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In theory at least, "Christian" is something you "become." Whether an individual chooses to join the worshiping community of believers or the choice is made by parents on their infant's behalf, the mark of becoming Christian is baptism. Baptism establishes the Christian community, and that community is the church—the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Baptism is the rite that makes our "Christian–ness" official.
Your local congregation, furthermore, is something you join as one of the ways you live out your baptism. You make a public commitment to a certain community. You are on its roll of members; your prayers, your presence, and your financial support are expected.
Christians are members of the body of Christ—the church universal Yet, when Christian Americans are asked to fill out a registration form or a survey with a space for "religious affiliation" they are as likely to put "Presbyterian" or "Episcopalian" or "Catholic" on that line as they are to put "Christian"—opting for the specific over the general. American Christians are quite accustomed to the complex and colorful mosaic of Christianity's many branches and denominations. It is not unusual for a Christian to have changed denominations several times over the years, ignoring subtleties of polity, doctrine, and practice in favor of other considerations.
The experience of affiliation, of joining, of membership shapes Christians' questions about the religions of their non-Christian neighbors: What religion do you belong to? What branch of Buddhism do you belong to? What mosque do you belong to? If we dare to voice the question, our neighbor may give a quick and clear answer: "I belong to Congregation Beth-El; I joined three years ago." Or, "I've belonged to the New York Buddhist Church for over twenty years." Or she may respond with a shrug, as did one Japanese American dental assistant: "When I was in Japan, I never had to think, so, what is my religion? But now I live in Cincinnati, and the very first time I went to dinner at my fiancé's home, his mother asked me, 'What religion do you belong to?' I just sat there with a puzzled look on my face. I didn't have an answer. The experience did make me start to think, what do I believe in? That's when I realized, I am a Shinto- follower. Everything I do in my life is related to Shinto. It is a part of the way I think." For her, religion is not so much about "belonging" or "membership" or "affiliation" as it is about "being." And in her case, it is the American context that demands intentionality about affiliation—not something intrinsic to her religion itself.
Furthermore, just as soon as we start talking about religious belonging, we come upon a major stumbling block: "religion" is hard to define! There is no broadly accepted meaning of the word—even among university professors of religious studies. Catherine Albanese has gone so far as to suggest that it is just one of those things we can't pin down—but we know it when we see it! It helps to remember that linguistically "religion" may come from a word that means being bound together, or from one that has to do with being bound back to those who came before us. In either case, even when the original context of a religion is largely homogeneous, there are outsiders.
This in turn raises the question: How are a particular religion-community's insiders bound together? What binds them back—and to whom? Is the community constituted by kinship, creed, initiation, or some combination of these notions? Do the insiders of a given religion have a special way of referring to themselves as community? Are there subgroups—in the same way that Christianity has branches and denominations? Do people "belong" to their places of worship in the sense that Christians might belong to the First Methodist Church of Bridgeport?
In this chapter, we will investigate what "binding together" and "binding back" mean for some of America's many religions. We will find that some religions are themselves mosaics of branches, denominations, and orders. As we do, we will hear some stories in which religious belonging (or membership, or adherence) in America has moved from the casual to the deliberate.
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"Being" Versus "Joining"
However we define religion, there is no religion without community. There can, however, be community without the need to enroll, affiliate, or join. Sometimes the religioncommunity simply is; in other cases, it must be joined intentionally.
Where religion is about "being" rather than "joining," there is no clear line between ethnicity or culture and religious belonging. In this case, as Richard Bush puts it, "People may grow up in a religious community with no thought but that they are part of it, inheriting its traditions, as it were, with the air they breathe." When there is no necessary element of joining, "belonging to a religious community is almost synonymous with life itself." Ask about their "religion," and they hear in that word implications of choice-making, setting oneself apart, or participation in something that happens only occasionally. So they may respond with an answer something like, "Hinduism is not a religion; it is a way of life." Or they may hear something the inquirer does not mean. The English word "religion," for example, is commonly translated into Japanese as shukyo, a word with the negative association of "cult." "So," says one Shinto priest, "if you ask people about their religion, you are in essence asking if they are cult-members. Of course they are going to say 'No.'"
In Faith in the Neighborhood, when we use the word "religion," we mean it to be synonymous with a worldview and a way of life that embodies it. In other words, religion is a way of life—not something separate from it. For any number of the world's religions, the only necessary marker of membership is simply birth itself. The binder is kinship or ethnicity. There is no need for a pledge of allegiance or a ceremony of enrollment—at least for the laity. There is no single ritual or affirmation of faith by which each and every person in the community Becomes an insider. Being born into the community is enough; one need simply recognize and embrace its tradition—its beliefs, narratives, rituals, doctrines, institutions, and practices. The spiritualities of America's indigenous peoples, Hinduism, Shinto, and traditional Chinese spiritualities fall clearly into this category.
