Dharma and sangha

In 1991, I became a Wiccan, and in 2007, I also joined the Unitarians. However, I have realised that it is too hard to follow two paths and do them both justice. I can only be fully part of one sangha (spiritual community), in one dharma (model of how the universe works), and in one tribe. Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe. I have learnt much of value from Unitarianism and will always value it (also, some of their hymns are awesome). But I need the wildness and eros of Wiccan spirituality; it’s in my soul.

There is currently much debate about whether Unitarianism (and its American sibling, Unitarian Universalism) is Christian, post-Christian, eclectic, or just itself. In many ways, the liberal Christian interpretations of the Christian mythos that are offered by Unitarians helped me to overcome the fears induced by my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and made me a better Wiccan. In addition, Unitarians have long held the view that the Divine is immanent in the world, transcends gender and yet includes both masculine and feminine, and there is a strong Pagan and pantheistic strand in Unitarianism. In America, many Pagans are also Unitarian Universalists, including Margot Adler, Jason Pitzl-Waters, and Pax (Geoffrey). They are represented by CUUPS (the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans). In the UK, they are represented by UESN (the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network). So the two traditions are definitely compatible, and their worldviews overlap in many ways.

Even so, I have still reached the conclusion that one cannot be fully a member of two traditions at once.  You can partially participate in more than one tradition – you might pop along to a Druid ritual, or a Unitarian service, or a Quaker meeting, or a Sufi dhikr, or a Heathen blot, from time to time, in addition to practising your main tradition. You might incorporate a practice from another tradition into your own (always being mindful of issues of cultural appropriation). But you can’t be fully a member of two traditions, in my experience. You will almost inevitably end up giving precedence to one or other of your paths. And gods help you if you try to take up leadership roles in more than one tradition (it’s way too much like hard work).

  • There aren’t enough hours in the day. What with work, sleep, travel, recreation, socialising, and other things, you don’t have time to be fully in two traditions.
  • Dharma. This is the Hindu word for truth, and implies the world-view of a religion or tradition. Different religions are like languages – a system of signs and symbols for describing the world. Different religions regard different things as sacred; for example, Unitarians are justly proud of their tradition of reason, and they are also keen on community and compassion; whereas Pagans often prioritise eros and mysticism, and individualism.
  • Dharma-space. I use the term “dharma-space” to mean a group of religions with compatible or similar world-views (even though they may regard themselves as competing versions of the truth).
  • Sangha. The term sangha refers in Buddhism to the community in which you take refuge; it’s a bit like a tribe. Some communities are intersecting and overlapping (I can be a feminist, a poet, bisexual, genderqueer, left-handed, etc without mutual conflict, but being a member of two religions in different dharma-spaces is much harder).
  • Membership and identity. You can identify as anything you like, but do the existing members of a group recognise you as a member? If you are a member of two traditions, how do the other members feel about your dual membership? There are some paths which are “obviously” compatible, and some which are not. That’s not to say that a combination of the two can’t be made to work, but it might take more effort to combine the worldviews, and more effort to convince others.
  • Depth of engagement. If you have a daily spiritual practice, which of your traditions does it most resemble? Who or what are you worshipping / honouring? Have you read up on the history and traditions of both religions? Could you comfortably lead a ritual or service in both traditions? Do you feel the presence of the Divine / deities in both traditions? If you try to import a practice from one tradition to the other, does it fit, or do you have to adapt it in significant ways?

This is not a criticism of people who try to be a member of more than one tradition – indeed, some of the people I most deeply admire are members of more than one tradition, and they are clearly serious and dedicated spiritual practitioners. All that I am saying is that it is very hard work. I have tried it for five years, and I found it really hard. There’s nothing inherently wrong in trying to be a dual-faith practitioner; but it can be very painful trying to juggle the values, loyalties and demands of two different traditions. You can’t just be a passive participant in Wicca, and it’s quite hard to be that in Unitarianism too (especially if you are used to leading ritual in Wicca).

I would love to hear from other dual-faith practitioners about your experiences. If it works for you, that’s great. How do you make it work? Are your two traditions in the same dharma-space?

UPDATE (in response to comments)

I did try to make it clear that this post was about my personal experience (and I think it should be read in the context of, and as a coda to, the previous four posts about dual-faith practice, which also explored others’ experiences).

My experience is of practising Unitarianism (the UK variety) and Wicca as two distinct traditions – this ended up being dvoeverie rather than coinherence, and did not work for me personally. Others who have commented seem to be practising more syncretically, or in a manner that more closely resembles the coinherence model.

All I am saying is that I found dual-faith practice really hard. I was practising two traditions alongside each other which I personally found it really hard to syncretise. If your personal practice is more syncretism or coinherence than dvoeverie, then this post is not really about you.

If your two traditions mix together like wine and water, then having two traditions will very likely work for you. If your two traditions mix together like oil and water, then it will be much harder.

