Printer Friendly

Crossing religious borders.

The Spring, 2008, issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies focuses reader attention on interreligious dialogue "at the grass roots." (1) Use of this metaphor rightly urges us to pay attention to the concrete and practical purposes, goals, and strategies of engaging in interfaith dialogue "on the ground" and at the local level. Another metaphor also useful for exploring the possibilities of interfaith, interreligious exchange is that of border-crossings: crossing religious borders. Given the multiple processes of globalization that mark our time, it is instructive to notice that globalization as a label points to a series of border-crossings: the transfer of capital, the migration of peoples, the mixing of cultural mores, the criss-crossing of ideas and practices, the frequency of cross-cultural travel. With respect to religious communities, easy access to international transportation and electronic media make border-crossings among religious groups more possible and frequent than ever before.

Historically, multi-religious contacts have been invited and/or pursued through religious border-crossings known as missionary activity and interfaith exchange. Both are risky business, for religious border-crossings, like geographic border-crossings, usher people into the unfamiliar, where exchange can be thrilling or threatening or both.

Testimonial writings enable us to see the ways these interactions have occurred and do occur; such narratives challenge us to pay attention to grassroots experience of religious persons in relation to those of other traditions. Through four case examples, we will look at a range of ways people have negotiated differing religious convictions, that is, remaining convinced while simultaneously being receptive to the religious convictions of others. Although religious differences often yield defensiveness, argument, and harsh judgment, the four narratives cited here--drawn from missionary activity and interfaith dialogue--display alternative ways of receiving and relating to the religious other, whether that other is continents away, across the kitchen table, or inside oneself.

The narratives challenge us not to presume the ways that missionary activity occurs or the ways that interfaith dialogue is done. Vincent Donovan's and Rigoberta Menchu's stories offer us glimpses into the goals of one missionary and the effects of missionary work on one recipient. It is useful to stay close to the practitioners of these activities since their testimonies tell us what happened, not what is presumed, intended, or expected to happen. With respect to interfaith dialogue, Diane Eck and Donna Schaper provide glimpses into ways such dialogue works within the self and within the family, not only between or among communities in conversation.

Before engaging these four testimonial narratives themselves, it will be useful to note some historical patterns and practices so as to contextualize them. Missionary activity, one of the chief ways by which religious borders have been crossed and convictions shared throughout history, has been practiced in a variety of ways. Two practices stand out, differentiated by purpose and presentation. One seeks permanent border-crossing--or conversion--through teaching, preaching, proselytizing, and evangelizing. The goal is formal, official induction into a community of believers and practitioners through rites of initiation (such as Christian baptism) and lifelong participation. Full presence and participation are fostered regarding the beliefs and behaviors marking that missionizing community, whether it be Christian, Islamic, or Buddhist--examples of traditions that have been known to be proactive, at times even aggressive, as they share their ways of seeing and being throughout the ages and across the globe. When participation occurs under pressure from those in power, conversion occurs via coercion.

A second missionary practice places priority on identifying and addressing basic human needs such as health care, social services, and literacy education. Religious values and virtues of service, hospitality, compassion, and charity justify and support these practices. This approach locates trust in lived example, thereby bringing to life the view attributed to Christianity's Francis of Assisi: "Preach always--and, when necessary, use words." This second approach resonates also with the view of some Buddhists, given the Buddha's message that others follow his example, not because he is an authority to follow but in order to give his way a try, to give it a chance, and to see if and how it works in one's life. So, too, this practice is likely to resonate with those Muslims who take seriously the Qu'ran's claim that "there shall be no coercion in religion" (2:256) and that practitioners seek to inspire rather than require.

As in any classification system or typology, the distinctions offered in print are not nearly as clear in life as lived. In Missions and Empire, a collection of studies exploring the connections between the British Empire and Christian missions, editor Norman Etherington noted, "In this volume the most striking feature of missions is diversity. Not only did a variety of approaches to missions coexist at any one point, the missionary enterprise as a whole went through remarkable changes over time." (2) Since medical missions were sometimes used "as bait for their preaching," (3) the one strategy, for some, served as means to the other.

Interfaith exchange is another way in which people cross religious borders. Interfaith exchange reflects what Christians call an "ecumenical" mindset that fosters conversation and collaboration through various programs aimed at connecting people from diverse religious heritages. Interfaith exchange offers opportunities for temporary border-crossings with planned returns to the home site; this, too, occurs in two main ways. The first is interfaith dialogue; the second, interfaith social practices and projects.

Interfaith dialogue is a set of practices that reflects curiosity, fosters questions in conversation, and aims at mutual understanding. In these dialogues, the desire to know enables participants to cross over the theological, doctrinal, historical, and liturgical borders that separate them in order to discover points of commonality as well as deep differences. The outcome is frequently a nurturing of friendships that enhances knowledge and a recognition that there are many ways of being religious, many ways of envisioning an invisible but very real dimension of life, many ways of journeying through life with a sense of meaning, value, and purpose. It is not uncommon for such dialogues to generate a sense of community, cooperation, and collaboration that benefits pluralistic neighborhoods and work sites as well as interfaith families via marriage to "outsiders."

Another possible outcome is a sense of shock at learning the convictions and practices of others, with subsequent difficulty respecting those discoveries.

Amazement, disrespect, and dismissal are as realistic possible outcomes as are the ideals of friendship, respect, and mutual understanding that are sought. At a Muslim-Catholic dialogue, for example, I observed the sense of shock that sometimes comes with the discovery of difference.

