Posts Tagged ‘Submission’

In short, the problem with eclecticism is that it seems just too dang unprincipled to be viable.

I have written before about how I get to feel claustrophobic with boxed religion.  Although I was specifically talking about religions that present the whole package–theology, practice, etcetera–in one neatly-defined package with firm orthodoxy-borders all the way around it so that everything in the box is prescribed and everything outside the box is proscribed, I feel similarly about conceptual boxes on a smaller scale.  This is part of why I can’t go with a reconstructionist religion like Hellenismos or Asátrú.  Even having experienced intense mystical contact with gods from Greek mythology, a single flavor of paganism is just not sufficiently spiritually fulfilling.

The thing is, although I see the value in picking one direction and sticking with it, I genuinely feel spiritually moved by the Celtic and the Norse as well as the Greco-Roman.  Maybe it’s a heritage thing; my ancestors were Celts, Teutons, and Vikings, and my cultural ancestors are the Greeks and Romans.  I am a fusion of multiple strands of paganism, so it is only natural that I should feel some attachment to each of them.  And again, while I can see that there could be personal benefit in picking just one, I don’t think I am capable of doing that.  My connection to these three (at least) mythical-cultural traditions is not one that allows for picking and choosing.  It is sufficiently strong so that I would feel that I was denying a part of myself if I left one of them behind.

(Interesting: three traditions.  Possible Druidic significance?)

In short, while I acknowledge the probable spiritual benefits gained by embracing one tradition exclusively, it is vastly outweighed by the sense of deep personal spiritual connection that I feel to each of these three: they touch my heart, mind, and soul in a deep and primal way.  It’s basic economics of the soul, really: what I stand to gain by specializing  is worth less to me than what I stand to lose by specializing, so I choose not to specialize.

On the other hand, I look down on eclecticism.  I think of it as unprincipled, ridiculous.  If you can have three different mythic traditions, why not four?  Why not ten?  Why not all?  Why not just take whatever you want from whatever tradition you want?

The questions actually aren’t completely rhetorical.  I think it’s worth asking whether picking and choosing is a big deal, especially given that we’re going to pick and choose to a certain extent no matter what.  In the end, though their reasons may be subtle and complicated, everyone is going to choose the religious expression that most suits them.  I’m not Muslim after all, because on some level and for whatever reason, Islam does not suit me.  If not for some permutation of personal preference then we would have a much harder time picking a religion.  What metric would we use to decide what we believe, even if we stayed in the religious tradition we were born into?

But at the same time, I think that the idea of submission is incredibly important to religion.  One of the most religious utterances ever made is “not my will but thine be done.”  The ultimate spiritual experience is mystical union with the divine, where the self is swallowed up into somehting greater.  Self-denial, putting aside your own special narcisissm in favor of something greater and higher, is at the heart of religion and real spirituality.

If you’re just ordering whatever you want from the menu and cobbling together a religious gumbo from whatever concepts, practices, and gods suit your fancy, then you are really not worshipping a Deity at all, but in a twisted way you are actually worshipping yourself.  Real gods demand that we grow and change in order to worship and experience them.  Real religion has to be fundamentally transformative; otherwise it’s just a sociocultural phenomenon that serves no individual spiritual purpose.  And in order to be transformative, religion has to be demanding.  On a certain level, God is undamentally alien to humans, and in order to experience God, humans have to be willing to bend and be shaped to be able to meet God partway.  If you’re assembling some kind of a FrankenGod from a pile of divine characteristics, then all you have is an imaginary god born of individual fancy.  Your own fancy.  That’s what you are worshipping.

So how to reconcile this with the undeniable fact that people pick and choose when it comes to religion, and with my personal spiritual connection to multiple strands of paganism?  I don’t really know, but I feel like there’s a line between the extremes that can be walked.  If we recognize and embrace the tension between these competing religious metavalues or realities or whatever, then maybe there’s a way to navigate them and even benefit from them without being torn apart or thrown one way or the other.

