The Formation and Reformation of Religious Identity

Edward L. Queen II

Indiana University Center on Philanthropy


Until recently there had been little to need to examine the nature of religious identity and the ways in which individuals attained their particular religious identity. Certainly, a great deal of effort has been spent, historically, trying to determine how best to educate and form individuals more strongly in a particular faith – one need only recall Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, or Luther’s Catechism to realize that — but the development of religious identity per se raised little concern. This resulted from the fact that, with rare exceptions in history, one’s religious identity was an ascriptive category. Religious identity was a social and cultural given, not a result of individual choice. It was given to an individual by external forces and actors, not chosen by the individual.

Religion operated as such a strong social and cultural given that those historical periods when tremendous religious upheaval and change occurred stand apart as distinctive times in history. Most notable among these were the late Hellenistic period and the Reformation. Both of those periods experienced tremendous religious change and demonstrate the incredible confusion that occurred when previously held verities crumbled. The challenges to religious traditions and the number of new religious forms that emerged during these periods well demonstrate the confusion that occurred when the ascriptive nature of religious identity collapsed (Grant 1986; Horsley 1988; Williams 1962). These changes, accompanied by significant amounts of social and political violence, attest to the fact that religion was not understood simply as an individual’s choice, but viewed as a cultural identity that had powerful social and political ramifications. Only in the modern period did religion become a matter of choice and training, not simply a fact of birth.

Even our knowledge of how adequately religious communities of the past managed to educate and formed individuals in the faith remains relatively weak. Most people presume that earlier generations did a much better job educating and forming people in the faith than we do at present. There does not seem, however, to be particularly compelling evidence to support this view. Certainly there have been times and locales where the activities of religious formation appear to have been exceedingly successful. In addition, many religious subgroups have attained marked successes in this regard. A clearheaded examination of the historical record, however, seems to suggest that, as a rule, communities of faith of other historical periods were not universally successful in educating and forming adherents into the faith. For example, the sheer magnitude of heretical and heterodox thinking in all religious traditions well demonstrates the failures of the past. While some may argue, with good reason, that the appearance of heresy owes much to conflicts between theological elites or to the overreaching of gifted speculative thinkers, this does not explain why and how those heretical opinions gained followers. Whence did they come? Neither does it explain the emergence of "home-spun" heresies nor the persistence of folk or syncretistic religious practices within many traditions (Bauer 1971; Eliade 1969, 1971a, 1971b; Ginzburg 1982; Hall 1990; Tedeschi 1991).

These facts suggest that while religious identity may have been a given, those who participated in that given identity may not have understood it any more clearly than most individuals do today. One could suggest, in fact, that the knowledge among religious adherents today may be better, on the whole, since those who lack interest and concern can drop out. Those who remain active may be expected to have a stronger commitment to and a greater awareness of their tradition than may have been the case in the past.

The Dilemma of Choice

Regardless of whether that is the case, two significant factors operate to make the present socio-religious situation anomalous, at least in the west. The first of these is the fact that religious identity has become a matter of choice, albeit often the default option. Second, this chosen identity operates in a context where overt and explicit hostility to other "options" is socially unacceptable and only rarely occurs. Tolerance has become a social and moral value. This has resulted in a situation where, for most people most of the time, religious identity becomes nothing more than a privatized affair without deep connections to the historical traditions of the community of faith.

While the removal of religion to the realm of choice creates a situation where strong processes of religious education and formation are necessary, the ability of people to leave when demands become too challenging makes the process of religious education difficult. Simultaneously, pluralism poses challenges for the possibility of constructing a strong and positive religious identity. For these reasons, while a review of the past might help us to gain understanding of the ways in which people have been educated and formed in the faith, it can do little to help us understand the nature of religious identity in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The twin realities of choice and pluralism (the latter as a fact to be accepted and even celebrated rather than a misfortune to be corrected), raise the question of how to construct religious identity so that it is strong, deeply felt, and well understood yet not constructed against the "other."

How to do this? How does one go about defining the nature of a tradition and one’s religious self in a positive way, in a way that is not contingent upon developing a negative understanding of the other? Can we learn how to construct religious identity so that we can state positively what we believe, where we can affirm our basic and most deeply held beliefs without demeaning other traditions? More directly, can traditions develop a mode of apologetics that takes seriously the positive goods bequeathed by the Enlightenment (Küng 1966, 29), the horrors perpetrated by religion throughout history, and the general social compact that has enshrined religious tolerance as a social and moral value. Can we find a way between the evils obvious in the former Yugoslavia and Sudan and the valueless vacuum of belief that, in Paul Tillich’s view, always is filled by something more demonic? (Tillich 1952, 32-62) Can strongly held religious faith be vitally alive in the context of pluralism and tolerance?

The questions allow for no easy answer. Under the present conditions of existence, we must affirm the goal as something for which we must strive. While there are numerous ways of struggling with how to do this theologically, on the Catholic side one need only think about the work of Karl Rahner and David Tracy, as well as several documents of Vatican II, including Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae. Incorporating this into people’s lived religious reality is an entirely different matter. To a great extent it requires people to reexamine critically much of what they have learned. This becomes a process also of un-learning, of breaking bad habits and acquiring good ones. Individuals not only have to rearrange their mental furniture but they must acquire new pieces. They must clean out psychic and intellectual closets, discarding cherished mementos that have become warped and twisted, moldy and mildewed. Portraits that have held places of honor in the living room may have to be relegated to the attic and the new decor may leave one feeling bewildered and longing for the traditional. This process of un-learning demands careful reflection. Although recognizing some of the challenges involved, too much of the writing on transformational learning presumes that education is a linear, even progressive experience. It ignores the complicated reality of un-learning, of giving up old ways of thinking and acting.

