In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 1

I’ve been surprised over my first year in religious studies graduate school to discover that religious pluralism is no longer a popular position. Obviously there are a multiplicity of theories of religious pluralism. Generally speaking, by religious pluralism, I simply mean here the stance that a plenitude (if not all) of religious stories are worth sharing. One could add more nuance to such a position, but that will do for now.

For all the stereotypes that scholars are liberal corrupters of the tradition, it might seem odd that so many religious scholars have come to reject religious pluralism. Typically, this has taken the form of a (re)affirmation of religious exclusivism (one religious story is only worth sharing). One scholar recently told me that religious exclusivism was the only ethical position. I was taken aback. Call me traditional (I say with my tongue in my cheek), but I still firmly believe that condemning others to eternal torment is hardly ethical.

Obviously, there are limits to religious pluralism. If a form of religious pluralism demands ethical or religious relativism, that form of religious pluralism should be rejected as untenable. However, I believe it is wrong to assume that every form of religious pluralism entails some weak form of relativism.

I’ll confess, I have a lot at stake in my passion for religious pluralism. After all, I claim to be a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Christian. I don’t believe I do injustice to either religious tradition by living within religious multiplicity. In fact, as a few recent pew studies have shown, a surprising amount of Americans practice multiple religions (somewhere around 40%!).

However, I’ll go even further, even perhaps do a bit of violence to my position, and claim that religious pluralism is, in a sense, exclusivistic. By that, I do not mean that one should be a religious pluralist. On the contrary, there is no should about it. Instead, it is my contention that religious pluralism is inescapable. We all practice, live and share multiple religious stories. In this sense, religious exclusivists cannot help but condemn themselves to hell.

It is a problematic mistake to follow the Western assumption that religions are only the so-called “Great Faiths,” (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, occasionally a couple of others). Not only does this do violence to the multitude of religious traditions one might name that get excluded (Native American religious traditions, just to name ‘one’ example),  but it radically reduces the nature of religion itself. I don’t believe that the modern, Western preference for the “spiritual, not religious” identification has resulted because of inherent value in the word “spiritual.” On the contrary, I think it is a revolt against the modern tendency to reduce religion to a narrow category that could never encompass the religious practices of any particular individual.

I am often disturbed by the scholarly proclivity to talk about Marxism as a quasi-religion. It is common practice to say that someone follows a sport as though it were a religion. I am uncomfortable with these tendencies because they establish a normative boundary for what a religion must be (which often looks like Christianity), and then exclude other practices/stories not desired to be religious as non-religious. Obviously, such a normative argumentative process is rather circular. However, beyond that, it simply denies the fact of life.

The fact of life, a fact that continually returns to haunt us, no matter how much we reject it, is that we are all religious pluralities. One’s identity consists of the dis/coherent multiplicity of religious stories we live within. We cannot escape the fact that we draw meaning from multiple stories that have roots in multiple religious traditions. These traditions are not just the narrow conceptions we hold of the ‘great faiths,’ but also find expression in a multiplicity of cultural strands in music, literature, sports, even collections. After all, I confess, I can be rather religious about my library.

So why would a self-avowed post-Marxist like myself, defend “shopping cart spirituality” a phrase that is typically used to describe American religious practices by the media and scholarship (typically with a great deal of elitist disdain). Obviously, I do not hope to commodify religious traditions. However, I do believe that intentionally cultivating a rich identity of religious multiplicity from the bare religious pluralistic facts that make us up is desirable. In other words, the intent to “pick and choose” among religious traditions is not something that should be chided or criticized without further thought. To this ethical side of religious pluralism, I will turn next time.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) How might you describe your own process of navigating religious identity, particularly in light of discussions of religious pluralism?

2) Can we construct a concept of religion without it normatively excluding some religious stories? What would such a story of religion sound like?

3) What has been your experience of religious pluralism? Am I wrong in my claim that religious pluralism is a basic fact of existence? What about religious exclusivism?


~ by Drew Baker on June 1, 2010.

One Response to “In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 1”

  1. Another phantastic post. I too just finished my first year at CST, and I was also a little surprised how un-trendy pluralism is in the world “out there.” However, the youth that I work with have a voracious curiosity for learning of other faiths besides their own – Christianity. My own experience has been that reading scholarly writings from different religious backgrounds was challenging because they did not hold my attention like reading Christian theology. I think this is because of a lack of context to relate to on my own part. Yet the opportunity to dialogue with fellow students was fascinating.

    I think that a concept of religion is very important. I have found that there is a profound need for religious guidance and education. Imagine a world where the only texts one reads are advertisements, and the only sense of community is from watching sit-coms. I think there is a profound need for people – all people – myself included to be challenged to dig deeper, reach higher and stretch wider in community with others, including the community of watching TV together. 😉

    In my experience, the challenge of religious leaders and thinkers is to move people to be more deeply religious in general in a world that appears to be increasingly religiously illiterate. Those are strong words I know, but that’s how I see it. The question is whether pluralism as you have defined it will help people be religious in general.

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