world council of churches

Drinking from Several Wells: Towards a "Multiple Belonging"?
from "Voies de l’Orient"

Diverse spiritual traditions co-exist in the world and sometimes even within a single individual. This growing phenomenon calls the Christian faith into question. This was the subject of the second European Pastoral "Assises" which were held at Chant d’Oiseau (Brussels) at the initiative of ""Voies de l’Orient"".

At the crossroad of European culture, of the Christian faith and the spiritual traditions from Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism ...), the options are increasingly open, individual, and unpredictable. It is not rare that the same person, in the course of his life, attaches himself to several philosophical and religious traditions. There is a new and growing phenomenon which is developing before our eyes: an increasing number of our contemporaries refuse to choose one tradition while excluding another: to be (for example) Christian or Hindu. Not wanting to lose the discoveries they have made on their way, they want to be (for example) Buddhist and Christian. The approach and the perspective vary: sometimes there is a firm and well thought-out foundation in the Christian faith which makes it possible to explore and enjoy another tradition; sometimes the opposite is true; sometimes one associates major elements of two spiritual heritages without letting one or the other take precedence.

Is it really possible to drink from more than one well, to live several faiths, to follow several guides? If the answer is yes, under what conditions? This was the subject that brought together some sixty Christian (Catholics, Anglicans, Reformed) from the 11th to the 14th November. They had come from fifteen countries at the invitation of "Voies de l’Orient". Many of them had spent a long time in Asia. All had met with Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists either in the East or the West. Most had personal knowledge of the teachings, of these traditions and were acquainted with the practice of Asian methods of meditation.

In offering accounts and interpretations of their own spiritual quests, ten of the participants illustrated the rich complexities of their situations and experiences. The other addresses consisted of sociological, philosophical, theological, and pastoral points of view. In these three days, full with study and reflection, times of celebration and meditation kept participants from losing sight of what is essential.

From the exchanges and debates, it seems first of all that the vocabulary is imprecise and unsatisfactory: "belonging" seems too sociological and in addition disregards the jealous care that many of our contemporaries take to preserve their autonomy and the freedom of their own options. The idea of syncretism (combining different philosophies) ignores the fact that new identities are being built, to the satisfaction of those who have found a certain measure of harmony and completeness.

Taking a closer look, it seems that a "double belonging" (for example Christian and Buddhist) does not mean that someone lives fully within two traditions in a parallel way and at the same level. Many of the participants at the "Assises" even questioned whether such a duality is humanly possible.

Is it not more fruitful to understand this phenomenon as a dynamic and spiritual movement in which one is exposed to another tradition, embracing it fully without leaving behind one’s own? In such an encounter beyond surface curiosity, runs the acknowledgement of a need and a thirst that the "pilgrim" cannot ignore. One participant who lived a long time in the heart of Hindu India spoke of "begging for alms in my neighbour’s temple". Transformed by the experience of the encounters, as a Christian one finds oneself going back to one’s original tradition and community. However this will not be the end of one’s search.

For the Asian Christian, this quest might mean living and understanding the gospel within one’s own cultural perspective: Indian, Chinese, Korean ... For a Western Christian, it means rather finding oneself deeply involved in a world which is radically mobile and pluralistic. Many came to know such experiences without having consciously looked for them; some discovered a calling: they would have to act as mediators or ferrymen. At a certain level of depth and intensity, this discovery can be unsettling and even destabilising. Someone who had begun to discover Hinduism, for example, through his Christian eyes may later be surprised to realize that he is looking at Christianity with Hindu eyes.

To pretend to live between two traditions, while being grounded in neither one nor the other, would only be deluding oneself. The risk increases if, after discovering a new tradition, one fails to deepen and revitalise one’s own. By its very nature, drinking from more than one well is often a solitary undertaking ... and this solitude is accentuated by the fact that many people especially in the West react against what they see as "recruitment" by churches and religions. But there is the risk of getting lost in a hall of mirrors. Keeping close links with a believing community is vital. We need places where we may find the necessary support and guidance. We need images and symbols to account for the steps that we have taken. If the theological thinking on the plurality of religions has made a lot of progress over the last years, the pastoral landmarks are still uncertain. It is important to proceed with care. It would be premature to draw conclusions at this point. However the sharing of personal stories and the crossfire of debates allowed the participants to enlarge their understanding and deepen their reflection. They can now feel that they are less alone on their route.

To prepare these "Assises", the team of "Voies de l’Orient" collaborated with Michael Amaladoss S.J. (Delhi), Pastor Jean-Claude Basset (Geneva) and Dennis Gira (Catholic Institute of Paris).

Return to Current Dialogue (36), December 2000

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