America's many First Nations are the "first cause" of America's present religious diversity—and it is important to remember this, even as we become more knowledgeable about who else is here now. Should we say "American Indian religion" or "Native American religion"? The question provokes ambivalent responses. "I grew up with American Indian,'" says a member of the Cherokee Nation. "That's what I'm used to. Given my druthers, though, I prefer 'First Nations' because it reminds everyone that many of us have sovereignty. But when I write, I like the term 'Native American,' because it includes the indigenous Hawai'ians and Alaskans."
Speaking of Native American religion collectively in the singular, says Catherine Albanese, is a "convenient fiction" we take up when we want to make comparisons with other religions, but it masks the fact that we're talking about some five hundred fifty societies with diverse languages, customs, concepts of the divine, and so on.6 In each case, there is no need to name the religion; it is simply the worldview of the Lakota, or the Potawatomi, or the Inuit—to name but three. There is no need to join (in the sense of affiliating), although an individual might need to be encouraged to "embrace" the tradition.
Similarly, various constellations of beliefs, narratives, rituals, doctrines, institutions, and practices are native to India. If you ask people who sustain (and are sustained by) these things what their religion is, they might respond with "Hinduism," but they are as likely to say: "I am a devotee of Kali" (the goddess of life and death) or "I am Vaishnava" (a devotee of the god Vishnu). For people who answer in these ways, "belonging" has much more to do with adherence to a tradition than enrollment and membership.
As a label for the whole family of religious expression, Hinduism is a modern term, probably coined during the British colonial period. Be that as it may, it dominates world-religions textbooks, and many Indian Americans are quite happy to use it. "Given a choice," says one devotee, "I much prefer Sanatana Dharma [Eternal Teaching] as the name of our religion, but that term has not caught on in America. Hinduism will do."
"Being Hindu means I have grown up with certain ways of thinking about God," says another adherent, "and that includes naming God in many ways, worshiping God through a variety of forms, and believing that the Vedas, or sacred scriptures, are revealed, authorless teachings. It means enjoying and retelling mythic narratives like the Mahabharata. It means believing that yoga will lead to God-realization and liberation from the cycle of reincarnation." Believing in the efficacy of yoga can mean taking part in practices ranging from the simply devotional to the deeply philosophical. Some sort of formal affiliation ceremony may be required if a person decides to become the student of a particular guru or to join a particular devotional or philosophical movement. Otherwise, to become a Hindu someone need only decide that some or all of this is a helpful way of establishing, maintaining, and celebrating a meaningful world, and then incorporate it into one's way of life.
That is also how Shinto works, says the Rev. Koichi Barrish, the head priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America near Seattle. When it comes to Shinto, "belonging" is not quite the right concept. Japanese people do things that Westerners would point to and say, "that's part of their religion," he explains, but one doesn't have to be a member of anything in order to gain access. For example, New Year's is always an incredibly busy time at the shrine he administers. Last year, no less than thirteen hundred people came into the reception room and signed up for special prayers, and many more simply gathered outside. In other words, something compelled as many as two thousand people to seek out the services of a Shinto shrine in America last January, and yet the shrine's resident priest would not define that "something" in terms of affiliation with or membership in Shinto in general, or a local organization in particular.
Shinto, like traditional Native American religion, is "natural spirituality" rather than "revealed religion," Rev. Barrish reminds us. In fact, Shinto had no name for itself until Buddhism was introduced to Japan. When the need arose, it was differentiated from the newly arrived Butsu-do (the way of the Buddha) by the Japanese phrase kami-no-michi (the way of the gods). The phrase kami-no-michi was translated into Chinese as Shen-Tao, which was then incorporated back into Japanese as "Shinto." But present-day individuals may not be drawn to label this "way" or themselves as followers of it.
"Most Japanese people do not recognize that they are Shinto-followers," says the Rev. Mitsutaka Inui. One of the reasons the International Shinto Foundation has stationed him in New York City is to help the regions Japanese community recognize that they are followers of Shinto! Furthermore, he points out, Japanese religion is not a matter of affiliation with one path to the exclusion of all others. Shinto and Buddhism address different worldview questions, and fulfill different needs. One can be both, and many Japanese people are; they may draw on aspects of Taoism and Confucianism as well. Shinto has come to America both as exclusive practice (such as that of priests and some laypersons) and as one aspect of blended spiritual disciplines—as it was for one schoolteacher who grew up as a Japanese-American Episcopalian in Hawai'i. She recalls that her family always observed New Year's with a trip to a Shinto shrine and the coming of spring with a visit to the local Buddhist temple.
