The American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore (23–26 November, 2013) included a panel entitled “New Perspectives on Buddhism and Multiple-Religious Belonging” organized by Wendy Cadge and Emily Sigelow, and to which I was honored to contribute. (My thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to participate.) The discussion following the presentations included terminological suggestions as alternatives to the theologically loaded concept of “belonging.” One suggestion was “participation” since that allows for looser boundaries—at least that is how I recall the suggestion being supported.
Kristin J. Largen, another panel member, has posted her own further thoughts on the discussion at her website Happy Lutheran—which despite the impression listeners to the News from Lake Wobegon may have gotten, turns out not to be an oxymoron. After posting a response there (some of which is duplicated below), I realized that the religious issue of dual-belonging has much in common with the methodological issue in religious studies known as the “insider–outsider problem.” The commonality demonstrates how deeply religious studies is informed by implicit theological constructs.
Caution: Bad Metaphor at Work
It seems to me that much of the difficulty that panel members and audience were attempting to address terminologically follows from a bad metaphor, the metaphor “religion is a container.” This metaphor entails the imagery that one is either inside or out, one who belongs, or one who doesn’t. This way of thinking makes any “in-between-ness” (such as dual-belonging) at the least awkward, or according to some authors, impossible. The pervasive character of this metaphor makes it largely invisible, and leads to the judgments (and judgmental attitudes) about belonging. The characterization of Buddhism as “not exclusive” suggests that this metaphor is not at work for a large part of the contemporary Buddhist community, and I would suggest that the “pragmatic attitude” attributed to Buddhism further indicates that the “religion is container” metaphor has not informed the way in which members of the tradition have conceived it. (This should not, of course, be taken as indicating a naïve ignorance of the extensive intra-Buddhist sectarian competition and conflict that both marks the history of Buddhism and its current forms. I am referring here to common representations of Buddhism.) In contrast, emphases on exclusivity of religious identity—whether in Buddhism, Christianity or any other tradition—suggest that the metaphor is at work, and that the container is thought to have very definite walls, very clear and strong boundaries.
In the realm of religious studies, “much ink has been spilt” over the putative “insider–outsider problem,” and the intractability of the problem suggests to me that it is a pseudo-problem, that is, one created by how the situation is being conceived and not by the situation itself. This “problem” is usually presented as an epistemological one regarding whose perspective is the right one. Do insiders have a privileged position regarding knowledge or understanding or appreciation of a tradition, given their access to the “felt truths,” or “transcendent reality”? Or, conversely, because outsiders have no personal commitment to the tradition, are they the ones in the privileged position—better able to understand, evaluate and report on a tradition? (Much of this suffers from the common confusion of “objectivity” with “impartial” or “unbiased,” but that requires a separate discussion.)
The use of the term “privileged” in this context is not simply a neutral epistemological descriptor, however. It reflects what is in fact an often highly politicized strategy for claiming authority—who gets to say what about a tradition. It seems evident to me that whether considered in terms of the epistemological claims or the political ones, the “insider–outsider problem” is also founded on the “religion is container” metaphor that structures much of the discussion regarding dual-belonging.
Alternative Conceptualization: Modes of Engagement
The alternative to “participation” that I had intended to offer at one point in the discussion is “modes of engagement.” A person may engage a religious tradition in indefinitely many modalities—from the non-observant Jew (offered in the discussion as demonstrating the limits of “participation”) to the Buddhist practitioner in extended retreat whose entire existence is being actively engaged by her practice. Although formulated later, this concept of different modes of engagement has its roots in my participation in the new religious movements project at the Graduate Theological Union in the late 1970s. One of the sociologists involved in that project talked about his hesitancy to interview someone who was at the initial phases of entering a new religious movement. He was aware that to do so would itself interfere in the religious process of that individual. Upon reflection, I thought that the “almost-convert” was engaged in one way, those already converted had their own various modes of engagement, the leader of the group had another—and, importantly for formulating the idea, the sociologist had his own as well. It was far from simply being a matter of either belonging or not.
The notion of modes of engagement requires an additional proviso. It should not be taken to imply the metaphysically autonomous status of a singular entity (“the religious tradition”) with which people engage. There is only the engaging, which is an ongoing process, and the subject and object exist in a dialectic. The object engaged only exists as that which someone is engaging, and in doing so they are actively constructing their own representation of the tradition. That representation includes an awareness that it is only partial, that “the tradition” is offered or presented as an ever-receding horizon. The object is different for each person who is engaged (or not engaged), and changes for each person over time. This dialectical interaction is the mode of engagement. Certainly my own way of engaging with Buddhism now is radically different from how I engaged it four and a half decades ago, or in some more subtle ways, last week.
Despite disparaging comments by some self-aggrandizing bloggers, self-reflective critical thought is a scholarly and indeed personal necessity. We inherit many many many preconceptions totally unwittingly, whether those come from the received traditions of popular religious culture, from our family of origin, from our own personal “quest” within a religious culture—or between religious cultures—or from the academic culture. Although difficult and sometimes distressing, such critical self-reflection on our own preconceptions is central to—oh, dare I say it?, yes—our freedom.