Julius-Kei Kato is associate professor of biblical and religious studies at King’s College, Western University in Canada, where he teaches courses on the New Testament, religious pluralism, and spirituality. Among his published works are How Immigrant Christians Living in Mixed Cultures Interpret their Religion (2012) and Religious Language and Asian American Hybridity (2016).
I’ve always considered myself a “hybrid” in many ways: Ethnically, I am originally Filipino-Japanese. But having lived, studied, and worked for periods of time in Manila, Tokyo, Rome, Jerusalem, Paris, the Bay Area, Toronto, and now London, Ontario has made my cultural hybridity richer and more complex, so much so that if someone were to force me to choose just a single cultural identity, I would simply be unable to. In fact, being constrained to choose only one identity would be doing violence to the hybridous multiplicity that is present and living within me. More importantly, this hybridity goes even deeper than mere ethnic and cultural identity. By birth, upbringing, and tradition, I am Catholic. However, living in Japan for a long time not only made me appreciate the Buddhist tradition profoundly but even resulted in my adopting important aspects of Buddhism as a vital part of how I walk the michi (road) of life. Besides, exposure in varying degrees to other religious traditions through experience and study in the course of my life-journey has made me a spiritual hybrid in profound ways. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time studying hybridity and how it impacts our living of religion and spirituality today. And it seems to me that the hybridity I find in myself is fast becoming a reflection of the hybridization that is taking place in the wider world.
That’s where I come from when confronted with the question: What needs to be changed in the churches today? Let me focus on symptoms that suggest the need for urgent change. They take the form of phenomena known by such names as “multiple religious belonging” (MRB), “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), and the religious “nones” and “dones” (who are done with religion!).
Some burning questions that “shout” for a paradigm shift are: Why are some no longer content with just one religion but want to identify with more than one path (MRB)? Why do more and more people, especially young adults, demarcate “religion” from “spirituality,” rejecting the former as irrelevant (even toxic) and embracing the latter as valuable (SBNR)? Why are churches in the West hemorrhaging membership through disaffiliation at an alarming pace (the “dones”)? As a result, many younger people do not identify anymore with any particular religious tradition (the “nones”). What is surprising despite all this is that spirituality is one of the “hottest” trends today, as evidenced by the incredible popularity of spiritual teachers such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, Eckhart Tolle, or even Oprah!
There seems to be an increasing dislike among people in Western societies for exclusive “clubs” with a (religious) “tribal mentality.” Instead, the key values particularly for young people have decidedly shifted to “connectivity,” “diversity,” and “inclusivity.” Take MRB as a case in point. It might very well be a movement toward a freedom from exclusive belonging, ironically, in order to have greater access to multiple forms of religiosities and spiritualities. The “SBNRs,” “dones,” and “nones” phenomena can also be traced to this aversion to exclusivity. Many people are so because they feel that institutionalized Christianity is too exclusive, requiring loyal membership and strict adherence to a set of beliefs. All these requirements are unfortunately often wrapped up in a superiority complex and judgmental attitude toward “the Others.” They find that kind of religiosity off-putting and too limiting of the freedom to pick and choose what seems to be more relevant, appropriate, and inclusive.
The irony is that a great number still feel the strong attraction of spirituality which is, I argue, the fundamental drive—hardwired in humans—to seek our deeper and more transcendent dimensions. What is fast becoming the norm today for people who seek a spiritual path is something akin to putting together one’s own “spiritual playlist” from a multitude of sources and not buying, as it were, the whole album from a single (religious) source.
One preliminary yet major hypothesis of mine on this matter is: These contemporary trends suggest that it might be more helpful to look at religiosity in the West through a paradigm of freedom from belonging rather than a traditional paradigm of institutionalized belonging. Of course, it is clear that institutional belonging is still the preferred way for some. However, for an increasing number of spiritual seekers, spiritual quests seem to follow a very contemporary market model—something akin to a huge spiritual iTunes/Google Play/Windows Store where seekers find practically anything and simply download one suitable song or app at a time, not the whole album or package.
Despite its troubling dark sides (and there are many!), I am interested in finding the silver lining to this situation. Hence I ask: What is the redemptive aspect of such contemporary religiosity? My preliminary response is that this may be an invitation to Christian churches to try harder to break down barriers between “us” and “them” and embrace inclusivity, even hybridity, more willingly. In fact, there is much that is theologically pertinent about present trends in spirituality that could help churches see their own shadows. One can understand contemporary trends not so much as a turn away from religion as such but as the emergence of diverging narratives of religious and spiritual experience that move through more diverse conceptions of what it means to be human .
In short, the emerging spirituality does not necessarily mean a loss of values, morals, or community because non-religious people are, surprisingly, neither more nor less spiritual or moral than explicitly religious people. However, their spirituality is considered challenging for the church because of the latter’s narrow way of thinking about what it is that comprises being religious and/or spiritual. If spirituality could be redefined to be wider, more inclusive, more human, more ethically and less doctrinally focused, more porous, and, yes, perhaps more hybrid, then many more people might again entertain the idea of “belonging” in some way to the church, even in our globalized and hybridized world.
- C.f. Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).