Another important caveat is that many of the commenters do their Paganism within UUism or Quakerism. I was trying to do something different – attending Wiccan rituals and Unitarian services. I ended up practicing dvoeverie (following two distinct traditions) rather than syncretism (blending) or coinherence (holding two traditions in dialogue, or having one nesting within the other).

It may very well be that you can combine Quakerism with another spiritual practice more easily than can be done with Unitarianism in the UK. (I am not talking about Unitarian Universalism as I have no direct experience of it – but the existence of CUUPS chapters clearly makes combining the two much easier.)

I did not mean to sound prescriptive, and certainly would not want to erase or ignore anyone’s spiritual identity, or make it harder for them to exist as a dual-faith practitioner. (So if I was writing this again, I’d edit out the use of “You can’t…”)

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43 thoughts on “Dharma and sangha

  1. Why did you use Buddhist terminology to describe a conflict you had between Wicca and Unitarianism – or even start with “Dharma and Sangha” when you aren’t discussing Buddhism? Can’t you describe your viewpoint using Wiccan terms that other unfamiliar Wiccans aren’t waiting for you to give your Wiccan definition of Buddhist terminology to them? And it’s misleading – Buddhist people often have more than one religion, and more than one Sangha. Whole country’s main spiritual traditions will have their gods or local faiths and then also Buddhism.
    If you want to use Buddhist example to learn something, I point out Wicca’s been around for fifty some years – Buddhism’s been around 2500. And that I notice Wicca has been trending lately toward the tactic of saying people should adhere only to Wicca, and I don’t think such tactics are necessary for its preservation.


    • > Whole country’s main spiritual traditions will have their gods or local faiths and then also Buddhism.

      Is that two religions, or one integrated religion? I’m thinking about Chinese religions, where (from my intermediate-level reading) there aren’t strong distinctions made between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and locally-specific traditions — they’re all just a part of the culture.

      Perhaps part of the problem is that Westerners tend to see religion as separate from culture, and the boundaries between religions as being fairly strict. Whether or not the individual practitioner sees them that way, groups often do, and that can cause issues.


      • It’s likely other people have a different view about religion and culture than you hold/seem to think others hold as a generality. Views that don’t prevent them from studying multiple things, perhaps.. but studying any of those you listed is still considered intensive and distinctive, and often involve finding personal contacts who will teach them. Not sure where you’re going with this.


      • I’m sorry, you may have confused me with the original writer of the post. I’m the other writer here and I’m not sure what you’re referring to by the “view of religion and culture that [I] hold.” The statement I made above is commonly agreed upon in religious studies (Western culture tends to represent religion as a more distinct category than other parts of the world do). That’s not a judgment, or a statement about individuals, just a broad generalization based on a few centuries of scholarship.

        What I’m suggesting is that dual- or multiple-faith practice is probably an entirely different kettle of fish in cultures where religion is not necessarily such a distinct category and the boundaries of traditions are already commonly blurred.

        > but studying any of those you listed is still considered intensive and distinctive, and often involve finding personal contacts who will teach them.

        In which parts of the world? Do masters in these religious practices ask their students not to study with others? Is it a cultural norm to study with only one teacher at a time? Is there even a concept of dual-faith practice in China, Japan, India, etc.? (The study of Eastern religions I did as part of my PhD suggests not.) If you have a different sense of it, can you direct us to a source to read more about it?

        Let’s try to make this conversation a little less combative. I’m interested in what you have to say, but your comments are coming off as hostile and aren’t very specific, so I’m not exactly sure what your overall objection to the original post is.


  2. (1) because the terms dharma and sangha fit what I mean, and I was using them as what they mean in a Buddhist context as far as I know;
    (2) I am absolutely not saying that people should adhere only to Wicca; just that dual-faith practice did not work for me;
    (3) I would always encourage people to follow whatever path their heart leads them to, and if Wicca wasn’t for them, that would not be a problem for me at all;
    (4) Buddhism is not a powerless religion or culture, so it’s not cultural appropriation if the terms are used respectfully and with reference to what they mean in a Buddhist context;
    (5) I also used the word “tribe”;
    (6) the meaning of dharma is slightly different in a Hindu context than in a Buddhist context – but both traditions use the word quite happily.

    If you read my previous four posts about dual-faith practice, you will see that I have described forms of syncretism in Buddhist countries quite extensively.

    It was not Wiccans who were questioning my right to practice two faiths alongside each other, it was some (not all) Unitarians.


    • (4) My Buddhist teachers for being Buddhists escaped being killed and some spent time in prison. Used in context, the words wouldn’t need translation. I asked why you didn’t use Wiccan or Unitarian words for this context. I still don’t see why.
      (5) I avoid using “tribe” to describe my spiritual families because I’m not Native. I don’t know what it is to have a Native ‘tribe’.
      You invite my view, okay. I started and wrote one, but I rethought, having read the antipathy in the comments.
      Unitarians seem to be interesting in that they’ll host everybody – Wiccans, Buddhists, Thelemites, Christians, Pagans, etc. but they also left me the impression they perhaps want a diluted and non-threatening actual practice on a regular basis, one that is kind of passive, accepting, and vague, which others tend to not be sometimes(even those that encourage meditation). Their hosting been wonderful, and I think of that as their strength and special practice, but wasn’t enough to call me into being one.


