God with a Million Faces

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.

In American history, a ‘privatized’ attitude toward spiritual practice has always been evident, scholars say, but the impulse may now be stronger than ever. The reasons can be traced to powerful cultural forces that have been reshaping modern life since the 1960s.

The rise of feminist consciousness, for instance, has led many to turn a skeptical eye on rituals and texts that smack of male bias. As the feminist writer Carol Lee Flinders has pointed out, many women today ‘are slow to take in, or take on, the great handed-down monolithic doctrines or credos. We know too much about the strengths of all religions, and too much about the weaknesses of these religions as well, particularly where women are concerned.’ She agrees with feminist historian Gerda Lerner that ‘disconnection from the sacred seems to be the most fundamentally important way in which women have been disempowered through time.’ Today, many women are trying to re-establish that connection, either within their faiths or, like Anne-Marie, on their own.

Some say that LSD and the psychedelic subculture played a role in weakening traditional religious ties, giving many a sense of personal mystical union with the divine — along with a heady rhetoric for putting that experience into words. Growing exposure to the world’s wisdom traditions has expanded our spiritual vocabulary as well. This exchange has been driven partly by demographic changes that have brought many face-to-face with formerly ‘exotic’ religious beliefs, especially those of Asia. This era may have begun with the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated a long-standing bias against Asians and other peoples enforced through quotas based on national origin. The new immigrants included many spiritual teachers whose influence would eventually extend beyond their immediate followers into the popular culture.

The information explosion has been another factor in the rise of do-it-yourself spirituality. Esoteric texts once known to a privileged few now fill the bookstores, their myriad truths laid open to be read and recombined at will. And virtually every work of sacred art, from the caves of Altamira onward, circulates endlessly now, free for the appropriating. This robust spiritual marketplace perfectly suits the consumer mentality that has turned Americans into a nation of comparison shoppers. In an age when we trust ourselves to assemble our own investment portfolios and cancer therapies, why not our religious beliefs?

The insights of modern science may also be pushing many away from traditional faiths. According to science writer Chet Raymo, author of Skeptics and True Believers (Walker, 1998), one of the problems of religion today can be traced to the disconnect between old and new models of the cosmos. ‘All one has to do is compare the little, earth-centered, egg-shaped cosmos of Shakespeare with a Hubble Deep Field photograph,’ he says, referring to the countless galaxies now visible through the Hubble Space Telescope. ‘And yet so much of our traditional religion remains grounded in the old cosmology.’ The call for a synthesis of science and religion has been heard again and again, but a truly compelling new mythology that’s both poetic and scientifically rigorous has yet to appear.

The spread of pastiche spirituality is only part of a bigger picture of religious change today. We’re living in what observers call an age of extreme ‘religious pluralism.’ The same cultural forces that have driven many to leave their inherited faiths have also affected others who have stayed. Almost all the major denominations now contain internal movements that are trying to transform them. Many traditionalists, of course, are fighting to block reforms. Syncretism, the formal term for the blending of rituals and beliefs from different faiths, is a dirty word to conservative worshipers, dreaded like a plague of locusts — and maybe as hard to stop. New hybrid modes of worship are constantly appearing, from the new Christian megachurches, whose mammoth services can resemble arena rock, to tiny garage religions hardly bigger than the average band.

The latest edition of the Encyclopedia of American Religions lists more than 2,100 religious groups, a figure that has almost doubled in 20 years. They range from the most straight-laced forms of Judaism and Christianity to UFO cults awaiting deliverance by flying saucer. The influx of Asian religions is clearly mirrored in the Encyclopedia, and so is the recent rapid rise of Islam, which other sources put at about 3.5 million adherents. With about 750,000 believers, including 100,000 American converts, Buddhism is said to be the country’s fastest-growing faith.

