Many Yet One?

Multiple Religious Belonging

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Editor(s): 
Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar, Joseph Prabhakar Dayam
  • Geneva, Switzerland: 
    World Council of Churches
    , January
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9782825416693.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Continuing an initiative sponsored by the World Council of Churches’ program on Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, the thirteen essays in this volume address “the theological and pastoral questions which emerge at the interstices of ‘blurred’ religious affiliations and borderless (spi)ritual practices that are concomitant to multiple religious belonging” (1).

The two editors, Penial Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam, previously collaborated on a volume of essays published in 2014, Mission at and from the Margins: Patterns, Protagonists, and Perspectives (Wipf & Stock). That book sought to revise previous scholarship on Christian missions in South India by giving voice to the experience of Dalit Christians, a subject that overlapped with Rajkumar’s earlier book Dalit Theology and Dalit Liberation (Routledge, 2010) and Dayam’s recent dissertation on Dalit contributions to Christian theology.

In their introduction to the book, the editors begin with the experience of those whose lived religious practice belies theological and social attempts to create dichotomous boundaries between spiritual traditions. Their project is experiential rather than systematic; this is not a book that sets out to construct a Christian theology of religions or a world theology. Yet the volume’s emphasis on lived experience does not mean forsaking theological questions completely. Indeed, some contributors are very sensitive to the charge, made by Catherine Cornille and others, that multiple religious belonging (MRB) can, at times, represent a dilettantish self-seeking by the privileged. By contrast, the editors think that a liberative praxis of MRB can be generated by attending to the ways in which marginalized communities negotiate and redefine doctrinal boundaries set out by those with power. Postcolonial experiences of Christian missionary influences in Asia—and especially in India—form the backdrop for several of the essays. In these contexts, the editors recognize MRB as both “polyvalent and problematic” (4).

In Many Yet One, the best essays use inductive methodologies to set forth new analytic frameworks for understanding MRB. Recognizing the prominence given in many cases to social ratification of an individual’s religious activity, John Thatamanil and S. Mark Heim prefer the term “multiple religious participation” rather than MRB, especially because the former may not lead to the latter in any given instance. Both Thatamanil and Heim think that practicing more than one religion necessarily entails a rejection of both theological exclusivism and theological pluralism, insofar as the motivation for such practices rests upon the conviction that religions are simultaneously different from each other and irreducible to one particular religion. Karen Georgia Thompson writes about pastoral challenges to MRB based upon her work as a minister, with specific illustrations drawn from the context of churches in the United States. Simone Sinn seconds Heim’s contrast between confessionally-loyal comparative theologies and MRB; her essay examines the overlap between an interreligious theology that does not superimpose one religious tradition upon another on the one hand, and her Lutheran theological tradition on the other. Identifying himself as a Confucian-Christian, Heup Young Kim indicts the Western theologies of John Hick, Hans Küng, and Karl Rahner for promoting an epistemic dualism; Kim instead advocates for an East Asian “both-and mode of relational thinking” (81). Raj Nadella offers a postcolonial reading of the gospel account of Jesus’s meeting with the Canaanite woman that challenges exclusionary categorizations of self v. other.

Other contributors place the lived experiences of South Asian MRB at the centerpiece of their essays. Building upon decades of work in interreligious dialogue, Jesuit priest Michael Amaladoss profiles the Benedictine monk Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux); Abhishiktananda’s life offers a case study that demonstrates how the religious symbols in one’s own tradition can be reinterpreted in an interreligious context. In an essay that is one of the best in the book, James Ponniah turns away from an academic focus on religious texts as he applies his fieldwork to two Indian shrines—one Christian and one Muslim—to show that pilgrimage can overturn both religious divides and caste structures. Other scholars working in this area should build upon Ponniah’s use of Victor Turner’s category of liminality in interreligious encounter in their work. Eve Rebecca Parker examines a different type of shrine in her essay on Dalit Christian sex workers at the shrines of the goddess Mathamma, confronting comfortable Western readers with the reality that poverty, patriarchy, and power shape the lived experience of MRB in many places. Sunder John Boopalan’s excellent analysis of the socio-political dangers of a religious hybridity lacking in hospitality also deserves sustained attention.

The final three essays shift back to theoretical constructions. Allan Samuel Palanna invokes Jacques Derrida’s philosophy to understand how hospitality can be practiced in religious faith, while Amitha Santiago employs the category of mimicry to demonstrate the transgressive quality of religious hybridity. Julius-Kei Kato rounds out the volume by using the experience of Asian North Americans and the fiction of Japanese Catholic Endō Shusaku to argue that Asian Christianity belies Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a clash of civilizations.

A diverse lineup of writers working in academic and pastoral contexts ensures that Many Yet One’s approach to MRB is an eclectic one, befitting a theological field that is still young. International in scope, the essays in this book refute the charge that MRB represents little more than Western middle-class individualist navel-gazing. At times a few of the contributions come close to reifying the categories of East and West (e.g., Eastern experience v. Western epistemology) in a new postcolonial guise. Many Yet One’s major contribution is the prominence of lived hospitality in the book’s treatment of MRB. This is yet another sign that interreligious theology has long since transcended its disciplinary origin within Christian theologies of religion and traditional missiological concerns with redemption and salvation. Contrasted with comparative theologies that are primarily oriented towards textual study, the field of MRB is giving far greater attention to popular religious experience. Readers who want a look at where the sometimes unsettling, but often-exciting, hybridized quest for religious meaning is heading in the twenty-first century should read this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Denny is Associate Professor at St. John's University, Queens, New York.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar is programme executive for interreligious dialogue and cooperation, World Council of Churches.

Joseph Prabhakar Dayam is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Theology and Ethics at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai, India.

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