      • The Unitarian word for this is “beloved community”. I don’t think there’s a specific word for it in Wicca.

        The word tribe is not specific to First nations (actually I thought they didn’t like being called tribes?)


      • Agreed about “tribes” — pretty sure it’s an English word older than the first contact of English-speaking cultures with North American peoples.

        I can see why you wanted to use the word “sangha.” I don’t know that there’s an English equivalent, though “beloved community” isn’t bad. But it lacks the obvious spiritual connotation, as does “tribe” to most English speakers (although one could make the argument that it really shouldn’t, religion and culture being fused for most pre-Enlightenment cultures and many non-Western contemporary ones). I’m not so sure about “dharma,” honestly, because of the “duty” connotation. I know the Bhagavad-Gita’s meaning for that word isn’t the only one, and that it has a different connotation in Buddhism, but in this case I think “worldview” (or Weltanschauung!) gets the point across better.

        There is something really compelling about the idea of “sangha” — a religious community that provides refuge.


      • Also – meant to say, sorry to hear your Buddhist teachers were persecuted. Yes, Buddhists are persecuted in Tibet, but not in the West.

        Re the antipathy in the comments – yes, I was quite cross when I wrote that – but I did try to write in a reasonable and polite way.

        Unitarian Universalism in the USA is different from Unitarianism in the UK (though quite often not in the ways that most people think.)


  3. Also, I have made it clear that these terms are of Buddhist and Hindu origin, so people could look them up and find out more about them.

    And I repeatedly said that this post is about my personal experience, which implies that other people might experience something different. I even asked that at the end of the post – what is YOUR experience?

    And I also wrote:

    This is not a criticism of people who try to be a member of more than one tradition – indeed, some of the people I most deeply admire are members of more than one tradition, and they are clearly serious and dedicated spiritual practitioners. All that I am saying is that it is very hard work. I have tried it for five years, and I found it really hard. There’s nothing inherently wrong in trying to be a dual-faith practitioner; but it can be very painful trying to juggle the values, loyalties and demands of two different traditions.


    • Maybe people are still jumpy because of the pagan labelling controversy, though I really am surprised about the level of misreading and wilful misunderstanding despite the number of disclaimers people put in their blog posts.


      • I actually think it’s endemic to online communication of all types. We have been conditioned out of being careful readers (and some of us never had the opportunity to develop good reading comprehension in the first place). Combine the fact that people mostly skim (because enormous amounts of communication are coming across their desks and phones constantly) with confirmation bias (you hear what you expect to hear), and you get poor comprehension.

        I have a PhD, which requires learning to read with incredible care and depth, and yet I have to deliberately slow down in order to read carefully, aware all the while that I’m taking time away from other priorities. I can’t even keep up just with the Pagan blogs I think are smart! You’d think that would be a pretty small niche, yes?

        Sadly, I think the best online readers are the small and privileged class of people who sit at a computer all day, but who have a very uneven workload (busy days or seasons and days with almost nothing to do). Many of the people I know do just about everything by the seat of their pants due to time pressures.


  4. I ran across this rather randomly – I’m one of the writers for pagandharma.org, and a link to this came up on twitter when I was trying to track down another post.

    I find myself in a slightly different conceptual space. I trained in a ceremonial magic group from sometime in the mid eighties, and started spending time in the pagan community within a couple of years of that. I was an event organizer and writer in the pagan community for several years. But there had always been a strong sense of what I was called to that was only somewhat expressed in my community involvement. (I always wanted it to be expressed more. I spent *years* trying to get folks in my local community to spend more time outdoors – I even founded a hiking club with the specific aim of making the outdoors more accessible to the freaks and geeks who are my friends – and in meditation.

    And eventually, I decided that as much as I loved the pagan community, and honored it as a community that had taken me in and given me a home, I did not want to have it as a tribal identity, where I would be pagan and not this or that. I didn’t really want to have anything as that kind of tribal identity. I’m a person, that’s all. And practically, I just wasn’t getting a lot of community support for what rang clear and true for me.

    Then, through some pretty weird circumstances, within a couple of years I became a member of a Chan Buddhist order – particularly ironic after distancing myself from tribal identities, though, in fact, it’s not a tribal identity for me. It was years before I’d call myself Buddhist, and even then, it’s mostly that it just is more cumbersome and confusing not to. I’m a member of one order, I live in the zendo affiliated with another organization. Oh, yeah, and I study and teach martial arts. (This part predates my involvement with either group, but combines with it terrifyingly well.) I’m still working out what is my relationship with the pagan community.

