I commend to you an article in The Unitarian Universalist Christian (Volume 58 2003), by Peter Huff, entitled “Gandhi, King, and the Virtue of Hyphenated Religious Identity.”

Peter Huff begins by telling this story. “In May 1833, the S. S. Tuscany departed Boston Harbor for a journey half-way round the world. [While there was nothing particularly unusual about such a venture, what was genuinely unique] was its cargo. It was loaded with a renewable New England natural resource that would dramaically transform traditional Indian foodways and make American entrepreneur Frederick Tudor a cool fortune. The product was ice. Cut in blocks from frozen New England ponds, packed in felt and sawdust for the long overseas haul, and stored in specially constructed facilities in India’s bustling port cities, ice joined cotton and tea in the nineteenth century as one of the staples of Indo-American trade.

“Henry David Thoreau, intimately acquainted with the wintertime harvesting of ice from his beloved Walden Pond, was perhaps the only American capable of detecting any sort of spiritual dimension in this new international enterprise. […] In his own classic Walden, he concluded his chapter on “The Pond in Winter” with an engaging meditation on the parallel between his cabin-door view of workmen cutting ice for foriegn markets and his emerging insight into the significance of the East-West encounter….

“Thus it appears [says Thoreau] that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta…. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”  

With this, Peter Huff goes on to talk about the mingling of East and West in his own life. He says, “It makes it virtually impossible for me now to describe the condition of my spiritual life in categories drawn exclusively from a single religious tradition.” Then he talks about how this condition is “ultimately attributable to a long-term commitment to the cultivation of interior dialogue.” He says, “For about half a century, proponents of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue have argued that the true beginning point for genuine dialogue among religions is within the inner life of the individual person. In the 1960s, Catholic monk Thomas Merton … spoke eloquently of the need to ‘contain all divided worlds in ourselves.’ Since Merton, many of us dedicated to the wider ecumenism of interfaith work hae deliberately attempted to shift dialogue from a U.N.-style encounter of external forces to a deep interior meeting on traditions within our own experience.”

“What we are only now beginning to realize is that once this process of inner dialogue has been initiatied religious identity takes on an unexpected and unpredictable life of its own. In a context where, as theologian Catherine Cornille has observed, ‘the idea of belonging exclusively to one religious tradition or of drawing from only one set of spiritual, symbolic, or ritual resources is no longer self-evident,’ pluralism becomes much more than simply an objective description of outward cultural diversity. It becomes an inward state of being a new way of seeing reality…”

While Peter Huff has more to say in his article, I’ll conclude with his important observation that hypenated religious identity (or interspirituality, dual citizenship, or multiple religious belonging) should not be dismissed as “a harmless middle-class recreation, just another designer New Age adventure in suburban captivity.”  He says, “For Thoreau, the mingling of Walden and Ganges waters irrigated an already deeply-rooted sense of self-reliance that gave rise to an emerging radical tradition in American thought. For Vietnamese activist Thich Nhat Hanh … hyphenated religious identity enhances a degree of critical engagement with culture that poses a serious challenge to the materialism and nihilism of a decadent and secular West.”

And THIS is when Peter Huff starts to talk about the hyphenated religious identities of Ghandi and MLK…. 

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