The statistics ultimately yield a portrait full of contradictions. One certainty is that we live in a very religious country — in fact, the United States is generally considered to be the most religious country in the Western industrial world. Though nine out of ten American adults believe that God exists, there’s growing disagreement about how God should be described. God is Michelangelo’s bearded old man in the Sistine Chapel. God is pure intelligence. God is cosmic energy. God is a Goddess. At least eight out of ten American adults consider themselves to be Christians, but most are hazy about the basic tenets of their faith. The pollsters say that Americans pray more often than they have sex, but no one knows how many consider sex and prayer to be the same thing.

The undeniable reality, concludes George Barna in The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Word Publishing, 1996), ‘is that America is transitioning from a Christian nation to a syncretistic, spiritually diverse society.’ One result of this spiritual upheaval is a ‘new perception of religion: a personalized, customized form of faith views which meet personal needs, minimize rules and absolutes, and bear little resemblance to the ‘pure’ form of any of the world’s major religions.’

John H. Berthrong, associate dean at Boston University’s School of Theology and director of the Institute for Dialogue Among Religious Traditions, has seen this trend unfold in his classroom. ‘When I talk to students about their own sense of religious identity, I find that more and more of them have been brought up in homes that are post-Christian,’ he says. ‘So to say that they are reacting against Christianity is wrong; they’ve never been Christians. Even some of the ones who are Christian will say, ‘But I really like Taoism and Buddhism too, and my meditation is Vipassana, but I also do a lot of work at my local church because I like the choir.”

A Christian theologian and scholar of Confucianism, Berthrong has spent 20 years fostering communication among different religions. His observations on the modern fluidity of belief are the basis of a new book he’s writing called The Divine Deli, to be published next year by Orbis. ‘I think a lot of traditional boundaries for many people are simply dissolving,’ he says. Berthrong sees a trend toward ‘multiple citizenship’ in a number of separate faiths — and no complete allegiance to any one. In terms of basic issues like child rearing and church fund-raising, the trend’s potential impact is profound. And that’s before anyone raises the touchy matter of doctrine. ‘Many of the more conservative Christian theologians don’t find any of this either amusing or profitable,’ he adds. ‘It’s one of the areas that really defines the difference between liberal theology and conservative theology.’

Chenyang Li, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Monmouth College, and author of the forthcoming book, The Tao Encounters the West, looks to his native China for an example of how multiple religious participation can work. In China, he explains, an individual’s religious life may be a harmonious interplay among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Even though their basic value systems may not always be perfectly aligned, aspects of each faith can be useful in different areas of life, or even in the same area. Confucianism and Buddhism, for example, may be at odds about worldly success, says Li, but this play of opposites can be used to achieve breadth (a kind of enlightened tolerance) and balance, which are important Chinese cultural ideals.

Each faith may also come into its moment of prominence as one matures. ‘In my opinion, when a person is growing up she should probably practice more Confucianism,’ Li writes. ‘It will give her the motivation and driving force to learn and develop her potential fully.’ Later, ‘Taoist strategies will enhance her career.’ Finally, the Buddhist ‘mind of emptiness’ leads to peace and self-acceptance in old age.

Not everyone thinks that smorgasbord spirituality is a desirable feature of life in the global village, and not all the naysayers are theological conservatives. Many critics take aim at New Age practitioners, who, according to George Barna, share the following characteristics: ‘faith as a private matter, religious principles from a variety of sources, no centralized religious authority, deity intermingled with self, and more focused upon religious consciousness than religious practice.’ Barna estimates that roughly 20 percent of American adults are New Agers, at least as he loosely defines them. Many critics dismiss New Agers as spiritual dilettantes who aren’t so much seeking the sacred as indulging a hunger for new sensations. Others see traditional religions as works of beauty whose holy texts have been polished over the centuries by many minds; to take an idea from here and there, they argue, is like stealing bricks from ancient temples to build a rickety shrine of one’s own.

These reservations are summed up by one of the foremost scholars of comparative religion, Huston Smith, in an interview in Mother Jones last December: ‘What you describe as New Age, and what I call the cafeteria approach to spirituality, is not the way organisms are put together, nor great works of art. And a vital faith is more like an organism or a work of art than it is like a cafeteria tray.’ Though Smith praises New Agers for their optimism, he also notes their failure to confront the question of ‘radical evil’ or to produce true heroes of compassion like Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. At worst, he says, New Age beliefs ‘can be a kind of private escapism to titillate oneself.’

