Eclecticism, Syncretism, Multiple Paths
[Editor's note: The following might seem way too formal (and possibly a bit "anal") to those of us who follow the OMS and/or RDG path, but it has some good information and worthy considerations...]
The subject of eclecticism is one of those powder kegs in the
pagan community, with tremendous potential for degenerating
into a messy flamewar as various people express their dearly
held positions on it.
Historically speaking, eclecticism is generally a fairly
organic process, caused by the growths and flows of cultures,
their dominance over each other. The exceptions tend
to be theophanic in origin: someone (or a group of someone’s)
encounters a new vision of the divine and attempts to
build (or inspires the building of) something in response
if the vision is compelling and/or the structure effectual,
these develop into new religions. (Examples of this are
Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and Gerald Gardner.)
· Magpie Syndrome -- a tendency to acquire the shiniest, most appealing objects in the vicinity and pile them up into a heap rather than assembling them into a coherent whole or exploring the full depths and potentialities of the pieces already acquired. Often comes with a tendency to respond to difficulties by acquiring new shiny objects rather than seeing if any of the ones already acquired will help with the problem.
· Avoidance -- a complete religious system will include portions that are work. Those will not always be the same parts for all the practitioners of the religion in question, but there will always be something that demands growth and development, something that is uncomfortable to deal with, or something that is, simply, just hard to do. Eclecticism poorly implemented can enable someone to very neatly avoid any sort of boundary pushing by only choosing to use parts of other systems that are comfortable to them.
· Shallowness -- just because one has chosen to use a piece of a system does not mean that one will actually get all that's there out of it. Some aspects of some religions are weighted with particular meanings or resonances for the practitioners thereof. These will require some effort to learn about and apply to their fullest depth; simply utilizing them does not guarantee that level of knowledge.
· Appropriation -- taking what's not yours to keep. This is an especially common issue with indigenous religions of whatever region; people claiming parts of their traditions for their own can easily come across as offending interlopers. This is especially the case when the outsider doesn't know the full details of what they're taking; they can, very easily, make themselves look incredibly foolish to someone who is more aware of their cultural context. These things often have very specific importance and very specific meaning; rather than being generally available, they are much like family heirlooms.
· Dilution -- related to appropriation. There are religions that have very specific things that are part of their definition -- certain beliefs or certain practices that are considered essential to be a member of that religion. Traditional Wicca is one of these; many of the reconstructions have similar precepts. The fewer of these things a person does, the less secure they are in claiming to be a member of that religion; eventually the drift is far enough that it would be a matter of politeness to come up with a different name. The reconstructionists in particular are extremely touchy about influence from the modern-origin neopaganisms, as there are so many more people whose practice derives from Gardner than in any of the reconstructions; getting Wiccan ritual practices confounded with recon practices will get, at best, a cranky mumble.
history -- while poor scholarship is one of the plagues in
the pagan community, actual historical revisionism
is strongly associated with eclectic tendencies, for two reasons.
First of all, it is much easier to get infected with the pagan
equivalent of kid-dying-of-cancer-wants-postcards e-mail forwards
when one is working on one's own and specifically looking for
what to believe. Counterfactualities like 'the universal ancient
mother goddess cult' or 'nine million women and cats burned
at the stake' drift around largely unchallenged and, indeed,
unchallengeable; for every website that has good information
there are hundreds with the bad, generally in blinky text.
· Self-Centeredness -- it's worth being aware of the criteria one's using to make the choices in a system. While the questions of "What is the best system" and "What do I like best" or "What do I find most aesthetically pleasing" are not entirely disjointed – aesthetics are important to the value of a system – getting the emphasis right can be tricky. This is especially important if the system constructed is going to involve other entities, who will almost certainly have a different set of pleasures and aesthetic preferences.
limitation -- nobody's infinite. It is exceedingly difficult
for one person to imagine all the possible stresses
and failings that might reveal flaws in a religious system,
even those that they need to have addressed for their own personal
spiritual needs. A community of co-religionists can provide
the support and assistance one might need to address those
problems -- further, an established religion has a decent chance
of already having these bugs worked out from people who had
the same problem before, or at least a similar enough one that
some of the work can be copied over.
· Clarity of thought -- purely individual religion may not have all of its tenets and thought patterns clearly articulated. I know that I not only think more clearly when I can lay out where I'm coming from, but often find bugs in what I'm doing by doing so. If there is no religious community, there is no intrinsic need to go through this process, so muddy thinking may be perpetrated and thus mean that spiritual development gets stalled. Now, this can be done with communities of sympathetic people who don't share the specifics in the discussion, but that makes it less likely that the sounding board will know all the basics that are underlying the process and be able to make intuitive leaps and/or actively contribute to the development process with new insights.
· Transmissibility and generalization -- my definition of "religion" includes the possibility that it might be shared with others. It is possible for an eclectic vision to be so tuned to the personal that it has nothing to offer the universal, or is encoded in such individual language that it can't be understood beyond the particular individual. Pure subjectivity can also be intellectually dishonest; somewhere things interact with the observable world, and have to meet that challenge.
meaning is hard -- well, it is. It's possible to take actions
invested with meaning (or actual religious
actions and ritual pieces) and synthesize them into something
new that can then start accruing its own meaning; this is the
easy way. Developing a new structure that can hold its weight
requires some pretty keen insight into the way the human mind
works. It is, to say the least, heavy lifting. Further, many
people have noticed that ritual actions are more powerful when
they are shared -- by other people in the ritual space, by
other people around the world, by other people over the course
of history; trying to build a new ritual that partakes of that
energy is effectively impossible. Adapting extant rituals is
easier, but if they differ too far from their original place
they will lose that resonance and not be notably different
from completely original creations.
