Blended Faith - 2017

How exposure to diverse spiritual traditions is reshaping our individual religious identities

An Introduction

Less than six months after 9-11, I developed and taught an undergraduate class on World Religions offered at the Princeton campus of Rider University.  As an instructor whose students were typically older adults, I was intrigued about guiding a class of 25 or so “traditional” college students in their late teens and early twenties through the tributaries of world religious practice. More significantly, I was eager to learn what “kids today” think about religion and their own faith traditions or journeys.

Because most of these students were enrolled in degree programs related to choral singing, the majority came from major Protestant and Catholic religious backgrounds. This was confirmed during a survey conducted during our first class meeting. However, with a few exceptions, who withdrew from class early on, they were open to my premise: no one religion would be singled out as “right” or “true” within the context of the course, and all major faith traditions would be explored with objectivity and fairness.

The format of my class was not particularly original. After an introductory class, we focused on a major tradition each week, with clusters of smaller sects and emerging trends in the final third of the course. I invited guest speakers (a cantor, two American women who converted to Islam, Falun Gong practitioners, and others) to answer questions directly about their faith and practice. Students made presentations on religions not their own and completed major projects on comparative religion due at the end of the course. Our main text, loosely followed, was a standard work by Huston Smith.

From the start, the students were unusually engaged and animated, as though the course had shot the cork out a champagne bottle filled with the effervescence of forbidden dreams. They sat, often, at the edge of their seats, or bounded over rows in the small amphitheater at the start of class. They brought in unsolicited artifacts—a chadar (Indian shawl), a worn ceremonial bowl, texts of choral music in languages I did not know—with the eagerness of children caught up in a fabulous show-and-tell. There were a couple of small problems—a drama queen subject to floods of tears if she failed to turn in an assignment on time, and a profoundly gifted singer whose ego demanded he not waste time in class. But these difficulties were resolved over time. The students listened, participated, learned. And something more startling occurred. Their own religious identities began to grow.

I wouldn’t say their identities “changed,” for their core values—whether their parents’ or their own tentative rejection of family traditions—seemed to remain intact. What occurred was a process of accumulation and assimilation in which elements of other religions or certain points of view began to stick to their sensibilities. At first, I thought it was just post-adolescent enthusiasm for the new and different, but not so.  It was as though there were a cavity or fissure in their religious consciousness waiting to be filled or healed. The young Quaker whose attraction to Zen Buddhism blossomed almost before my eyes. The earnest conservative Christian who seized on the notion of Hindu chakras (spiritual centers associated with points in the spine) as a way of evolving and growing in her faith. The boyfriend/girlfriend who eagerly accepted copies of the Qur’an from the visiting Muslims and later were open to the wisdom of certain New Age theorists. The young woman who came out as a Pagan, even while embracing the roots of Celtic Christianity. And most importantly, the student who described her own descent into a controlling cult and her escape into a life of freedom and choice.

All this testing, tasting, accepting, rejecting played itself out week after week as these young people explored without risk or peril the boundaries of religion and the meaning of spirituality.  There was a breathtaking comfort level in all this experimentation and embrace. In fact, I began to realize for the first time that my own religious pathway was not about making a selection among different traditions, including the foundational Protestant Christian faith into which I was born. I began to see my religious identity as a kind of palette of brightly colored pastels, all of which remained in sight even as they were blended and merged one into the other, always with the sense of a Divine Presence blessing it all. Suddenly,  my own devotion to Yoga—cultivated since I was 13—merged gently and purposefully with an attraction to the peace-consciousness of Buddhism, the vivid Tantra of Tibet, the warmth of both Medieval and Protestant Christianity, the balanced, Nature-based path of the Dao. I was not less a Christian or a Yogi or a Daoist, but rather a richer, more complete whole. Like my students, certain affinities led me to a larger perspective. My religion had grown from a focused melody to a symphony of spirit.

I had experienced Blended Faith.

(to be continued)

Posted on Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 08:16PM by Registered CommenterLinda Brown Holt | Comments1 Comment