Incidentally, Tony Lamb has a good post on the topic at the Association of Polytheist Traditions.

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One of the major issues I perpetually grapple with as I figure out what I believe is a concept I have come to call “boxed religion.” By boxed religion, I mean religion where all the pieces are handed to you as if you have bought it in a complete set, with everything included in the box. The religion gives you a holy book, a way to understand it, a set of appropriate spiritual practices, a set of answers for all of your questions, a definable bunch of things you are supposed to be doing, thinking, and feeling as a member. Mormonism is a paradigmatic example of boxed religion: it is a complete package, with a program for everything, and a clearly-defined path of spiritual progression for the new convert as well as the longtime member, clear expectations, and a limited set of practices and doctrines, all made legitimate by the stamp of approval of the regulating hierarchy.

There’s something simple about boxed religion. You can throw yourself right into it headfirst; you don’t have to think about whether some doctrine or practice is appropriate for you, or if it fits, or if it brings you closer to god. If they seem wrong or unproductive, it’s you who is the problem, and needs to be brought into line.

Most major world religions aren’t as boxed as this, I think. But there’s a spectrum with coercive hierarchical NRMs like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses at one end, and the spiritual-but-not-religious dude who pretty much does whatever seems right to him at the other.

It may seem obvious to most people that religion-in-a-box isn’t going to work for everyone. But here’s the thing: I was raised with boxed religion. For me, boxed religion–something that probably seems extreme to most people–is the norm, and departures from the model of boxed religion feel less legitimate and less valid. I’m used to being told what I am supposed to do, spiritually speaking. Without a checklist of things I am supposed to be going to be right with God, I flounder. I don’t know what to do. I don’t do anything, actually. And then I blog about how confused I am.

At the same time, I have been seriously burned by boxed religion and I have had to face the fact that boxed religion, as much as I feel like I can’t function without it, is never going to work for me. When I start to embrace religion that comes more or less out of a box, I start to feel foolish, like I am playacting or LARPing. Only boxed religion seems like it should be valid and legitimate, but boxed religion feels horribly, horribly wrong. I inevitably wind up submitting too much, and trying to change my beliefs to bring them in line with what comes out of the box in an exercise of trained deference to religious hierarchy, no matter how shaky its authoritative claim on me is. And then I feel like I have compromised myself, and I wind up really uncomfortable with the corner I have painted myself into spiritually.

And when it comes down to it, I have a hard time keeping myself from looking for boxed religion. What do I do when I have some spiritual experiences with Greek gods? Decide that I am going to practice Hellenismos, and let my religion be wholly dictated to me by ancient Greek people and modern people who want to emulate them. And it feels wrong. So I run away from it, and almost run away from the gods altogether, after I have finally had the kind of spiritual experiences I have been yearning for.

What’s the answer here? Honestly, I think I have to deal with my issues here. My gut wants to look to other people to lend legitimacy to my spiritual life. But there’s something broken about that. The fact that some dude thinks I should be doing X has nothing to do with whether doing X will really bring me closer to the divine.

On the other hand, I have a nagging feeling that there actually is something to submitting yourself to something greater, and I think tradition should not be lightly thrown away, even if I don’t give it the total, supreme deference that I used to feel like I should give Revelation From God Through His Living Prophet. The problem with that attitude in paganism generally, however, is that–all wishful fiction aside–there isn’t really much in the way of tradition to fall back on.

I need spiritual practices and a source for something like beliefs and theology, I need to feel like my spiritual life is valid and legitimate, and I think that submission to something outside of yourself–even if it is nothing but the will of the divine–is actually an important part of religious life. But boxed religion, which gives me all of those things, inevitably fails meet my spiritual needs. So what do I do?

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Sorry this post has been so long in coming.  I haven’t had much time to put together a long post that meaningfully addresses complex and abstract issues, and on top of that, I sunk into a period of total spiritual apathy that I might just now be coming out of.