"Don't you see," the Muslim enthusiast says to the Christian across the seminar table, "that you are worshiping an idol when you worship Jesus? Can't you see how blasphemous it is to claim that God is human, that a human being is God?" The Catholic Christian responds: "The amazing and wonderful thing about Christianity is its claim that God so loved human beings as to become human. What a brilliant and generous initiative! Common sense and historical traditions urge us to love one another by being present to one another, by walking a mile in the other's moccasins before judging, by identifying with those in need, by extending ourselves in empathy and solidarity. This is exactly what we believe God has done in Jesus. This is not idolatry on our part; this is generosity on God's part."

The one looks at the other in disbelief, amazement, shock. Sometimes, deep down, beneath language, beneath recognition and admission, however slowly and subtly, a sensibility emerges that is quite simply a loss of respect for those who believe the unbelievable or fail to believe the plausible. This is the risk of visiting differences that make a difference. However, the benefits of interfaith work are generally regarded as worth the risk, for knowing the other and learning to live with difference are imperatives for living in a pluralistic society with some measure of harmony in the hope that our children and theirs will not destroy one another. Knowing the other and learning to live with difference is also a commonly discovered religious imperative: to be hospitable to the stranger, to love the neighbor, to be kind to the other.

A second form of interfaith exchange is displayed by those who foster activities that meet community needs rather than theological discussion and dialogue. Prayer vigils or peace in the face of war, hunger walks to raise money for the homeless and destitute, and volunteer home-building for those who need assistance are vivid examples. This approach to interfaith exchange focuses on action items that yield an improvement in the quality of life in the civic community as distinct from the pursuit of "religion-talk."

These classifications of mission work and interfaith exchange are offered as heuristic devices that enable us to think about, to think with, and to think against historical practices and creative possibilities. However, it is the concrete historical (grassroots) practices that interest me here, for classificatory schemata do not capture the complexities of human motivations, desires, and creative experimentation.

In Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism, editor John Witte observes in the book's preface that "[i]t will take new arguments from history and experience and new appeals to internal religious principles and practices" (4) in order fruitfully to address the tensions inherent in practices of religious proselytizing--and, I would add, interfaith exchange. While the fourfold typology offered above helps us think about and classify issues, make distinctions that clarify, and formulate questions for interrogation, it is the testimonies of practitioners that make visible the grassroots processes of crossing religious borders and encountering alternative religious convictions about which distinctions and analyses become possible. Thus, it is the purpose of this essay to pay close attention to four personal narratives in order to see mission efforts and interfaith exchange at work.

The historical experiences of those who have done this work tell us a great deal about the creative ways people cross over into one another's worlds. These entries raise fascinating questions. How are the religious interests and ethical sensibilities of participants affected and sometimes altered by these travels? What practices help, and which harm? How, concretely, are people receiving and responding to the pluralism of religious cultures in which they are embedded in homeland and diaspora alike? How are they relating to the religious other, whether stranger, neighbor, co-worker, family member, or self?

Vincent J. Donovan, a U.S. Catholic missionary to Africa, tells one distinctive story. (5) Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan woman of Quiche descent and a recipient of missionary work likewise offers an engaging narrative about the ways she appropriated, practiced, and conceptualized her conversion to Christianity. (6) Narratives of interfaith exchange voiced by Harvard scholar Diana L. Eck, (7) whose travels to Hindu India altered her understanding and appreciation of her own Christian roots and convictions, and Donna E. Schaper, (8) who has integrated two religious traditions into her marriage and family life, argue the benefits and the challenges of crossing religious borders.

Vincent J. Donovan, U.S. Missionary in Africa

Vincent J. Donovan, a Catholic priest and member of the religious order known as the Community of the Holy Spirit, jettisoned the 100-year-old practice of creating what became permanent mission centers that educated youth among the Masai in eastern Africa. As an alternative, he preferred to preach in an area for one week and move on. Interrogating the practices of Christianity's first missionary, Paul of Tarsus, Donovan intuited that there must be another way. Having observed that the youth who were converted to Christianity in mission schools did not sustain their Christian faith and participation once they were reabsorbed into the adult community, Donovan set himself the task of adapting Paul's model to his African setting. He thereby set out to preach the gospel, provide local communities a limited time to accept or reject it, and move on to another community, so as not to foster dependence by the most recent converts. If accepted, it would be up to them to embody the preaching in their own distinctive liturgical and institutional forms. From his point of view, he would not con fuse preaching with teaching in schools. Neither would he settle down, nor would he stop moving outward to those who had not yet heard the good news, for this work is what propelled him to be a missioner.

Donovan committed himself to the task of listening well. In doing so, he discovered several truths. One occurred during a difficult time that he later described as a crisis of faith wherein he had begun to doubt the very message of Christianity. A Masai elder provided him new insights and compelling images for talking about God, based on the nomadic and hunting lifestyle of the Masai of eastern Africa. The Masai elder observed that if faith is explained as something to which people agree (as in affirming a truth or propositional statement), it is like a white hunter shooting his gun and killing an animal from a distance, using only his eyes and fingers to accomplish the deed. A better way of understanding faith, he continued, is to look at the way a lion kills its prey. "His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his ... front legs..., pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself." The elder's point is this: "This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is." (9) The physicality of this description surprises those more familiar with cognitive and emotional ways of rendering faith and underscores the way context generates meaning and metaphor.

Aware that the Masai did not invite or desire the missionary to come to their land, aware that they did not search out the God Donovan preached, the elder concluded, "We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God." (10)

In this singular example, Donovan exhibits both the adventure and the risk of missionizing work. Martin Marty describes this risk: "Each partner may work on the other. They are roped together, as it were. From the mountain vista he may find greener grass, more lush growth, more entanglements that at least raise doubts about the opinions, beliefs, creeds, or parties to which he had held." (11) Donovan's anecdote illustrates ways he and the Masai were roped together, entangled, and mutually affected.

