Jeanine Hill Fletcher on Identities in Dialogue
David Gardiner, Colorado College
The depth of interfaith study, dialog and practice (dual-belonging) can be enhanced by philosophical approaches to how one understands “identity.” A very helpful essay on this topic is Jeanine Hill Fletcher’s “We are All Hybrids,” in her book Monopoly on Salvation? A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism. Hill Fletcher begins by problematizing the very category of “the religions” by which our studies proceed. She notes that a standard understanding of the phrase itself is prone to reification, and “serves as a means to conceptually control an otherwise overwhelmingly complex reality.” She points both to the fact that any given tradition has multiple significant components and to how any individual practitioner also possesses internal diversity. Her emphasis on the internal is key: while she identifies as Christian, she says “it would be difficult to substantiate the claim that my understanding of the world and the shape of my experience within that world is singularly informed by that [Christian] community.” Referring to the “dynamic intersection of identity categories,” she writes: “[I]f identity categories were separable, the multiple factors of our identity would not impact one another and our social location would not matter.” Further: “There is no ‘Christian’ identity, only Christian identities impacted by race, gender, class, ethnicity, profession, and so on.” Hill Fletcher goes so far as to state that it is important to conceptualize “identity as a verb,” and to understand that “self is contingent and negotiated.” Naturally, she extends this analysis to any member of any religion. She also cites Morwenna Griffiths on the myth of homogeneity or “purity”: “The acceptance of fragmentation is the relinquishing of an inappropriate dream of purity, as well as a relinquishing of the wish for the unity of the subject.”
Hill Fletcher extends these ideas into the field of dialog by urging us to recognize that other traditions and their practitioners equally possess diversity: “Thinking about our religious identities as socially constructed and formed in conversation with multiple communities is a new resource for enacting solidarity across religious differences.” She adds the powerful point that understanding religions as “communities of internal diversity allows for the partial identification of overlapping identities where a variety of features hold the potential for making connections.” She also avers that this approach to outreach, to enriching our understanding of another, reveals the radical complexity of authentic dialog wherein the dream of there being an “unchanging core” (her words) on either side is released. She quotes Iain Chambers on the vital need to preserve the natural ambiguity involved: “To hold onto the uncertainties of this mutual interrogation is imperative. Otherwise, my desire continues to reproduce the cycles of hegemony that subject the other to my categories, to my need for identity.” Hill Fletcher emphasizes that in encountering the other as truly other, “we cannot say in advance what ‘Christian thought’ says about him or her. Instead, we remain open to the newness of each meeting, relinquishing the possibility of a controlling knowledge.” Reified preconceptions of what Buddhist or Christian thought means, she writes, “are shattered by actual conversations between particular Buddhists and particular Christians whose own understanding and interpretations… of their tradition varies widely.”
Finally, Hill Fletcher moves beautifully from discussions of encounter and dialog to the issue of dual practice. She writes: “If one thinks with the concept of Christian identity, the hybridity of syncretism is seen as compromising Christian identity. But considering syncretism from the perspective of those who practice it would suggest a more positive assessment… [wherein] we are encouraged to see the boundaries of categorization as permeable, rather than clearly delineated.” Naturally, this logic equally applies to Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and other perspectives.
For those familiar with Buddhist thought on the constructed nature of all forms of identity, Hill Fletcher’s exhortations are strikingly resonant with Buddhist-like critiques of “essentialism.” Whether she has consciously employed Buddhist insights, I cannot say. But either way, her analyses remain powerfully suggestive of skillful ways to approach our engagement with other selves and other traditions.