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Home > Article Library > Miscellaneous > On Eclecticism Search

On Eclecticism, Syncretism, Multiple-Path, and other Combinatorics
by Darkhawk


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The subject of eclecticism is one of those powderkegs in the pagan community, with tremendous potential for degenerating into a messy flamewar as various people express their dearly held positions on it.

Eclecticism in various forms (especially syncretism) has an extensive history.  While religions were often specific to nations, localities, tribes, families, or other groups, those groups would rub up against other people and, over time, adopt some of the parts of those other groups' religions that they found appealing or useful.  Conquest would often lead to forms of assimilative syncretisation in which the local gods were either equated with the conquerors' gods in some way or declared related to them (often as wives or children).  Suppressed religions often reappeared in modified forms that adopted some aspects of the acceptable religions in the area.  Places in which multiple religions lived together sometimes developed creolised religious practices.

There have also always been opponents of eclecticism.  Some have been trying to preserve their culture in the face of assimilation (which can lead, eventually, to dissolution).  Others have had what they felt was a handle on truth and were unwilling to tolerate it being contaminated from other sources.  Some have resented their conquerors' attempts at taking the things that are precious to them and turning them into public commodities.

Historically speaking, eclecticism is generally a fairly organic process, caused by the growths and flows of cultures, including their dominance over each other.  The exceptions tend to be theophanic in origin: someone (or a group of someones) encounters a new vision of the divine and attempts to build (or inspires the building of) something in response to it; if the vision is compelling and/or the structure effectual, these develop into new religions.  (Examples of this are Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and Gerald Gardner.)

Given that various forms of eclecticism are, historically, quite common, and are in fact critical to the development of some of the most popular forms of neopaganism, why in particular are so many people so irritated at the concept?  Eclecticism is very, very easy to do badly or in a manner that comes across as disrespectful or offensive; it is extremely difficult to do well.

These are common difficulties that I have seen come up with eclectic practices; these are not laws of nature, but rather common mistakes that eclectics make or issues that are specific to eclecticism.  It is not going to be a completely exhaustive list; however, I think that someone who can, with self-judgement in good faith, respond to all of these is entirely likely to be fully capable of responsible, intelligent eclecticism.

  • Magpie Syndrome -- a tendency to acquire the shiniest, most appealing objects in the vicinity and pile them up into a heap rather than assembling them into a coherent whole or exploring the full depths and potentialities of the pieces already acquired.  Often comes with a tendency to respond to difficulties by acquiring new shiny objects rather than seeing if any of the ones already acquired will help with the problem.

  • Avoidance -- a complete religious system will include portions that are work.  Those will not always be the same parts for all the practitioners of the religion in question, but there will always be something that demands growth and development, something that is uncomfortable to deal with, or something that is, simply, just hard to do.  Eclecticism poorly implemented can enable someone to very neatly avoid any sort of boundary-pushing by only choosing to use parts of other systems that are comfortable to them.

  • Shallowness -- just because one has chosen to use a piece of a system does not mean that one will actually get all that's there out of it.  Some aspects of some religions are weighted with particular meanings or resonances for the practitioners thereof. These will require some effort to learn about and apply to their fullest depth; simply utilising them does not guarantee that level of knowledge.

  • Appropriation -- taking what's not yours to keep.  This is an especially common issue with indigenous religions of whatever region; people claiming parts of their traditions for their own can easily come across as offending interlopers.  This is especially the case when the outsider doesn't know the full details of what they're taking; they can, very easily, make themselves look incredibly foolish to someone who is more aware of their cultural context. These things often have very specific importance and very specific meaning; rather than being generally available, they are much like family heirlooms.

  • Dilution -- related to appropriation.  There are religions that have very specific things that are part of their definition -- certain beliefs or certain practices that are considered essential to be a member of that religion.  Traditional Wicca is one of these; many of the reconstructions have similar precepts.  The fewer of these things a person does, the less secure they are in claiming to be a member of that religion; eventually the drift is far enough that it would be a matter of politeness to come up with a different name. The reconstructions in particular are extremely touchy about influence from the modern-origin neopaganisms, as there are so many more people whose practice derives from Gardner than in any of the reconstructions; getting Wiccan ritual practices confounded with recon practices will get, at best, a cranky mumble.

  • Rewriting history -- while poor scholarship is one of the plagues in the pagan community, actual historical revisionism is strongly associated with eclectic tendencies, for two reasons.  First of all, it is much easier to get infected with the pagan equivalent of kid-dying-of-cancer-wants-postcards e-mail forwards when one is working on one's own and specifically looking for what to believe. Counterfactualities like 'the universal ancient mother goddess cult' or 'nine million women and cats burned at the stake' drift around largely unchallenged and, indeed, unchallengeable; for every website that has good information there are hundreds with the bad, generally in blinky text.

