Druid Thoughts: Pick and Mix Paganism

I know a lot of people whose paths are a mix of more than one tradition: Christio-pagans and Heathen, Christian, and Zen Druids  particularly, but there are others. There are some who see any kind of shopping around for ideas as New Age pick ‘n’ mix and spiritual tourism. There are many for whom any kind of mashup is a betrayal of all the traditions involved. The only true way is to be a purist and stick to one path, according to some.

What sent me off pondering this subject is the recent release of a book by my friend and fellow Druid, Joanne van der Hoeven. Zen Druidry is all about the areas of overlap between the two practices, and it is clearly written with an eye to people from both backgrounds. Jo is clearly a Zen Druid. So, has she somehow diminished Zen or Druidry by doing this? Is she any less a Druid because she draws a significant amount of her practice from Zen? Of course not.

I think it depends a lot on how you understand religions. If you believe that there is one true way, then anything else is basically wrong. There’s no wriggle room. In that situation, a person who takes The One True Way and mashes it up with some inferior religion is polluting the truth with rubbish. This isn’t just an issue about fundamentalist monotheistic folk, either. There are plenty of Pagans who do not like hybrid approaches. I’ve seen people trying to tell the Christio-pagan folk that they cannot believe in Christ and be Pagan. It has to be one or the other. One truth. One clearly defined way. One right answer. Paganism has its subset of fundies too. Perhaps we’re anxious about people from a dominant faith getting into Paganism. Perhaps we fear they will reduce us, or take something from us, or that it’s some kind of stealth attempt at conversion.

Now, if you are a polytheist, or an animist, as many Pagans and Druids are, there are interesting questions to ask about how and where we draw lines. Are we okay about mixing up a bit of Greek and Celtic? Do we mind having Welsh deities alongside Irish ones? What about Seax Wicca? Or Druiheathens, or any of the other blends. Is it ok to blend Paganism with other kinds of Paganism, or has the Shamanic Kemeticist really gone too far? None of our Pagan heritage was something historically static and solid. All religions change and evolve over time, and in Europe there’s been a lot of cross pollination. Mithras came from the Middle East into Roman faith where Greek influences were already at play. Given the striking similarity between Viking and Celtic knotwork, I’m inclined to assume some connection there too. The line between Keltoi and Germanic peoples was an arbitrary Roman one, and not about life as lived. And even if we’re going to be ‘purely’ Druids, and ‘purely’ Welsh Druids at that, what century do we hark back to? What bit of land? There will have been variance as well as commonality.

I think the idea of purity in any kind of human activity is, at best, mythic. Everything we do builds on what went before and the influences we have contact with. Roman writers thought there was a similarity between Druids and Pythagoreans, with one side having taught or influenced the other. If that’s true, we don’t know which way round it was. It could be more like convergent evolution.

The idea of pure faith is very much part of conversion-orientated montheisms. One True Way. That’s not, surely, how Pagans do things? We belong to the plurality of nature, the multiplicity of all that is wild and free, not to the tidy sterility of only having one single available take on truth. Nature has lots of different ways of doing pretty much anything you can think of. The idea of purity – be that of race or religion – is just a story groups of people tell themselves to reinforce group identity. It also serves to exclude others. This is a topic I really got into when writing Druidry and the Ancestors. State, nation, history, religion – these are all narratives, not tangible things.

The idea of there being one definable path to ultimate spiritual truth seems unlikely to me. Science is not delivering a one tidy theory of everything. You have to consider the world at a relevant scale. There’s not much point considering molecular biology when you want to know about swan migrations. Science is a weaving together of many truths that, combined, might eventually represent the entirety of everything that is. That would be beyond any of us to individually comprehend. Why should spiritual truth be different? Why should spirituality be simple when the rest of life is actually complex and multifaceted?

I don’t think any religion has the monopoly on truth. I like Druidry, I choose it because it suits how I feel and how I want to work. I do not confuse its being entirely right for me with its being entirely right. Plenty of things that suit me perfectly would be of far less use to someone with different needs and a different temperament. I don’t see Druidry as more right than any other path.

