Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road
I’ve never been good at tradition. But going it alone, I have found, has its pitfalls too. I was raised Mormon. Mormonism is an authoritarian religion, so truth is defined and practice dictated from the top down. This works well for children and adolescents, who need varying degrees of structure. But I eventually came to believe that the Mormon church wanted (intentionally or not) to keep its members as spiritual children.
When I left the Mormon church, I set before myself the task described by Harold Laski in “The Dangers of Obedience”: “to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority.” I was a young man and I was inspired by Emerson, who has been a prophet many a young man:
“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
It took me years to construct a practice and mythos of my own. I tired to separate out my “basic experience” (Laski) from the tradition I was born into. This was not easy, and I’m not sure that such a task is even possible. What is possible is to develop a different relationship with tradition. And that’s what I did. I learned to look to tradition, including my inherited Christian tradition, not for authority, but for inspiration. My new mythology and practice were self-consciously eclectic. Paraphrasing Patrick Murfin’s words, I sought to build a temple in my heart:
mix[ing] the mortar of the scattered dust
of the Holy of Holies
with the sacred water
of the Ganges;
lay[ing] Moorish alabaster
on the blocks of Angkor Wat
and rough-hewn Stonehenge slabs;
plumb[ing] Doric columns for strength of reason,
squar[ing] them with stern Protestant planks,
and illuminat[ing] all with Chartres’ jeweled windows
and the brilliant lamps of science. […]
scavenging the ages for wisdom,
cobbling together as best [I might]
the stones of a thousand altars, leveling with [reason],
framing with [vision],
measuring by [intuition],
sinking firm foundations in the earth
as [I reached] for the heavens.
One thing that drew me to Paganism was its unabashed eclecticism. But in the last decade or so, since I began identifying as Pagan, I have noticed that eclecticism is increasingly disfavored by many Pagans. While I remain unapologetically eclectic, I think some of the criticisms of eclecticism are valid and worth discussing.
One criticism that I will not be discussing here is the charge of cultural appropriation. I saw this come up recently from the Santaria community. While most Pagans today do seem to shy away from appropriation of Native American practices and deities, Hindu and African-diasporic religious practices and gods seem to be fair game. I’ve discussed my take on cultural appropriation elsewhere and I don’t really have anything to add here.
What I do want to talk about is the criticism that eclectic practice is ungrounded and/or ego-centric. I think these are valid criticisms. But I don’t think traditionalism is the solution.
Over at Sermons from the Mound, Yvonne Aburrow, makes the case for the importance of spiritual traditions. For Aburrow, “navigating and negotiating existing paths” is preferable to “just flailing about in the bushes trying to find a path”. I have to agree that generally “navigating” is preferable to “failing about”, but I’m not sure we can equate these either of conditions with traditionalism or eclecticism. I admit, there are many days when I feel like I am “flailing about” as an eclectic, but in general I feel that I am “navigating” — by an inner star. In contrast, I think I was “flailing about” more when I was part of a tradition, because the tradition did not really fit me.
Still, Aburrow raises some important questions:
“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.”
Let me take each of these questions in turn.
FIRST QUESTION: “If you don’t have a yardstick to compare new ideas against, how do you know if they are any good?” First, lacking a tradition does not mean that one lacks a “yardstick” against which to measure practices and ideas. I have an internal “yardstick”. We all do. I would turn Aburrow’s question around and ask, “If you accept someone else’s yardstick, how do you know it is accurate?”
Aburrow responds in her post:
“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.”
And I agree. Existing traditions are valuable because they are based in the experiences of others. At the same time I would say that existing traditions are limited because they are based in the experiences of others. To a certain extent, we are all human and so certain things may be true for all of us. On the other hand, our experiences are so diverse, we should not expect that any one system would work for everyone. What’s more, we should not expect that any one system would work in its entirety for more than one person. So, while I agree with Aburrow’s concern about the pitfalls of eclecticism, I can’t agree that traditionalism is the solution.
SECOND QUESTION: “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’?” That’s a good question too. My answer would be: “trial and error”. I would also turn this question around and ask, “If you accept someone else’s set of tools, how do you know you have the right set of tools to get you there?” I presume that Aburrow’s response would be the same: “trial and error.” Again, I agree with Aburrow’s that eclecticism carries risks, but I think traditionalism is subject to the same risks.
Whether we are eclectics or traditionalists, we need to be continually re-examining our “tools” (our practices and ideas) to make sure they are the right ones for us. We need to ask whether our tools are serving us, or whether we are serving them.