And it's possible to be responsibly eclectic without going to the full lengths I've listed here – even ranging to a secularly eclectic spirituality. Not everyone is interested in developing an actual religion, something that can be shared with others, for example. Responsible development does, in my opinion, require acknowledgement of these issues; further, it requires an awareness that the result will probably be purely personal in many ways, as an eclectic spirituality is not necessarily built to the same standards of robustness as a religion that has at least the potential of being adopted by a number of people.
Now that I've thoroughly called into question the practice of eclecticism by highlighting the many ways it can go wrong, I'd like to spend some time on the sorts of reasons that people take eclectic courses through religion. These are ones that I have seen:
· Religious Multiplicity -- some people have a calling to practice more than one religion. Any religion will have a range of beliefs and practices; a person practicing more than one will have to find the space in the range of each religion that has an overlap. Some of these systems will lead to a new religion developing from the space intersecting between the originals. (I do not find the belief that a person can only have one religion any more sensical than the belief that a person can have only one god; this informs my eclecticism significantly. While it is not common in the West, this is a well-known attitude in parts of Asia.)
· Layers and Overlays -- there are religions that can be viewed as a particular outlook on the world, and thus can be practiced as a modification to another system or as independent structures of their own. The most well-known and mainstream of these is Buddhism; while there are many Buddhists, there are also a number of people who have adopted some portion of Buddhist philosophy and attitudes towards the world. Among pagans, both Discordianism and Satanism can be treated as interpretational overlays.
· Fostering -- sometimes a god to which a person is dedicated will make it clear that their follower should enter, temporarily, into the service of other gods, for reasons of personal development, skill acquisition, or the sort of arcane reasons that gods have that they don't actually tell mere mortals about. (All of the people I know who have had this happen have been primarily in service to Celtic deities. The Celts practiced fostering, and often sent their children to grow up in other households, thereby creating inter-familial bonds.)
· Cross-Training -- similar to fostering. Sometimes a practice common in one religion has value or connection to a practice in another one; practitioners of each might spend some time training with the followers of the other in order to broaden or deepen their skills with people who have different areas of expertise.
· Designated for Assignment -- similar to fostering and cross-training. A god – usually an established patron, someone who the person in question considers to have some authority – tells their worshipper to go somewhere else to study or work, while maintaining their extant practice. (In my case, I was told that in order to honor Set properly, I needed tools that Egyptian Reconstructionism could not provide me that would enable me to overcome certain difficulties. He told me where I could acquire those tools, and left me to decide whether or not I would do it.)
· Patching a Gap -- this is especially common among the reconstructions. There are places that the available knowledge does not address; even things that were known to exist are not always well-recorded. Someone who is interested in having those lost practices in their reconstruction will not be able to do so from a historical basis; they have to extrapolate, interpret, and possibly acquire from elsewhere the required pieces. For example, people who wish to incorporate trancing-type interactions into their reconstructions have turned to both the work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and the possessionary African Diaspora religions for the training they needed.
· Flaw Correction -- any religious system will have places where it falls down for someone. A person may find a system almost entirely satisfactory, but have issues with certain points of theology or feel a need to supplement the material with other things that are out there. This quest may eventually lead them to conversion to a new religion that does not have that flaw; it may also, however, lead to the adoption of some portion of another system that is both consistent with the original religion and resolves whatever was the source of the difficulty.
· Ancestry -- many, many people have in their heritage people from a number of different regions, and thus, potentially, a number of different ethnic religions. While it is not required to follow the gods of one's ancestors, or even a subset thereof, some people feel a need to acknowledge some portion of their heritage in their religious practice. This may be an outgrowth of those religions that practice some form of ancestor worship, a result of encounters with the gods or spirits who associated with those ancestors, or simply a matter of personal preference.
· Ecumenicalism -- as many recons will complain, it can be very difficult to maintain a clear sense of what a religion is all about in a community containing a huge variety of other ideas. This can be a problem, if one is trying to work with a specific system; on the other hand, it can be viewed as the natural result of what happens if one takes a huge number of worldviews that were normally separated by thousands of miles and put them in the same small area. Eventually, bits and pieces of each will rub off and redistribute and new forms will appear.
· Task-focused worship -- some people have a strong affiliation to a particular role or task in the world. These folks may wind up dealing with the gods who are associated with that particular role, regardless of their cultural background, and wind up incorporating acknowledgements of all of Them into the system that they practice.
· Pure Synthesis -- some people are unsatisfied with the existing religious systems or feel a calling to construct something all their own. They may not have found anything out there that works for them, or feel a need to build something of their own. More power to 'em, that's a wicked lot of hard work they're setting themselves up for.
don't know, man, I didn't do it -- sometimes a motley assortment
of gods shows up in someone's life and makes
it clear that They don't intend to go away. At this point,
the poor pagan is left to figure out how the heck they're supposed
to deal with this confounding pile of miscellanea.
If that is the way you're feeling a need to go, I can only hope that the rewards you find are commensurate with the work it will require to get there.