Why some Americans mix Christianity, Eastern religions

Worshipers are borrowing from Eastern religions and New Age beliefs. Open-mindedness or a dilution of faith traditions?

By , Staff Writer

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    Receptive: Angela Bowman practices yoga in her Chicago home. A Roman Catholic, she says she is also open to elements of Eastern faiths.
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Because she attends Catholic mass every Sunday and observes all the religious holidays of her faith, Angela Bowman may well exemplify the Latin root of the word “religion,” which is “to bind.”

But the Chicagoan also meditates several times each day and practices yoga every other week. She knows Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have contradictory elements but is unfazed by her multiple observances because, to her, “it’s all pretty much the same thing.”

“The biggest part of praying is opening yourself up to a connection with God, and I perceive clearing your mind in meditation as another form of receptivity,” says the 30-something textbook editor. Although she is a devoted Roman Catholic, she says she doesn’t “believe it’s the one true path and anything else is flirting with the devil.”

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Ms. Bowman’s attitude tracks with those in a study released last month, which found that large numbers of America’s faithful do not neatly conform to the expectations or beliefs of their prescribed religions, but instead freely borrow principles of Eastern religions or endorse common supernatural beliefs.

The intermingling of faiths is not new, but some Christian leaders worry that its apparent increase in America distracts worshipers from the true path and dilutes Christian doctrine. But others say mixing and matching elements of different faiths is inevitable, given exposure to other parts of the world made possible by today’s technology, and actually creates more opportunities to address people’s yearning for spiritual growth. If the global marketplace divvies up the production, distribution, and marketing of goods among different continents, they say, why shouldn’t religions be shared the same way?

Among the findings of the survey, by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

•Almost 1 in 4 American adults say they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own.
•Twenty-four percent of the public say they believe in reincarnation, and 23 percent believe in yoga as a spiritual practice.
•Twenty-five percent of the overall public (and 23 percent of Christians) believe in astrology.
•Fifteen percent of the public acknowledges having consulted a psychic or a fortuneteller.

The results refute the notion that faith in the United States is monochromic and instead show religious practice to be as diverse as the number of faiths in society, says Greg Smith, senior researcher with the project. The data reveal “a remarkable openness” among followers, many of whom participate in rituals or practices that contradict their professed faith, he says.

“There are lots of people who are Christians, who may be Protestant or may be Catholic and who may be quite committed to their practice, but who nevertheless have practiced ... tenets of experience that tend to come [from] outside of Christianity,” says Mr. Smith.

Religion scholars say the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of philosophies dates back centuries. What’s notable about this current surge is the ease with which seekers can learn about other religious traditions, courtesy of the Internet and widespread mobility, says Richard Rosengarten, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“People have access to a tremendous range of information about a tremendous range of religions,” he says. Although “the search for the divine is authentically religious and is always honored,” he says, rampant straying from a particular dogma can be threatening to church leaders who feel a responsibility to keep their community of worshipers intact.

The challenge at the top, says Dr. Rosengarten, is to figure out how “best to encourage the widest possible range of expression of that search while maintaining the identity and truth of that tradition.”

Other church leaders are less interested in encouraging outside exploration, including Pope Benedict XVI, who in 1989, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, warned in a statement that the practice of yoga among Catholics can “degenerate into a cult of the body.” He also warned Catholics not to mistake yoga’s “pleasing sensations” for “spiritual well-being.”

Such statements point to a desire by some church leaders to keep the flock’s experimentation to a minimum.

Eastern religions gained US adherents in the 1960s, when a generation of Christians discovered alternatives to the “highly rational” traditions they were brought up with – and perceived them as better equipped to address the civil, racial, and sexual upheaval of that time, says Irwin Kula of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, in New York. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Western religions addressed “the yearning for transcendence” that nonmystical religions did not, he says.

That shift forced religious leaders to face up to the fact that, for young people especially, traditional religious institutions were perceived as too authoritarian and as lacking relevance, says Rabbi Kula. “A lot of these religions are run like General Motors,” he says. “It’s a leadership challenge.”

But won’t a seeker traveling so many religious paths in fact get nowhere?

“The only way to become a true believer is to follow one faith,” concurs Kula. But the realization that “some people have a psychological disposition to taste more foods” can be an opportunity for leaders of religious institutions to engage with many more individuals.

Others, though, argue that religious purity is a non sequitur.

“The thing that is forgotten in these discussions is that any single religious tradition is itself already a composite,” says Harvey Cox, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School whose 1965 book, “The Secular City,” is considered a theology classic. He considers the idea of isolated religious traditions to be “a big myth.”

“What we have are streams that have been fed by other streams and have fed other streams all along,” he says. “Even what is advertised by clerical leaders as the kind of ‘pure package’ is already the result of the collage.”

Meditation is what Matthew Goodemote, founder of a wellness center in Gloversville, N.Y., says gave him answers that his upbringing in a strict Presbyterian household could not.

“It became a gigantic, transforming thing in my life,” says Mr. Goodemote, allowing him the humility to “try to do God’s will over your own.”

Anxiety after his grandmother’s death caused him to start looking outside his religion, Goodemote says. She had been the spiritual rock in his family, but he felt his religion could not explain why a drunken driver could end her life – a death he saw as meaningless.

Reading authors such as mythologist Joseph Campbell, Christian writer Karen Armstrong, and New Age writer Eckhart Tolle helped him connect, he says, to a model of Christ that he sees as more inclusive of people outside Presbyterianism.

“We believe in God’s omnipresence, which means He is everywhere.... So how can you say one person is not in God’s favor?” he asks.

While bestselling authors such as Mr. Tolle and Deepak Chopra are to be commended for speaking to the contemporary hunger to connect different faiths, they have yet to establish the staying power of their teachings, says the University of Chicago’s Rosengarten. Throughout history, that happens when communities are formed – by religious institutions.

“To perpetuate [spiritual teachings], you have to establish a community around it, and that is the complicated thing,” he says. “At the end of the day, to be part of a religious community means you punch the clock on a regular basis.… I don’t think they’ve created the community in the same way that mainline Protestants have.”

Some Roman Catholic leaders say their followers do not need to look outside the church to find what they’re looking for.

“A lot of young adults who are attracted to the beauty of meditation techniques are very unaware of the contemplative and mystical tradition of their own faith,” says the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Father Senior says the church respects other teachings but gets concerned if followers engage with other religions “from an empty chair.” “You have to be rooted in your own tradition to be able to properly engage with other religions,” he says. “If it’s strong, then sure, someone can practice yoga as a form of exercise and not buy what may be part of another religious system, which may not be evil but is not in line with their own faith tradition.”

If people are straying from the church, he says, it’s the church’s fault for not doing a “better job.”

“There’s a lot to be done to make worship more vibrant and to make the preaching more relevant for people,” he says. “Religion is not just ideas, it’s the bonds of community, and if you get so [insular] that you don’t hold people, you have a problem.”

That’s why Kula interprets the Pew survey as an opportunity for religious leaders to stop being “in the fear mode” and to take a hard look at whether their practices give people the spiritual wisdom they need in their lives.

“My job is not to preserve something,” he says. “My job is to make sure something works and is actually worthy of being preserved.”

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