As I indicated in the introductory post to this series, I feel like I am standing at a spiritual crossroads of sorts.  Two of the paths that I have been honestly considering in my journey towards Christ are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

One of my concerns with Protestantism in general, and with Evangelical Protestantism in specific, is that I see a lack of authoritative-ness, both institutional and personal.  Particularly in the emergent conversation, clergymen don’t come across as trustworthy guides or wise counselors because they come across as regular people just trying to figure things out.  I’m not saying that I think clergy should have all the answers and not be on spiritual journeys of their own, but there’s a sense in which I want clergy to be something more than just another person at church, who happens to be able to give a good sermon.

So I think I am looking for a church with an ordained clergy, and a church with institutional weight.  At the very least, “having been around a long time” means having, as an institution, weathered all kinds of turmoil and change without being destroyed by it.  To me, an older church feels generally more trustworthy and reliable simply by virtue of its age, and the collected wisdom of generations that goes along with it.

What churches have that more than Catholicism and Orthodoxy?

Furthermore, I’m looking for a church that is genuinely sacramental, one that includes outward expressions of faith and repentance to accompany the inward changes that seem so elusive and ephemeral.  I also want sacraments that are something more than a clever symbol that can be changed at will.  Although I believe that sacraments are largely symbolic, I think that too much emphasis on their symbolic nature renders them weightless and inconsequential.

So far, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to fit the bill most perfectly.

I’m also looking for a church where there’s a real sense of community, more than “hanging around for donuts and lemonade after church and chatting with the peopel you’re friends with.”  What impressed me so much the one time I went to an Eastern Orthodox (OCA) was that they actually all sat down together for a meal when liturgy was finished.  In both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I think there is a sense of identity that is fundamental to community that I haven’t seen in most Protestantism.

Finally, perhaps because of tradition and institutional age and wisdom, it seems to me that Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been able to escape the twin evils of fundamentalism and theological liberalism that plague Protestantism so doggedly.

So why don’t I just become Catholic or Orthodox?  I have a couple of reasons.   First, my understanding of and belief in Jesus Christ is actually fairly Protestant.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would essentially involve rethinking and re-imagining everything I already believe, and I’m not sure I want to do that.  It’s not that I’m complacent or scared to re-think, but that my Protestant understanding of Jesus is intimately tied up in my decision to believe in Jesus in the first place.  adopting a totally new view of atonement and salvation would mean a complete rethinking of Christianity, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Second, both churches have doctrines that are often troubling and in my opinion wrong: Catholicism has  it worst here, with things like the ban on contraception, the celibate priesthood, and transubstantiation.  But Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily escape doctrinal scrutiny either.  Their beliefs and doctrines may be verifiably the oldest traditional Christian beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them.

At the same time, I have been wondering lately if submission isn’t actually an important component of Christian faith.  While there are unreasonable extremes, I wonder if it might actually be spiritually healthy to submit to authority and be teachable, and allow your opinions to conform to something greater.

If I’m just looking for the church that teaches exatctly what I believe, I might never be challenged and forced to grow.  I’m not sure.

My other problem, more one with Orthodoxy than Catholicism, is that they are in many ways very alien.  AI grew up Mormon, which claims all kinds of unique distinctiveness but in reality it has deep (and to me, obvious) roots in the frontier Protestantism of the early 19th century, so Protestantism is more culturally consonant for me.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would be almost as jarring as becoming Hindu.

Again, maybe that’s actually good- maybe encountering Christ shouldn’t be about being comfortable but instead should be about following him, even if it means following him into strange places.

I have a lot to think about.

Oh, and on a practical note- Orthodox liturgy is long, and you have to stand up the whole time.  I guess you get to sit down in Greek Orthodoxy, but it seems so much more of an ethnically rooted church, and, well, I’m not Greek.

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