Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi

What JewBus, Unitarian Pagans, and the Hot Tub Mystery Religion tell us about traditional faiths.

There is a group in the Dallas area called the Hot Tub Mystery Religion. Its adherents hold to no particular spiritual dogma, borrowing freely from such sources as Jewish mysticism, Roman paganism, Islamic heresy, and experimental art. One of its founders has compiled a recommended reading list for the faithful; it includes a collection of Tantric exercises, a text on Sufism, one of Philip K. Dick's Gnostic science fiction stories, and a novel by the Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton. The group has been known to treat nitrous oxide as a sacrament and to throw Jacuzzi parties -- hence the name.

In raw numbers, the Hottubbists constitute one of the smallest religions in the world: With well under 100 practitioners, it is dwarfed even by Rastafarianism and Scientology. The group is interesting for many reasons, but its social influence is not among them.

Though small and obscure, it is an example of a significant social trend: the blurring boundaries between art and faith. Atheists have long regarded religion as, at best, a collective work of art, but in the last century that view has grown popular with churchgoers as well. Many Christians and Jews today will declare that the Bible is a collection of myths and metaphors, not literal truths, and some will aver that there is more than one path to God. Neopagans and others take this nonliteral and eclectic approach and run with it, freely fusing classical mythologies, tribal spiritual practices, and even popular fiction, all of which would be mutually exclusive if they were regarded as, to borrow a phrase, the Gospel truth. At the far end of the spectrum are those who do not merely regard religion as a human creation but actively identify themselves as its creators. The Hot Tub group actually began as an art project, becoming a more spiritual endeavor only gradually. If it is unusual, it is only because it is so radical. Most people do not feel the need to be the authors of their own religions, though quite a few are happy to be the editors.

Whether this is bad or good depends on your attitude toward orthodoxy. Traditionalists often castigate what they call the spiritual cafeteria, in which ordinary worshippers pick and choose the beliefs and practices that appeal to them, customizing their faiths to fit their lifestyles instead of altering their lives to fit the dictates of their denominations. The cafeteria line includes every Catholic who casually dissents from the edicts of Rome, every otherwise observant Jew who eats food made in nonkosher kitchens, every Muslim who adjusts his prayer schedule to his workday rather than the other way around. Sometimes, these pickers and choosers even mix in their favorite features of other faiths.

Some think the most important religious trend today is a rise in fundamentalism; others, a rise in disbelief. But somewhere between those two phenomena, another interesting evolution is taking place. A large slice of the American public, many of them card-carrying members of mainline denominations, are living spiritual lives that are customized, eclectic, and otherwise comparable to those found in the Hot Tub church.

Customized Doctrine

Few issues seem more settled than the Vatican's position on abortion. The pope campaigns constantly against the practice, and the institution he heads has arguably done more for the fetal cause than any other group. The church's catechism -- in its own words, "the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine" -- declares, "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person -- among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life."

So the first thing you might think, upon learning of a 30-year-old lobby called Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), is that its very premise is a paradox, comparable to Vegetarians for Veal or Maoists for the Preservation of Property Rights. Frances Kissling, the group's president since 1982, would disagree. "I have a good understanding of what I'm required to believe and accept as a Catholic," she says, "and I know that within the Catholic tradition, I have the right to dissent from even serious but non-infallible teachings. Abortion, women's ordination, family planning, married male priests, homosexuality: All these areas of controversy are open to disagreements." Pressed, she offers a detailed argument, part history and part theology, that the Catholic position on whether and when a fetus might be a person has varied considerably over the last two millennia.

I'm not competent to judge Kissling's theological position, and I'm not about to try. Her foes, however, have not been so wary. Magaly Llaguno, co-author of a tract titled Catholics for a Free Choice Exposed, has accused her of remaining in the church only "to sow discord and division." Speaking in Toronto in 1999, Llaguno said Kissling's group "is, in my opinion, usurping and misusing the term Catholic. Perhaps the Vatican and the bishops in each individual country in the world should copyright this term, so CFFC cannot continue to use it."

Yet Kissling not only embraces the Catholic label but sees herself as part of a proud Roman tradition. She is a Catholic, not a Protestant, because something in Catholicism appeals to her. "There are parts of me that do say, 'Give it up, go someplace friendlier,'" she confesses. "But religious faith is not a matter of rationality. There's a part of my life, my spirit, that is irrational, and Catholicism appeals to that." She admires Catholicism's elaborate theology, its rich intellectual history, its support for humanitarian causes, even its music. ("I prefer Catholic Gregorian chants to Buddhist chants.") "It's partly cultural," she explains. "This is a religion I grew up with. I lived the first 20 years of my life in a largely Catholic community. Who I am -- my values, how I see the world, my imagination -- was formed by Catholicism. In the same way that I love myself, I love that which formed me."

Kissling adds that "even an excommunicated Catholic is a Catholic," which might strike even liberal clergy as going too far. Thus far she hasn't been expelled from the church, and she doesn't expect it to happen. But if that day ever comes, she plans to study the disputed doctrines one more time, to consult with her trusted colleagues, to pray, and then to "have the courage of what I think it means to be a Catholic -- to say what I believe. And let the chips fall where they may."

The Many True Faiths

If that's a Catholic sentiment, it's one more at home in pluralist America than in, say, late-15th-century Spain. The rise of secular liberties has made it much easier to discard all or part of your faith without earthly repercussion, especially during the last century. At the same time, revolutions in communication and transportation have made it easier than ever to sample the planet's spiritual cuisines. A hundred and fifty years ago, an American could live his entire life without learning that Buddhism existed. Fifty years ago, in most of the country, he had to make a special effort to track down the details of Buddhist doctrine. Today, he can type a few words into a search engine and discover a host of Buddhisms, some more authentic than others.

If Kissling represents the first trend, then the second is embodied in Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Jew born in Austria and based today in Boulder, Colorado. The 78-year-old founder of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal is not merely a Hassidic rabbi but an initiated Sufi sheik; he has explored traditions ranging from Buddhism to voodoo, from Native American peyote rituals to the Baptist church. "In Judaism, we believe the messiah has not come yet," he says. "Which means we are not out of the woods yet, you know? We cannot claim that we have the totality of truth. Each of the religions has a fragment, and none of them has the whole thing."

This universalist idea is hardly new. The Sufi philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan, for one, argued a century ago that all the world's faiths shared a common truth. ("We need not give up our religion," he once wrote, "but we must embrace all religions in order to make the sacredness of religion perfect.") In 1923 Inayat initiated the Jewish-born Samuel Lewis, known to his followers as "Sufi Sam," who by that point was already well along a philosophical road whose stops ranged from Theosophy to Zen to General Semantics. It was Lewis, in turn, who initiated Schachter-Shalomi into Sufism. By that point, the rabbi had been venturing into other faiths for years.

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