    So for me, there’s my own path, and then there’s my community – sangha is both a good description and traditionally apt in my case. Dharma-space, as you describe it (more on that below) is mostly kind of a non-issue for me. I make an active practice of noooooot believing in things. Engineering heuristics are important in my life. Pretending that I know Truth is not only not, but something I tend to think is bad practice for me.

    Membership and identity are also a lot less important. I mean, there is a formal level of membership, but that’s mostly important because I’m involved in some of these organizations on an administrative level. (Again, I live in a zendo.) Identity… is complicated mostly only because how it is most commonly drawn out in our society isn’t how I draw it out. Chan is not in conflict with any paganism I’ve ever cared much for. (Though I wasn’t necessarily the world’s most typical pagan.) I am open about my involvement in the pagan community, I am open about my involvement in Chan. I expect people to cope, and this hasn’t generally been a problem.

    Depth of involvement, then – well, at this stage of my life, I spent on average on hour a day in sitting meditation and a couple of hours doing martial arts. (In addition, I’m working on a doctorate in neurobiology, and yeah, I have a tight schedule.) This probably fits the mold of a chan practitioner more than that of a pagan (though my primary martial art is daoist rather than buddhist). Whatever. The things that called to me as a pagan are the things that call to me now. (I should mention that as a pagan I wasn’t particularly theist.)

    A note on your use of the word dharma – I don’t think a translation of dharma as worldview is one particularly in keeping with either its Hindi or Buddhist meanings. It is the order of the world, but it’s at least as much about what must be done to preserve that order as it is what that order is. Practice and order far more than belief. (The two terms that are most often used in Chinese are “fa” which means law, practice, template or order and “dao” which means road or way.) It has been common amoung westerners for the last few centuries to frame questions of religion in terms of belief, rather than practice… and I think this has a lot of drawbacks. Because really, when it comes right down to it there’s the stuff we know (which usually then we don’t really have to believe – I mean, do you believe in gravity, or do you just work with it?) and then there’s the stuff we believe which essentially we don’t know, but we pretend we do. Frankly? I don’t want to waste my time or energy with stuff I don’t know, and that no one knows. What does it buy me? (Who ever said this was a good idea?)

    Practice, on the other hand, has a lot more room for utility. Or so I have found it. I mean, we do it, and it’s helpful, or it’s not.


    • Thank you, that is a really helpful and interesting comment.

      I want to move away from focussing on belief as well – so I was trying to come up with something that combines values, practices, and basic assumptions about what is important. Maybe I just need to coin a new word…


  5. I’m a Pagan (of the Druid flavor) and a Unitarian Universalist, and my primary group practice is through CUUPS. UUism keeps me focused on this world, and I like maintaining a connection to the better parts of the religion of my childhood. When it comes to what I do I’m fully engaged with both traditions.

    But when it comes to my spiritual practice, my thoughts and beliefs, and my approach to the Big Questions of Life, I’m almost entirely Pagan. To use your terms, I have no trouble maintaining two sangas, but I can’t maintain two dharmas.

    It isn’t that Paganism and UUism are incompatible (their core values are extremely close), it’s just that at some point, at a deep level of engagement with dharma (truth), you must use either one set of tools or the other, one basic model of the Universe or the other.

    My local UU congregation has become my home. Not just because of CUUPS, but because of the friends I’ve made with the Christians and Buddhists and Humanists who share my values if not my beliefs. Barring any unexpected move to narrow the definition of UUism, I imagine it will be my home – or at least, one of my homes – for life.


  6. I appreciate the between-the-lines message here that it’s difficult to have both depth and breadth at once. We might all do better with taking on reasonable levels of commitment if we kept that in mind.

    I have to admit, I don’t understand on a deep level the sensitivity that people have around religious labels and membership (re: ongoing heated discussions of who is a Pagan and what Paganism is). The mainline churches I attended as a child didn’t seem to have this issue — there was often someone who participated who explicitly wasn’t Christian (like the Jewish husband of one of the ministers). If someone came to worship who considered him- or herself to be an atheist, people wouldn’t pepper him or her with questions about that, they’d just offer coffee. What does it matter if people who don’t fully identify with the group want to participate? (My husband, on the other hand, said he’s been to churches where identifying properly was VERY important and outsiders were not welcome. I am happy to have escaped this.)

    I tend to see the Pagan sensitivity about this issue as a function of anxiety, and also possibly scarring from bad Christian churches. There are churches out there that are territorial and dogmatic, and people carry that baggage into their new religion and then demand the same kinds of conformity in their Pagan groups. But I wonder if the bigger factor isn’t that Pagans feel vulnerable. Mainline churches tend to be well-established and stable, so the presence of people who aren’t fully committed isn’t a big deal. Apparent “outsiders” in small Pagan groups, whose very existence may seem fragile, may make it hard to be welcoming. And so the desire to strictly define “Pagan” and police the borders arises.

