Five Lessons for Understanding Spiritually Fluid People

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Excerpted from When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People by Duane R. Bidwell (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The seasons of multiplicity reveal the nuances of spiritually fluid lives through time. But some facets of multiplicity are constant, no matter what season people are in or what pathway they’ve taken to a complex religious bond. I’m not an expert on other people’s experiences, but I’ve spent a lot of time with spiritually fluid people. They have taught me five important things about living with complex religious bonds

It Isn’t Easy Being Hyphenated

Spiritual fluidity involves family, social, political, communal, institutional, economic, and spiritual risks. It can mean being erased or silenced by people and institutions that stand at the center of things. Spiritually fluid people learn to exist at the edges of communities, where multiplicity isn’t noticed and doesn’t threaten the status quo. Making choices about hiding or disclosing multiplicity requires lifelong attention. At the same time, multiplicity brings a particular joy that monoreligious people don’t always understand.

Multiplicity is More Complicated Than You Think

A kaleidoscope of influences shapes spiritual fluidity, which pulsates in a matrix of decisions, priorities, benefits, strengths, problems, impacts, needs, and concerns. Multiplicity looks different at different stages of life and in different settings, and it betrays simple description or explanation. Just when you think you comprehend it, it shifts again or reveals something you never imagined. The complexity of religious multiplicity surprises spiritually fluid people as much as it surprises the monoreligious.

Salvation Is Your Agenda, Not Ours

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. We need shared ways of talking about what’s at stake. But those approaches shouldn’t privilege Judeo-Christian norms and assumptions.

What You Call Us Matters

Terms like multiple religious belonging and hyphenated identity can’t capture the fullness of complex religious bonds, which reflect a continuum of attractions, behaviors, and identities. We need a shared vocabulary to talk about that range of experiences. We also need (1) criteria for discerning what types of religious multiplicity shape particular people and (2) guidelines for negotiating boundaries and commitments in the midst of diverse religious and spiritual traditions and communities.

Spiritual Fluidity Isn’t Just (or even primarily) A Choice

Multiple pathways lead to religious multiplicity, and sometimes they overlap. Choice exists, but few spiritually fluid people choose their way of being religious (although they make choices about practicing or disclosing their multiplicity). People inherit religious multiplicity or accept Mystery’s invitation to collaborate in spiritually fluid ways. Pathways other than choice play a greater role than we’ve tended to recognize.

Unpacking the Five Lessons

These five lessons overlap, influencing each other in a holistic experience. But separating them allows me to flesh out distinct dimensions of spiritually fluid life. Here’s what I’ve learned in more detail and why I think it matters. If I explain it well, spiritually fluid people will recognize themselves in my descriptions. That’s one way to test the accuracy of my observations.

People with “hyphenated” identities claim (or are claimed by) two or more nations, races, communities, or social categories. Think of Muslim Americans, Anglo-Indians, Turkish Australians, and Afro-Caribbeans, for example. Hyphenated identities resonate especially with immigrants and the children of immigrants, refugee communities, and people who grow up in a current or former colony of another nation. Loyalty anchors both sides of the hyphen–loyalty to cultures, relationships, practices, nations, and landscapes. Pastor Joyce Shin calls hyphenation “an interior landscape that consists of loyalties and commitments that sometimes overlap and other times compete with one another.”

Not all spiritually fluid people consider themselves hyphenated, and I don’t want to suggest that they do or should. The idea of hyphenation, as I’m using it here, simply signals what it’s like to have two or more identities wrestling in self-understanding and/or how you’re understood by others. Each side of the hyphen pulls identity taut, and the tension prevents separation or isolation. Hyphenation isn’t an either-or issue. It is a both-and concern. How people experience hyphenation matters most. “I felt intense pressure to be two things, approved of on either side of the hyphen,” writes Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri. “Looking back, I see that this [approval] was generally the case. But my perception as a young girl was that I fell short at both ends, shuttling between two dimensions that had nothing to do with each other. . . . In spite of the first lessons of arithmetic, one plus one did not equal two but zero, my conflicting selves always canceling each other out.”

Can you imagine one part of your identity canceling another many times a day? That cancellation, the tension of the hyphen, shapes a person’s inner world, family relationships, self-understanding, and existential experiences. It also creates social, political, communal, institutional, economic, and spiritual opportunities and barriers. Despite the occasional social or institutional advantages of multiplicity, it can be more advantageous to pass as a nonhyphenated or singular person, especially for those religiously multiple people who rarely stand in the spotlight or identify publicly. Spiritually fluid people learn to accept the edges of communities, where their multiplicity isn’t noticed and therefore doesn’t threaten the status quo.

Excerpted from When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People by Duane R. Bidwell (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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