    The second popular form of revisionism is the Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, in which gods who were envisioned in particular forms and were known for particular acts and preferences emerge transformed in a blazing glare of, "Oh, She told me She was never like that, that's just human error."  (See also that warm and snuggly goddess figure, Kali. Just airbrush out the skulls.)  Having personal experiences of the divine that run counter to all of the lore and knowledge of how those gods have interacted with humanity in the past is more likely to be a case of "Sorry, wrong number" than complete personality transformation.

  • Unreconciled issues -- ideas come with baggage.  Various systems have particular axioms, presumptions, and outcomes in their native format; pieces of those systems will also have a greater or lesser share of those basic worldview issues. Very few of those systems fit together naturally; while some may indeed show signs of being compatible with comparatively little effort, the "comparatively" is a critical portion of the phrase.  There will always be choices to make, of what parts to assimilate and which to discard, of which axioms to use, which to reinterpret in a way they were not used in the original, which to throw away.  Putting together things that appear to work on a superficial level and not doing any of the work at the deeper levels will produce a result that does not go any further than the surface; those choices have to be made consciously for a good synthesis.

  • Self-Centredness -- it's worth being aware of the criteria one's using to make the choices in a system.  While the questions of "What is the best system" and "What do I like best" or "What do I find most aesthetically pleasing" are not entirely disjoint -- aesthetics are important to the value of a system -- getting the emphasis right can be tricky.  This is especially important if the system constructed is going to involve other entities, who will almost certainly have a different set of pleasures and aesthetic preferences.

  • Personal limitation -- nobody's infinite.  It is exceedingly difficult for one person to imagine all the possible stresses and failings that might reveal flaws in a religious system, even those that they need to have addressed for their own personal spiritual needs. A community of co-religionists can provide the support and assistance one might need to address those problems -- further, an established religion has a decent chance of already having these bugs worked out from people who had the same problem before, or at least a similar enough one that some of the work can be copied over.

    (I tend to think that this problem is liable to be worse for pure eclectics who are working from the ground up; for syncretic eclectics such as myself, there is at least some level of community for each of the structures I'm working in.  There may be nobody doing what I'm doing right now, but there are other people working within the systems that I'm studying, not to mention that there are other people who're seeing some of the same problems and working on solving them in their own way.  This does come with the price of extra need to work at reconciling and resolving worldview differences, though, and the worry that those communities with concerns about appropriation and dilution will close themselves.)

  • Clarity of thought -- purely individual religion may not have all of its tenets and thought patterns clearly articulated. I know that I not only think more clearly when I can lay out where I'm coming from but often find bugs in what I'm doing by doing so. If there is no religious community, there is no intrinsic need to go through this process, so muddy thinking may be perpetrated and thus mean that spiritual development gets stalled.  Now, this can be done with communities of sympathetic people who don't share the specifics in the discussion, but that makes it less likely that the sounding board will know all the basics that are underlying the process and be able to make intuitive leaps and/or actively contribute to the development process with new insights.

  • Transmissibility and generalisation -- my definition of "religion" includes the possibility that it might be shared with others. It is possible for an eclectic vision to be so tuned to the personal that it has nothing to offer the universal, or is encoded in such individual language that it can't be understood beyond the particular individual. Pure subjectivity can also be intellectually dishonest; somewhere things interact with the observable world, and have to meet that challenge.

  • Ritual meaning is hard -- well, it is. It's possible to take actions invested with meaning (or actual religious actions and ritual pieces) and synthesise them into something new that can then start accruing its own meaning; this is the easy way. Developing a new structure that can hold its weight requires some pretty keen insight into the way the human mind works.  It is, to say the least, heavy lifting.  Further, many people have noticed that ritual actions are more powerful when they are shared -- by other people in the ritual space, by other people around the world, by other people over the course of history; trying to build a new ritual that partakes of that energy is effectively impossible.  Adapting extant rituals is easier, but if they differ too far from their original place they will lose that resonance and not be notably different from completely original creations.

Now, as I said, all of these things can be overcome -- with skill, with vision, with the assistance of a community (whether of other people who are trying to do the same thing, or the partially aligned and sympathetic, or even just a crew of helpful debuggers), with sheer bloodymindedness. This is where new religions and new insights are born, in the people who are doing this sort of work.

And it's possible to be responsibly eclectic without going to the full lengths I've listed here -- even ranging to a secularly eclectic spirituality.  Not everyone is interested in developing an actual religion, something that can be shared with others, for example. Responsible development does, in my opinion, require acknowledgement of these issues; further, it requires an awareness that the result will probably be purely personal in many ways, as an eclectic spirituality is not necessarily built to the same standards of robustness as a religion that has at least the potential of being adopted by a number of people.

Now that I've thoroughly called into question the practice of eclecticism by highlighting the many ways it can go wrong, I'd like to spend some time on the sorts of reasons that people take eclectic courses through religion.  These are ones that I have seen.

