Finding the spirit and flow of the place where I am is an important part of my spiritual practice, but not every practice I hold is specific to place. Just as I eat foreign foods and local dishes, and just as I say uniquely Scottish words with an obvious California accent, my practice is blend of here and there. My practice has always been a bit of a blend of things, certainly in my adult life, but even in my childhood I had an internal religion that did not map exactly to the conservative Judaism of my family and school. When I first started identifying as Pagan, I had trouble describing my beliefs or the path that I was on. When pushed, I’d call it eclectic. But I think that there is a better term: syncretic.
Some people criticize those on eclectic religious paths for “picking and choosing from a buffet” of religion. I would make no such criticism, and would not even try to argue against any person’s authentic search for Spirit and/or the Divine by whatever path it takes them. For some, the connotation of eclecticism is that it is a patchwork of ideas with no unifying Truth to hold it together. My own image of eclecticism is more like a patchwork quilt, with pieces of different fabrics carefully and painstakingly sewn together into a complete picture and then sandwiched together with a backing and batting — the internal experience and the external cosmology. What makes a patchwork quilt a single item is the quilting, tiny stitches that go through all the layers and unify them, and what makes an eclectic path authentic is the careful study and practice that pins each new aspect of the religious experience into the greater whole of one’s life.
To choose to use the term “syncretism” over “eclecticism” is not a statement that one is better than the other, as I honestly think that these two are sides of a coin rather than different beasts. Instead, the word choice is simply a shift in focus. The syncretic path has a clear cosmology, a blueprint of how the world works, which it overlays with images, ideas, and practices from other traditions. To return to the quilting analogy, eclecticism starts with the patches and builds a picture, but syncretism starts with a picture and figures out how the patches fit into it.
In some cases, people have used syncretism in order to maintain their own religion by dressing it in the clothes of another, more dominant religion. In other cases, syncretism is what happens when people interact with those from another culture and find pieces of the other religion that they find useful or that ring true.
Immigrants are nearly always syncretic, if not in their religion then certainly in other aspects of their lives. When you move from one place to another, you don’t discard your entire identity at the border. Instead, you spend years or even a lifetime finding the right blend of identity between your new home and the old one. Some people try to fight the influences of the people in their new home. This creates another kind of religious change. Often that struggle to remain true to “the old place” leads deeper into fundamentalism. Other times it leads to a religious practice of separatism.
For me, the personal path of syncretism means that I don’t have to worry about negative spiritual influences “destroying” my religion. In my way of viewing the world, I have the opportunity to test out new ideas and practices to see if they are real or if they bring benefit to my life. If a new idea fits well into my personal, well-established cosmology and if it helps me to work within the world as I already understand it, I can integrate that new idea without danger to the basic structure of my religion or spiritual life. If something doesn’t sit right with me, or if it doesn’t interest me at all, I can leave it alone while maintaining a healthy respect for those who do hold that practice or element of faith.