Totalising systems

A totalising system is one that seeks to subsume all other paradigms within its paradigm, rather than accepting that other paradigms exist alongside it. It regards itself as a complete and universal system which can explain all experience and needs no supplemental systems.

A non-totalising or pluralist system recognises its particularity to its local culture and sees that different philosophies emerge out of different cultural contexts and local histories. A totalising system ignores local contexts or seeks to explain them through its paradigm.

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Paganism for Beginners: Festivals

Different Pagan traditions have different festivals. The Heathen community celebrates its own cycle of festivals. Wiccans, Druids, and many eclectic Pagans celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year. Polytheists have their own festivals too, usually based on the particular ethnic tradition they are working with.

The festivals of specific Pagan paths

  • The Eightfold Wheel of the Year & the Druid Festivals by Philip Carr-Gomm. An exploration of the Druidic symbolism of the festivals of the Wheel of the Year.
  • Heathen rites, festivals and practices – BBC religion page introducing Heathenry, its festivals, rituals, and practices.
  • Traditional Heathen Festivals (UK) – WikiPagan. A list of festivals celebrated by Heathens in the UK based on historical festivals and festivals from British folklore. Other festival lists exist based on the solar year, the lunar year and monthly festivals dedicated to individual gods and goddesses. The celebration of festivals varies greatly between groups and individuals who will only celebrate the festivals they consider the most relevant to their path. Typically a festival year will include three, eight or twelve of the following festivals.
  • Calendar of Religio Romana festivals – Nova Roma. There were many festivals in ancient Rome, dedicated to various different deities, and commemorating mythological events. Some of them were major events involving the whole city; others were small local affairs for the devotees of a particular deity.
  • Kemetic festivals – The Kemetic Orthodox faith celebrates many festivals, both ancient and modern. These include major holidays such as Wep Ronpet (the Kemetic New Year), Aset Luminous, and Wag Festival. All of these festivals and many more (there’s nearly one for every day of the year!) can be found in the ancient calendars. While they do celebrate the ancient traditions, it’s not always known exactly how every festival was celebrated or all of the ritual events which took place. As a living and modern faith, Kemetics find as much information as they can on these ancient traditions and celebrate them in a modern way, both together in person and from afar. They’ve also created some entirely modern celebrations to honor the Gods. 

The Wheel of the Year – Wiccan and Druid

Samhain (31 October) – Samhain

Samhain is a festival honouring ancestors. It is also the “harvest of meat” when cattle would be slaughtered before the winter.  To the ancient Celts, however, Samhain was a festival of liberation from oppression.  In East Anglia, it was known as Hollantide. Many Wiccans use Samhain rituals to honour, remember, and commune with our loved ones who have passed on.

Samhain is the Irish word for the month of November.  The ancient Irish festival held at this time was about the renewal of freedom – legends associated with it tell of heroes who freed their people from bondage.  So the association with the dead was probably imported to this country by Christianity, as this was the feast of All Saints and All Souls.  After the Reformation, of course, the importance of these festivals was downplayed, and by the early 20th century, folklorists were speculating that the origins of All Hallows were actually Pagan.  The first stirrings of the Pagan revival started in the early 20th century, so the idea of Samhain being associated with the dead was imported into Paganism.

Pagans tend to focus on the preciousness of this life, not some future one beyond death.  Hence we want to celebrate and remember the lives of our ancestors.  Ancestors can be relatives and friends who have died, or people from the past whom we admire (we often honour both).  These people have shaped who we are now – given us life, given us inspiration, guided us, comforted us, and nurtured us – and it comforts us to remember them and commune with them.

Many people believe in reincarnation, and that the consciousness resides in an in-between place between lives.  In Paganism, the dead are seen as not being very far away – only a heartbeat away – and many Pagans say that “the veil between the worlds is thin” at Samhain, because the tides of life are on the ebb as winter approaches, and because the encroaching darkness of winter is seen as a time for contemplation, remembrance, and introspection.

Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth.  If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight.  If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost.  Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.

Samhain or Hallowe’en is part of the dance of the elements around the wheel of the seasons, one of the many interlocking cosmic cycles of which our lives are an intimate part.

In many cultures, especially in Mexico, All Souls is the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – when people go to visit family graves, and set up altars for them in the home. This is not a morbid practice, but an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life, death as part of the natural cycle.

So why should we reintegrate this festival into our spiritual practice? Because in Britain, death is swept under the carpet, ignored and feared. If we acknowledged it (at least once in the year), it would be an invitation to live more fully and mindfully. If we ignore it, it becomes part of the shadow, the part of our psyche that we reject and that contains our fears and follies, and which we project onto other people: the Other, the outsider, the transgressor.

Whereas if we recognise death as being part of the natural cycle, like the seasons of the year, then we can live more integrated lives, living in and for the moment.

Samhain is also the time when, as the nights get longer and the winter grips the land, we descend into our own depths. Summer is a time for being extrovert, creative and expansive; winter is a time for curling up by the fireside and going within oneself to find the poetic, the spiritual and the quiet side of ourselves – the forgotten aspects, perhaps even the side of ourselves that we have repressed and need to examine.

The presiding deity of winter is the Crone Goddess. She has been feared and denigrated in recent centuries – people speak of old wives’ tales, haggard old witches muttering in corners, and so on. But traditionally, old women were the ones who were the keepers of stories and other traditional wisdom such as herb lore and midwifery. She is the midwife and the one who washed, anointed and laid out the dead, the one who cuts the cord of both life and death. She represents merciful release; but she also possesses the wisdom of old age. Wisdom is traditionally represented as a feminine being or quality. Wisdom is the joining together of instinct and experience and knowledge. It is the wisdom of the body, the knowledge of when to act and when to refrain from acting, when to speak and when to keep silent. Wisdom comes from reflection upon experience and knowledge.

