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Lewis' brand of Sufism does not claim to be Islamic. Schachter-Shalomi, by contrast, has never given up his Jewish roots. His explorations were meant not to replace the faith he was born into but to enrich and renew it. "Each time I would attend [another religion's services], I would learn something that would sharpen my own devotion," he says. "I would learn from the Quakers about sitting in silence, and I brought some of this to the synagogue. I would learn from the Baptists about praying outside of the prayer book, just from the heart. I would learn from the Christian Scientists to stand up and to give thanks for having been healed and helped." Echoing Inayat, Schachter-Shalomi argues that there is "an empirical reality that I call generic spirituality." Individual religions are merely fragments of that broader sense of the absolute, as refracted through "ethnic or historical components that gave it a particular flavor."
For all that, the rabbi doesn't entirely dismiss the traditionalist critique of the spiritual cafeteria. In the late '60s, when he sometimes taught in the San Francisco Bay area, he noticed that "people would say they were 'into' this now, and then they would get 'into' that, and each time they were looking for that honeymoon period with a new discipline." He corrects himself: "Not discipline -- a new tradition. When it came to discipline, they'd opt out and then go to the next one. Because they wanted a hit."
The difference between them and him, he argues, is that "I didn't step out of Judaism to become a practicing something-else. But when I get in touch with another religion, and I attune to their dimension of the holy, I can bring that attunement back and enhance my connection to God."
From Pluralism to Paganism
If Kissling and Schachter-Shalomi seem avant-garde, it's only because they've thought through their positions with more rigor. If there aren't many Catholics with a detailed theological argument for abortion rights, there are plenty who break with their faith on that or some other important issue. And if Schachter-Shalomi's universalism is unusual, his willingness to explore rival confessions is not. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 1999, Lisa Miller described not only the rabbi who became a Sufi sheik but a "Christian Buddhist, but sort of tongue-in-cheek," plus a Jewish/Buddhist cross-over that's "become so commonplace that marketers who sell spiritual books, videotapes and lecture series have a name for it: 'JewBu.'" Within the Unitarian Church, there are organizations of Unitarian Buddhists and even Unitarian Pagans.
Neopagans themselves mix all sorts of spiritual ingredients -- and not always consciously. Many carry baggage from the churches they've supposedly rejected. "The former Catholics are the ones that are into the big ceremonial magic, because that's what they grew up with -- the big Catholic ceremonies," argues Ceredwyn Alexander, a 33-year-old pagan (and former Catholic) who lives in Middlebury, Vermont. "And the Baptist pagans tend to be the rule-oriented pagans: 'You must be facing the east at this particular time of day, and anything other than that is evil and wrong!'"
Not every neopagan is as rigid as that. Indeed, neopaganism is almost unique among the world's faiths for its adherents' willingness not just to adopt radically new beliefs or practices but to jettison ideas that once stood at the center of the pagan worldview.
Paganism in the broadest sense goes back to the Stone Age, but neopaganism is a product of the last 100 years, born when various mystics, most notably the English occultist Gerald Gardner, assembled new spiritual movements out of several preexisting social currents, from Freemasonry to woodcraft groups. Gardner claimed he had inherited his species of witchcraft, initially dubbed "Wica," from an unbroken chain of transmission that dated back to pre-Christian times, was kept alive in secret, and resurfaced publicly only after the U.K. repealed its anti-witchcraft statute in 1951. There are still some people who believe parts of that tale, but it is pretty well established by now that Wicca was Gardner's own invention.
This point is much less controversial in pagan circles than you might imagine. Two years ago, Charlotte Allen wrote an article for The Atlantic that was positively breathless in debunking Wicca's creation myths: that Gardner had revealed a long-established secret religion, that it could be traced back to a primeval goddess cult that once covered all of Europe, that the Christian witch hunts were launched to eradicate that ancient order, that this persecution was a holocaust that claimed 9 million women's lives. As Allen noted, the case for an overarching goddess-worshipping ur-faith has been severely weakened in recent years, while the rest of the story is in even worse shape: The figure of 9 million dead women is simply untrue, as is the notion of a witchy secret society that spent centuries underground.
How was Allen's article received? For the most part, to judge from the letters The Atlantic printed, with a been-there-done-that shrug. Toward the end of the piece, Allen herself eased up on the iconoclastic tone, allowing that many Wiccans "seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting," the new views.
That was an understatement. Pagan fundamentalists who insist their religion is centuries old certainly exist, but even in the 1970s mavericks such as Isaac Bonewitz, the Berkeley-based Druid, made a point of arguing that the Wiccan origin story was inaccurate. Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon (1979), one of the books that did the most to introduce Americans to neopaganism, frankly declared that until recently, most Wiccans "took almost all elements of the myth literally. Few do so today, which in itself is a lesson in the flexibility of the revival."
Adler's book, incidentally, is one of the best on the topic, surpassed only by the British historian Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon (1999). But while Adler's tome is good journalism, it isn't exactly objective. The author is a practicing pagan herself, and her book has an agenda, which Hutton summarized well: "She recognized that Wicca had probably been built upon a pseudo-history, and then suggested that this was normal for the development of religious traditions and that Wiccans deserved credit for the fact that they were increasingly conscious of this without losing a sense of the viability of their actual experience of the divine. What emerged from Drawing Down the Moon was an argument for modern paganisms as ideal religions for a pluralist culture, and for witchcraft as one of these." Because it was so widely read, Adler's book ended up not just highlighting this interpretation of modern paganism, but spreading it.
Odin, Buddha, Allah
Such pluralism allows pagans to take ecumenicalism even further than Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi does. Jim Davis, a 43-year-old man in Springfield, Missouri, practices Asatru, a revival of Viking mythology. He is, simultaneously, a Buddhist and something of a Muslim, though his heretical "edge Islam" wouldn't go over very well in Mecca. "I don't actually combine them," he says of his three faiths. "I just hold all three at the same time."
Davis was raised a Southern Baptist; when he got fed up with that, he became an atheist. After some apparently mystical experiences restirred his interest in the spiritual, he started investigating the other religions of the world, settling initially on Buddhism "because I found it the least objectionable, from an atheist background." When he learned that some Buddhist sects had imported older Asian deities into their faith, reimagining them as protector spirits or as personified Bodhisattvas, he wondered why he couldn't do the same with Western mythologies. Again he began searching, this time for an appropriate set of spirits. The Norse gods -- Thor, Odin, Freya -- seemed to be a good fit. "I started seeing them as Buddhist protectors," he recalls. "But I wouldn't tell my Asatru friends that."