    I want to write more about this, but it’s going to have to wait until manuscript revisions are done and PantheaCon is over…


  7. Yvonne, it strikes me very much that you have taken your own experience, and tried to universalize it.
    But it’s not universal. I exist. So do a lot of other people I know, and serve.
    I don’t call myself “dual-faith.” But many other people do call me that, because I participate fully in more than one spiritual community.
    It’s not my own experience that makes that participation difficult. It’s not the G*ds. It’s not the requirements, worldviews, time demands, etc, of either tradition. It’s other people’s pre-conceptions.
    Unfortunately, your post reinforces a lot of those pre-conceptions.
    Being part of the two traditions I am part of is necessary to my being able to walk in the world with integrity. It’s not impossible, as you’ve claimed. It’s necessary and vital. It’s part of who I am, and as necessary and natural as breathing.
    You’ve put some really interesting justifications around why people like me don’t really exist, are fooling ourselves, etc. I’ve heard pretty much all of them before, couched in similar or different language; none of them are entirely new.
    I’d be much more interested in reading someone’s study of the actual, lived experience of many so-called “dual faith” people, looking at — collecting data on and analyzing — such issues as time commitment; world-views and whether or not they are complementary or competing; community and how supportive or undermining people are in each community; membership (actual and perceived); and whether or not spiritual practices are complementary or competing.
    Every argument I’ve heard about why people can’t be Quaker and something other than Christian — theaologically — and why one can’t be a member of a Quaker Meeting and another group, practically and theoretically — falls apart when analyzed specifically instead of under these kinds of general statements.
    I also know many people who are, successfully, members of more than one Pagan tradition at the same time, bringing additional strengths, skills, and talents to them.
    One of the things I love about a number of forms of Paganism is a movement away from binary, either/or thinking. So it’s particularly startling to find not just one post, but a series of posts, from you as a Pagan blogger reinforcing binary, either/or thinking, and living in the world.
    Not to mention a post telling a significant minority of us that we just don’t exist, are doing something impossibly hard, or are fooling ourselves, when really, we’re just going along living our lives.


    • I think you’re reading a stronger and more proscriptive tone into this post than is really there. I just re-read, looking for places where Yvonne says you don’t exist or are fooling yourself, and I don’t really see it — rather, she seems to be saying there are real tensions inherent in being committed to two religions, in the same way that there are tensions involved in having multiple relationships of any kind.

      There are also some differences in definition and context that are probably contributing to the miscommunication. To me, this post is not about binaries; it’s about limits. Your response seems to indicate that you can have “full” commitment to a tradition despite the limits and tensions Yvonne names. Exploring the difference in how you’re each characterizing “full” commitment would probably make a more fruitful avenue of discussion. (The assumption that “full” is good and “less than full” is not good is also interesting, in both the original post and in the responses.)

      I suspect, actually, that the way to negotiate the kind of tensions Yvonne names is to let one’s participation in each tradition ebb and flow. The idea that an ebb and flow reflects something less than full commitment, though, isn’t accurate, IMO — one’s level of spiritual engagement varies naturally over the course of a life. I think she’s right, though, that the more commitments we take on, the thinner we spread ourselves, and that at any given time, we have priorities that may be in conflict. I appreciate that aspect of this post very much — we don’t often think about how we might be complicating our lives and even undermining our work by trying to meaningfully engage so many different sources of meaning. There’s strength in going deep, but the reality is, we can’t have depth in every relationship and every area of our lives. There have to be choices.

      My other suspicion is that it’s a lot easier to practice two religions if you have few other commitments (family, friends outside those communities, career, etc.). The differences in theology or value system are still there to be negotiated, of course, but the other factors are much ameliorated.


      • I think you’re right that the amount we can do is not infinitely expandable and that it’s easier to do two traditions justice if our plates aren’t already overfull. (As a corollary, about which more soon on my blog, I’ll suggest that a serious spiritual practice — or writing practice, or athletic practice, or anything else — requires fairly ruthlessly making room by nixing other things, including other things that we enjoy or that could be valuable.)

        It’s also true, in my experience, that at times I focused more on one tradition or community than the other. I also sometimes find it to work the other way, though: when I increase the amount of energy I’m devoting to one tradition, sometimes the magical or energetic demands of the other tradition rise to meet that level. For me, this feels like a magical indication that I’m doing something right!

        One other thing I’ve found highly useful in combining traditions: really, really great metaphors. I’m pretty sure this deserves a post of its own and not just a comment, but for now, I’ll say that using the tools of poetry, metaphor, and story to understand what it means to be the witch that I am is important work for me!


  8. The way I see it is that my Paganism is wholly unique to myself. It is my spiritual practice. My personal relationship to the Divine.

    However, I also like fellowship. I don’t fully commit myself to any particular community because none are a perfect fit for me. Only my individual relationship to the Divine fills that spiritual role.

    But I’ve been a member of Pagan groups, I’ve been a regular attendee of several different UU churches, Quaker meetings, and other things. They’re all a great way to meet people of similar values, but it has little to do with my religion, with my spiritual practice.