Another way in which the Masai affected Donovan's reappropriation of his Christian commitment pertained to his newly emerging critical sensibilities about the ways American individualism and institutional forms of Christianity shaped mission work from the West. He embarked on a process of deconstructing these newly discovered assumptions. His own deeply embedded individualistic bias became visible as he began selecting who among the people was ready for baptism: not this one who failed to attend the classes regularly and was always out herding cattle, not that one who failed to understand the instructions, not another who had not shown sufficient effort. To this his series of announcements to the Masai, Ndangoya, an elder in the tribe, stopped Donovan with a question that assumed not individualism, but community: "Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us?" The elder continued.
 During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have
 talked about these things when you were not here, at night around
 the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But
 they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid
 ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are
 intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village,
 but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn
 out and drive off the lazy ones and the ones with little faith and
 the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people.
 And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can
 declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached
 the step in our lives where we can say, "We believe." (12)


Donovan apologized, granting that sometimes his head is "hard" and that he learns slowly. Yes, he agreed, everyone in the community would be baptized. (13) Marty's verbs are well placed and relevant to Donovan's experience with the Masai: roped together and entangled--mutually affected.

Attachment to the familiar Western institutional forms of Christianity became another point of discovery for Donovan. Indeed, he judged that this bias may be even more deeply embedded in missionary consciousness than the individualism that marks Western life and thought. Preaching was his job, he determined, but liturgy and church were the job of the community. This meant that the Masai liturgy included grass and spittle as indigenous symbols of peace and forgiveness. "Such was the sacramental system of the Masai," (14) he observed. Creedal statements, too, were formulated by the newly baptized. Indeed, Donovan's story concludes with one of these African creeds:
 We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the
 beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and
 wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every
 nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the
 darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the
 book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all
 the nations and tribes.

 We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son,
 Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a
 little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing
 good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man,
 showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by
 his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and
 died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him,
 and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the
 skies. He is the Lord.

 We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who
 have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the
 Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread
 together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus
 comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we
 believe. Amen. (15)


Donovan's story details one missionary's practices of bringing to the other side of the globe a normative vision of life. In his final chapter, he hints at the theology that underwrote his practice:
 I believe this is what lies at the heart of the urgency and
 necessity of missionary work and evangelization. This is what I,
 and others like me, are trying to do out there. Not to bring
 salvation and goodness and holiness and grace and God, which were
 there before we got there. But to bring these people the only thing
 they did not have before we came--hope--a hope imbedded in the
 meaning of the life and death and resurrection of Christ. (16)


When some communities listened to Donovan's preaching, considered it for themselves, and finally rejected it, Donovan rediscovered yet another truth: the indispensable role that freedom plays in the work of evangelization and in faith. Refusing to use schools as bait or the coercion characteristic of complicity in colonialism, Donovan came to accept rejection and refusal with a renewed appreciation for freedom. The people freely accept, or they freely reject. In either case, Donovan would move on to another area, preaching the good news as he understood it and honoring the indigenous practices that would emerge through a people who learned that they were part of a worldwide community of professing Christians united through the bishops. There was, however, a limit to his flexibility; he laments his inability to prepare married Masai leaders for priesthood. Had such a move not threatened schism from the worldwide Catholic Church, he writes, he would have encouraged it.

Donovan's story offers a view of mission work from one preacher's point of view. His story presents a critique of inherited practices and creative resistance expressed in alternative patterns and practices. He recognized that salvation, goodness, holiness, grace, and God were present to the Masai before Christians arrived. To these he offered the hope he regarded as characteristic of Christianity, based on its Good News.

Rigoberta Menchu's story offers another view of mission work wherein we discover that conversion is a matter of inclusion rather than rejection.

Rigoberta Menchu: Guatemalan Quiche Practitioner and Catholic Catechist

Rigoberta Menchu provides a particularly vivid and fascinating example of ways in which the border-crossings of religious worldviews and practices take effect. In I, Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan activist and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize presents herself to her editor and readers as a Quiche Indian woman who prizes the ancestral customs and practices of her indigenous heritage, while simultaneously participating as a Catholic Action catechist in the life of the Catholic Church and an organizer of resistance activities against an oppressive regime. (17)

This simultaneous participation in two religious traditions has been labeled "bi-religious." (18) Just as many travelers know the wisdom and utility of being bilingual and bi-cultural in a world of many languages and cultures, so, too, many recipients of missionary work have discovered the wisdom and utility of becoming bi-religious. Just as some persons move comfortably within and among two or more languages and cultures, so, too, do some people move comfortably and meaningfully within two or more religious heritages and loyalties.

Menchu describes her religious life in terms of dual religious engagement, and through her story we encounter both a rationale for and a practice of what it is to be "bi-religious." Crossing over into her experience complicates but also clarifies our grasp of the ways religious conversion really works in some persons and some settings. (19)

Catholic Action was a large-scale catechist movement that came to Guatemala in the mid-1940's. It sought to evangelize the people in competition with Protestant fundamentalist groups seeking the same end. In addition to evangelizing, Catholic Action members came to foster cooperatives among the people and taught classes on social welfare and political consciousness so that the Indians might improve their social conditions. (20) They sought to put into practice the social teachings of the Catholic Church, explicitly formulated in a variety of papal encyclicals such as Ubi arcano and Quadragesimo anno by Pope Pius XI, both of which sought to update principles and values voiced in Pope Leo XIII's Re21 rum novarum. (21)

Describing her father as "a dedicated Christian" and herself as a Catholic catechist from the age of twelve, Menchu explains that accepting Catholicism did not mean abandoning indigenous religious practices. (22) "By accepting the Catholic religion, we didn't accept a condition, or abandon our culture. It was more like another way of expressing ourselves." (23) "Another way of expressing ourselves" and "another channel of expression" serve as Menchu's chief categories when explaining her sense of self as Quiche practitioner and Catholic catechist. She explains:
 When the Catholic Action arrived, for instance, everyone started
 going to mass, and praying, but it's not their only religion, not
 the only way they have of expressing themselves. Anyway, when a
 baby is born, he's always baptized within the community before he's
 taken to church. Our people have taken Catholicism as just another
 channel of expression, not our one and only belief. Our people do
 the same with other religions. (24)