THIRD QUESTION: “Your personal biases might predispose you against some aspect of the toolkit that you might actually need to overcome a particular issue.” This was not actually a question, but I think it is the most important criticism that Aburrow has of eclectic practice. The question of the preferability of eclecticism or traditionalism turns on the response to the question, “Do you trust yourself?” Eclectics place a high degree of confidence in themselves in spiritual matters. But what do we mean when we say we trust ourselves? What if the self is not unitary? Then which “self” do you trust? Your conscious self? Your rational self? Or some other “self”?
This is a question that Peregrin Wildoak discusses frequently on his blog, Magic of the Ordinary (a blog I love as much for the content as the name). Peregrin is an Order of the Golden Dawn initiate and a critic of eclectic spirituality. In spite of being eclectic myself, I find myself in agreement with much of what Peregrin writes. About “pick and mix spirituality”, Peregrin writes:
“[…] even if you manage to concoct something that fits together the chances are you will not be practicing a real spiritual tradition. Why? Because if we choose from our ego, we strengthen our ego. And our ego will not choose those aspects of the various religions ‘on offer’ that will threaten the ego. And that is the function, the definition of a spiritual tradition. This is why an authentic tradition never, ever, ever feels universally comfortable to us. Sure we can ‘tune in’ to our intuition to help us choose – before we have practiced depth spirituality for years to clarify our intuition. Good luck with that.”
This is the real challenge of eclecticism — it tends to be ego-driven and this tendency is insidious. You can read more of Peregrin’s critique of eclecticism at his recent post, “So long as it works — praxis, synthesis and eclecticism in magic”. Real spiritual practice, as Peregrin explains, is not “merely fine-tuning the ego”, it is about transcending the ego. (See Peregrin’s post, “Spirituality: are we doing it right?”)
Elsewhere, Peregrin seems a little more open to the efficacy of intuition as a guide when he writes:
“Developing pre-established criteria for successful magical action on the mental level is a lot harder than the previous three levels. This is because at this level we, our personality selves, cannot accurately create such criteria – they are conceptually and by definition beyond us. We can only use established traditional criteria or an interior sense that cannot be conveyed in words, except perhaps through great poetry.“
Still Peregrin believes that tradition is the best way to circumvent this ego-pitfall, the best way to wed the personal ego-self with the transpersonal Self. While I share Peregrin’s skepticism of “pick and mix spirituality”, I don’t share his faith in traditionalism. A traditionalist must, after all, choose a tradition, and that choice is as likely to be influenced by ego as the choices of the eclectic. There simply is no escaping this problem. Peregrin acknowledges as much is his post on the dangers of the Golden Dawn, which include “self changing self”, “ego inflation”, and “missing pieces” — note that these are the same dangers that exist for eclectics! The only solution, whether you are a traditionalist or an eclectic, is to do that hard work of separating the demands of one’s ego from the needs of one’s Self — it is a project of a lifetime.
How do we do this? Well, it cannot be done alone. This is why traditionalism is helpful: traditionalism often provides community, other people who can help keep one’s ego in check. The same function can be performed by a psychotherapist, shaman, or other guru. But there are other others that can help us, “others” within our own Self. We can seek the guidance of these “others” in our dreams, through active imagination, through creative endeavors, and so on.
And how do we know when we are on the right track? Well, as Peregrin points out, comfort is not an indicator. After all, true spirituality leads to ego death, the antithesis of comfort. Peregrin suggests that one indicator that is the experience of a seemingly independent agency informing the process of “picking and mixing”, an agency which distinguishes mere eclecticism from what Peregrin calls “synthesis”:
“An eclectic approach is where we consciously take and use particular parts of various traditions, religions, rituals and magic and create our own version. This is done from a limited, personality base, that is to say the consciousness level of you and I and the regular lady on the street. […]
“Synthesis on the other hand brings in a third and higher force. There is the human creator(s), the various diverse elements she is working with and a third higher, divine force – something beyond the personal, beyond the self. The third higher force is the controlling agency and is typically the initiator of the synthetic project, not the human creator(s). Its ways and motivations are its own, and sometimes the choice of human collaborators is a bit mystifying to our perception. In this synthesis something new is created which nonetheless bears the hallmark of its sources, human creator(s) and the third higher force.”
Jung talks about something similar when describes the artistic process (and I would include the creation of spiritual practices as a form of art). The artistic process, according to Jung, consists in tapping into the unconscious (i.e., the transpersonal). How do we know if we have succeeded? A spiritual practice of one’s own conscious intention and will can be expected to reflect the that that conscious source and, in Jung’s words, “nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension”. But if a practice is a product of what Jung calls the “alien will” of the unconscious, we find:
“something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation. We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are the best possible expressions for something unknown — bridges thrown out toward an unseen shore.”
This is the test which I use to judge my own eclecticism, to determine whether the practices I create are ego-driven or Self-driven. And I think it is the same test that Peregrin describes, the same test which should be applied to traditional practice as much as eclectic practice.