The Crone is also the Goddess of the Waning Moon, which represents a time of letting go and ebbing away, so it is traditional at Samhain to let go of aspects of your life that you do not need or want any more.

Yule (21 December) – Alban Arthan

The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.

When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.

The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.

The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.

At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t literally descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the Sun god goes.

Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)

Imbolc (2 February) – Imbolc

Imbolc is a festival celebrating the lactation of ewes, the coming of lambs, and the first stirrings of spring. The name means either “ewes’ milk” (Oimelc) or “in the belly” (im bolg).

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint.  The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft.  The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare – which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times.  There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas (also on 2 February) is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Torah.

Both these festivals have traditionally focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud.  They are also a celebration of goddesses.

Spring Equinox (21 March) – Alban Eilir

Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of spring is really becoming apparent. According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre. She was later conflated with Ostara by the Brothers Grimm, who said she was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text, so much of the modern mythology associated with her is extrapolated from Bede, and does not have any basis in older mythology. That does not mean that it is not valid as mythology, just that people should not claim ancient origins for it. There are also some other, more interesting, myths around the Spring Equinox, such as the Easter Fox.

Beltane (1 May) – Beltane

Beltane is a festival celebrating sacred sexuality. It is typically celebrated by jumping over fires and dancing round maypoles. Pagan rituals often include symbolic expressions of sexuality.

A celebration of Beltane could include celebration of sexuality in all its forms. It could also include celebrations of the senses, and something to honour the coming of spring and the renewal of life.

Midsummer (21 June) – Alban Hefin

Midsummer is a festival celebrating the Sun. At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for our consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self goes inward and becomes more introspective.

A celebration of midsummer could focus on the aspects related to consciousness, and emphasise the shift from outward to inward preoccupations.

Lammas (1 August) – Lughnasadh

Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh. The harvest is an important symbol of cyclicity, growth, and change. The wheel turns, and what has grown must die, so that the seeds can be planted for the new cycle of growth.

Autumn Equinox (21 September) – Alban Elued

At the Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal (but after this the nights get longer), so most rituals focus on this, and on the importance of balance. The festival is also said to honour the Celtic god Mabon, who was imprisoned in a tower for many years. It’s also the fruit harvest; for this reason, I associate it with the Roman deities Pomona and Vertumnus. A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on the sensual delights of food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.

In China, they see life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence, the dynamic equilibrium of nature.  Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.

This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons.  The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring.  As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.

In British folk traditions, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter.

A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on gratitude for food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.


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The varieties of religious experience

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer (Wikipedia)

There has been much talk (in the Pagan blogosphere, and on forums and mailing lists) about the problem of an overall Pagan identity erasing and subsuming particular traditions within it, which have their own distinct identities, mythologies, values, and theologies.There is a way in which these groups can come together without those distinct identities being erased, however. If you look at campaigning coalitions (such as the American Civil Liberties Union in the USA, the Accord Coalition in the UK, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and so on), they have coalesced to campaign on a specific issue on which they all agree, and set aside their differences only for the purposes of the campaign.

Andrew J Brown explores four different levels of organisation at his blog, Caute, using a model formulated by Arne Naess, one of the proponents of deep ecology.

Level 1, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions available in the world. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. We could call this level “irreducible diversity” (I like to give different aspects of a model names, because numbers don’t mean much to me). In the space we label “Paganism”, irreducible diversity consists of the different traditions, such as Druidry, eclectics, Feri, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Reclaiming, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc.

At level 2, these groups can form alliances, or common platforms. These can be for a specific campaign purpose, or for forming a bigger grouping for the purposes of interfaith dialogue. These alliances can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common. The member groups set aside the differences temporarily in order to work together, but they do not sweep the differences under the carpet, attempt to form a synthesis, or otherwise erase the differences.

Problems occur when a level 1 group (such as Wicca) is mistaken for a level 2 group, or when the distinctive identity of a level 1 group is misapplied to another group in the level 2 alliance or common platform. Paganism is a common platform; it is not a level 1 group.

At level 3 of the model, the groups which have formed an alliance have to actually agree to act. We could call this level “planning”. At this point, plans are informed by the beliefs, values, and mythology of each group. Let’s say for example that a group of polytheists and a group of pantheists decide to do a ritual together, perhaps to strengthen the local Pagan community. The polytheists will want to emphasise the distinct identity of any deities that are mentioned. The pantheists will probably be less interested in distinct deities, and more interested in emphasising the immanence of the Divine. At this level, there is lots of disagreement on how to proceed.

At level 4, the action is carried out (so we could call this level “work” or “action”). In our example, a ritual is performed. It very probably won’t be entirely satisfying for either the polytheists or the pantheists, but whatever the purpose of the ritual was, it should be judged by whether that purpose was achieved (in this case, was understanding increased between the two groups?). Afterwards the two groups can return happily to their own style of ritual. They will also evaluate the action in terms of their own values, beliefs, mythology and tradition – to ascertain whether it was helpful, and whether they want to co-operate with the other group on some other project.

