Revisiting the Smorgasbord Religiosity Question

This address came about because of an interesting online conversation I had with a bookseller from whom I had bought a DVD showing the two forms of Tai Chi I practice – the Bejing short 24-posture and the 48-posture forms. Noticing from my email footer that I was the “Reverend” Andrew Brown he asked me if I could explain something to him. He went on to say that he’d been practising Tai Chi since 1968 and also teaching it for a long time. He said that two churches had refused to let him use their halls on the grounds that Tai Chi was “in some way connected to Taoism.” One was a Methodist church and the other, surprisingly to us perhaps, was a Unitarian Church. To him this seemed strange when he said that he thought Christianity “teaches a more open attitude to others.” His final point was that Tai Chi (at least as we tend to practise it here in Europe and North America) is not necessarily connected to Taoism except in the sense that it was undeniably formed within a Taoist cultural milieu. As some of you will know a similar overall issue sometimes arises with regard to the practice of Yoga in church halls – a practice that developed within a predominantly Hindu culture.

I wrote back to him to remind him that part of the problem is that Christianity and, of course, Judaism and Islam have to take seriously their monotheism which requires an exclusive worship of, and belief in, a certain kind of one, absolute God. In Judaism and Christianity their call to this belief is, of course, classically expressed in the first three commandments: 1) having no other gods beside God, 2) not making any idols or images of God and, 3) not to worship or serve those other gods (cf. Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21). (NB Notice, however that this call occurs in a polytheistic context – i.e. there are other gods around all over the place. See a particularly striking example of this in Psalm 82). In Islam it's related to the central concept of Tawhid which, in the Qur’an is, perhaps, most succinctly expressed in the 112th sura, Al-Ikhlas, which reads:

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none comparable unto Him.”

It should be obvious that when understood in a certain way this kind of language all too easily sets up a situation in which the kind of issue my correspondent experienced could occur – having anything to do with alien gods is forbidden. As a church which bears as part of its name the word “Unitarian” (the other half of our name for those who don’t know is “Free Christian”) we need to be alert to the fact that we have been and still are susceptible to a peculiarly liberal form of the same problem. I won’t go into it here but it’s to do with the way another kind of monotheistic metaphysics can sneak into the picture which actually devalues diversity instead of celebrating it. But that’s for another day . . .

However, in general, those of us who attend this kind of church – and probably most people in most liberal settings whether religious or not – simply take the kind of religious and spiritual exclusivism I’ve been outlining to be self-evidently wrong. Speaking now only for our own liberal Christian tradition – despite one Unitarian church’s decision to the contrary – in general we happily say, let the Tai Chi and Yoga be practised alongside, and even commingled with, our own Christian faith.

But such a decision, precisely because it appears to us so self-evident, must, I think, be examined a little more closely from a theological perspective because, when it is not, a certain kind of confusion enters into our lives which, when unchecked, has often led to a number of our own spiritual, social and political difficulties.

I can get us to the general issue quickly by introducing here the most well-known colloquial expressions used to gesture to the matter at hand, namely, “pick and mix” or “smorgasbord” religiosity. It is often characterised as something like “a little dose of Jesus, a little pinch of Buddha, a little Mohammed here and a little New Age thought there. It makes you sound so “with it” . . . so spiritual.” 

This sets up a basic argument which one hears all the time. On the one hand there is presented the smorgasbord approach which never quite digs into the world in the disciplined way required for any genuine human flourishing to occur. Nothing is ever done quite fully enough or quite right. Consequently, lots of misunderstandings and faulty practice gets into play and any sense of real spiritual progression and attainment becomes impossible. On the other hand, there is presented the argument for a single-minded following of one supposedly pure tradition in which there is a real possibility that everything will be done fully and in quite proper fashion. The belief is that this will reduce the possibility of misunderstandings and faulty practices entering into the mix and the person involved can, thereby, gain a real sense of spiritual progression and attainment. In brief, this argument comes out as saying something like: if your religion (or spiritual practice) is plural in anyway it will lack depth and be generally confused; if your religion  (or spiritual practice) is pure and unitary it will be deep and full of clarity.

The first thing I want to say is that, although the views I’ve just outlined when presented in this fashion are mistaken – I’ll get to this in a moment - I think there is a pearl of great price lurking in this false argument. It is that whenever you don’t concentrate properly – and to some extent single-mindedly - on something and you let yourself be distracted all kinds of other things you will end up with a very limited, and perhaps, fatally flawed or just useless understanding of any possible spiritual life – your spiritual life. To echo the words of the epistle of James – a practitioner of any discipline (religious or not) whose loyalty to the task in hand is lacking, is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6). The present Dalai Lama says the following about this very text:

The epistle begins by underlying the critical importance of developing a single-pointed commitment to our chosen spiritual path . . . because lack of commitment and a wavering mind are among the greatest obstacles to a successful spiritual life. However, this need not be some kind of blind faith, but rather a commitment based on personal appreciation of the value and efficacy of the spiritual path. Such faith arises through a process of reflection and deep understanding. Buddhist texts describe three levels of faith, namely: faith as admiration, faith as reasoned conviction, and faith as emulation of high spiritual ideals. I believe that these three kinds of faith are applicable [in this passage] as well. 