This crossing-over religious distinctions and this blending of ways are reflected in the rituals and ceremonies that constitute Quiche Catholic practice. With respect to baptism, for example, the Christian rite of initiation, Menchu reports that the community performs its own Quiche ceremonies before the child is taken to church to receive the sacrament. It takes forty days for the child to be considered a full member of the community. Its placenta (its "companion") is burned and ashes buried; speeches are given, animals sacrificed, prayers said, and ancestors invoked. Although the Quiche community does not use the word "God," Menchu tells us that the child is seen as a child of God, "our one father," and that "[t]o reach this one father, the child must love beans, maize, the earth. The one father is the heart of the sky, that is, the sun. The sun is the father and our mother is the moon. She is a gentle mother. And she lights our way." (25) The community prays also to "Mother Earth": "Mother Earth, you who gives us food, whose children we are and on whom we depend, please make this produce you give us flourish and make our children and our animals grow." (26)

Catholic and Quiche symbols employ common objects and referents: water, candles, sheep, ancestors. Menchu highlights the importance of ancestors in both traditions:
 For example, we believe we have ancestors, and that these ancestors
 are important because they're good people who obeyed the laws of
 our people. The Bible talks about forefathers too. So it is not
 something unfamiliar to us. We accept these Biblical forefathers as
 if they were our own ancestors, while still keeping within our own
 culture and our own customs. (27)


Ancestors to the Quiche are commonly called saints by the Catholics.
 We express ourselves through our designs, through our dress--our
 huipul for instance, is like an image of our ancestors. They are
 like the saints of Catholic Action. This is where you see the
 mixture of Catholicism and our own culture. We feel very Catholic
 because we believe in the Catholic religion but, at the same time,
 we feel very Indian, proud of our ancestors. (28)


Menchu displays this combining of ways with an analogy between the biblical accounts of the kings of Israel with the kings and leaders of the Quiche past.
 For instance the Bible tells us that there were kings who beat
 Christ. We drew a parallel with our king, Tecun Uman ["the
 grandfather of everyone"], (29) who was defeated and persecuted
 by the Spaniards, and we take that as our own reality. In this way
 we adjusted to the Catholic religion and our duties as Christians,
 and made it part of our culture. As I said, it's just another way
 of expressing ourselves. (30)


As with baptism, so, too, with marriage. Readers learn that ceremonies are celebrated among the Quiche first in the community, and later in the church. These twofold loyalties require that time be set aside for both expressions. Mondays became Catholic Day and Fridays Quiche Day. As Catholics, God is transcendent; as Quiche, God is present in nature.

As the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Menchu has been acclaimed internationally for her work resisting oppressive Guatemalan and international social and economic structures. "Our main weapon" of resistance, Menchu comments, "is the Bible. We began to study the Bible as a text through which to educate our village. There are many wonderful stories in the Bible." (31)

Focusing on texts in which they could see themselves, they identified with Moses and his effort to free his people from domination and oppression, and with Judith, whose fight against her king "gave us a vision, a stronger idea of how we Christians must defend ourselves." The Bible, Menchu writes, assisted the people to discover "that it is not God's will that we should live in suffering. ... God did not give us that destiny, but.., men on earth have imposed this suffering, poverty, misery and discrimination on us." (32) The liberating function of the Bible and the Church fed Menchu's work and commitment to her people. "I am a Christian," Menchu writes, "and I participate in this struggle as a Christian ... (33)

Menchu thereby displays a self-reflexive and dialectical consciousness in that she is both critical and appreciative of her Christian heritage, noting the ways in which the early Catholic Action movement that was instrumental in her youth functioned also to keep the people where they were, failing to encourage resistance and change. The Catholic Church focused too much on sin in those days, she felt later on, and not enough on change and hope. The institutional and bureaucratic features of the Church also complicated Quiche lives in unhelpful ways, such as requiring people to sign papers when they married--practices unknown to and unnecessary for the ancient ways. Yet, Menchu also recognizes ways in which her Catholic participation helped her such that, when she started organizing her people for social change and resistance, she knew what to do, having developed leadership skills as a catechist.

Menchu herein displays a discriminating sensibility about the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways in which religion functions in people's lives: as repressive and as liberating, as otherworldly and this worldly, as obstacle to and as advocate for needed change. Menchu testifies to the internally experienced compatibility, rather than competition, between Quiche and Catholic. The emphasis on ritual and ceremony, on a tangible sense of the sacred, on active and approachable intermediaries, and on special, blessed objects are analogous features that make visible some areas of compatibility. The symbolic use of water, candles, prayer, and sheep; the strong sense of community, past and present; and the prescribed, ritualized remembrance of ancestors that are characteristic of both religions--all enabled Menchu to move easily from Quiche to Catholic and Catholic to Quiche. Her claim that each is "another channel of expression," becomes plausible.

These two religions appear to make important, if differing, contributions to Menchu and other Quiche lives. The Quiche religion focuses on nature as the source of insight and symbolism in an agricultural ecology and economy, while the Catholic myths and rituals bespeak a sense of historical specificity and provide stories that yield models of and hope for change. Her father felt it his duty as a Christian to fight all the injustices his people suffered, (34) while maintaining the secrets of his ancestors, secret also from the Catholic priests and nuns. (35) When Menchu left her village to work for change among more than her own community, she tells us, it was her commitment as a Christian that led her to move forward while recognizing that Christianity was itself complicit historically in the sufferings of the people and that the contemporary Catholic Church in Guatemala was itself divided. These facts render plausible her explanation as to "why we don't accept Catholic Action as the only way to God, and why we don't perform only Christian ceremonies." (36) Menchu narrates no need to compare the religions with respect to "the truth." Which is right, which wrong? Which superior, which inferior? Which authentic, which inauthentic? No, both practices draw the people's attention to the Source of Life--imaged as Father God in Christianity and Mother Earth among the Quiche.