I am utterly fascinated by the commonality between different religions, and also by the differences. If we take all religions as having some truth in them, and more utility for some of us than for others, then we can let go of that rather restricted idea that anything, on its own, could be The Truth. At which point, there is no purity to pollute with inferior material. There is no right way to undermine with shopping around. There are only ideas. Some of those ideas might illuminate each other in juxtaposition. Some of them might reinvent each other through proximity. We may each find our insights and inspirations in different places and from different combinations of things. Surely it is the exploration that matters most?

If that means Zen Druidry, then that’s what you do. If your Druidry is the Druidry of a radius of fifteen miles from where you live, its history, spirits of place, sacred places and presiding deities, that’s what you have to do. No One True Way.

Druid Thoughts is published on occasional Wednesdays on Agora. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Nimue Brown

Druid blogger, author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors and Spirituality without structure (Moon Books) Intelligent Designing for Amateurs (Top Hat Books) and Hopeless Maine (Archaia). Book reviewer for the Druid Network and Pagan Dawn. Volunteer for OBOD. Green, folky, Steampunk wench with a coffee habit. www.druidlife.wordpress.com and www.hopelessmaine.com @Nimue_B and can be hunted down on facebook.

  • CLM

    Great post! I agree with your thoughts on No One True Way. NO ONE has the only truth…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1111755317 Tom Harbold

    100% agreement that insistence on “purity” of practice is an example of intrusion from the “one-true-and-only-way-ism” of exclusivist monotheistic thought. Our ancestors did not labor under any such delusions.

    Luther Martin’s “Hellenistic Religion: An Introduction” (http://www.amazon.com/Hellenistic-Religions-Introduction-Luther-Martin/dp/019504391X) describes a late-Classical world of considerable syncretism, in which people frequently followed more than one religion or mystery tradition by a policy of adhesion, not conversion. So, one might honor the ancestral Greco-Roman gods, but also be a follower of the mysteries of Isis, etc. In contemporary terms, practitioners of Voudon and Santeria see no issue in combining elements of Roman Catholicism with their practice.

    I agree that some traditions and practices “mate” together more smoothly and logically than others – as already mentioned, there are clear connections between and among the Norse/Germanic and Celtic traditions – but there is no necessary reason why someone cannot be a Zen Druid, or a Christian Druid, or whatever other combination one’s own spiritual journey leads one to embrace.

    I myself sometimes identify as an “Anglican Zen Druid,” because all of those traditions have meaning and resonance for me. I tend to practice them separately – just because one enjoys sushi, chimichangas, and chocolate cake (or pick your favorite unlikely combination) doesn’t mean one necessarily will choose to eat them all off the same plate at the same meal – but they all contain spiritual truths that nourish me.

    Why should I be forced to practice just one, cutting myself off from the spiritual nourishment of the others? The Great Mystery at the heart of all Being doesn’t seem to require such choices, having provided a remarkable spiritual smorgasbord for us to choose from, so what right do humans have to do so?

    • http://www.facebook.com/eala.ban Éireann Lund Johnson

      The answer is, because no one is an island. The traditions you practice don’t belong to you, they are their own cultural entities outside of you, and if you claim to follow them in ways not held to by the keepers of those traditions you are misrepresenting them. How you connect to Source is your own business, but how you represent your practice(s) to others is in part a matter of how well you are a spokesperson of those traditions which nourish you, and those who developed and preserve(d) them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    Purity is overrated and mindful syncretism can help us find (or create) the path best suited for ourselves. But I encounter too many people who simply want to nibble from the religious smorgasbord. Because they bounce from tradition to tradition and practice to practice, they never develop any depth in anything – including themselves.

    But if done well, the practice can be quite helpful.

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      As someone who feels as if he lacks spiritual depth, I’ve had great difficulty working with people as a result of the fact that I lack spiritual depth. I liken it to the old adage of getting passed over for a job due to lack of experience but not being able to get the experience because you got passed over for the job.

      I worry that those who seek depth are similarly overlooked by some mentors and leave people like me with little more than nibbles as the smorgasbord. It’s not as if I wouldn’t be happy with a full plate, but I have difficulty getting anyone to pass me one.

      Do you think this stems from a negative stigma attached to those lacking in traditional purity?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

        There are some mentors who say “this is what I know and this is what I teach, take it or leave it.” If the teacher is teaching a fixed tradition (Gardnerian Wicca comes to mind) that may be completely appropriate. Or it may be a case of a teacher whose only tool is a hammer and who therefore sees every student as a nail.

