Douglas Todd: In praise of mixing religion and world views

Mahatma Gandhi was murdered for it. University of B.C. Sikh studies professor Harjot Oberoi was vilified for it. Religious fundamentalists condemn people to hell for it.

There can be a social cost for those who mix religions, technically known as syncretism.

But an adventurous new Canadian book, In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World (McGill-Queen’s University Publishing) argues that blending religious and other world views is the most natural and life-giving thing to do to make sense of this evolving world.

William Harrison, principal of the Kootenay School of Ministry in B.C., brilliantly hammers out a middle way on syncretism as he maps out an important path for truth seekers.

Citing Christianity’s and Islam’s transformative encounter with Greek thought and Buddhism’s adaptation to China, Harrison reveals the many ways that religions, as well as secular world views, have gained wisdom by borrowing from outside their own movements.

Most of us are aware of fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Marxist or libertarian capitalist. Fundamentalists are big on ideological purity and separation. Like the Europeans who burned witches, they are disposed to excommunications, ostracizing and the condemning of “heretics.”

Millions today have no intention to blur their hard boundaries. Indeed, the Pew Research Center found one in 10 countries — including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are major sources of immigrants to Canada — still have apostasy laws, which make it illegal to convert to another religion. Many more countries, including in Europe, retain anti-blasphemy laws.

But you don’t have to be an extremist to oppose combining religious views. Millions of moderate Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Hindus also think their religion is rooted in a unique “revelation” of God and scriptural inerrancy. It forms their identity. Even top academic theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas call for the creation of “Christian colonies,” to limit interactions with the rest of the world.

To his credit, Harrison respects those who oppose blending faith outlooks. He is aware that having one’s religious identity challenged can make a person feel “inadequate” and “dishonoured.”

Still, as an Anglican scholar who has taught at Vancouver School of Theology and the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, Harrison argues persuasively that every religion, every world view, has been a mingling of convictions and practices.

One of the most famous people to openly promote mixing religions was Gandhi.

The man who did more than anyone to free India from British rule while attempting to heal the hostility between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam was raised in a Hindu and Jain family and learned about the non-violent ways of Jesus while studying in Britain.

Gandhi lived out the principle of satyagraha, which Harrison defines as both “firmness-in-truth” and “soul force.”

As India was being torn apart by Hindu-Muslim violence in the late 1940s, Gandhi “made visits to riot-torn areas and engaged in multi-religious prayer meetings, including readings of the Qur’an, which angered Hindus already embittered by the Muslim desire to separate from India,” he says In Praise of Mixed Religion.

“Gandhi was reviled for his openness to Islam. On 30 January 1948, he was assassinated by a well-educated Hindu. This brought Gandhi’s desired conclusion: his death gave everyone pause, destroyed the credibility of Hindu nationalism and brought a measure of calm to the situation.”

Closer to home is another man who has suffered for maintaining that religions emerge from a fusion of world views and customs.

The University of B.C. hired professor Harjot Oberoi for his expertise in the Punjabi language and Sikh history; a chair financed in part by Metro Vancouver’s 180,000-member Sikh population.

But when Sikh leaders in Canada and India realized Oberoi’s book maintained that Sikhism was a syncretism, a blending of Hinduism and Islam, they were shocked.

“Several hundred Sikhs began working together to remove Oberoi from the chair because they found him ‘insulting, heretical and anti-Sikh,’” writes Harrison, even though Oberoi’s argument is considered morally neutral in academic religious studies. Oberoi resigned from the Sikh chair but continues to teach at UBC.

In Praise of Mixed Religion is helpful to secular readers in the way it goes beyond standard views of religion. It echoes Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God (Harvard University Press) in asserting a “religion” is almost any form of deep, distinct and comprehensive world view that maintains human life has purpose.

In his clear, engaging style, Harrison writes that religions have constantly borrowed from secular and economic world views — sometimes to sour effect.

He’s not impressed, for instance, by the way many evangelicals have built on capitalist dreams to create the “prosperity gospel,” or by how forms of North American Buddhism now include devotion to personal financial self-interest.

Drawing an astute illustration, Harrison describes how Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an evangelical Protestant, is a supreme syncretist.

“Harper declares an allegiance to a kind of synthesis of Christianity with individualist liberalism and free-market capitalism,” Harrison writes.

“That is his religion, defining his ultimate values, including his relationship with God, his notion of the human situation and his understanding of salvation. We cannot separate Harper’s Christianity from this mixture, as if it were merely about what he does on Sundays or believes about death.”

In Praise of Mixed Religion shares mostly good news, however.

In addition to Gandhi, Harrison describes many people and organizations who openly mix their spirituality and world views in ways to benefit humanity.

The book devotes attention to a movement and book that three influential New York women began after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, titled The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding.

Harrison also admires the vision of Claremont Lincoln University in California, which was recently established as a three-way amalgam of a Protestant school of theology, a Jewish academy and an Islamic graduate centre.

In addition, Harrison points approvingly to Jan Van der Veken, author of Can the True God Be the God of One Book? And he highlights process theology, which follows philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in blending Western and Eastern spirituality with science, ecology and psychology.

Harrison sees a key syncretistic leader in theologian John Cobb, whom he says has developed a “universalistic Christology” that draws on the Bible and the metaphor of evolving artistic styles to proclaim that the essence of Christ is “creative transformation.”

In generally promoting syncretism, while avoiding making it an absolute imperative, Harrison calls on readers to adopt a stance of what he calls “critical openness” and “soft boundaries.”

As an Anglican, he emphasizes it’s more than fine to identify as a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Buddhist, socialist or capitalist. Yet he also stresses it’s crucial to remember one’s identity can never be contained in a label.

“A Jew is not, purely and simply, a Jew. A Muslim is not, purely and simply, a Muslim. For that matter, a Marxist is not purely and simply, a Marxist. Everybody is a mixture and, if not altogether unique because ideas are shared, is unlikely to be exactly the same as other people with the same tag.”

As the poet Walt Whitman wrote, individuals “contain multitudes.” We are all hybrids, blending ideas and loyalties. Harrison calls on us to celebrate this reality — and recognize we have much to learn from one another.