  9. I’m happy Yvonne is following what works for her. However, I’d caution against generalizing what works for one person into a “should.” That’s clearly not what she’s doing, as evidenced by her closing paragraph. This is just me tacking it on for other readers.

    Like Moira, I’m one person committed to one path. This path happens to involve synthesizing teachings from multiple traditions and learning from multiple communities of seekers. In the process, I get a pretty well-rounded perspective on how this “spirituality” thing works in different ways for different groups of people. I seem to be doing just fine. I don’t feel like I’m trying to be “fully in [multiple] traditions,” I feel like I’m already fully in my own while also participating with others’.

    Do others in these traditions in which I participate always recognize me as fully one of their own? I suppose no, not always. But they all smile and converse with me and let me play their reindeer games anyhow, so I’m not really bothered by whether I’m secretly regarded as an outsider or not. Maybe I’m seen more like a spiritual cousin than a member of their religious nuclear family, but I’m still the kind of cousin that gets invited to family dinner.

    Am I an odd-ball without a real sangha? No. My sangha is all who seek. I take refuge in people pursuing the truth. I feel especially at home with others who pursue a more individually-oriented path (e.g. mystics from any tradition) and there are plenty of those out there. In a way, I do have to cobble together my own sangha, which does involve, as Yvonne says, more hard work. Maybe it’s more difficult, but it’s also more rewarding for me. I find it more comfortable than lopping off all my corners so I can fit into a round hole.

    My depth of engagement, by the way, is also just fine. It helps that I’m an ontological naturalist, so I don’t have to worry about fully worshipping or serving any deities or divinities in a literal or supernatural sense. I get to focus my primary efforts on knowing and positively transforming myself while working to serve the greater good of humanity and life. My practice is everything that helps me nurture the seeds of gnosis and engaged compassion in myself. Maybe you might call those seeds of divinity? Sure, I might invite a few deities or bodhisattvas or ritually invoke some divine or spiritual force when the occasion calls for it, but only as symbols or metaphors — abstractions that help get me where I need to go. So in answer to “Who or what are you worshipping / honouring?” I’d have to say no one, everything, nothing, everyone, and me. And if I got to answer “Have you read up on the history and traditions of both religions?” and all the rest of those rhetorical questions, I’d say yes, totally. Absolutely. All the time.

    I get that this isn’t everyone’s jam and not every path is compatible with this kind of open-endedness. I’m just saying it works just fine for me, and I’m pretty comfortable with it.

    Since Yvonne has expressed difficulty engaging with two different models of how the universe works and also fancies the flavor of magic(k) in her tasty bowl of spirituality, if I met her, I’d say “Hey, have you read any texts on Chaos Magick?” That tradition encourages, and offers practices that facilitate, the adopting, swapping, and playing around with different models of the universe (or “paradigms” or “reality tunnels”). It provides a kind of useful meta-paradigm for all the cosmological/metaphysical swinging you might want to do.

    My intention would not be to dissuade Yvonne from following her own thoughts and intuitions; I understand that full commitment to a single paradigm/set of practices/community is often more practical and stable. But, continuing to borrow the Buddhist language she also seems to enjoy (sangha, Dharma), I’d caution readers against clinging to any one perspective. By all means, fully adopt the tradition you prefer if that kind of identification helps you. But don’t lop your corners off in the process. In a tradition that “[prioritizes] eros and mysticism, and individualism,” you probably shouldn’t have to. 🙂



      • There are a number of interesting points here, but one that is especially close to my heart is the question of what constitutes community — or, almost certainly more accurately, what kinds of communities do we find it useful to talk about and how should we differentiate them? There are ways in which I wholeheartedly believe it to be meaningfully true to say, “my sangha is all who seek,” and in other ways, that’s not going to get someone to pick you up from the airport at 1 am, which is a valuable community function in my experience. (I’m not offering a lighthearted example out of disrespect, but rather to emphasize the extraordinary breadth of things that community can mean.)

        Similarly, as Yvonne says, a broadly-defined community of like minds is something to which I’d bet we can more or less unilaterally assign ourselves: it neither requires nor usually (in my experience, at least) provides external validation of membership or identity.

        This question of the self-defined or even self-created seeker/path/tradition is one that, in my experience, runs deep within Paganism, and I applaud all efforts to think carefully about what we gain and what we lose when we — and I include myself here deliberately! — engage with it.


  10. What if one tradition does not adequately address a full integration of all aspects of one’s spirituality or of the truth that has been revealed through one’s practice? What if, as we engage in one tradition, we find ourselves led to walk through the doorways opened by another? It is necessary to supplement.

    What does ‘be fully a part of’ mean? In whose eyes is that measured?

    I’m a Quaker. I supplement my spiritual life with taoist philosophy, sufi practices, musical improvisation, and walks in the woods. I’m not trying to attain a goal except to be faithful to the measure of truth that is revealed to me. I’m fortunate that I live in a time and place where teachings and communities that are different from what I grew up with are accessible and that I can experiment with what brings me closer to the divine.


