In the introductory entry of this series, I contemplate my personal definition of what it means to engage in the act of queering. I write:
“In my own words, to queer something — be it sexuality and desire, gender performance, or spiritual identity — is to play at intersections of rebellion, chaos, and liberation. It is the act of resisting neat acceptance of what we are told we are in favor of living the questions of who we know ourselves to be, and of what that being means in relationship to others. To queer something is to embody a site of rupture when it comes to the discipline dominant culture enacts on us. The act of queering is an invitation to unbind our notions of narrow categories of the possible, the “normal,” the “correct” way of being, and open to multiplicity, complexity, and constant emergence of new ways and shapes of being.”
I want to draw attention to the ways in which practicing/embodying queerness can mirror practicing/embodying multireligiosity. In this post, I offer my thoughts on the 1) meanings of multireligiosity and 2) the implications of queerness for multireligious identities.
What does it mean to be multireligious?
At the beginning of my third year of divinity school, I took one of the core courses required by my seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry — our Multireligious Core. Over the course of a week, our class played with defining what it means to be multireligious; what I remember most clearly is the feeling of grasping at a slippery concept, a way of being in the world that defied categories and borders. As Shaykh Ibrahim Baba / Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé says, “if wines can be complex and deliciously-layered, why can’t our religious identities also embody mixities and fluidities without automatically being interpreted as confusion and boundary-blurring? some borders are already blurred, because they are actually not even there.” (Shaykh Ibrahim Baba / Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé , September 20, 2013)
When I write about multireligious identities, I am writing about those of us who hold multiple religious traditions and/or spiritual identities within our bodies and practices. Perhaps we come to these identities through birth, and are raised to situate ourselves within multiple ancestral spiritual traditions. Or we may come to multireligious practice in the course of our own life experiences, finding resonance with and home in the teachings, ritual, and practices of more than one spiritual tradition. Whatever our path, we find ourselves oriented to more than one way of being in relationship to what we know as sacred.
Other terms that encompass dimensions of multireligious identities include religious hybridity, religious multiplicity, and spiritual fluidity. Depending on the author or speaker, these terms may be narrowed to refer to people who come to multireligiosity through being born into two or more traditions, or broadened to refer to all who experience more than one path to relationship with the sacred. I have been trained to use the term “multireligious,” so I frequently default to that; however, my personal orientation to these terms allows me to use them interchangeably.
Many scholars of religion have historically concerned themselves with the question of whether or not it is possible to be multireligious. But this argument, which is intertwined with claiming that religions have easily identifiable, static borders, is a reductive way of approaching this subject. This is a colonized way of being and of engaging in scholarship: insisting that people cannot possibly exist in specific ways — or exist at all — when they are, in fact, existing right there whether we admit it or not.
Multireligious people don’t need dominant culture recognition in order for our existence to be valid. However, repeated denials of the truth of our existence creates hierarchies of religious validity and reinforces oppressive norms. As Duane Bidwell writes in When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives Of Spiritually Fluid People, much scholarly writing (and in particular, writings that root in Christian hegemony) “assumes a normal spirituality, especially the ideas that a) religious traditions have clear boundaries b) religions are primarily focused on doctrine and c) conflicting spiritual or theological perspectives must be reconciled.” (Bidwell, 21) Christian hegemony — the default assumption that Christian ideals, theologies, cultures, and relationships to the category of religion apply universally — has an enormous presence in Euro/American academic study of religion. Whether they intend to or not, scholars who do not take the time to recognize and carefully deconstruct the influence of Christian hegemony in their work participate in flattening, erasing, misappropriating, and re-colonizing spiritual traditions. This series is an attempt to counter the kind of scholarship that engages in that kind of harm; I want to invite queer, multireligious people to reflect on our experiences in our own words and on our own terms.
Being multireligious can take many different shapes. Bidwell tells us that “A kaleidoscope of influences shapes spiritual fluidity, which pulsates in a matrix of decisions, priorities, benefits, strengths, problems, impacts, needs, and concerns,” and further notes that “Christian categories like sin, salvation, idolatry, and orthodoxy aren’t sufficient for talking about religious multiplicity. Complex religious bonds aren’t primarily doctrinal and logical, but are embodied, relational, performed.” (Bidwell, 107) Let’s use my own multireligious identity as an example: I was born to Christian parents and raised Christian, and my most recent ancestors in my parental lineages would most likely have identified themselves as Christian if asked. (I also come from a line of women who tend to receive spiritual communications that are not necessarily Christian in nature.) I now identify as becoming Jewish, as curious about earth-based/Pagan practices, and as someone with strong ties to Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. I am not Christian, but I am healing my relationship with Christianity. I observe Shabbat and say Jewish daily prayers; I also have an altar to my ancestors and a regular meditation practice. And sometimes when I am feeling particularly worshipful, I am moved to sing Christian hymns from my childhood, even though I am orienting towards a Jewish understanding of the divine as I do so.
I could probably fill an entire book with reflections and ruminations on my spiritual identities. Suffice it to say my devotion cannot be reduced to a singular spiritual identity or set of practices. Rather, it is grounded in a rich variety of life experiences and spiritual influences which entwine with and build upon each other.
Queer Implications of Religious Hybridity
Bisexual activist Robin Ochs defines bisexuality as “the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree” and writes that “For me, the bi in bisexual refers to the potential for attraction to people with genders similar to and different from my own.” (Ochs) I bring up the Ochs definition(s) of bisexuality because for me, definitions and discussions of multireligious identities echo definitions and discussions of many queer identities. If my descriptions of multireligiosity thus far seem to mimic the way I articulate the act of queering, it’s because I believe they have much in common: both queer and multireligious identities rupture constructions of singular ways of being and defy the strictures of dominant culture. People of queer sexualities and genders and multireligious people are often told that we do not exist — that we cannot possibly exist — and yet here we are, existing in dimensions that rebuke binaries.
Is multireligiosity inherently queer? I don’t think there is one single answer to that, and I am certain answers to this will vary depending on our own locations and definitions of queerness. However, I think there’s value in constructing a definition of multireligiosity that draws deeply upon the Ochs definitions of bisexuality. I might say that multireligiosity is the potential to experience devotion in more than one spiritual tradition, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree. I might further assert that the multi in multireligious refers to the potential for connection to and devotion within religious traditions similar to and different from the traditions I first learned from and closely identified with.
These are some possibilities that exist within my experience as a queer, multireligious person. I hope this post can be the beginning of a robust conversation about the similarities and differences between queerness and religious hybridity. The question I’m most interested in now is: what does multireligiosity mean to you, and what queer implications do you identify within frameworks of religious hybridity?
Citations: 1) Shaykh Ibrahim Baba / Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, Facebook, September 20, 2013 2) Duane Bidwell, When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pages 21 and 107. 3) Robin Ochs, https://robynochs.com/bisexual/. Accessed May 5, 2022.