Spirituality Without Labels


I used to call myself Pagan or Neopagan. I no longer do. I haven’t rejected any significant spiritual ideas from the days when I did call myself a Pagan, and I certainly haven’t converted to another religion. What I find myself doing is rejecting the label. In fact, I find myself rejecting all labels.

The problem with labels when it comes to spirituality is that labels — “Pagan,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Mormon,” whatever — come with definitions, and to define is to set limits. And that means that when you give your spirituality a label, you set limits on it. The label doesn’t just mean “I am this,” it also means “I am not that.” To label yourself is to tell your mind that it may consider ideas only in a certain group and must preemptively reject ideas that are beyond that group. Not only is this inappropriately self-limiting, but in today’s world with instant communication flying around the compass of it, it becomes harder and harder to to. To label oneself is to place oneself under siege, so that one is always resisting the attack of heretical notions, not because one disagrees with them in any reasoned way, but simply because to accept them would call one’s self-definition into question. And yet to wall oneself off so that one is not confronted with ideas outside the boundaries of a religious label is increasingly impossible.

Because of events in the last few decades, I’ve seen Christians in America reacting defensively to the increasing visibility of Muslim ideas and quotations from the Quran. I’m not just talking about the extreme fringe that wants to deport all Muslims and go to war with every Muslim country and is behind the ridiculous legislation to ban Sharia from U.S. courts (from which it is already banned by the First Amendment, as is all religious-based legal argument), but also the more moderate disquiet seen among Christians who aren’t certifiable nut-jobs. There’s a sense among them that Christianity is under siege. Of course it remains overwhelmingly in the majority among Americans while Islam still represents a tiny (if growing) minority, and Christianity has always been banned from holding an official, privileged position by that same First Amendment that bans Sharia from the courts, so on that front there’s nothing to be lost. But in a very real sense, those Christians who see their faith as being under siege are right. It isn’t under siege at large, but it is under siege within their own minds.

A quote from the Quran may seem wise and appealing. A Christian may be tempted to look into it further, to read the Muslim holy text in the whole, to attend services at a mosque and see how Muslims worship. (The discovery that there are neither orgies nor human sacrifices involved may be further disquieting.) If these ideas are appealing, does that mean that Muslims are right and Muhammad was a Prophet of God? But if I decide that, I would have to stop praying to Jesus, and I like praying to Jesus; he comforts me and gives me hope. I can’t be a Christian and a Muslim both at the same time, can I?

Well, no — within the context of those two religions’ self-definition, you can’t; as everyone should know, while they agree on many points of doctrine, Islam and Christianity each reject certain key points of the other’s belief system. Islam rejects the divinity of Christ, and Christianity rejects the prophet-hood of Muhammad. What one can do, however, is to reject both of those labels, and one is then free to approve and agree with any ideas from both which seem useful, and from all other religious traditions as well. One can be neither a Christian nor a Muslim, yet find much in the teachings of Jesus or of Muhammad that is wise and good.

The same process is going on within all religions at this time and is a product of the cultural globalization that results form the Internet and from economic globalization. It becomes more and more difficult to wall oneself off from ideas outside one’s spiritual self-definition, and because of this, more and more difficult to preserve the purity of a doctrinal label. This is no doubt disquieting to those who find comfort in self-labeling and self-definition, and especially to those who have been taught that if they don’t believe certain things God is going to punish them with eternal damnation and torture, but for me — and I believe for many others and ultimately for the world — it is liberating.

The idea behind separation or church and state, or one idea behind it, and also behind freedom of speech and a free press, is to have a “marketplace of ideas.” Now, in a marketplace of goods, one does not expect or want to see goods available only in packaged bundles, but one prefers also to be able to buy things individually. Why should it be any different with ideas? Does one have to buy into the whole corpus of Christian doctrine with its bloodthirsty God and crude divine/human-sacrifice model of redemption and threats of incomprehensibly vicious punishment for innocent differences of opinion, in order to recognize the wisdom in Jesus’ teaching that the foundation of morality is to love one another, or his wonderful metaphors for enlightenment found in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven? No, one does not.

We should all bear in mind the Sufi parable of the blind men and the elephant. This is the story of a number of blind men (six in most versions) who were curious about the elephant and went to discover what they could about the beast. One stumbled against the elephant’s side and proclaimed that the elephant was like a wall. Another laid hands on its trunk and claimed that it was like a snake. The others, encountering the animal’s ear, tusk, leg, and tail, proclaimed the elephant to be like a fan, spear, tree, and rope respectively. The blind men began arguing heatedly with each other and were soon pounding one another with their canes, each of them partly right, but all of them wrong.

The metaphor is obvious: when it comes to divine reality, we are all at least somewhat blind and there is no literally true statement about that reality that can be made using human language. (Even such a basic question as polytheism versus monotheism represents an argument among blind men about the elephant. Is the universe one thing or many? Clearly, it’s both.) One important step in removing our blinders is to reject the labels that can often amount to blindfolds.


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