When One Religion Isn't Enough

The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People

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Duane R. Bidwell
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , November
     2018.
     200 pages.
     $25.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780807091241.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the phenomenon of spiritual fluidity or religious hybridity becomes more common in the West, it has garnered considerable scholarly and popular attention. 

Duane Bidwell’s When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People is less a scholarly analysis of the phenomenon, and rather a type of advocacy. Bidwell attempts to bring some clarity to the phenomenon, but he also states that “I’m not trying to entertain or offer a scholarly treatise; I’m writing to celebrate, describe, and analyze complex religious bonds” (10). He wrote the book in order to “reduce the suffering of spiritually fluid people” (9). Being both a Buddhist and Christian himself, the book is an attempt to account for the plausibility, integrity, and desirability of spiritual fluidity.

Bidwell describes this growing phenomenon using an array of rich symbols and evocative images. He uses the categories “spiritual fluidity,” “religious multiplicity,” and “multiple religious bonds” (123) to name the phenomenon. He distinguishes different types of spiritual fluidity based on choice, inheritance, and what he calls “collaboration.” The first two types are self-explanatory: some choose to identify with elements from different religious traditions, while others are raised within multireligious families or contexts. The third type, however, is less descriptive than theological or interpretative, as he speaks of this path as being “claimed by Mystery in ways that require multiple religious and spiritual expressions” (90). Bidwell describes different stages—or seasons—in the process of becoming spiritually fluid: curiosity, engagement, ripening, and generativity. 

The second half of the book focuses on more normative or evaluative issues. Bidwell presents and unpacks “five important lessons” about living with complex religious identities: it isn’t easy being hyphenated, multiplicity is more complicated than you think, salvation is your agenda, not ours, what you call us matters, and spiritual fluidity isn’t just (or even primarily) a choice. He then focuses on what he considers to be the benefits or fruits of spiritual fluidity. He demonstrates that it contributes to human flourishing, and that it draws from “broader, more holistic, and embodied ways of knowing” (99). Spiritually fluid individuals are generally considered more flexible and adaptable, and demonstrate “generative imagination” (139). They may also help religions to examine their own teachings and practices, realize how they overlap, and learn to think synthetically rather than analytically. In short, spiritual fluidity represents, for Bidwell, a “gift to the world” (100).

In supporting and advocating for spiritually fluid individuals, When One Religion Isn’t Enough expresses a certain implicit or explicit disdain for those for whom one religion is enough. Spiritual fluidity is said to involve “being and becoming” while monoreligiosity involves “belief, behavior and belonging” (54). Since the former is said to generate flexibility, creativity, and personal integration, the latter—by implication—suffers from the opposite traits. In reflecting on the future, Bidwell anticipates an expansion and growth of spiritual fluidity while “monoreligious identities will remain important, but increasingly marginalized” (142). This juxtaposition presents a simplistic and idealized picture of spiritual fluidity at the expense of traditional monoreligious identities. Bidwell does seem to implicitly acknowledge certain possible problems or abuses when he offers some criteria for evaluating complex religious identities: faithfulness to the traditions, altruism, liberation, knowledge of the divine, and “the integration and blossoming of all dimensions of a person” (141). But he does not elaborate on the dangers of spiritual fluidity. This juxtaposition also offers a caricature of monoreligious individuals and classical religious traditions. Bidwell is undoubtedly right that spiritually fluid individuals have something to offer to traditional religions, and to the world, yet they also have much to learn from those traditions, including about the dangers or challenges of spiritual fluidity. Classical religions are, themselves, less static and closed than Bidwell suggests. One may actively engage with the teachings and practices of other religions without abandoning one’s monoreligious identity.

When One Religion Isn’t Enough is unlikely to advance the scholarly discussion of the phenomenon of spiritual fluidity. It suffers from occasional inaccuracies, such as the author of Nostra Aetate, and internal contradictions—with emphasis on the social and embodied nature of religion on the one hand, and no mention of ritual practice on the other. It also bypasses many of the critical issues involved in spiritual fluidity including authority, community, transmission, etc. However, the book offers an eloquent portrayal of a real and growing religious phenomenon. It will provide support and encouragement for individuals who identify with aspects of many religious traditions. It also reminds skeptical theologians and scholars of the value and importance of spiritual fluidity, not only for the individuals themselves, but also for the traditions from which they draw.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Catherine Cornille is the Newton College Alumnae Chair and Professor of Comparative Literature at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Duane R. Bidwell is Professor of Practical Theology, Spiritual Care, and Counseling at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California. A clinical fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Duane has been a chaplain, pastor, counselor, and nonprofit director.

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