God with a Million Faces

The new mix-and-match approach to faith may be the truest quest

| July/August 1998

Religion Section:

God with a Million Faces
Mix-and-Match Religion

The Feminine Mystic
One Woman's Quest to Reconcile Feminism and Spirituality

Should You Design Your Own Religion?
One question, many answers

A friend of mine I'll call Anne-Marie is the founder of a new religious faith. Like other belief systems throughout the ages, the sect of Anne-Marie exists to address life's most haunting questions. If I ask her why we're born and what happens when we die, her answers suggest that our time on earth has meaning and purpose. Whether I buy it hardly matters. The sect of Anne-Marie has one member, Anne-Marie, and that's plenty.

An artist by trade, Anne-Marie has turned her spirituality into a creative act. Her beliefs are drawn from many sources, some ancient, some new. When Anne-Marie speaks of karma and reincarnation, I hear the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Her sense that certain places in nature are sacred is either as new as deep ecology or as old as Shinto. It's hard to say exactly how quantum physics fits into the picture, but she says it does. Beneath it all lies the ethical lexicon of her Christian upbringing, timeworn but still discernible, like the ruins of a Spanish mission.

When I ask her why she left her girlhood church, she's blunt. 'I needed beliefs that empower me, and organized religion is disempowering,' she says. 'It's bogus.'

Anne-Marie is one of many Americans who are now cultivating highly personal forms of worship. What observers call 'pastiche spirituality' or 'religion à la carte' involves combining various beliefs and practices from different sources, or even being a member of two or more distinct religions at the same time. The possible variations are endless -- and, as critics warn, so are the chances to lose one's way. Nevertheless, the land now abounds with these private belief systems, each tailored to fit the believer's individual needs.

Sociologists have been following the trend for years; now theologians are beginning to wonder how it will shape religious observance in the future. Does it signal the death of the agrarian-based religions of the ancient Middle East and the birth of new faiths better suited to the modern world? Is a single global belief system emerging, one formed of universal elements gleaned from all the others? Has the growth of individual consciousness reached a point where the old vessels of faith can no longer contain it? Or is it all just a narcissistic reaction among the baby boomers as they approach old age and death?

There are as many answers to these questions as there are new religions. Most observers agree, however, that the trend is real, if not entirely new. Religions, like the peoples and languages that serve as their vehicles, have often clashed and intermingled, and gods have merged, blurred, switched genders, fallen silent, and died, often violently. Even within religions, the gap between official doctrine and actual belief can be immense, despite constant efforts by religious authorities to guard their holy texts from creative misinterpretation.

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