Empty Selves and Multiple Belonging: Gadamer and Nagarjuna on Religious Identity’s Hidden Plurality

Open Theology 3:107-116 (2016)
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The reaction to multiple religious belonging has been fraught with anxiety in the monotheistic traditions. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people report belonging to multiple religions. I propose that it is most useful to think of multiple religious belonging not so much as an expression of choice, but just the opposite. Multiple religious belonging is best explained as the ontological condition of two or more religious traditions constituting the self, so that the self’s possibilities are constrained by those religions. Furthermore, I argue that multiple religious belonging per se does not threaten traditional religious communities. Threats are by definition future possibilities, and ontologically speaking, we always already belong to multiple religions. We belong to multiple religions because every religious tradition is an amalgam of earlier distinct traditions. There is nothing new about multiple religious belonging. It is nearly unremarkable. Two philosophers in particular-one a twentieth-century German phenomenologist, the other a second-century Indian Buddhist-have given particularly careful examination of the phenomenon of belonging. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of Wirkungsgeschichte [history of effects] and Nāgārjuna’s teaching of śūnyatā [emptiness] both imply that multiple religious belonging is the ontological condition of all human beings, and that producing any monolithic religious identity requires significant mental gymnastics.



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J. R. Hustwit
Methodist University

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