dianne says:

    My answer would be “yes” and “no” and also somewhere in between. While I believe that it is crucial to respect and understand other religions by attending services of different faiths, talking to people of different faiths and sharing what is common and not, I believe that it is equally critical that children grow up with a unique religious identity. The posts I’ve seen above address some great ideas, but in practice children need to be parented with a specific identity in mind. I grew up with a number of children of mixed marriages where all faiths were brought into the home and the result was that, as young adults, these folks admitted to being confused. Far better, I think, to ground children in a unique faith, teach them to learn to respect others and encourage curiousity.

    I do believe that as adults we are all encriched by experiencing different things and bring more to our faiths by our experiences.


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