  • Religious Multiplicity -- some people have a calling to practice more than one religion.  Any religion will have a range of beliefs and practices; a person practicing more than one will have to find the space in the range of each religion that has an overlap. Some of these systems will lead to a new religion developing from the space intersecting between the originals.  (I do not find the belief that a person can only have one religion any more sensical than the belief that a person can have only one god; this informs my eclecticism significantly.  While it is not common in the West, this is a well-known attitude in parts of Asia.)

  • Layers and Overlays -- there are religions that can be viewed as a particular outlook on the world, and thus can be practiced as a modification to another system or as independent structures of their own.  The most well-known and mainstream of these is Buddhism; while there are many Buddhists, there are also a number of people who have adopted some portion of Buddhist philosophy and attitudes towards the world.  Among pagans, both Discordianism and Satanism can be treated as interpretational overlays.

  • Fostering -- sometimes a god to which a person is dedicated will make it clear that their follower should enter, temporarily, into the service of other gods, for reasons of personal development, skill acquisition, or the sort of arcane reasons that gods have that they don't actually tell mere mortals about.  (All of the people I know who have had this happen have been primarily in service to Celtic deities.  The Celts practiced fostering, and often sent their children to grow up in other households, thereby creating inter-familial bonds.)

  • Cross-Training -- similar to fostering.  Sometimes a practice common in one religion has value or connection to a practice in another one; practitioners of each might spend some time training with the followers of the other in order to broaden or deepen their skills with people who have different areas of expertise.

  • Designated for Assignment -- similar to fostering and cross-training.  A god -- usually an established patron, someone who the person in question considers to have some authority -- tells their worshipper to go somewhere else to study or work, while maintaining their extant practice.  (In my case, I was told that in order to honor Set properly, I needed tools that Egyptian reconstructionism could not provide me that would enable me to overcome certain difficulties.  He told me where I could acquire those tools, and left me to decide whether or not I would do it.)

  • Patching a Gap -- this is especially common among the reconstructions.  There are places that the available knowledge does not address; even things that were known to exist are not always well-recorded.  Someone who is interested in having those lost practices in their reconstruction will not be able to do so from a historical basis; they have to extrapolate, interpret, and possibly acquire from elsewhere the required pieces.  For example, people who wish to incorporate trancing-type interactions into their reconstructions have turned to both the work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and the possessionary African Diaspora religions for the training they needed.

  • Flaw Correction -- any religious system will have places where it falls down for someone.  A person may find a system almost entirely satisfactory, but have issues with certain points of theology or feel a need to supplement the material with other things that are out there.  This quest may eventually lead them to conversion to a new religion that does not have that flaw; it may also, however, lead to the adoption of some portion of another system that is both consistent with the original religion and resolves whatever was the source of the difficulty.

  • Ancestry -- many, many people have in their heritage people from a number of different regions, and thus, potentially, a number of different ethnic religions.  While it is not required to follow the gods of one's ancestors, or even a subset thereof, some people feel a need to acknowledge some portion of their heritage in their religious practice.  This may be an outgrowth of those religions that practice some form of ancestor worship, a result of encounters with the gods or spirits who associated with those ancestors, or simply a matter of personal preference.

  • Ecumenicalism -- as many recons will complain, it can be very difficult to maintain a clear sense of what a religion is all about in a community containing a huge variety of other ideas.  This can be a problem, if one is trying to work with a specific system; on the other hand, it can be viewed as the natural result of what happens if one takes a huge number of worldviews that were normally separated by thousands of miles and put them in the same small area. Eventually, bits and pieces of each will rub off and redistrubute and new forms will appear.

  • Task-focused worship -- some people have a strong affiliation to a particular role or task in the world.  These folks may wind up dealing with the gods who are associated with that particular role, regardless of their cultural background, and wind up incorporating acknowledgements of all of Them into the system that they practice.

  • Pure Synthesis -- some people are unsatisfied with the existing religious systems or feel a calling to construct something all their own.  They may not have found anything out there that works for them, or feel a need to build something of their own.  More power to 'em, that's a wicked lot of hard work they're setting themselves up for.

  • I don't know, man, I didn't do it -- sometimes a motley assortment of gods shows up in someone's life and makes it clear that They don't intend to go away.  At this point, the poor pagan is left to figure out how the heck they're supposed to deal with this confounding pile of miscellanea.

Being responsibly eclectic -- whether for one of these reasons, a combination of them, or for some entirely different reason -- is a lot of work.  If someone has established commitments and obligations to gods, other people, or religious organisations those may have to be renegotiated.  (When I decided to take Set's advice, I checked with the other gods to whom I have specifically pledged to see if any of Them had problems with it; one assigned me a minor practice restriction to be sure that I was certain to maintain my allegiance to Her.)  The work required to do a good job of it can be immense -- ranging from the spiritual equivalent of doing a skin graft through to organ transplants (and getting all those tubes hooked up right) to the work of the notorious Dr. Frankenstein.

If that is the way you're feeling a need to go, I can only hope that the rewards you find are commensurate with the work it will require to get there.

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