Queering Multiple Religious Belonging
“Some of you have thanked me for not outing you as closet Buddhists,” said the pastor as he introduced me for my presentation on multiple religious belonging.
I wondered: What work was the language of the closet doing in this space?
I had the opportunity to think about this question again this October 24-26 at the third Consultation on Multiple Religious Belonging of the United Church of Christ. Through this series of gatherings co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches, Western mainline churches are beginning to talk about something that is fairly common in many parts of the world and for many people of mixed heritage: participation in multiple religious and cultural streams.
At the first session in Cleveland, the convener, Karen Georgia Thompson asked whether the church could “create more ‘room at the table’ to afford safe space for hyphenated Christians to practice a second religion, while in a Christian worship community” (“Multiple Religious Belonging,” 49). Susan Katz Miller has similarly pointed to isolation and lack of support as the greatest challenges for interfaith families. Thompson therefore called for conference participants to develop a language for recognizing these relationships to more than one religious tradition.
Language is beginning to crystalize around these phenomena. As conversations about multiple religious belonging have proliferated, so have the metaphors to describe it: multiple belonging, multiple religious practice, dual citizenship, hyphenated religiosity identities (e.g. Buddhist-Christian), hybridization, fluidity, and the like. The multiplicity of metaphors is fitting because the phenomena they describe are not all the same “thing.”
The analogy with the closet invites a queering of this emerging discourse. Queer theory helpfully intervenes in feminist critiques of gender essentialism by uncovering how gender and sexual identities are produced. For instance, picking up after Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Mark Jordan’s Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality unearths how “characters”—such as the invert, the homophile, the homosexual, and then the cluster of identities named in the ever-growing alphabet soup (LGBTQIAAP…)—emerged in scientific and religious discourse in the twentieth century. People find liberation, community, and a basis for activism in such identities, even as their genealogy troubles the naturalness of the categories and shows their inherent instability.
What if faith communities could view religions this way—that is, in terms of their historical emergence within discourse? Who are these characters called Hindus, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostals, Nones? What makes a sinner, a heathen, a heretic, a saint?
As a phenomenon created within discourse, multiple religious belonging has been a long time in the making—because the common usage that treats “religions” as natural, as bounded wholes, as things in the world, has also been a long time in the making.
Furthermore, the boundaries around such categories are often gendered. Western Orientalism constructs its others, in part, by feminizing them. And women and queer persons are often seen as the inauthentic, the suspect, the not-fully-mature members within religious communities. Full belonging, including the authority of ordination, has been kept from them. Their bodies are scrutinized, and their piety is tied to gender performance.
How can Christian congregations become safe(r) spaces for those who bring their whole yoga-practicing, Rumi-reading, ancestor-venerating, interreligiously-partnered selves to church? They can open up conversations that trouble the assumed naturalness of how the congregation performs its faith.
Religious education might discuss the following:
• How Christianity is practiced in cultures across the globe
• Changes in Christian belief and practice throughout history
• The development of denominations
• The congregation’s history, including demographic (racial, political, economic, etc.) changes
• Diverse perspectives on salvation, truth, and other values
• What congregants find stable and comforting about the tradition
• Individual religious autobiographies of congregants, including relationships to other traditions
Mainline Christians can create space to recognize and support people whose multiplicity includes more than one faith tradition, first of all, by being honest about the many and contingent ways of being Christian.
The language of the closet, which I encountered in a congregation known for being open and affirming, indicates that religious education must be more than denominational inculturation. People must be able to imagine more possibilities, more characters to perform, that might align with their experience in a religiously plural world. Such a proliferation of characters would reflect and recognize people who already live at the confluence of multiple streams as well as anticipate unforeseen configurations of identity and practice.
Yet these characters—the multiple belonger, the hybrid, the Buddhist-Christian—should not again become ideal types. At the consultation in Seattle, Monica Coleman movingly spoke of what is lost in religious “passing.” Queer perspectives on gender remind us that the seams between performances—the ones that don’t quite “pass”—reveal religious identity, too, as anything but natural.
Coleman, Monica A. “Created Silences and Lost Lives: Passing in Multiple Religious Belonging.” Paper presented at Charting a New Frontier: Multiple Religious Belonging, Seattle, Washington, October 24, 2016.
Jordan, Mark D. Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Katz Miller, Susan. Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.
Thompson, Karen Georgia. “Multiple Religious Belonging: Erasing Religious Boundaries, Embracing New Ways of Being,” in Many Yet One: Multiple Religious Belonging, ed. Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam, 45-61. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2016.
Voss Roberts, Michelle. “Religious Belonging and the Multiple.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26.1 (2010): 43-62.