Just as these religious outlooks and practices do not compete, neither do they totally combine. They seem to function in terms of addressing differing human needs and dimensions of life, offering distinctive resources for survival, meaning, and celebration. Differing needs and emphases thus help to explain how these two religious and ethical systems can be accepted as two different "channels of expression." The confluence of ancestors and saints is suggestive of ways in which religious worldviews can serve as translations of one another. Prayer to Mother Earth and Father God in ritual context illustrates the communicative and petitionary features of both religions: two vocabularies, two metaphors. Thus, bi-religious extends the categories of bi-lingual and bi-cultural in ways helpful to understanding how missionary work is appropriated by some on the receiving end, by those who alter and transform the religious convictions they receive in ways that foster the appropriation and integration of difference.

Since conversion accounts often assume a movement from one worldview to another, from one commitment to another, from one way of seeing/feeling/valuing to another, and since conversion in the West has commonly meant "turning around," such that acceptance of one involves rejection of another, the very notion of what conversion is and means and how it works in the concreteness of human lives is clarified by Menchu's testimony. Conversion here is akin to integration, translation, addition, inclusion.

The religious border-crossing that she experienced enabled her to be at home in two worlds, seeing the truths of two worldviews, participating in the practices of two ways of life, comfortable with the religious vocabularies of two distinctive traditions, and committed to pursuing the ethical values of both, such as gratitude and respect for nature and dignity and justice in human relationships. Her story makes clear an experience of conversion that is better described as appropriation--or, in her words, as two "channels of expression." Conversion is presented in this narrative as a creative move through which more is embraced rather than something's being displaced.

Having glimpsed mission work in Africa and Latin America through the testimonies of Donovan and Menchu, we turn attention now to religious border-crossings in India and the United States through interfaith exchange. The narratives of Diana Eck and Donna Schaper display the complexities and processes by which such work actually operates for them in both personal and family life.

Diana L. Eck's Journey from Montana to India

Having journeyed from a Methodist community in Bozeman, Montana, to the rich variety of Hindu communities in Banares, India, Diana L. Eck observes, "Religious traditions are far more like rivers than stones," in that they flow and change, sometimes drying up in arid land, sometimes dramatically changing course into new territories. "All of us contribute to the river of our traditions," she writes. "We do not know how we will change the river or be changed as we experience its currents." (37)

It was the people she met along the River Ganges and in the City of Banares whose worldviews and practices provided Eck with the first real challenge to her Christian faith. Achyut Patwardham and Krishnamurti, among others, evoked Eck's admiration and subsequent interrogation. Whereas Eck's Christian faith focused on love, justice, human dignity, and community, Krishnamurti turned her attention, she tells us, in a different direction. His questions "were not about the world and its injustices" but about herself and her "habits of apprehending the world." (38)

This and like encounters generated for Eck theological questions that had a life-and-death dimension: "What do we make of the encounter with a different world, a different worldview? How will we think about the heterogeneity of our immediate world and our wider world?" (39) With these interactions and questions, Eck was catapulted into new ways of listening, hearing, seeing, and questioning that constitute interfaith dialogue. (40)

Eck notes that dialogue has not been a common social practice, given the power divides that have so often characterized relations among men and women, black and white, Hindu and Christian:
 Power and prestige make some voices louder, give some more airtime,
 and give the powerful the privilege of setting the terms for
 communication. We have had a long history of monologues. Much of
 the Christian missionary movement has been based on a one-way
 discourse of preaching and proclamation, with little thought to
 listening and little space for it....

 ... Christians have not only a witness to bear, but also a witness
 to hear. In the process of mutual testimony and mutual questioning,
 we not only come to understand one another, we come to understand
 ourselves more deeply as well. (41)


The language of dialogue, Eck writes, "is the language of mutuality, not of power." (42) As such, it carries opportunities for self-reflexive discovery as well as learning about the other. Dialogue moves Eck to delve deeply into the meanings of her own Christian faith, to examine her assumptions and presuppositions. As a result, she discovers, her understanding of God in Christianity has been stretched, challenged, and clarified. (43)

Encountering in a new way her own distinctively Western habits of thought, Eck noticed the ways uniqueness and oneness were deeply embedded in her expectations and ideals. She came to notice:
 In monotheistic consciousness, the singular is the proper number
 for questions of Truth: There is one God, one Only-Begotten Son of
 the Father, one Seal of the Prophets, one Holy Book, one Holy
 Catholic and Apostolic Church. It might be called the "myth of
 monotheism": that there is one and only one holy story to be told,
 to be reflected upon by theologians, and to be participated in by
 the faithful. (44)


Hinduism, by contrast, is polytheistic: there are many gods, many divine descents of the gods, many ways of salvation, many philosophical systems, many scriptures. Indeed, "The profusion of gods and scriptures is matched by a polycentric religious life, social structure, and family structure. There is no one clear, unmistakable center. Manyness is valued; indeed, it is seen as essential." (45) Eck recognizes also the many responses such multiplicity might evoke; some may be charmed, others perplexed, and still others repelled by this all-pervasive polytheism. Nonetheless, she concludes that, for monotheists, Hindu ways of thinking about God "might enable us to get out of our conceptual ruts and think about God in new ways." (46)