    • There are some aspects of Wiccan practice and norms to which I take exception, as it happens (mostly the gender binary, but also other things). Fortunately, the structure of Wicca allows me to find a group of like-minded people to work with.


    • By fully a part of, i kind of meant, doing both traditions full-time – being considered a full member of each tradition by other members of it. And feeling fully part of it too.

      Lots of people supplement their tradition with insights from other traditions – but that’s not the sort of thing I am talking about.


  11. I am the leader of a Pagan small group ministry within a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

    That group functions like my immediate family within the larger tribe of my church.

    Much of our pagan practice takes place at the church. I was Croned beneath the trees in the courtyard of our education building last February — the home ground for most of my spiritual growth over the past 20 years.

    We are also embedded deeply in other parts of the church, as leaders, teachers, and volunteers.

    I think part of what makes this work is that without the church, more than half of us would be solitaries – solitaries practicing different permutations of paganism without face-to-face companions to offer support and spiritual communion. The core members that started our group were mostly solitary pagans before being UUs. (My solitariness was a factor in my exploring a UU church in the first place.) For the solitaries among us — we have more than one dharma, but just one sangha.

    Our church gives us a framework for solidarity. It gives us a physical worship home, many resources, a professional minister for support with life’s trials, etc. Over time it has given me more – a melded spiritual practice and identity.


  12. Just a question of language specificity here.

    You’ve said that you have no problem with others who are multi-trad, and have said that in your own experience, it’s been difficult to really be a full participating member of two religious traditions. If that is the case, then might it not be more wise to phrase your caveats as “it’s difficult for a person to be a member of two religious traditions,” and so forth, rather than “you can’t be a member of two religions”? The consistent use of the second person pronoun makes it sound like you’re making prescriptive statements, rather than reflecting an experiential reality for yourself, or expressing how difficult it might be for anyone to do these things.


  13. I’m a practitioner in two pagan traditions (both of which sometimes dislike the big P for reasons that deserve more thought but are beyond the scope of this comment!) and while this is arguably the easiest possible way to have a dual-faith practice, I will be first in line to agree that it is quite difficult.

    To go back to a point you made earlier in the series, I think one feature or bug of paganisms is that they don’t tend to make exclusivist claims, in part (I’d argue) because they don’t have the centuries of experience that might lead to the development of a complete and grounded religious system. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite and people are encouraged to combine traditions as long as it works well! For me, each of my traditions fills in gaps in the other, and after years of practicing them side-by-side, my daily practice is beginning to reflect the way that they meld for me in particular, which helps with the hours-in-the-day problem. I also found that for my particular traditions, they didn’t start to clearly overlap until I’d had years of training in both; I handled this less gracefully early in my training in my second tradition.

    I’ve also found it useful in a practical sense to be able to articulate ways in which I understand the traditions to be similar. I spend a lot of time translating between the two, and being able to say “this thing they do is like that thing we do” helps me both communicate with others and create internal consistency. It’s likewise essential to me that my fundamental ecstatic experience feels very similar in both cases; if they didn’t line up so closely that ecstatic practices from one tradition sometimes spontaneously produce experiences best explained in the language of the other, I think I would have a harder time.

    One interesting conflating factor, I think, is the presence of communities that don’t have traditions. I see this clearly around gatherings, where people clearly have “home” events and those events have cultures and values and things but not magical or religious systems everyone shares. Combine that with solitary practice (which is what Helen Berger says the vast majority of Pagans have) — which is basically tradition without community — and you have a whole lot of people in a funny liminal space.


  14. I did try to make it clear that this post was about my personal experience (and i think it should be read in the context of, and as a coda to, the previous four posts about dual-faith practice).

    All I am saying is that I found dual-faith practice really hard. Practising two traditions alongside each other which I personally found it really hard to syncretise. If your personal practice is more syncretism or coinherence than dvoeverie, then this post is not really about you.

    Also, another important caveat is that many of the commenters do their Paganism within UUism or Quakerism. I was trying to do something different – attending Wiccan rituals and Unitarian services. I ended up practicing dvoeverie rather than syncretism or coinherence.

    It may very well be that you can combine Quakerism with another spiritual practice more easily than can be done with Unitarianism in the UK. (I am not talking about Unitarian Universalism as I have no direct experience of it.)

    Pretty much all theology is trying to work out underlying principles from personal experience, I’d have thought.


    • > Practising two traditions alongside each other which I personally found it really hard to syncretise. If your personal practice is more syncretism or coinherence than dvoeverie, then this post is not really about you.

      This is a really helpful distinction. I think most Pagans syncretize. I know few people who try to do two traditions side by side unless it’s for family reasons (like, trying to give the children an equally deep taste of the parents’ differing faiths so that they can choose for themselves later).

      It might be worth adding this comment as an update on the original post; I think it will help with getting the point across.