The point of this model, as Andrew Brown makes clear, is that

when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship … has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements

It also means that diversity can be maintained, which is important because different groups provide different forms of nourishment to their members, and we don’t all want to be munged together into some sort of eclectic soup; and it means we can respect each other’s differences while working together on any aims we have in common (such as, perhaps, respect for the environment).

I posted a link to my previous blogpost “The Pagan umbrella is leaking” on Facebook, and someone commented ‘Why does it matter what you are called, as long as you are a good person?’

It matters because a group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

Given the endless variety of religious experience, and the multifarious ways that humans like to connect with the numinous, we simply cannot splurge all the distinct traditions together into an eclectic mix, because that necessary diversity would be lost.

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown.

People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…

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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Dual-faith practice (part 4 of 4)

Criticisms of dual-faith practice

A Unitarian Tenebrae

Me, a Wiccan priestess, doing a Unitarian Tenebrae service with lapsed Anglicans and a Jewish candlestick (Hanukiah). Sorry for the inappropriate cultural appropriation but it was the only candle-holder in the building.

Much of the criticism of dual-faith practice seems to revolve around the issue of authority, and whether this is derived from the individual, the group, the tradition, or the Divine.

Other possible criticisms include the idea that each tradition is complete in itself and does not require input from outside (Bloom, 1994: 164-5); and the possible danger of ‘pick’n’mix’ spirituality, which might mean that the dual-faith practitioner chooses only the parts of each tradition that appeal to him or her, and avoids aspects which seem difficult or repellent now but may later turn out to be useful, or which the tradition insists are necessary.  Brooks (2003) writes:

There is minimal intellectual or moral rigour to “bespoke belief” that knits together the cosiest aspects of the systems on offer and ignores any broader inconsistencies.

There are also issues like loyalty to one’s tradition and to the martyrs who died for the principles espoused by that tradition (Thurston, 1994: 178).

The degree of difficulty in combining two or more traditions depends on how exclusive the truth claims of each tradition may be.  Bloom (1994: 164-5) distinguishes between exclusivism (claims of completeness) and sectarianism (claims to sole possession of the truth):

Exclusivism may appear to be a negative feature of religious faith. However, I believe it can be distinguished from sectarianism, which is more an attitude that denies any validity or truth in other views. On the positive side, the exclusive character of a religious faith may indicate the conviction that the faith is comprehensive, complete, needing nothing from the outside to justify itself. It is my personal observation that religious traditions are integral wholes, growing up out of the experience of founders and members and evolving through the centuries.  Though they may appear to outside observers as lacking in some dimension, the participants in these traditions may not experience that lack. What appears to be lacking to some observer may, for historical or other reasons, be latent, though not fully articulated within a tradition.

People who have had direct mystical experiences of the numinous often find it difficult to fit them into the norms of the traditions they are following.  Various mystics,  particularly women (Herzig, 2006: 25), attracted the attention of the Inquisition to determine whether or not their mystical revelations fitted in with Catholic doctrine, or whether their miracles or stigmata were genuine (Herzig, 2006: 31).  Some revelations cannot be accommodated in the existing paradigm: new religions were founded on the teachings of Buddha and Jesus because they were not accepted by the traditions from which they emerged (Case, 1913: 64).  Sometimes people will break away to form or join a new tradition because of dissatisfaction with some feature of their existing tradition; this may involve a total rejection of the existing tradition, and/or a return to an earlier tradition – as, for example, Goddess feminists’ rejection of Christianity on the grounds of its patriarchal associations and their creation of new traditions (Harvey, 1997: 74). Alternatively, the new tradition may be a syncretic amalgam of the old with the new, as early Christianity was an amalgam of the new insights of its founders with its Jewish heritage and the Graeco-Roman religions that were contemporary with it (Case, 1913: 66).

Another possible criticism of dual-faith and syncretistic practice is the charge of cultural appropriation.  This issue was first raised by Native Americans in objection to the ‘borrowing’ of Native American ideas, rituals and practices.  They objected that this was just another form of imperialism.  If using ideas from other cultures is not done respectfully and with a sensitivity to their original context, it can seem like theft to the originators of those ideas (Harrison, 1999: 11).


Whatever models are used to describe or explain dual-faith practice, it is clear that fidelity to the traditions being followed (or to the spirit of them, if not the letter) is of paramount importance to dual-faith practitioners.  They are not merely ‘spiritual shoppers’, but rather people who are attempting to follow what they have experienced as a call, coming from a source perceived to be external, but heard inwardly.

It seems that it is possible to follow two or more traditions simultaneously, but never easy, and sometimes painful, both because of contradictions which may be felt internally, and because of hostility from people whose religion is almost entirely a matter of external authority.

Various models may be offered to describe practising more than one faith: dvoeverie, inculturation, syncretism, and coinherence – but in reality, experience, practice and belief are always more complex than theology and theory might suggest.  Beliefs and practices vary dramatically within faith traditions as well as between them, so it is sometimes hard to draw accurate boundaries on a map of faiths.

This article was originally published in the Unitarian journal, Faith and Freedom.


Bloom, A. (1994)  ‘Joint Practice:  A Buddhist Perspective on Dual Worship.’                              Buddhist-Christian Studies,14, pp 163-167 [online] Available from: JSTOR  (accessed 8.9.2007)

Brooks, L. (2003) ‘Spiritual tourism: Religion must be the new shopping – Cosmo has appointed a spirituality editor.’ 8 December, 2003 The Guardian [online] Available from:,3604,1102184,00.html (accessed 23.9.2007)

Carr-Gomm, P.  (2002) Druidcraft: The Magic of Wicca and Druidry. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Case, S. J. (1913)  ‘The Nature of Primitive Christianity.’ The American Journal of Theology, 17 (1), pp. 63-79 [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 9.9.2007)

Chapin-Bishop, C. (2007) ‘Quaker, Pagan, Quakerpagan or Paganquaker: Moving Beyond the Cool Kids’ Table.’  Quaker Pagan Reflections. [online] Available from: (accessed 4.9.2007)

Chapin-Bishop, P. (2007) ‘Membership and Identity.’  Quaker Pagan Reflections. [online] Available from: (accessed 4.9.2007)

Corless, R. (1994)  ‘Joint Practice:  A Reply to the Responses.’ Buddhist-Christian Studies              14 pp 181-184 [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 4.9.2007)

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Slavic Review, 52 (4), pp. 700-712.  [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 28.8.2007)

Edwards, D. N. (2005) ‘The archaeology of religion.’ In: Diaz-Andreu, M., Lucy, S., Babić, S., and Edwards, D. N., eds. The Archaeology of Identity.  London and New York: Routledge.

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (2007) Spiritual exploration: A brief introduction to Unitarian theology and spirituality.  [online] Available from: (accessed 9.8.2007)
Grayson, J H., (1992) ‘The Accommodation of Korean Folk Religion to the Religious Forms of Buddhism: An Example of Reverse Syncretism’.  Asian Folklore Studies, 51 (2), pp. 199-217 [online] Available from: JSTOR  (accessed 28.8.2007)

Griffin, W. (2002) ‘Reviewed Work(s): Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community by Sarah M. Pike’. The Journal of Religion, 82 (3), pp. 499-501 [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 24.9.2007)

Guinness, M. (1994)  A Little Kosher Seasoning.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Harris, A. (2006) ‘Defining Embodiment.’ Embodiment Resources. [online] Available from: (accessed 22.9.2007)

Harrison, S. (1999) ‘Cultural Boundaries’. Anthropology Today 15(5), pp. 10-13 [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 23.9.2007)

Harvey, G. (1997)  Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press.

Hayes, S., (2003) ‘Witchcraft and Death: Inculturation and Orthodox mission.’  Theandros: An online journal of Orthodox theology and philosophy, 1 (1). [online] Available from:  (accessed 28.8.2007)

Herzig, T. (2006) ‘Witches, Saints, and Heretics: Heinrich Kramer’s Ties with Italian Women Mystics.’  Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, 1: 1. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

King, S. B. (1994) ‘On Pleasure, Choice, and Authority: Thoughts in Process.’                         Buddhist-Christian Studies, 14, pp. 189-196 . [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 8.9.2007)

Kuroda, T., Dobbins, J. C., Gay, S. (1981) ‘Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion.’                              Journal of Japanese Studies, 7 (1), pp. 1-21.  [online] Available from: (accessed 9.8.2007)

Kværne, P., (1972)   ‘Aspects of the Origin of the Buddhist Tradition in Tibet.’  Numen, 19 (1).  pp. 22-40. [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 28.8.2007)

Lawrence, B. B., (1973) ‘Shahrastānī on Indian Idol Worship.’  Studia Islamica, No. 38.  pp. 61-73. [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 28.8.2007)

McGinn, B. (1999) ‘Island of Saints and Scholars: Some Recent Books on Early Irish Christianity (Review Article)’. The Journal of Religion, 79 (2). pp. 280-283. [online] Available from: (accessed 29.8.2007)

Morgan, P., (1995) ‘The Study of Religions and Interfaith Encounter.’  Numen, 42 (2)., pp. 156-171. [online] Available from: JSTOR (accessed 29.8.2007)

Munson, H. (2005) ‘Fundamentalism.’  In: Hinnells, J. R. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion.  London and New York: Routledge.

Opp, L. (2007) ‘Membership and Identity.’ The Good Raised Up. [online] Available from: (accessed 22.9.2007)

Rambo, L. (2000) ‘Conversion – Part I.’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (PBS) November 10, 2000    Episode no. 411 [online] Available from: (accessed 22.9.2007)

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Rock, S. (2001) ‘What’s in a Word? A Historical Study of the Concept of Dvoeverie.’ Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 35(1): 19-28.

Sealy, C. (2006). ‘The State of Paganism Today.’  [online] Available from: Unitarian Universalist Association. (accessed 25.9.2007)

Stephenson, J. (2005) ‘Muddled in your head? Come to Buddha.’  The Independent. 20 June 2005. [online] Available from: (accessed 4.9.2007)

Tamney, J., Johnson, S. (1988) ‘Explaining Support for the Moral Majority.’ Sociological Forum, 3 (2), pp. 234-255 [online] Available from: JSTOR  (accessed 24.9.2007)

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Dual-faith practice (part 3 of 4)

Membership and identity

Dual and multi-faith practice can also bring up questions of membership and identity.

Many people identify as being of a particular religion; but what constitutes membership?  In Christianity, the boundary between membership and identity is fairly blurred – it could be measured by attendance, baptism, belief, or adherence to the Nicene Creed.  Traditionally, Christianity has expected a clearly demarcated religious identity (Thurston, 1994: 177).   In Paganism, identity and membership of the community are largely negotiated at festivals, which people attend both to discover the self and to develop the self (Griffin, 2001: 499).

Peter Chapin-Bishop (2007) is clear that membership in a tradition consists of having received divine communication in that setting.  Liz Opp (2007) writes that identity is a sense of one’s personal values being close to the group identified with, whereas membership is participation in that group, its norms, values and social life.  She adds that identity is the ground of a person’s being, and may come into conflict with membership of a group.  In her formulation, identity seems more important than membership, which might suggest that she is advocating a subjective-life approach rather than a life-as approach; but she also talks about experiencing an inner call.  There is clearly a subtle balance between membership and identity whenever people participate in a group.  Perhaps people join groups because they admire the values of those groups and want to become more like those who are in them.  Perhaps people join because they admire the practices of the group, but then find that the values are different to what they are expecting, or that they are expected to transform their own identity, values and insights to conform with that of the group and its traditions to a degree which violates their identity.  Either way, the formation of a person’s identity happens in a social context (Edwards, 2005: 116), and groups that someone becomes involved in will reflect that identity.

The issue of membership and identity is important in any discussion of a dual or multi-faith practice.  A person may identify with a group, but if the membership requirements of that group are that its members do not belong to other groups perceived to be in conflict with its values or beliefs, can that person be said to be a member of the group?  It could be argued that if a person identifies with a group, the criteria of membership need to expand to include that person; on the other hand, it might be held that the person has to adjust to the mores of the group in order to belong.  However, if the practices of the group contradict its stated ideals and values, perhaps the newcomer is the very person best placed to call attention to that contradiction, since they are bringing a fresh perspective.

The process of “conversion” (a rather loaded term) often plays a part in a change of religious allegiance.  However, if the person finds truth in both their new group and their previous group, and the old group emphasises one thing that the person finds worth in, and the new group another thing, it will be difficult for the person to make a choice to leave the old group and join the new group; indeed, such a choice may not even be considered (C. Chapin-Bishop, 2007).

Lewis Rambo’s (2000) model of conversion is more complex than the “road to Damascus” experience that most people think of when they think about conversion. In phase one, he says, people go through some kind of crisis (which could be dissatisfaction with their current belief system, or a mystical experience). In phase two, they go on a quest to find something that fits their new model of the world. The third phase involves interaction (learning how to do their chosen religious practice). The fourth phase is commitment (“rituals that create a new identity, a new set of relationships, a new set of roles that lead to a new and different kind of life”), and the fifth stage is consequences – the transformation effected by the commitment (which could be lifelong development in the chosen faith, or it could be disillusionment and going back to phase one).

In the case of dual or multi-faith practice, the conversion process may be experienced as an expansion of understanding, rather than a change of direction.  Michelle Guinness (1994: 15), who was brought up Jewish, read the “forbidden bit” of the Bible and decided that Jesus was the Messiah – but when she became a Christian, she introduced many Jewish ideas and practices to her family and her church, feeling incomplete without the Jewish side of herself.  The contrast between the life-affirming Judaism she grew up in and the asceticism of the Christianity she joined was too great; she had to find a compromise.

Cat Chapin-Bishop’s crisis moment was the destruction by terrorists of the World Trade Centre in 2001, when she “knew in my body as well as my mind that deep and absolute conviction that war was just not the answer for anything”. However, the crisis was an occasion for the expansion of her worldview, not a change of direction; she says, “I am still Pagan–my love for the earth and the Old Gods does not change. But other Quaker testimonies and practices have grown in me, about oaths, clergy, simplicity… and they have changed how I worship, if not what or why.”  The quest phase was very short (between 11 September and 12 October), and the commitment phase began when she sought formal membership of the Religious Society of Friends.  The consequences are still being worked out in the internal dialogue of the two faiths.

Christianity and Buddhism have sought to privilege external revelations over the subjective promptings of the body and the inner life (Corless, 1994: 181); Paganisms and Judaism seek to integrate the life of mind, body and spirit by following the round of seasonal festivals (Harvey, 1997: 223).  When someone who follows inner promptings engages in dialogue with someone who follows an external authority such as a tradition or a book, the result is usually mutual incomprehension (King, 1994).  Those who experience an inner guide often relate it to an external entity which can also be found in the depths of the self (Harvey, 1997: 212).

This article was originally published in the Unitarian journal, Faith and Freedom.

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Dual-faith practice (part 2 of 4)

The ‘subjective turn’

The theory of subjectivisation proposes that “’the massive subjective turn of modern culture’ favours and reinforces those (subjective-life) forms of spirituality which resource unique subjectivities and treat them as a primary source of significance, and undermines those (life-as) forms of religion which do not.” (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 78)

‘Subjective-life’ is life lived as an unique individual with an emphasis on self-expression, whereas ‘life-as’ is life lived according to a specific role or identity (wife, mother, Christian, etc.)  The turn towards subjective-life has affected not only religion and spirituality, but also the world of work and the family (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 79).

‘Subjective-life’ spirituality is often characterised as a pick-and-mix approach (Stephenson, 2005), whereas practitioners of dual faith appear to desire fidelity to the traditions being followed (Corless, 1994: 182).  Clearly, in feeling a vocation to follow both faiths, such practitioners are responding to a subjective inner feeling, but trying to do so within the framework of a tradition.

Heelas and Woodhead (2005) make much of the oppositional tension between ‘subjective-life’ spirituality and ‘life-as’ religion, but Thomas (2000: 42) suggests that the distinction between spirituality and religion – the “assumption that whereas religion deals with the outer life, that is, institutions, traditions, practices, doctrines, and moral codes, spirituality treats the inner life, which thus tends to be individualized and privatized” –  may in fact be a false dichotomy, arising out of Western discourse.  Taylor (1989: 111) explains:

In our language of self-understanding, the opposition “inside-outside” plays an important role. We think of our thoughts, ideas, or feelings as being “within” us, while the objects in the world which these mental states bear on are “without.”

. . . But strong as this partitioning of the world appears to us, as solid as this localization may seem, and anchored in the very nature of the human agent, it is in large part a feature of our world, the world of modern, Western people. (cited in Thomas, 2000: 42-43)

Thomas (2000: 43) adds that there is both a tradition of inwardness and a tradition of outwardness in Christianity, but argues that the outward should be considered primary, and a major source of the inner.

‘Subjective-life’ spirituality seems mainly focused on the inner as the primary source for validating experience.  Hence it is likely to conflict with solely outward-focused religions (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 18).

However, dual-faith practitioners seem to be answering an inner call whilst attempting to be faithful to the whole of their chosen traditions.  Corless (1994: 181) says:

Both Buddhism and Christianity recommend that practice be done for others rather than oneself … Insofar as the coinherence practitioner looks for the practice to aid him- or herself on the way to salvation or liberation, or to be of benefit to oneself in any way whatever, just to that extent is one’s practice faulty, deficient, or sinful. Insofar as the coinherence practitioner seeks only to be of service to the Christian and Buddhist traditions, and whatever aims they wish to set forward, just to that extent is one’s practice meritorious, authentic, and righteous.

What is significant about this passage is the way in which Corless denies that the practice is intended to be of benefit to himself; instead it is about benefiting others, whereas ‘subjective-life’ spirituality is usually about self-development.

In a discussion of her dual-faith practice of being a Quaker and a Pagan, Cat Chapin-Bishop (2007) says:

But that’s just what keeps me Quaker — we center down, and I can find you, Friend, in the shining place: you and the sea of limitless Light. And that’s what keeps me Pagan — I go out into the woods, and the trees are not things but friends, and the moonlight makes what is sacred shine out all around me.
…. No matter how the labels fit or don’t fit, my job is to keep walking… just keep walking. … Just… keep going the way I’m led.
(“But I wanna be in the Quaker club, too, dammit. Why don’t I ever get to sit at the cool kids’ table?” A small voice asks. Shut up, voice. This isn’t about that. Keep walkin’.)

Here, it seems, the emphasis is on the path rather than on the one walking it, and on making connections with others which is as important as the inner sense of vocation.

Peter Chapin-Bishop (2007), also a Quaker Pagan, echoes the idea that the Divine is outside and permeating inwards, and is more important than the social norms and conventions of the respective faiths, and that the core or defining aspect of belonging to the tradition is that a connection to the numinous happened in that context:

God (the Divine, the Gods…whatever you want to call Him/Her/It/Them) calls to us. Divinity “bleeds through” from the realm of the Divine into our world. … When I say I am a Quaker, it is because I have been a conduit for the Divine in that context. Once I’d had the experience of…well, call it “drawing down the Light,” the rest was just a formality. My clearness committee tested that leading and concurred, but I’m not a Quaker because they said so. I’m a Quaker because I listened for the presence of Spirit in the silence, and It spoke through me, and that’s what Quakers do. Just like I’m Wiccan because I invoked the presence of the God in circle and He came to me, and that’s what Wiccans do.

What these people are doing does not seem to be ‘pick’n’mix’ spirituality, or even dvoeverie (the practice of two faiths side by side without any mutual feedback – if this is even possible).  It is much more like Corless’s idea of coinherence, whereby the two traditions mutually inform and enrich each other, and somehow this is of service to both communities, or it involves serving the Divine, which encompasses both people and nature.  Corless makes it clear that the practice of coinherence is painful, not something that anyone should choose deliberately (Corless, 1994: 181).  The concept of walking a path, or being led, crops up several times in these writings.  Their spirituality is not merely eclectic or inner-directed (‘subjective-life’), nor is it entirely outwardly directed (‘life-as’): it is about the connection of inner realities with outer numinosity.

From the evidence of people’s explanations of what they are doing in their coinherence practices, it would seem that they may well be evidence for the ‘subjective turn’, but that the practitioners are not entirely subjectively led or inner-directed, as they still feel the need for a community of practice and have a sense of the external promptings of the numinous.

This article was originally published in the Unitarian journal, Faith and Freedom.

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Dual-faith practice (part 1 of 4)

An increasing number of people are beginning to identify themselves as belonging to more than one spiritual tradition – not merely in the sense of selecting attractive ideas from each tradition, but trying to be faithful to the ethos of both traditions.

Questions that might arise about dual or multi-faith practice are whether and how it is possible to combine them, especially if there is potential conflict between their worldviews, or their worldviews are mutually exclusive; how a particular person came to follow more than one tradition; what constitutes membership of a tradition; whether identification with a tradition is sufficient; and whether practising more than one faith is merely part of the ‘subjective turn’ of contemporary culture.  There has been criticism of dual-faith practitioners (e.g. Thurston, 1994), and this may also shed some light on these questions.

In many religions, the idea of practising more than one tradition is uncontroversial – for example, many people practice Wicca and Druidry alongside each other (Carr-Gomm, 2002), or Paganism and Unitarian Universalism (Sealy, 2006), or Buddhism and Shinto (Kuroda, 1981: 3) – but for those faiths which claim the exclusive loyalty of their followers, practising more than one tradition may be seen as deeply problematic.

Combining worldviews

Hayes (2003: 8) identifies four models for an encounter between a missionising religion and an indigenous one:

  1. Rejection. The traditional knowledge is rejected as purely evil.
  2. Dvoeverie. Two incompatible beliefs or worldviews are held side by side, with little or no interaction between them.
  3. Syncretism. The two different beliefs are mingled, to make a third, and new belief, which is different from either component.
  4. Inculturation. Where the original local culture is transformed, and the incoming belief becomes part of it.

He is writing from the perspective of Orthodox Christian missionary endeavours, which seek to respect as far as possible the pre-Christian traditions of the culture being evangelised, and acknowledge that there is good in indigenous traditions.  Nevertheless there is a fifth possibility, that instead of trying to convert people of other religions, the traditions agree to co-exist, whilst engaging in dialogue.

A similar example of an encounter between a missionising religion and an indigenous one can be found in the interaction of Buddhism and Shinto.  According to Kuroda (1981: 3), Shinto was not a distinct religion prior to the arrival of Buddhism (Shinto was originally a Chinese word signifying any and all folk religion in China, Korea and Japan).  In Japan, it is possible to be both Buddhist and Shinto at the same time, because neither world-view necessarily denies the other.  This is perhaps similar to Hayes’ (2003) model of inculturation, whereby the incoming tradition transforms the indigenous one (though I suspect the process is actually one of mutual transformation).

Examples of religious encounter range from explaining one religion using the symbolism and terminology of another, to a full-blown mingling of the two traditions.

There have been various historical instances of rejection, syncretism, dvoeverie and inculturation. An example of rejection is the Protestant evangelisation of indigenous cultures, where there is a tendency to view the indigenous culture negatively (Hayes, 2003: 8).  An example of dvoeverie is the simultaneous belief in Christian and Pagan entities allegedly held by many Russian peasants (Crummey, 1993: 701).  Examples of syncretism are the mixing of Buddhist and Shinto themes in Japanese culture (Grayson, 1992: 202), or the practices of Santeria and Voudun.  Examples of inculturation include the continuation of pre-Christian ideas within Christianity (McGinn, 1999: 282), or the incorporation of Bön practices within Tibetan Buddhism (Kvaerne, 1972).  Of course, the boundaries between these four models will be rather blurred.

It seems that, whenever a religion encounters another religion, a need is felt to make some form of accommodation with the truth claims of the other religion, sometimes by denying them, sometimes by recasting them in the language of one’s own tradition, and sometimes by assigning the other religion’s holy figure a position in one’s own tradition; for example, Hindus regarding Jesus as a ‘supremely religious soul’ (Woodburne, 1927).  The outcome of this process depends on the willingness of the faith communities to co-exist.  At the level of the individual, religious belief is always more ‘messy’ than a cursory examination of the creeds and teachings of the religion would lead one to think:

People’s maps of belief are complex and they are shifting all the time. Interfaith encounter is one factor in those shifts, in the mutation of religions. People listen and try to explain. (Morgan, 1995: 163)

More than one form of syncretism can be identified, depending on the relative political and cultural status of the two systems being syncretised.  Grayson (1992: 200) defines syncretism as the accommodation made by a world missionary religion (in the context he is discussing, Buddhism) to an ‘autocthonous religion’ (in this case, the indigenous folk religion of Korea).  He further defines two forms of syncretism, ‘high’ and ‘low’.  High syncretism is when the core values of the indigenous religion are retained, with only a veneer of the foreign religion; low syncretism is when only the surface trappings of the indigenous religion are retained, and its core values are replaced by those of the foreign religion.

Reverse syncretism (Grayson, 1992: 205) is when an indigenous religion begins to voluntarily incorporate elements of foreign religion into its practice (rather than the missionising religion making a compromise with the indigenous religion).  An example here might be the way in which the Pagan revival has incorporated elements of Hindu belief and practice (e.g. chakras) to fill gaps in its repertoire of magical practices.

Another form of syncretism is ‘coinherence’ (Corless, 1994: 182), where two religions that both make sense to the practitioner are followed side-by-side.  In the case of Corless (1994: 181) and other Christo-Buddhists, this seems to be because of the similarity of the two faiths.  Corless (1994: 183) held the two traditions in a creative tension, an internal dialogue.  This may sound superficially similar to dvoeverie, but in dvoeverie there is said to be little or no interaction between the two faiths in the mind of the practitioner, whereas in coinherence practice, the two are held in dialogue.

There have also been examples of deliberate syncretism, such as Ryōbu Shinto, a formal mixture of Buddhism and Shinto (Grayson, 1992: 202); the reorganisation of Roman paganism in response to Greek and Etruscan paganism (Grayson, 1992: 201); the Romanisation of indigenous deities, for example the cult of Mercury and Rosmerta (Webster, 1997: 326); and the creation of the syncretistic Din-I-Ilahi religion by the Mughal emperor Akbar (Lawrence, 1973: 61).

In a global and post-colonial culture, encounters between faiths no longer occur at the boundaries of their traditional heartlands, but everywhere.  The interfaith movement is growing, both in order to make peace between conflicting traditions and to explore the idea that all religions are honouring the same Divine, or numinous (Morgan, 1995: 163).

At the same time, there seems to be a widening polarisation between liberal, tolerant and inclusivist views of religion, and ecstatic or evangelical practices which are frequently associated with fundamentalist and exclusivist views.  The people who are attracted to this type of religion tend to long for a stable and ordered society but also want to feel their faith inwardly; however there is evidence for a decline of this sort of religion in England since the 1990s  (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 146).  Church-going in general has sharply declined in both Britain and the USA (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 56), whereas spirituality in the holistic milieu has been on the increase (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005: 42).

So it seems there are a range of possible responses to diversity: to embrace it and celebrate it; to tolerate it; or to reject it and seek to impose norms.  However, no matter how a particular tradition responds to it, it is impossible to ignore it.

This article was originally published in the Unitarian journal, Faith and Freedom.

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Maps and signposts on the journey

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. … This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

 Signpost on Robin Hood Road near Whatstandwell, Derbyshire by Eamon Curry

Signpost on Robin Hood Road near Whatstandwell, Derbyshire by Eamon Curry

Stirring stuff, these quotes, and they very much appeal to the individualist in all of us. Don’t be a sheep – be a goat. Be a rugged individual blazing your trail through life. But does this approach to spirituality actually work?

In any other art, whether it is cookery, painting, music, or writing, it works better if you learn the techniques and the traditions before you start to experiment. In order to play jazz, you first have to learn how to play your instrument. In order to create fusion dishes, you need to learn the art of cooking in the two traditions you are going to  fuse. To create abstract and experimental art, you first need to learn how to paint, how to work with the materials – the canvas, the brushes, the paint; and you learn that by studying traditional techniques and symbolism and perspective, and then you can play around with them to create something original. The same goes for poetry – learn to write sonnets and haiku and so on before you write blank verse; learn how to use metaphor and alliteration, assonance and rhyme.

So why do we think that religion and spirituality are any different? Why do we think that you can just start at some random point and blaze a new trail in the wilderness? Existing techniques and traditions work because they are based on centuries of experience in navigating the pitfalls of the spiritual journey, exploring the depths of the human psyche, and learning to co-operate with like-minded others on the journey.

Religion means either re-connecting (from Latin religare) or re-reading (from Latin relegere). In other words, we re-connect with the Divine, or Nature, or other people (both human and non-human), or all three. And we re-read, and re-interpret, existing traditions and practices, fitting them into our own context.

No-one is really very clear on what spirituality means – it has been memorably described (by Lucy Bregman) as “a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning” – but I usually define it as the response of awe, wonder, compassion and love to the world around us.

But in order to get anywhere on the spiritual journey, we need to have a clear idea of where we are coming from, and where we are going, and how to get from A to B. If the aim of your spiritual journey is to discover your authentic self, then it will be different to that of someone whose aim is to annihilate the self in the oneness of the Divine. If you started out as an atheist, your journey will be different to that of someone who started out as a member of a Pagan family, who will be different from someone who started out as a Christian. Each of these journeys will contain different obstacles and different advantages.

However, all of them will benefit from the maps and stories left behind by other travellers, because we all have shared experiences as embodied beings, with parents, siblings, lovers, and friends, and we all live on planet Earth. These might be symbol systems, mythology, meditation techniques, values, rituals, theology, ethical systems, and so on. When I read writers from other religious traditions, I am constantly thinking, how do I relate this to my Pagan/Wiccan values, theology, philosophy? If you don’t know what your values, theology, and philosophy are, how do you know how to incorporate ideas from another tradition, or reject them if they don’t fit?

This seems to me to be the core problem with pick-and-mix spirituality, or making it up as you go along. If you don’t have a yardstick to compare new ideas against, how do you know if they are any good? If you pick bits and pieces out of various different systems, how do you know that you have a complete set of tools to “get you there”? Your personal biases might predispose you against some aspect of the toolkit that you might actually need to overcome a particular issue.

Pretty much all magical traditions are agreed that you should work through a single system for at least a year before you start to add things from other traditions. This gives you a good grounding in a tradition, and a sense of what will fit and what will not – and what sits well with you in that tradition, and what you might feel the need to modify.

I have now been practising Wicca for nearly 22 years, and in that time I have also explored other traditions (I have practiced both Druidry and Unitarianism, and read up about Heathenry, polytheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian mysticism, Taoism and Judaism) but my main focus was on how these systems sit with my personal worldview. Having practised Wicca for 22 years, of course my worldview has been shaped by that practice, but my practice has also been shaped by my sexuality, my ethics, and my life experiences. But the fact that I have a grounding in a specific tradition, with its community of practitioners, its techniques, rituals, mythology, symbolism, and history has been of inestimable value to me. This is the case even though I have been immensely frustrated at times with the whole gender binary issue, and the tendency of some Wiccans to be hierarchical and to insist that certain things in the tradition have to be done in a particular way. The autonomy of covens, however, allows me to change the bits that I don’t like, whilst the community of practice and the continuity of tradition makes me think carefully before discarding or selecting or changing things.

A liberal Christian friend of mine told me about an excellent piece of Buddhist wisdom: before enlightenment, the hills were hills, and the valleys were valleys; during enlightenment, the hills were valleys, and the valleys were hills; after enlightenment, the hills were hills and the valleys were valleys, but in a new way. In other words, during enlightenment, everything is true and all systems look the same from the vantage point at the foot of the Bodhi tree; but afterwards, we have to live in the real world once more, and that entails engaging with a particular set of symbols and rituals, and following a particular path. This approach does not deny the validity of other paths; it simply states that this is the right path for me personally, because of where I came from, and where I am aiming to get to. It also means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and you have a community of fellow-travellers to learn from, and a set of maps to guide you on your way.

The tradition that you choose, and the ways in which you respond to it and modify it, how you inhabit it, will depend upon your pre-existing value system and worldview. But having a system to follow is valuable because then you are not just flailing about in the bushes trying to find a path; rather you are navigating and negotiating existing paths.

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