Since epistemological reflection yields the awareness that we humans see what we see according to where we stand, where we look, and what we are willing to see, Hinduism makes visible the possibility of being bi-epistemological, bi-philosophical, bi-theological. From one point of view, Hinduism is polytheistic, but from another it is monotheistic. From one standpoint, there are many gods; from another, there is only one. Both viewpoints are held simultaneously, for when, in practice, Hindus focus on one god rather than the others, the others are not excluded but are seen in relation to the chosen one. A metaphor makes the point: "As in a kaleidoscope of complex colors, the pieces of the divine multiplicity are arranged and rearranged, with one and then another clearly at the center--but no pieces are eliminated." (47) These awarenesses lead Eck to see Christian criticisms of idolatry in a new way. Idolatry, she observes, has to do with shortsightedness "of those whose vision stops at the image. The image is a window, not an object." (48) Indeed, an "image is not something at which one looks"; rather, "it is a lens through which one sees." The image "focuses and directs one's vision" to the God beyond the image[s]. (49)

In India, Eck discovers new lenses for appreciating her Christian faith: the "gold and glittering" icons, (50) Christ as healer, (51) the freedom of the Spirit, (52) God as breath, (53) prayer as sitting in silence without words, (54) Eastern meditation strategies as helpful to her Christian spirituality. (55) The very process of "crossing over" from one tradition to another, she notes, has helped people see new resources for their own faith journeys. Eck asserts that she has discovered that "[t]he labels 'Christian,' 'Buddhist,' or 'Hindu' are not relevant to spiritual discipline." (56) Sitting, breathing, and directing one's attention of mind and heart are not distinctively Christian or Buddhist or Hindu but, rather, expressive of the human desire and benefit of being still, capable of receiving, without clinging to or grasping at objects, images, or ideas.

The interfaith dialogue with Hindus precipitated an interior or innerfaith dialogue within Eck. As she phrases it,
 The dialogue of learning about another religious tradition through
 study of its ways--its holy books, its appropriation of the crises
 of the life cycle--gives us another place to stand and think about
 our own tradition. And becoming self-conscious of the questions and
 presuppositions of our own tradition, in turn, helps us to see how
 we might understand or misunderstand another. (57)


Eck is right to note that tensions among the religions exist within the religions as well and that differing ways of seeing make the differences felt. Religious ways of understanding reveal differing orientations to and perceptions of the world and thus differing responses to what is perceived as the Transcendent. (58)

The purpose and value of interfaith dialogue, for Eck, then, is that dialogue is the only way in which people find the truth of both other and self. The first point of dialogue is to produce relationship, friendship, and understanding, not agreement. Although members of very different faith traditions may agree on many things, she concludes that "a clear understanding of differences is as precious as the affirmation of similarities." (59) What remains necessary is "constant communication--meeting, exchange, traffic, criticism, reflection, reparation, renewal," (60) because "[w]ithout dialogue, when violence flares--in Queens or Los Angeles, Southall or New Delhi--there are no bridges of relationship, and as the floodwaters rise it is too late to build them." A second aim of interfaith dialogue "is to understand ourselves and our faith more clearly." (61) What often results is "mutual transformation." For example, "If Buddhists describe the deepest reality without reference to God, and Christians cannot imagine religiousness without God, what will each of us learn that is quite new, through the give-and-take of dialogue?" (62)

While some Christians find this open attitude a betrayal of the Christian mission to preach, Eck asks, "What kind of faith refuses to be tested by real encounter with others? What kind of faith grows by speaking and proclaiming without having to listen, perhaps even be challenged, by the voices of others?" (63) Interfaith dialogue, she argues persuasively, discloses the deepest features of our daily lives, for it reveals what motivates us, what orients us in the world, what nourishes us and evokes our most cherished values. "Every human being must cope with these questions or suffer the anxious drift of avoiding them," she writes. (64) In doing so in dialogue together, an enlarged sense of "we" without the presumed borders of nation-states is given room to emerge. When that "we" becomes global as well as local, there arises hope for living with the differences that make people distinctive.

Eck rightly observes that the globalization of religious peoples means that "people of every faith meet one another, develop deep personal or professional friendships, even marry one another." (65) Donna Schaper, a United Church of Christ minister, married to a Jew, and raising "interfaith children," takes us into that intimate family setting to which Eck alludes, where religious border-crossings occur on a daily basis.

Donna E. Schaper: Parenting Interfaith Children

"As a child born into a Missouri Synod Lutheran family, I could not have imagined that I would marry a Jew. Or be raising three children both ways. Or be an ordained (woman!) minister in the United Church of Christ. I am, like many people, a spiritual traveler." (66)

Given her own direct experience and her observations of many others, Donna E. Schaper describes the times in and around the millennial shift to be "a moment of massive border crossing," (67) for people are going all over the world in search of spiritual nourishment, she observes, whether geographically or in bookstores.

"Both ways," "cultural blend," and "blurring" (68) become tags for the experiment she and her husband and similarly situated couples have undertaken raising children in two religious communities and loyalties simultaneously. Recognizing that tradition requires experimentation, and that experimentation happens best within the context of a rooted tradition, Schaper is herself surprised by the uncertain turn her faith has taken, as she and her husband allow their children to "go to a place they can't quite see." (69) In spite of the conflicts, ambivalence, and uncertainty that this journey involves, Schaper writes that she and her family "are not trying to destroy religious tradition so much as to make it honest to contemporary experience." (70) That experience, for many, is the meeting and mixing of religious outlooks concurrent with the migration and interaction of peoples.