After a lifetime spent studying the world’s religions and teaching others to see their underlying unity, Smith, in his late 70s, remains what he has been since birth: a Methodist, despite his gripes about Methodist theology. ‘I certainly would not choose that messenger if I were starting from scratch,’ he says, but switching from the faith that formed him is not an acceptable option.

Many younger Americans have fewer qualms about reinventing their religious lives. That’s one of the findings reported by Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, published in 1994. Roof is now working on a sequel, a second look at baby boomers and their beliefs on the verge of the 21st century.

What he has found in his most recent research is a calmer, more group-oriented, but still spiritually restless generation. Many boomers (like Anne-Marie) have assembled private faiths from spiritual bits and pieces, while others have turned to new forms of evangelical Christianity that deliberately appeal to the ‘seeker mentality.’ In the mainstream faiths, Roof detects a search for more depth. ‘People are rediscovering their own traditions, finding there were feminists in the Middle Ages, for instance, or powerful female figures in the Old Testament.’ As for those who returned to organized religion to give their children a source of moral training, many are dropping out again as the nest empties. ‘It’s still very much a generation whose roots in religion are rather fragile,’ he says, ‘and therefore they’re still open to exploring. I think that’s going to continue throughout their lives.’

This approach to faith has deep roots. ‘Religion historically — and particularly in the American democratic setting — has been one of new combinations, pastiche, the mixing of official themes and folk themes,’ he says. He notes that strains of transcendentalism, self-help, and positive thinking continue to fuse with evangelical Christianity in curious ways, as in the pop theology of the TV program Touched by an Angel. ‘A lot of the appeal is that this is where many people actually live,’ Roof notes. ‘Religion is not just handed down from institutions. Sure, institutions have some power of perpetuation, but individuals take what they hear, reinterpret, recombine, reassemble, and come out in their own lived expressions with styles that are very much tailored to themselves.’ And that’s especially true of people today. What they create has a meaning and coherence that works well for them, he concludes, even if the results may seem less than logically consistent.

At Boston University, John Berthrong sees this same creative capacity for fusing different beliefs in his students. Even when their multiple faiths create contradictions, ‘they don’t worry about it,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t bother people. You can be a Christian fundamentalist on one level, and a computer programmer working in Houston on space technology, and you’d think somehow that would conflict a bit.’ But it seldom does, he observes. What Berthrong calls the notion of the organic unity of our minds ‘doesn’t always work quite the way we think it does, especially in religion.’

Where is all this religious experimentation headed? Berthrong, the theologian, predicts that existing churches could be in trouble if people cease to identify with a single tradition. Roof, the social scientist, sees a similar pattern of individualized worship developing in Generation X, which suggests the trend is destined to continue into the next century. Others say we’re witnessing the birth of a new consciousness and perhaps a widespread belief system that mirrors it. While this may be a common millennial refrain, not everyone thinks it’s realistic, or even desirable. ‘I somehow don’t like the idea that eventually the whole world would have the same religion,’ says Li, the philosopher. ‘Somehow I feel the diversity is good.’

Whatever truth there may be in these projections, the clearest window opened by pastiche spirituality may not be on the future, but into the past. In one sense, an individual’s homely, imperfect search for meaning says more about the origins of faith than the polished beauty of a great religious tradition can. An established religion may be a finished work of art, but the personal quest is a creative act, and thus just as authentic in what it says about innate human yearnings and desires. In the quest of Anne-Marie and millions like her, we can see a living example of the primal impulse toward faith, which may be the deepest unity underlying all religions. It’s one of the benefits of a tolerant age — that we too, if we choose, can strip away the rich vestments of religious tradition and discover that naked faith is something separate and, ultimately, even more mysterious.

Copyright 1998 by Jeremiah Creedon.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.