In the Shinto worldview, therefore, belonging in the sense of official membership is of minimal significance, but belonging in the sense of participating in a community and emphasizing close familial ties is very important. From the traditional perspective, Shinto is the constellation of values, rituals, and stories that establishes and organizes the family and the village. One's identity—and for the most part, one's participation in Shinto ritual—occurs through social relationship.
A delightful classical Chinese drawing depicts three men, each of whom has just dipped a finger into a vat of vinegar and licked it. The vinegar represents the essence of life. The three men turn out to be K'ung Fu-tse (Confucius), the Buddha, and Lao-tse. Their facial expressions reveal their respective perceptions of life's "taste"—sour, bitter, and sweet—and by implication, how they teach humanity to cope with it. This drawing is a metaphor for San-chiao—the Three Ways, or the Three Teachings. Traditionally, each of the Three Teachings has had its own individual institutions, formal expressions, and religious professionals, but just as the Three Teachers are shown tasting vinegar together, so the Three Teachings interweave with each other to produce the cloth of Chinese traditional religion.
To this cloth, Taoism contributes an emphasis on natural spirituality, while Confucianism contributes an emphasis on right relationship held together by and aiding in the development of certain key virtues.
Great emphasis is placed on the establishment and maintenance of a harmonious community, with the family being its "fundamental social unit." In Confucianism's notion of Five Great Relationships (Father-and-Son, Elder Brother-and-Younger Brother, Husband-and-Wife, Friend-and-Friend, and Ruler-and- Subject), notice that the Parent-and-Child relationship is in first place and Ruler-and-Subject relationship is in last place. The implication is that harmonious social order flows outward from home to town, from town to province, from province to the nation as a whole. The Ruler-and-Subject relationship points back to the smallest unit: the family. Right relationships make for an harmonious society. Everyone is to know his or her duty. All are to act like a family.
The virtue of filial piety (or devotion to family welfare) includes obedience to elders, veneration of ancestors, nurture of children and siblings, willingness to marry and have children. A second virtue, reciprocity, asks: "How will my actions affect other people?" It teaches, "Don't do to others what you would not want them to do to you." In other words, it asks that we consider our actions from the other person's point of view. A third virtue has to do with humaneness (as a result of loyalty and reciprocity), benevolence, sympathy, empathy, kindness, consideration, thoughtfulness. It means being considerate of others, while remaining cognizant of one's own interests. It is demonstrated by following social conventions, and living by the motto that says, "If you can't be kind, at least be polite!"
For hundreds of years, the beliefs, narratives, rituals, doctrines, institutions, and practices of each of the Three Teachings have been tightly intertwined with the others. Most laypersons practice them in combination, seeing no necessity to embrace Taoism or Confucianism to the exclusion of the other—or of Chinese practices of Buddhism. In fact, they may not be entirely sure where one leaves off and the other picks up. A second-generation Chinese American retail executive recalls thumbing through his college world-religions textbook: "If you were to ask my parents what our religion is, they'd have said 'Buddhist.' But my textbook was telling me that some of the things we always did were 'Taoist,' and other things were 'Confucian.' To us, it was all just 'Chinese'!"
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"Born-into" then "Becoming"
Most Indian-American Jains think of themselves as having been "born Jain." They are Jain because their parents were Jain. They are Jain because they were raised in a household where the story of Mahavira—the Great Hero and inspired teacher—was told, and where one's diet and attitudes toward material goods and other beings were informed by Jain principles of non-harming, non-attachment, and respect for multiplicity of viewpoints.
Jains believe that for every eon of cosmic history there has been a series of twenty-four tirthankaras. What is a tirthankara? Literally, the term means "someone who makes a ford" across water. So, each tirthankara has been an omniscient, holy teacher capable of showing human beings how to ford the ocean of samsara (worldly affairs—the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth) and to achieve moksha (release, liberation). Every tirthankara, Jains believe, has established a sangha (community) made up of four orders of people: male and female renunciates and male and female laypersons. The goal of life as a layperson is the overcoming of social attachments in order to be reborn ready to take on the vocation of the renunciate, in preparation for moksha.
Excerpted from Belonging by LUCINDA MOSHER. Copyright © 2005 Lucinda Mosher. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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