Then I attended the first class.
The instructor, an older gentleman who disclosed that he was a retired United Methodist missionary, asked if anyone wanted to start the introductions. A smallish flower-child of a woman raised her jingley, many-bangled hand, said her name, and gushed about how excited she was to take the class.
"Really?" The instructor raised an eyebrow and hunted for her name on the class list. "So what do you consider yourself? Religiously, I mean."
I hoped I was wearing my best poker face because all I could think was how ethically shady, heck, how illegal this line of questioning was. Religion class or no, that teacher had no right to use his position to ask such a thing.
"Well," she said, " I'm what you'd call eclectic. I grew up Lutheran, but I've incorporated some aspects of Buddhism and am discovering the Goddess in all her forms." She shrugged and smiled sheepishly, "I guess that makes me..."
"Nothing!" the teacher snapped. "Nobody is part this and part that. You can't be kind of Buddhist and sort of Wiccan. The belief systems are incompatible. You're either a Pagan or you're not. If you weren't born a Hindu, it's highly unlikely you'll discover it's your true path along with some practices from the Ba'hai faith sometime between Spring Break and finals."
The girl dropped back into her seat.
"Anybody else want to introduce themselves?"
Not a chance in hell. I spent the ensuing weeks trying to fly as far under the radar as I could. The instructor spent the first two classes explaining dualism and how it defines religions. Then we were introduced to D. T. Suzuki, who I'm pretty sure, would have slapped the instructor repeatedly on the back of the head with a dictionary if he'd been in class with us.
Traveling the religious world according to the instructor (I'm sorry, I really don't remember his name.) our first stop was Buddhism. No one knew more about Buddhism than the instructor. Thomas Merton had a shallow understanding of Buddhism and knew little about it compared to our instructor, according to our instructor. He went on to talk about how Buddhism was transmitted between the continents and why the ties to Hinduism are tenuous at best and then back to Thomas Merton's attempt to link Roman Catholic prayer traditions with the meditative practices of...
Okay. Just stop.
I'm Anglican or Episcopalian or whatever you feel the most comfortable saying, but Thomas Merton is still one of my homies. Maybe he's a theological cousin or something.
I raised my hand while the little kawaii version of me in my head who dresses like Indiana Jones put her little chubby fists to her cheeks and squeaked, "Oh, Jas-san NO!!!"
"Yes?" he said. "Question?"
"Question, and possibly an observation. Are you saying there is no such thing as syncretism?"
"It's only possible between related religions." He drew a breath and started to speak.
I raised my hand. Again.
"I'm sorry because I know I'm being a real pest about this. Explain it to me like I'm a sixth grader-"
"What's your major?"
"Anthropology. Are you suggesting that religions exist in cultural bubbles and never pick up practices, narratives, even personified subjects of worship from each other?"
He didn't answer my question, but he did explain dualism to me like I was a sixth grader.
And then I dropped the class. Nobody needs that kind of negativity in their life.
Decades later I am sitting at my computer reading a message from a stranger who is upset because I did not answer his/her question. It seems they feel entitled to an explanation from me about how and why I self-identify as a Witch and a Christian. I will explain that in just a moment. Here. I'm not going to shuck and jive on Facebook for some random person just because they demand it. Before I do, let me bring up some very important talking points.
Social scientists create boxes and labels and taxonomic categories and twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one as a way to describe and understand what they've observed. At most, all of those academic devices are guidelines for study. They're certainly not firm delineations for every iteration of human behavior.
A quick Google search tells me there are roughly 30,000 Christian denominations, over 70 different Islamic schools of thought, five major divisions within Buddhism, and the same number of larger dividing lines in Judaism. Don't get me started on the various flavors of Pagans with a capital P, pagans with a lower-case p, Wiccans, witches, Druids, Santeria practitioners...On second thought, let's go there.
Every single member of every group would ask you to recognize their particular religious flavors' existence, even as they may see themselves as a part of a larger family of faith. I can also say with confidence that there are variations of religious observance between individuals within those groups. Human nature dictates it would be impossible for there not to be idiomatic practices.
Remember the snowflake principle? Yeah, that.
Some of those practices may come from family traditions or as a function of intercultural proximity or some things might simply be borrowed. Borrowing is not always about appropriating a practice because it is cool or pretty or looks like it might be fun. Of course there are people who do that.
There are also people who happen upon some aspect of a path that speaks to them on a deeper level. Thomas Merton figured this out. The Wiccan who adopts walking meditation or visits a local church labyrinth gets it. So does the Pagan who uses a traditional Tarot deck, something that many scholars think may have originated in the Central European Catholic tradition. The Baptist family in Oklahoma who smudges their house understands. It's not about disrespect or religious oneupmanship. It is about that small part of you that is awakened when you come into contact with something, some practice that is meant to be a part of your life. It is that thing that makes you the best Wiccan/Christian/Jew/Your-Affiliation-Here you can be.
This comes to the question of how I identify myself on those occasions when I bother to do so. For me, it comes down to inheriting and adopting practices from the strands of family who migrated west from different parts of the world. Some of my father's people are Mizrahi from pre-Israeli State Palestine. Others immigrated to Panama from Greece. My mother's people are Cherokee, Irish, and English. All of them brought practices from home and passed them down. Some of my family talk to the dead, who in their view are as present as the living in day to day life. My ancestors taught their children to plant by the signs and know when there are haints passing through and which native plants do a body good. They told/tell the stories of their people and the places they have called home in tales and quilts and crochet and cooking and adornment. They look for signs in cups of tea or decks of playing cards.
Every time I learn more about those traditions and incorporate them in my life, I feel closer to complete. My deepening understanding of the other parts of the Mosaic triad represented by my family strengthen my own faith and give me a greater sense of connection with humanity as it extends beyond the walls of church and home. My recognition of the animistic nature of, well, nature helps me feel connected to the earth I need to take care of and serves as reminder that I was given a body that also needs care.
Do I mind spelling all of this out? Not too much. There's nothing here I wouldn't tell a friend or most acquaintances. But the bottom line is this information is mine to give. No one is entitled to an explanation. If you get right down to it, it's nobody's business but mine.
So why am I writing this long thing about this other thing that is really nobody's business but mine? There are other people like me. Some of these people have been shown the door for not being someone else's definition of a Christian or a witch or a pagan or... They are told, as I have been told, that we have no legitimate claim to our identities. When I have challenged this, often asking if this is their truth, I am told it is THE truth.
Beyond the universal Golden Rule, there most likely isn't a THE truth. There is simply the truth we have if we have a clear vision of our own path. That vision is a gift. It doesn't make us the arbiter of what is or isn't right for everyone else. What it can do is give us the confidence to offer our arm to a friend or a friend we haven't met yet. Ram Dass said it best: "We're all just walking each other home." See you on the path.
[copyright 2016 JasFaulkner/Zen Dixie]