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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?

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“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.

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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.