Please hold on to this valuable pearl. I'll return to it at the end.

Now the technical name for “pick and mix” or “smorgasbord” spirituality is syncretism and the first thing I want to say here is that a so-called pure, unitary, originary faith has never existed and any claim to the contrary can be shown (from with the faith’s own history and theology) to be misunderstanding their own development. The story of St Barlaam and St Josephat (we heard in the readings) is just one example that reveals this very well. We can say with a confidence, not always available to us in matters religious, that there is no historically established religious tradition that is not syncretic in some way.

The second thing I want to say is that we must distinguish between religious traditions that, like the Hindu one, are very established in their syncretic practice (it is their particular spiritual discipline) and a personal syncretic practice that is thrown together in an unreflectively ad hoc way.

The third thing I want to bring before you are three general kinds of personal syncretic practice. These “types” have been suggested by the contemporary Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf who is now at Yale. One type tends to be the “performance enhancing drugs” religion for when “you need to achieve something and you need spiritual energy to do that”. A second type is the “band-aid” religion to provide quick help for the bruising everyone gets as they walk through life and for when we need a bit of instant, First Aid. The third type is a kind of “local wisdom for action” – something that simply works in a very small locality and set of conditions. As Volf notes none of them give “wide accounts of reality” and, in consequence they tend not to form robust enough communities [which can] resist anything and introduce social change - a person “floats with them.” Wolf rightly, and irenically makes it clear that this is “maybe what some people may like and what’s exactly right [for them]” but he adds that, “from another perspective that may be a real detriment because you can’t create social movement for change with these type of religiosities.” (At the end of this post I have added an example of how our own liberal tradition has to a great degree shifted into the realm of personal syncretic practice and, in consequence, lost much of its ability to affect important social change. The example occurred to me in the congregational conversation which immediately follows my giving of the address.)

It has long struck me that, at our best, ours is a church tradition which has tried to walk a path between the extremes of, on the one hand, offering an absolute monotheism that will brook no deep encounter or involvement with other religiosities or, on the other hand, offering a smorgasbord religiosity with a horizon which only stretches as far as an individual’s immediate needs and which is, therefore, incapable of engaging in either, corporate action for social change or helping the long-term spiritual growth and sense of attainment of its members.

In a very real way my recent address “No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus” is the other half of this address because it outlines our liberal Christian tradition’s collective focal point – namely a following of the model and example of Jesus. A model that helps us to experience the world in increasingly authentic ways as both individuals and as a community. Such a way, such a form of life is precisely why we are here and now NOT frightened of Tai Chi, or Yoga, or Buddhist meditation and a whole host of other spiritual practices and religiosities.

A single-pointed commitment to this form of life – to living a life in the spirit of Jesus - is our pearl of great price. There are other pearls, of course, but this is ours. As I do my Tai Chi each morning before I go on to say my Christian prayers this pearl rests gently in my breast pocket, as close to my heart as is my own heartbeat, and it reminds me of the task in hand – to  love God and my neighbour as ourselves. As Jesus said; “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28)


Brief Afterword

It is reputed that the 16th-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David (1510–1579) once said “We need not think alike to love alike.” A stone-carved plaque bearing this text is found in our church’s memorial garden (on left). In our own age we have tended to internalise this so that when we look around our own congregation we apply it, in the first instance, to ourselves. The trouble is that with so much internal diversity it has often become very hard for us to be collectively and religiously inspired to engage in long-tern, strong social action. But for David and his congregation it is important to see that his own community most certainly did think alike - their faith (and openness to diversity of belief and practice) was most certainly not one of the smorgasbord type. They had a very clear shared theology which was calling them to act in the world as a community. The key thing from our point of view was that this community’s shared belief helped them look at other religious communities and say “You know what? “We need not think alike to love alike.” This theological insight because it was collectively held by a strong body of believers was able to be taken out into the world and, over the centuries, they, in collaboration with others, contributed to the massive social change we have seen in the sphere of religious tolerance.


Yewtree said…
I think there's a massive difference between having a main spiritual tradition to which other practices are a supplement, and having a pick and mix approach to spirituality.

Having a main spiritual tradition to which other things are a supplement means that you are rooted in that tradition, and use it as a language for describing the world and your place in it. Sometimes there are words missing from your particular lexicon, so you borrow them from another language and fit them in to your own linguistic context.

There are several different kinds of syncretism, but syncretism is not the same as pick and mix spirituality. Syncretism usually means an attempt to synthesise and harmonise two traditions.