Schaper does not eschew the authority of church and temple but wants that authority to be credible and inspiring, "to have the ping of good crystal" rather than "the thud of plastic or heavy glass." (71) At the same time, she recognizes the tremendous challenge of their choice to present both Christian confirmation and Jewish B'Nai Mitzvahs to their children. This blending and broadening of ways of thinking lead Schaper to envision still other ways of being and doing, such as faraway "Nigerian rites of passage and Asian meditations." (72)

Noting that her account of this experience is a story, not a defense, and a probing rather than an argument, Schaper writes: "[W]e fly between origin and destination in unusual ways. All human beings make that flight: our instructions are to find a new flight pattern." (73) She sees their task as one of emptying themselves of "old certainties on behalf of future capability." (74) She justifies this choice of interfaith marriage and raising children with a Christian point. Since Christianity teaches the "purposeful confusion of the neighbor and the self" in the Christian commandment of love (to love God and the neighbor/stranger as oneself), (75) Schaper observes that the experiment she and her husband are pursuing affirms that commandment to love. "The very breaking down of the barriers is part of the fountain and fundament of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Oddly, we are wringing our hands over our success. We wanted to welcome the stranger!" (76) And, welcome the stranger they did--into the most intimate spheres of life: spouse, children, self.

Crossing Religious Borders within and without, at Home and Abroad

We see from these testimonies that the motivations and strategies employed in the grass roots activities of crossing religious borders are many. Donovan travels to another continent and stays seventeen years due to a desire to preach the Christian gospel to non-Christian Africans. While in Africa, he learns a thing or two about faith, God, doubt, and his own manner of mission work from those non-Christian peoples he went to instruct. Menchu accepts the gospel preached by mission workers in Guatemala while remaining committed to sustaining the goodness and truth that constitute her indigenous Quiche religious culture. "Two different channels of expression" captures her experience of being bi-religious.

Eck's journeys to South Asia engage her in new relationships that generate theological questions that she explores forthrightly and articulates forcefully. While discovering Hinduism, she also discovers new ways of understanding, appreciating, and appropriating her Christian convictions and commitments. Indeed, it is the very Hindu perceptions and orientations that challenge her that also enable her to see her Christianity with fresh eyes and live it with a transformed awareness. Interfaith discovery generates innerfaith reconfiguration. Avoidance of the questions that arise organically out of these relational experiences is, for Eck, neither admirable nor possible.

Schaper depicts her homeland adventure as that of marrying and parenting in an interfaith context. Unclear about her children's future identities and commitments, she trusts the process, given the pluralistic setting in which people meet mates and given the Christian mandate to be hospitable to the stranger. She insists, above all, that her religious practices be "honest to contemporary experience." (77) This moves her to establish some of her own distinctive alternative practices, while being honest about the loss of certainty: "Living without answers is our answer to the question of truth. We think we are 'right' in not knowing what is right." (78) Indeed, trust, not certitude, carries her into the future: "We are emptying ourselves of old certainties on behalf of future capability." (79) Especially intriguing in these stories are the dynamics by which the "self' becomes, in fact, the "other" and. conversely, the "other" becomes the "self'--when the other religious perspective is appropriated by the self and the self becomes other than one has been. Donovan's and Eck's stories show how active and deep listening is about much more than learning about the other; active and deep listening modifies the listener him or herself. Menchu's and Schaper's stories display creative absorption of the other such that two religious traditions become a feature of the self. These four narratives do what Witte advised when he wrote that "[i]t will take new arguments from history and experience and new appeals to internal religious principles and practices" (80) to address the tensions in religious proselytizing--and, 1 would add, other forms of religious border-crossing, such as interfaith dialogues, where tensions also arise.

The border-crossing metaphor that permeates this article applies to the experiences of interreligious exchanges, namely, those challenges and changes that come with physical cross-cultural travel: the unfamiliarity, sense of intrigue, difference, surprise, confusion, discovery, adaptation, and, very often, a life-changing transformation. With respect to crossing over from one religion to another, whether permanently or temporarily, it is the testimonial narratives that give glimpses into the internally complex and highly subjective processes of seeing, listening, inquiring, relating, valuing, re-thinking, and acting in relation to the distinctive other.

These personal tales and testimonies serve as useful foils to classificatory schemes such as the fourfold one I used to open this essay. They serve as important reminders that our typologies require that we access also many, diverse, and highly specific narratives from the grass roots, because, in Witte's words above, these offer "new arguments from history and experience" together with "new appeals to internal religious principles and practices."

What connects these four narratives of persons from differing continents, communities, and convictions is their willingness to enter into the processes of negotiating differences rather than walking away from or dismissing such differences. Thus, the "take-away" insights are multiple. First, through such religious exchanges one sees more, thereby comprehending complexity more clearly as a feature of reality. Attention to the religious other holds the possibility of one to see for the first time the "bubble" that is one's own religiosocial location, along with the many other bubbles that mark our globe.

Second, each story offers readers new ways of understanding assumptions (be they inherited or chosen assumptions), displaying ways in which expectations and judgments about the other function, affecting what we bring to human relationships and what behaviors are generated, for good and for ill. Third, each of these narratives models the transformative features of discovery and dialogue as radically different from an apologetics and argumentative approach to religious pluralism. Each story displays the virtues of curiosity, compassion, and charity "at work" and "on the ground." In this they remind us that discovery is an attitude that enables and fosters knowledge, to be sure, but discovery is an attitude that also fosters love. These stories make clear that convictions need not separate us from others. Exploring convictions can be the place of meeting, discovering (self as well as other), and also loving.

* The author thanks Professors Frederick Bird and Brace Grelle for encouraging the development of this essay through a Working Group on Globalization, Ethics, and Religion.

(1) J.E.S., Vol. 43, no. 2, guest-edited by Rebecca Kratz Mays; also published as Rebecca Kratz Mays, ed, Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 2008).

(2) Norman Etherington, ed., Missions and Empire (Oxford, UK.: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 15.

(3) Ibid., p. 12

(4) John Witte, Jr., "Preface" in John Witte, Jr., and Richard C. Martin, eds., Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism, Religion and Human Rights Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), p. xviii.

(5) Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003 [orig., Chicago: Fides.Claretian Press, 1978]).