        There are others who attempt to evaluate students and nudge them in the direction that seems most appropriate for each individual. This provides a more custom approach, but it may push the teacher into an area he or she doesn’t feel qualified to teach.

        Dashifen, I don’t know you, but I’ve interacted with you on various blogs and you certainly haven’t come across as a spiritual nibbler or as someone unwilling to do the work necessary to develop spiritual depth. I’m curious as to why you think you lack that depth, and what you’ve been doing to develop it.

        That’s a personal question in a public forum – feel free to tell me to mind my own damn business.

        • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

          Privacy is dead; I not only encourage public forum private questions, I actually answer them :)

          I feel like my experience have brought me quite a bit of breadth, which serves me well when meeting new Pagans and in interfaith circles, but I do sometimes feel that I lack the depth that I see from those who have a more focused attitude with respect to their studies. Thus, it’s not so much that I’m unwilling to do the work, it’s that I’m doing different work, which is probably okay, too.

          As for what I’m do to try and develop some depth: not too much. I’m feeling as if it’s time for me to start to do so in some capacity but I don’t quite yet know where to begin. It’ll happen eventually.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      You speak my mind. If we have no boundaries at all about what “Paganism” is, we lose coherence and have no structure in which to work together. If we have too many boundaries about what it is in an attempt to be pure, we lose flexibility, exclude those who don’t fit neatly into our boxes, and lose opportunities to make connections between practices and traditions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eala.ban Éireann Lund Johnson

    A couple things I think are missing from this discussion-

    1- Historic syncretisms developed over the time span of generations, and were typically developed by the literati of a culture, meaning that these things were done slowly, over time, by those who were learned in theirs and others’ traditions. This sort of pace allows for thoughtful developments endemic to the time and place of a people. This is exactly different from one person in the here-and-now throwing together various elements from different traditions ‘because it feels good.’ We should not confuse the two, assume they are one and the same, and measure and defend the often thoughtless latter by the yardstick of the former. It is intellectually dishonest to do so and base an argument on it.

    2- Identity is no small thing and ought not be written off as unimportant. Of course identity serves to exclude others- how else could it define itself otherwise? The implication seems to be that there is something wrong with doing so, something bad about creating an ‘other’ in order to define oneself, but the other need not be inferior to be different, and need not suffer any by an exclusion; it is also its own identity belonging to its own group which excludes the first group, which becomes the other. Identity is not the same as superiority and different is not the same as inferior. We need not fear identity or differences as they need not be in conflict with each other to exist, so we need not deride the concept. These ‘constructs’ are just as much ‘tangible things’ as is anything else, as they began as ideas which manifested into realities, into prominent energy forms with lives of their own. Simply writing them off doesn’t make sense when they form such a large part of our daily existence.

    3- The concept of a singular truth need not be at the base of these identities and differences. The idea of a singular truth belongs to Greek philosophers and Christian apologeticists, and really does not speak to pagan folk traditions of the commoners, which deal with the experiential and the practical more than the philosophical or the theological. There can be many kinds of truths the same way there can be many kinds of trees, stars, humans, languages, galaxies, insects. But the stars aren’t in competition with one another while still maintaining their integrity, so why can’t we be the same way?

    4- People can do whatever they want, but it what they want to do is combine theologies fundamentally at doctrinal odds with each other, then they have to have the intellectual honesty to admit it in those situations while they are doing it. Denying being at odds is pointless when one can easily examine theological positions and speak to clear inconsistencies and outright conflicts among them. If some people wish to practice as such and engage in conversation with others about their practices, they need to be able to perceive and speak to those inconsistencies and conflicts honestly and not deny them when they are readily discernible. Nobody has to explain themselves or their religious choices to others, but asking others to suspend belief in theological conflicts won’t move a conversation forward in good ways either. We shouldn’t pretend these don’t exist just to prove that everyone is free to do whatever they want. If we’re going to bother to talk about it, let’s be honest about it.

    5- One doesn’t have to agree with those who hold to different ideas or traditions in order to extend them respect. In that sense, I agree with your conclusion that we need not be limited by any idea of a singular cosmic truth to potentially protect or pollute, and differences provide different lenses through which to view the world and glean new truths. We can set down one set of lenses without crushing them under our feet when we don’t care for what they offer. Disagreement doesn’t have to equate disrespect.