Far too often we blithely ignore the fact that traditions that may have produced terrible evils have also produced numerous women and men of universal greatness, and thousands of decent and good-hearted people of whom we shall never hear. We would do well to attend to the words of Walter Benjamin, who reminds us that there is no document of culture that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism (Benjamin 1969, 236), or of Theodor Adorno who wrote, "All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage. . . .Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and shabby culture becomes its accomplice, while the man who says no to culture is directly furthering the barbarism which our culture showed itself to be." (Adorno 1979, 367) We must recall that those who struggle with the barbarity of their traditions also were formed by those same traditions. Because of this we must constantly remind ourselves of the ambiguity of traditions, not only that they are mixed with evil but also that they are mixed with good.

This point should not be forgotten. Insufficient attention is paid to the emotional stress produced within individuals as they struggle to face the ambiguity and even evil within their tradition or strive to give up old verities. This struggle often is dismissed lightly as is the warmth and nostalgia produced by their remembrances of the old. If, however, the old could produce the person struggling with the issues, a person of good heart and good faith, why should that person not be allowed some affection for the beliefs and rituals that nourished her or him?

The Challenges of Relearning

How then do we make sense of the process of unlearning that has to take place, to respond to the real sense of loss and grief many will experience? How do we make it possible for people to move forward and to move on? Boys and Lee have suggested many of the answers in their project, both from what they anticipated and consciously undertook to address, but also from what they and the participants learned in the process. Undoubtedly a sense of trust must be created. When women and men allow their fundamental roots to be exposed, to have their branches pruned so that new and fuller growth can occur, they must trust that the gardeners care about the plant and the fruit it shall bear. The result of the pruning must be something better, fuller, and more productive.

The willingness of individuals to undergo the process also must be valued. If there are no psychic rewards for choosing to undertake the process, for being willing to give up things of value and significance, then it is unlikely unlearning will occur. A recognition of the difficulty must be present and a willingness to affirm people in their desire to change must take place. The process of allowing some of one’s underpinnings to be challenged involves risk. This fact must be foremost in people’s minds and, while it should not be used as an excuse for the failure to push people in the directions they ought to go, those who willingly have placed themselves in a position where they can be pushed ought to be commended for the risks they have undertaken.

The process of unlearning also must take place in a situation of mutual respect. People value their traditions, just as they care for their families. Those involved in the process must realize that. They must struggle honestly to grasp how much others value their own traditions. People must be allowed and encouraged to tell their stories and to place them in the context and alongside of other stories, stories told by people whom they have gotten to know, and for whom they care.

Stories alone, however, are not sufficient. Not all narratives are equally valid: people lie, embellish, and misunderstand. Stories can be used both to illuminate and to obfuscate. How then can we work to ensure that this does not happen, or in a way that places some structural limits on people’s abilities to hide behind a less than adequate narrative?

The Catholic-Jewish Colloquium has provided a good way of doing that. Through the process of studying and learning together, the participants were placed in a situation where they not only presented their stories but found themselves challenged by other stories. They were able to become increasingly aware of their own ignorance, self-delusion, and errors of interpretation. That this produced positive results shows how successful the participants and the project directors were in building a situation of mutual trust and a mutual desire for understanding (not to be confused with a desire for mutual understanding). One wonders, however, how significant self-selection is to this process? Could one obstructionist individual destroy the entire process, or does the group itself become self-policing? While some studies on group dynamics suggest the latter, groups that are polarized may find transformational learning problematic.

The process of learning and of teaching gave the undertaking a degree of seriousness that limited the ability of individuals to use it for purposes of self-indulgence. For that reason, the occasions where the process produced glaring examples of individual and group ignorance should have been greeted with delight rather than dismay. It well illustrates the problem inherent in trying to challenge and change people in the context of mutual support. It also well illustrates the collapse of both the Aristotelian notion of friendship, in which friendship is the preeminent location for correction, and the religious value of mutual correction (Rouner, 1994). Undoubtedly, these must be recovered.

Just as the personal dimension of this project eliminated much of the abstract understanding of history and the religious traditions, so too should it be able to develop into a process of mutual correction and training. For only by reaching the level where religion comes to be understood as worthy of struggle and debate and as a theme about which we can struggle, can we be said to be on our way toward understanding how to develop religious identity in the context of pluralism and tolerance.

Edward L. Queen II, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow and Director, Religion and Philanthropy Project at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. As a former program officer of the Lilly Endowment, Inc., Dr. Queen attended two sessions of the Colloquium.


List of Works Consulted

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Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Bauer, Walter. 1971. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Eliade, Mircea. 1969. The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion. Chicago; The University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, Mircea. 1971a. The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy. New York: Harper & Row.

Eliade, Mircea. 1971b. The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1982. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. New York: Penguin Books.

Grant, Robert M. 1986. Gods and the One God. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Hall, David D. 1990. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Horsley, Richard. 1988. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Küng, Hans. 1966. On Being a Christian. New York: Doubleday.

Rouner, Leroy, ed. 1994. The Changing Face of Friendship. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Tedeschi, John. 1991. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies.

Tillich, Paul. 1952. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tracy, David. 1981. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad.

Williams, George Hunston. The Radical Reformation Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.