(6) Rigoberta Menchu, I Rtgoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, ed. and intro. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, tr. Ann Wright (London: Verso Editions, 1984 [orig.: Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchu Y Asi Me Nacio La Conciencia (Barcelona: Editorial Argos Vergara, 1983)]).

(7) Diana L. Eck, Encountering God. A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banares (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993).

(8) Donna E. Schaper, Raising Interfaith Children; Spiritual Orphans or Spiritual Heirs? (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999).

(9) Donovan, Christianity Reconsidered, p. 48.

(10) Ibid.; emphasis in original.

(11) Martin E. Marly, "Introduction: Proselytizers and Proselytizees on the Sharp Arete of Modernity," in Witte and Martin, Sharing the Book, p. 5.

(12) Donovan, Christianity Reconsidered, p. 70.

(13) Ibid.; also see pp. 75-76.

(14) Ibid., p. 94.

(15) Ibid., p. 148.

(16) Ibid., p. 143; emphasis in original.

(17) Although David Stoll's study (Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans [Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999]) has questioned Menchu's credibility because of factual claims regarding eye-witness accounts of events that she herself learned about from others and understating facts about her education, e.g., nevertheless, her descriptions of religious views, values, and ceremonial practices, well worthy of the attention given here, have not been disputed.

(18) Joseph Murphy credits Mary Ann Borello of New York for this term, "bi-religious," which is rooted in her work with Puerto Rican spiritualists. See Joseph Murphy, Santeria: An African Religion m America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), p. 171, n. 3. In a study of Black Elk's Religion: The Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), Clyde Holler used this term (p. 202) in a broader discussion about dual religious participation as an outcome of religious contacts that occurred in the context of occupation and colonization.

(19) June O'Connor, "On Being Bi-Religious: Colonialism, Catholicism, and Conversion," in David Efroymson and John Raines, eds., Open Catholicism: The Tradition at Its Best, Essays in Honor of Gerard S. Sloyan (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997), pp. 167-189, provides a more extensive discussion regarding ways to envision and understand twofold religious participation.

(20) See, e.g., Robert M. Carmack, ed., Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (Norman, OK: University of Oklaboma Press, 1988).

(21) Marie J. Giblin, "Quadragesimo Anno" in Judith A. Dwyer, ed., The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), pp. 802-813; Francis Fiorenza, "Church, Social Mission of," in Dwyer, New Dictionary, pp. 151-171.

(22) Menchu, I Rigoberta Menchu, p. 80.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ibid., p. 9; see also pp. 80- 81

(25) Ibid., p. 13.

(26) Ibid., p. 57.

(27) Ibid., p. 80.

(28) Ibid., p. 81.

(29) Ibid., p. 204.

(30) Ibid., p. 81.

(31) bid., p. 130.

(32) Ibid., p. 132.

(33) Ibid.

(34) Ibid., p. 183.

(35) Ibid., p. 188.

(36) Ibid., p. 171.

(37) Eck, Encountering God, p. 2.

(38) Ibid., p. 9.

(39) Ibid., p. 11.

(40) Ibid., p. 16.

(41) Ibid., p. 19.

(42) Ibid

(43) Ibid., p. 46.

(44) Ibid., p. 59.

45 Ibid., p. 60.

(46) Ibid., p. 61.

(47) Ibid., p. 74.

(48) Ibid., p. 78.

(49) Ibid., p. 100; emphasis in original.

(50) Ibid., p. 133.

(51) Ibid., p. 106.

(52) Ibid., p. 134.

(53) Ibid., p. 121.

(54) Ibid., p. 161.

(55) Ibid., p. 153.

(56) Ibid., p. 163.

(57) Ibid., p. 165.

(58) Ibid., p. 175.

(59) Ibid., p. 197.

(60) Ibid., p. 198.

(61) Ibid.; emphasis in original.

(62) Ibid.

(63) Ibid

(64) Ibid.

(65) Ibid., p. 2.

(66) Schaper, Raising Interfaith Children, pp. 31-32.

(67) Ibid., p. 114.

(68) Ibid., pp. 11, 12, 16, 26, and 96.

(69) Ibid., p. 18.

(70) Ibid., p. 25.

(71) Ibid., p. 86.

(72) Ibid., p. 104.

(73) Ibid., p. 27.

(74) Ibid., p. 30.

(75) Ibid., p. 114-115.

(76) Ibid., p. 98.

(77) Ibid., p. 25.

(78) Ibid., p. 28.

(79) Ibid., p. 30.

(80) See note 4, above.

June E. O'Connor (Roman Catholic) is a professor in the Dept. of Religious Studies of the University of California, Riverside, where she has taught since 1973 and served as department chair in 1985-97 and 2004-09. In 2007 she initiated a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies and serves on its program committee. She holds a B.A. from Mundelein College, Chicago; an M.A. in theology from Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI; and both an M.A. and Ph.D. (1973) in religion from Temple University, Philadelphia. She has served on editorial boards for Religon, the SCE Annual, and the Journal of Religious Ethics, and edited review essays in religious ethics for the Religiouis Studies Review. She has been active in several scholarly societies, serving as president of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2003. A member of the Southern California Muslim-Catholic Dialogue since 2001, she has been a consultant for a wide variety of universities, publishers, and public media. Since 1996, she has written a monthly column on moral issues in the Catholic Digest. She has published some two dozen book reviews, and her forty articles have appeared in edited books, academic journals, and conference proceedings. Her books include The Quest for Political and Spiritual Liberation: A Study in the Thought of Sri Aurobindo Ghose (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977) and The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective (Crossroad/Continuum, 1991).
COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:O'Connor, June
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Words:9541
Previous Article:Ecumenical foremothers: commemorating, celebrating, and continuing their legacy.
Next Article:A politics of pluralism in American democracy: Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism as a national resource in a post-9/11 world.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters