Dual-faith practice (part 1 of 4)

An increasing number of people are beginning to identify themselves as belonging to more than one spiritual tradition – not merely in the sense of selecting attractive ideas from each tradition, but trying to be faithful to the ethos of both traditions.

Questions that might arise about dual or multi-faith practice are whether and how it is possible to combine them, especially if there is potential conflict between their worldviews, or their worldviews are mutually exclusive; how a particular person came to follow more than one tradition; what constitutes membership of a tradition; whether identification with a tradition is sufficient; and whether practising more than one faith is merely part of the ‘subjective turn’ of contemporary culture.  There has been criticism of dual-faith practitioners (e.g. Thurston, 1994), and this may also shed some light on these questions.

In many religions, the idea of practising more than one tradition is uncontroversial – for example, many people practice Wicca and Druidry alongside each other (Carr-Gomm, 2002), or Paganism and Unitarian Universalism (Sealy, 2006), or Buddhism and Shinto (Kuroda, 1981: 3) – but for those faiths which claim the exclusive loyalty of their followers, practising more than one tradition may be seen as deeply problematic.

Combining worldviews

Hayes (2003: 8) identifies four models for an encounter between a missionising religion and an indigenous one:

  1. Rejection. The traditional knowledge is rejected as purely evil.
  2. Dvoeverie. Two incompatible beliefs or worldviews are held side by side, with little or no interaction between them.
  3. Syncretism. The two different beliefs are mingled, to make a third, and new belief, which is different from either component.
  4. Inculturation. Where the original local culture is transformed, and the incoming belief becomes part of it.

He is writing from the perspective of Orthodox Christian missionary endeavours, which seek to respect as far as possible the pre-Christian traditions of the culture being evangelised, and acknowledge that there is good in indigenous traditions.  Nevertheless there is a fifth possibility, that instead of trying to convert people of other religions, the traditions agree to co-exist, whilst engaging in dialogue.

A similar example of an encounter between a missionising religion and an indigenous one can be found in the interaction of Buddhism and Shinto.  According to Kuroda (1981: 3), Shinto was not a distinct religion prior to the arrival of Buddhism (Shinto was originally a Chinese word signifying any and all folk religion in China, Korea and Japan).  In Japan, it is possible to be both Buddhist and Shinto at the same time, because neither world-view necessarily denies the other.  This is perhaps similar to Hayes’ (2003) model of inculturation, whereby the incoming tradition transforms the indigenous one (though I suspect the process is actually one of mutual transformation).

Examples of religious encounter range from explaining one religion using the symbolism and terminology of another, to a full-blown mingling of the two traditions.

There have been various historical instances of rejection, syncretism, dvoeverie and inculturation. An example of rejection is the Protestant evangelisation of indigenous cultures, where there is a tendency to view the indigenous culture negatively (Hayes, 2003: 8).  An example of dvoeverie is the simultaneous belief in Christian and Pagan entities allegedly held by many Russian peasants (Crummey, 1993: 701).  Examples of syncretism are the mixing of Buddhist and Shinto themes in Japanese culture (Grayson, 1992: 202), or the practices of Santeria and Voudun.  Examples of inculturation include the continuation of pre-Christian ideas within Christianity (McGinn, 1999: 282), or the incorporation of Bön practices within Tibetan Buddhism (Kvaerne, 1972).  Of course, the boundaries between these four models will be rather blurred.

It seems that, whenever a religion encounters another religion, a need is felt to make some form of accommodation with the truth claims of the other religion, sometimes by denying them, sometimes by recasting them in the language of one’s own tradition, and sometimes by assigning the other religion’s holy figure a position in one’s own tradition; for example, Hindus regarding Jesus as a ‘supremely religious soul’ (Woodburne, 1927).  The outcome of this process depends on the willingness of the faith communities to co-exist.  At the level of the individual, religious belief is always more ‘messy’ than a cursory examination of the creeds and teachings of the religion would lead one to think:

People’s maps of belief are complex and they are shifting all the time. Interfaith encounter is one factor in those shifts, in the mutation of religions. People listen and try to explain. (Morgan, 1995: 163)

More than one form of syncretism can be identified, depending on the relative political and cultural status of the two systems being syncretised.  Grayson (1992: 200) defines syncretism as the accommodation made by a world missionary religion (in the context he is discussing, Buddhism) to an ‘autocthonous religion’ (in this case, the indigenous folk religion of Korea).  He further defines two forms of syncretism, ‘high’ and ‘low’.  High syncretism is when the core values of the indigenous religion are retained, with only a veneer of the foreign religion; low syncretism is when only the surface trappings of the indigenous religion are retained, and its core values are replaced by those of the foreign religion.

Reverse syncretism (Grayson, 1992: 205) is when an indigenous religion begins to voluntarily incorporate elements of foreign religion into its practice (rather than the missionising religion making a compromise with the indigenous religion).  An example here might be the way in which the Pagan revival has incorporated elements of Hindu belief and practice (e.g. chakras) to fill gaps in its repertoire of magical practices.

Another form of syncretism is ‘coinherence’ (Corless, 1994: 182), where two religions that both make sense to the practitioner are followed side-by-side.  In the case of Corless (1994: 181) and other Christo-Buddhists, this seems to be because of the similarity of the two faiths.  Corless (1994: 183) held the two traditions in a creative tension, an internal dialogue.  This may sound superficially similar to dvoeverie, but in dvoeverie there is said to be little or no interaction between the two faiths in the mind of the practitioner, whereas in coinherence practice, the two are held in dialogue.

There have also been examples of deliberate syncretism, such as Ryōbu Shinto, a formal mixture of Buddhism and Shinto (Grayson, 1992: 202); the reorganisation of Roman paganism in response to Greek and Etruscan paganism (Grayson, 1992: 201); the Romanisation of indigenous deities, for example the cult of Mercury and Rosmerta (Webster, 1997: 326); and the creation of the syncretistic Din-I-Ilahi religion by the Mughal emperor Akbar (Lawrence, 1973: 61).

In a global and post-colonial culture, encounters between faiths no longer occur at the boundaries of their traditional heartlands, but everywhere.  The interfaith movement is growing, both in order to make peace between conflicting traditions and to explore the idea that all religions are honouring the same Divine, or numinous (Morgan, 1995: 163).

At the same time, there seems to be a widening polarisation between liberal, tolerant and inclusivist views of religion, and ecstatic or evangelical practices which are frequently associated with fundamentalist and exclusivist views.  The people who are attracted to this type of religion tend to long for a stable and ordered society but also want to feel their faith inwardly; however there is evidence for a decline of this sort of religion in England since the 1990s  (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 146).  Church-going in general has sharply declined in both Britain and the USA (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 56), whereas spirituality in the holistic milieu has been on the increase (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 42).

So it seems there are a range of possible responses to diversity: to embrace it and celebrate it; to tolerate it; or to reject it and seek to impose norms.  However, no matter how a particular tradition responds to it, it is impossible to ignore it.

This article was originally published in the Unitarian journal, Faith and Freedom.

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8 thoughts on “Dual-faith practice (part 1 of 4)

  1. I’m prone to thinking of the practice of multiple religions in terms of Venn diagrams: that any given religion will have core stuff (you must do this), penumbral stuff (lots of people do this), forbidden stuff (you cannot do this), and then just plain stuff.

    When religions share similar core stuff (or when the core of one is in the penumbra of the other, or similarly), it’s fairly easy to practice them multiply; if core of one lies in forbidden of the other, it is, shall we say, hard to do them both. (Or at least do them both in a way that would be recognisable as a good practitioner of each.) And there’s the range of different configurations and interpretations from there.

    But of course it gets squidgy. “Exclusivist monotheism” and “polytheism” may be apparently totally incompatible, but plenty of people do it – with emanationist theologies, with ranks of powers, with a variety of other solutions to the puzzle.

    (Personally I tried coinherence but it appears to be turning into syncretism despite my best efforts, so I’m giving up and going with that.)


  2. As someone who works in two witchcraft traditions, I find that there are complexities even when the two traditions in question are very similar and have no obvious theological or practical conflicts. I’ve tried to handle this a variety of ways, and in my personal practice, I think it’s all turning out Hegelian, with synthesis as the end result.


    • I think synthesis is a lot easier to cope with than trying to practice two distinct traditions and remain true to both, even when they are so similar.


  3. Yvonne, this is an excellent introduction. I wonder, are you acquainted with Douglas Pratt’s work, Faith to Faith: Issues in Interreligious Engagement? It’s available as a pdf on the Internet, or PM me and I’ll send you a copy.


  4. Interesting! I’ve written a lot on syncretism, and in fact teach an online course about it…And, even though the above terms are good, the largest problem I see with “syncretism” is that it refers both to theological realities (e.g. Hermes-Thoth, etc.) and to procedural modalities (combining one tradition with another, or incorporating elements of one into another, etc.). I’ve tried to elucidate some of those in my own work…who knows if the distinctions will catch on?

    Will the last installment of this piece include the bibliography? I’d really like to hunt those sources down…On the link you gave to the Unitarian journal, I didn’t see links in either of the listed issues to your piece…?


  5. Yes, the bibliography is in the last instalment.

    The article appeared before they started putting issues online (the journal has been going for decades).

    Interesting observations about syncretism. I found that the hardest things to combine, in practising two distinct traditions, were the values (where these were incompatible or uncomfortable), and monism/monotheism with polytheism/polymorphism. I was quite happy to see myself as praying to the Neoplatonic Divine Source, but definitely not identifying it as Yahweh.


  6. I am Canadian Metis. I had a Scottish (Hebridean) father and a Metis/Hodenosionne/Anishnabe mother. I have a PhD in ethnographic anthropology, and I was raised in my youth as a nominal Roman Catholic, but now I am a CR Druid of the Order of the White Oak, a honondiont in the Giowe, and an initiate in the Mede. (Smiling) I am probably a poster boy for multiple faiths.

    In the Native communities in Canada and the States, all four of the above mentioned interactions between indigenous and missionary traditions exist, though just which one often depends on the individual history of the Native community. For example; among the Hodenosionne (Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, the Iroquois Six Nations) communities in the U.S. and Canada, all of these options occurred in different Native communities at different times in the last two hundred years. The Senecas in Southwest Ontario, Western New York and Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma were strongly influenced by the Quaker communities around them in one way, while the Mohawks in Quebec, Ontario, and up-state New York were strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic missionaries in another fashion, and the outcomes over time were often quite different. A third history is of the interactions of the Oneida peoples of New York, Wisconsin, and Ontario with the Protestant Christian Congregational tradition.

    What is now seen as “traditional” Iroquois spirituality is the “Longhouse Religion,” the Gioweo, which was actually founded in the 1790’s by a Seneca prophet named Handsome Lake, who incorporated both Catholic and Protestant Christian beliefs he picked up from missionaries and blended with native beliefs to create a syncretism of beliefs that is largely more Native than Christian in practice, but which proposed a Native/Christian cosmos in which he believed Native peoples now had to learn to survive.

    In modern times all Native people have had to come to grips with the dominant culture’s Christian expectations, and also whatever survives of their native beliefs, and the syncretised beliefs that also constitute the native identity of whatever Native American community they belong to. This issue of “Native identity” being tied to the degree in which they still honor traditional world views, beliefs, and practices, now distinguishes “Apples,” the slang for Native people who are perceived as being “red on the outside, but white on the inside,” (meaning that they are Natives who live, think, and practice dominant culture values and beliefs), from “real Indians,” one of the slangs for those who do not yield their native traditions in order to fit in with the expectations of the non-Native society around them. Between the aculturated and the Nativist, are the majority of Native peoples who must find their way between beliefs.

    There are also thousands of Native peoples who constantly negotiate both societies by maintaining a public self and a private self, and this practice often extends into religious practices and forces the individual to make many personal, individual accommodations between being publicly Christian but privately Native. These people show up at church pretty regularly, or even very conscientiously, but they also observe native spiritual practices within their homes and within the special contexts of Native gatherings or activities.

    So, when you ARE Native, you also have to deal with Native vs. non-Native spirituality and religious practice as a part of growing up as a member of a minority culture in another dominant society. “We,” and I am now including myself in this group, really have very few choices, so we get good at making them. We learn to think for ourselves. Religious differences and sometimes conflicting beliefs, are just part of life, like being multicultural, multiracial, or multilingual. So we get good at accepting or rejecting, setting up compatmentalized barriers in our minds and our lives, and syncretizing, and incorporating beliefs and practices, because we have to. An elder once told me that you sometimes have to look inside your self and decide what “suits you best” when spiritual beliefs are in conflict, and whatever you choose, you have to be “wholly true to yourself.” Luckily, many Native American cultures in much of the Americas have very long histories of being accepting and respectful towards other community’s beliefs, while also being loyal to their own, and these tradition existed in many places long before the Europeans arrived. This was because dominant world views seldom arose and became evangelical in most Native cultures, so most Native cultures accepted that different communities had different beliefs, and that that was right and proper, and the way the Creator, or the Gods, wanted it. There were exceptions to this, of course, but they were rare, and short lived.

    Beliefs did spread from one people to another, such as the Sun Dance, or the Ghost Dance, but there was always the Cheyenne Way, the Lakota Way, the Arapaho Way, the Hopi Way, etc. and a tribe almost never disrespected another tirbe’s spiritual ways.

    Thanks to the Office of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous People’s Issues, we can also now see that these conflict issues of religion and identity are quite common to the experiences of indigenous communities around the world, as are the solutions that these communities, and indigenous individuals, find for survival within the dominant cultures.


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