In my line of work, I get asked about my religious affiliation a lot. The easy answer is to say that I am Roman Catholic. But this easy answer does not feel like the most honest or complete one. When faced with an inquiry about my religious identity, my temptation is to launch into a series of stories:
- I was baptized at a Roman Catholic church and went to twelve years of Catholic education at schools imbued with the charism the Sisters of Saint Joseph, where the Sisters’ mission of “moving always toward the love of God and love of neighbor without distinction” was lived out in the daily rhythms of school life in a way that got into the very fiber of my being;
- I have had a series of feminist awakenings, the first being in seventh grade when I was told I could not be an altar server at my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary celebration mass, the most serious being my first feminist theology course in college that aroused anger in me that almost lifted me out of the pew when I attended church with my family when I was home on Christmas break; these awakenings birthed in me what theologian Serene Jones calls a “double vision” toward Christianity where I simultaneously balance critique of the ways in which Christian traditions have harmed women with appreciation, recovering, and reconstructing the powerful resources within Christianity that support women’s flourishing;
- I completed a religion major at a Lutheran college and a master’s degree in religious education at a Lutheran Seminary, married a Lutheran man I met at college, and have welcomed a Lutheran pastor into our family as a brother-in-law; when it comes to talking religion, I am bilingual, with a healthy respect for the strengths of various expressions of Protestantism;
- I undertook and finished a PhD in religion, which had the effect of making religion about intellectual inquiry and not worship and prayer and fellowship and other religious practices that mark our participation in Christian communities, a marginalization of my spiritual life from which I am still recovering;
- And after many internal debates, nights of soul-searching, and mumbled prayers to God, I had my first son baptized at a Catholic church.
So what is my religious identity? More accurately, I am a feminist and intellectual Roman Catholic mother, infused with a healthy dose of Lutheranism (and this identity story will continue to be written).
All too often and to our detriment, we think religious identity needs to be singular and pure. But in our real lives, it is so much more complex and varied and interesting than that. Religious identity involves a multitude of stories and voices that cannot be collapsed into a neat, linear narrative. Particularly in our global world, where religions overlap and converge, religious identities are increasingly hybrid identities, that is, identities informed by multiple sources, experiences, traditions, and practices. If we could learn to embrace rather than fear the multiplicity in our own identities, might we be in a better place from which to respect the multiple religious identities of others? Might we be able to see our commonalities and to spend our energy working together to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed rather than policing orthodoxy and striking out against those we perceive as dangerous others?
It may just be that hybrid identity is at the heart of Christianity, that is, who Christ is and who we are called to be as followers of this Christ. Think about the fact that we have multiple gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Think about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ in order to bring unto God’s self the myriad of human stories. Think about Jesus Christ himself, whose hybrid identity is defined by full humanity and full divinity. And think about how we are called to love God and love neighbor, even (or especially) those who disagree with us, without distinction.
When you are asked about your religious identity, what is your answer? What multitude of stories makes up your religious identity?