      You do seem to have struck a nerve here about identity and commitment, maybe because our movement as a whole is struggling with those issues.


      • Thanks Christine. I lay awake quite a bit of last night thinking about this and feeling bad that Stasa felt her identity and practice had been erased. I would hate to do that to anyone, especially Stasa. So I came back to write an addendum.


  15. Yvonne and I are engaged in some really lovely dialogue, via email, about this. I am grateful to her.

    There are two main reasons I found Yvonne’s post so disturbing. One was the prescriptiveness (“one,” “you”), which Yvonne has addressed.

    The other is that all the arguments Yvonne presented about how it’s just not possible, or it’s too difficult, to be involved in more than one spiritual community at the same time, are arguments that are used frequently to support discrimination against non-Christian Friends (Quakers), completely regardless of the lived experience and reality of the non-Christian Friends involved.

    (For example, we’re *seen* as being involved in more than one community/tradition, simply b/c we’re non-Christian — even if we’re not involved in any other group/community than our Meeting — and therefore are told we can’t be “good” Friends, even if we’re pillars of our Meetings. Or, if we are involved in more than one community/tradition, we are held to different standards than Christian Friends who are involved with additional Quaker, interfaith Christian, or even Buddhist groups. It’s that classic catch-22 test of oppression.) (Suzanne Pharr, yes?)

    There are also places within unprogrammed Quakerism where I have been welcomed whole-heartedly as a Pagan Friend / Quaker Witch, where I am expected to be my fullest self spiritually and theaologically, where Friends actively welcome and work towards theaological diversity, and where my ministry is actively supported. So it’s not all thorny ickiness.

    I’ve written quite a bit about both the discrimination and the support at my blog. I also have a list of resources for Pagan Quakers and Quaker Pagans at my website.

    We’re a small but vibrant community. We have a list-serv, several bloggers (Yvonne mentions some), and courses at study centers and retreats, and we get together at numerous larger Quaker and Pagan Gatherings throughout the year, especially Friends General Conference Gathering in North America.

    There’s also an active community of Jewish Friends, some of whom are involved in Quakerism solely, some of whom are actively involved in their synagogues as well as their Quaker Meetings. We have a list-serv, and get together once a year at the larger Friends General Conference Gathering.

    Yvonne’s experience is her own, and I would never argue with the truth of her experience: that it did not work for her. But, as she has since said, it’s not prescriptive for other people.

    However, it’s good to know what pitfalls any of us have encountered, both for awareness and to offer support. So I’m glad she’s shared her experience.


  16. Reading the original article (with addendum), I was struck by the concept of belonging to a Tradition — it seemed that this belonging was the source of consternation when two or more Traditions were involved.

    I know it’s somewhat standard usage, but how is it that a Tradition acquires ownership of a person — and might develop jealousy in the face of competition for that person’s allegiance? I know that I, RedBird, belong to a Friends (Quaker) Meeting in the sense that I applied for membership some 30 years ago as a Quaker just moved into the area and I was welcomed into membership. I haven’t been read out of Meeting yet for doing things to give the Meeting or Friends a bad name. Because Friends deny having a creed or set of required beliefs, there is no belief test they can apply — only behavior — and that isn’t codified. So, as it suits me to remain Quaker, I do so. But Quakerism doesn’t possess or own or claim me; it is a noncorporeal being at most.

    For myself, that which drew me to Friends in my early adulthood remains with me today and forms the basic structure of my ?worldview?, ethics, belief system? — and would continue to do so even if I asked to be released from membership in my local Meeting. To that extent, I own/ possess/ claim Quaker tradition as real, personal, and important to me. And as long as I do remain a member of a Meeting and live by that tradition, I can say truthfully I am a Quaker.

    I am also a Witch. I specifically claim that word in describing myself because, at this point in history, no one is in a position to define it out from under me — as happened with Christian and the even earlier foundation of my life. The teachings of he who I now call Elder Brother, Yeshua of Nazareth, remain foundational with me, but in testimony and truth, I will no longer claim to be Christian — because I don’t know what it means, and whoever heard me make such a claim could reasonably associate me with beliefs and practices that are repugnant to me.

    I am who I am, and I can offer some insight into my spiritual and religious worldview by saying I am a Quaker Pagan — the W__ word evoking unknown fears and assumptions when used among strangers.

    I am a chaplain – by calling and dedication, by education, and by active engagement in service. When I function in that role, the people I encounter see me first as whatever they expect a chaplain to be — I bear their projection of “chaplain” and all it means to them, until our interaction modifies projection into reality. In that role, I can be of service to people of any faith or of none. Regarding my self-identification? If they don’t ask, I don’t tell. If they ask, I tell what is most helpful to them in the moment that is also true — and return to focus on their faith.

    Out of this long and rambling post, my major point is: let us not be bound in service to these boxes and labels that should be serving — not constraining or conflicting – us.

    Blessed Be,


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