In the beginning of his book, "Living Buddha, Living Christ", Thich Nhat Hahn says, "To me, religious life is life. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions. When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result." As a man well known for his deep and lifelong commitment to peace, this is clearly a very foundational belief for Nhat Hahn.
Recently I was visiting with a dear friend who I haven't seen in more than a year. She is a bright and deeply spiritual young woman and I am honored to be her mentor and friend. We were browsing together through a used bookstore, talking about our separate forays into new religious spaces. We both began talking about books we were reading on Islam and discovered that neither of us was familiar with the other's author. We decided to find the books and buy them for one another. I bought her a copy of Karen Armstrong's "A Short History of Islam" and she bought me a copy of the novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak. In the midst of our rambling dialogue, she asked me this question:
"Katie," she said, "I find myself struggling to describe my spiritual path. I know that there are a lot of people who identify as spiritual but not religious, but the problem with that is that often means people who are inclined to being spiritual but don't have spiritual practices or aren't educating themselves about different religious traditions the way I am. I'm more than that. Is there a word for people like me who are building a spirituality out of many traditions?"
When she came to me, my friend was primarily a Christian with strong ties to Jesus and Saint Francis. Since our friendship has blossomed, I have been intermittently teaching her witchcraft and astrology. I knew from several other discussions that she has been reading a lot about Islam as well as books by Deepak Chopra, who writes books on New Age healing and spirituality with a foundation in Ayurvedic philosophy.
Unfortunately, my answer was sorely lacking in inspiration. I shared the few things I had gleamed about the statistics on how people's faiths are changing, but mostly I shared that I too am struggling with this issue. As I move into a deeper place of study with traditions like Buddhism and Islam, I am finding that I am integrating aspects of these faiths into my own spiritual paradigm as well. But when is it adaptation and when do you need to give credit in some way to the paths you are following? As I start to explain it, it just rattles on. Before I got to seminary, I was already a witch who primarily interacts with Hindu deities but uses Taoism as a foundation for my spiritual actions. I have used the phrase, "Taoist Kitchen Witch" as a sort of short hand. But even that fails to encompass all that I was, and that's before I began reading and making the changes I am making now. Only one semester into seminary and already my faith and practices are rewriting themselves again and again. I remember recently telling my Interfaith mentor, "I don't think there will be a word for what I am when I leave here, other than just spiritual."
In some ways, I think that this has always been one of the greatest appeals that paganism has. The freedom in paganism to create and modify your own spiritual path is quite extensive. As the years pass and the numbers of new traditions grow, the variation of witchcraft, wicca, and paganism just keeps expanding. However, there are limits. In my opinion, there is a sense that we can grab from anywhere we like, except from mainstream religions (especially mainstream western religions). For so many people, it is the world of Judeo-Christianity that they are fleeing as they run into the arms of the Goddess. But even Buddhism and Taoism don't fall under the pagan umbrella, so you get people who are Buddhist Witches, tacking on the eastern philosophy like some kind of hyphenated surname. As it stands today, I don't think paganism has arms wide enough to encompass all that I am beginning to hold in my spirituality, and I don't honestly believe that it should. There needs to be a way to separate different religious traditions. There also needs to be a way to talk about people who walk these paths, who seek and search for wisdom by learning about many religious traditions.
Let me take a moment to respond in advance to the "why do we even need labels" reaction to this discussion. While I know that it has become cool to want to remove the labels and "just be people", labels are the code word we use for names that limit us in ways we don't like. It's not the names that people react to, it's the limitations. So if we need to address the limitations by making new names or expanding the definitions we have, then I'm all for it. But names (or labels if you like) are essential for communication, identity, and the creation of community. Sometimes a thing, or a group of people or a religious path, needs a name. Naming something makes it real. Names bring power and legitimacy. This is definitely something you learn as a witch. Naming a thing brings it into being.
So yes, I think we need to find a name for whatever this is and I think we need to find ways to nourish it. I have some thoughts on that and how it might tie into the future of Interfaith work, but those ideas need a little more time to percolate.