Dharma and sangha

Dharma and sangha January 24, 2013

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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