Textual Arachne

A weaver of threads.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Similar, different

The in-laws have headed off to Easter Sunday services, leaving the Pagan and her agnostic husband to a quiet morning. My niece is jealous that I don't have to get dressed up and sit for Mass today. Instead, I'm writing my Full Moon post (late, again!) and thinking about how syncretism works.

I'm a big supporter of interfaith activity. My time at the Pluralism Project and my participation in the Progressive Faith Bloggers Convention both emphasize that. And I understand that borrowing from other traditions is common: it's both a hard fact of religious existence and a factor in my own ceremonies and ritual tools such as my Tarot deck. At the same time, I want to draw a sharp line between cooperation, borrowing, and synthesis. I am not a proponent of the idea that "all religions are one, really."

Why not? First of all, it is not necessary for cooperation. The idea that we have to agree on a list of basic tenets has some truth; a kind of social contract is necessary for interfaith work, whether it's dialogue, mutual education, or acting for a shared goal. But agreeing on these 'rules of conduct' does not mean we have to agree on their grounds. We don't have to believe in one god in order to build a house together. We just have to agree not to hammer each other's fingers. The idea that religions, in order to cooperate, have to have some kind of vast underlying agreement, leads either to a stalemate (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we don't agree, so clearly we can't work together) or to an ecumenical reductionism (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we do work together, so clearly we must agree on the nature of God).

That reduction strips traditions of all the things that make them tradition, all the stories about who we are and why we do this. Instead, you end up in search of the "real, true religion" that is supposedly at the heart of every tradition, and you toss all the differences out the window, discarding them as crap that's just been added on to what really matters.

But those differences are what make the rich diversity of humanity. Without them life is a monotone hum; with them, it's occasionally cacophony or chaos, but it's also harmony, polyphony, multivocality.

In addition, there's a kind of subtle imperialism at work when we claim that all religions are one. It turns differences into costuming and places them on the market, so to speak. If you and I really are celebrating the same thing, then why could you possibly be upset when I start using your stories, traditions, symbols, language, etc. as my own? Or when I claim to understand them better than you do?

Instead of respectfully asking, or borrowing symbols while remaining aware of the web of connections and history in which they originally rest, this kind of syncretism dismisses any protest by claiming a better understanding of the "real, true religion." I don't think we can, or should, avoid the borrowing and sharing that goes on between traditions. But sharing between two groups is different from claiming that the two groups are really one, so what's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine.

(My strong feelings about this are probably related to me being a twin. I constantly have to emphasize that yes, we are very alike; and no, I'm not her, and she's not me. Similarity is not identity.)

This line of thought is particularly close to me at the holidays. For example, my thoughts on the Equinox--that it is a return to life, when what we thought was dead shows life--is pretty close to the Resurrection. Stretch it a bit and you might be able to harmonize it with Passover, too. And there are lots of similarities between my celebration of returning light at Yule and a host of other celebrations. But to reduce them to some single ur-Holiday is lazy thinking, and it misses the point.

The point is that we are different, and that these differences don't keep us from working together. They make it possible.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Mmm, harmonious convergences. Tomorrow I'll be making another full-moon post, but tonight is the Equinox, and that means its own post.

Today signals growing momentum. From Imbolc to now, everything has seemed more or less the same: gray skies, occasional snowstorms. Since I'm on an academic calendar, it's also been more or less the same--the first half of a semester, in which everything is still a matter of getting a handle on new subjects and new classes. It can seem like stasis.

But today gives the lie to that feeling--sometimes comfortable, sometimes stagnant--of inertia. The first crocuses of the year have sprung up outside my house, warmed by the southern exposure heating the rock under their thin beds. The oak trees have clusters of red. If I were back in Indiana, there might be redbuds blooming already. Shrubs and trees have long shoots of new growth and tight buds, making their outlines hazy.

The bud (in addition to inspiring this poem, which spells it out better than I could...) is both past and future. Its presence means that what we perceived as stasis has been the coiling of a spring, the germination of a seed. The branch that seemed dead promises life to come. Winter recedes, and what seemed to have been killed by cold is revealed as not only sleeping, but preparing for this moment.

And it also points toward the season to come, promising green leaves and the sunlight through them, grass and vines and blooms. The bud cannot remain a bud, or it gives the lie to the preparation of the previous season and is truly dead. It is beautiful in its own right, but cannot remain only itself, just as none of us can be exactly preserved without ceasing to be. Extended far forward, the promise of the bud is not only leaf, but flower, and the fruit that follows after, and the seed in the fall, and the winter's sleep again. It is caught up in the wheel of the year, made and unmade by it.

In a few weeks the magnolias will begin to bloom. At first, the flowers will resemble thin white flames upright scattered throughout the branches. Then some will open into white and pink waxy blossoms while others stay tightly wrapped. I look at magnolias and think of a Tree of Life; but it is more meaningful, somehow, when I think of a Tree of Life and picture magnolias.

Every holiday brings a gift, and every holiday asks a gift from us. The gift we are asked to give at this Equinox is courage--courage to step into the wheel, not hold still, to grow or bloom or eventually die. Courage to take on the next stages of our lives. What the Spring Equinox brings is the realization that half of the preparations have already been made. Like it or not, we have been readying ourselves to take this step even without realizing it.