Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi

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

(Page 3 of 4)

Today, years later, Davis is less interested in fusing one faith with the other. "That's how I first justified it," he explains, "but now I think Buddhism has its own system, and you have to be true to it for it to work for you." The religions fill different needs in his life, so he keeps them in separate boxes: Asatru lets him be part of a spiritual community with its own collective rituals, while Buddhism is something he does by himself.

And Islam? Davis discovered it through Peter Lamborn Wilson's 1988 book Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy, which isn't exactly your standard romp through the Koran. Here Davis found the idea that, in his words, "the high point of mysticism is freedom from the law within a religion that is rule-constricted." The result, needless to say, was not membership at a local mosque, though Davis did become briefly entwined with the local Ismaili community. Heretical Islam "gives me intellectual flights," he explains; it "fulfills my idea of discovering new things."

It's a personal path, like his Buddhism -- it's just that he pursues one with discipline and the other with a deliberate disregard for it.

"The idea that you have to have one faith smacks of monotheism," he complains. "It's like you're just practicing Christianity in a pagan form. I think the true meaning of polytheism is not so much the belief in more than one god but holding more than one worldview at the same time." It helps that he doesn't take the religions literally, preferring to regard them "as powerful metaphors that you could either read meaning into or derive meaning from. Of course, sometimes those metaphors take on lives of their own."

In Triumph of the Moon, Hutton argues that neopaganism is eclectic and protean. It is not just capable of adopting ideas -- gods, rituals, creeds -- from many different sources but is remarkably adaptable itself, allowing very different people to refashion it in their own images. This is true of all long-lived religions, of course, but in this case the evolution has occurred at a stunning pace.

Consider paganism's political dimensions. In Modern Witchcraft (1970), the journalist Frank Smyth observed that the British witches he interviewed tended to be politically conservative. So, Hutton notes, did the founders of the movement, and the figures who influenced them. But in the '60s and '70s -- first in America, but soon in Britain as well -- the religion was altered by feminist and environmentalist currents; in America especially, Wicca was often associated with the political left. The new collection Modern Pagans (2002), an anthology of interviews by V. Vale and John Sulak, reveals a subculture that would have been a bracing surprise to the neopagans of 50 years ago: goths, gay activists, anti-globalization protesters, a cyberspace-based "technopagan," even a Buddhist Beat poet.

It is the protean, adaptive quality Hutton identified that allowed these new variations to emerge. When feminists discovered paganism, they were attracted to the idea of goddess worship, and to the implications of a matriarchal past; the Wicca they then developed was very different from the one Gardner created. Green pagans, meanwhile, turned to "Earth-based spirituality" -- and in the process, Hutton notes, they transformed fertility rites into nature worship. Libertarian pagans enjoyed the Millian overtones of Wicca's central ethical principle: "An it harm none, do as ye will." Even the radical right found a niche by imposing a racialist gloss onto Asatru, to the discomfort of anti-racist Odinists such as Davis.

As one moves further from the Wiccan mainstream, neopaganism's eclectic quality -- its status as a religion of appropriation -- becomes yet more obvious. The Church of Aphrodite, founded on Long Island in 1938, was inspired by the myths of classical Greece as viewed through the lens of one Russian émigré's mind. Subsequent neopagans took their inspiration from the Druids, from ancient Egypt, from the Vikings, from Rome. Others looked to traditions that survived to the present day: to African animism, to Santeria and voodoo, to American Indian religions, even to Hinduism.

Inspiration does not mean perfect reconstruction. There is a sometimes dramatic difference between those in the original tradition and those appropriating it for their own purposes -- between an ordinary Hindu, for example, and an American witch who has added the goddess Kali to her personal pantheon. One devotee of the Egyptian gods told Adler that he was a Jungian and that his deities "represent constructs -- personifications." Some pagans would leave it at that; others, including Adler's interviewee, would insist that on the other side of those interpretive constructs are forces with an independent existence. Either way, it's a far cry from mainstream Hindu theology.

Some pagans prefer to create their pantheons from thin air. A witch named Deborah Cooper has created a Temple of Elvis, identifying the king of rock 'n' roll as the Horned God; in Modern Pagans, she declares: "I've seen many writings correlating Elvis and Jesus, but I don't think he's very Jesus-like. I think it's good for us Pagans to reclaim him as ours." One of the better-known pagan sects grew out of a reading group devoted to Ayn Rand, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Heinlein. The latter's novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) included a Church of All Worlds, whose founder was raised by Martians and whose followers practiced communal living and free love. With time, a real Church of All Worlds was born, with all the above elements except the origins on Mars. Its philosophy fused pantheism, ecology, and anti-authoritarian politics, without ever shedding its ties to science fiction.

It was only a matter of time before someone started mixing frankly fictional characters with the deities of older traditions. If your pantheon consists of cultural archetypes rather than literal beings with continuous histories, why exclude the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, Marvel Comics, and Madison Avenue? If you can treat your religion like art, couldn't you also treat your art like religion?

So it was that in 1993 members of the Order of the Red Grail, a Wiccan group in Nebraska, held an "experimental magickal working from the High Elven point of view," drawing on the world invented by Tolkien. And so it was that in the mid-'80s some occultists in California -- not a pagan group, my informant stresses, though there were some pagans among them -- attempted to channel the Amazing Spider-Man. The collective unconscious was probed, and a persona claiming to be Peter Parker emerged; the magicians then tested the alleged superhero by asking what would take place in the next few issues of the comic book. Alas, the channeler's predictions proved inaccurate, thus nipping the project in the bud.

Spiritual Jacuzzi

Which brings us back to the Hot Tub Mystery Religion. "It was kind of an impromptu phenomenon," says Yehoodi Aydt, 39. "About 1991 or '92, several of us got together as sort of an affinity group, and we started doing events and parties and installations and putting out zines and whatnot. And it kind of evolved into a mystery religion."

One of the group's early inspirations was Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who dreamed of creating a work of art that would occupy every sense, driving the audience into a transcendental state. (The piece, called "The Mysterium," was to be performed in a specially built cathedral in India. It required, among other elements, "an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation" -- not to mention bells suspended from zeppelins.) The Hot Tub group's installations combined music, visual art, food, and sometimes mind-altering chemicals, along with symbols from Sufism, the Cabala, and other sources. Aydt participated in an annual Halloween event called the Disturbathon, which existed somewhere in the hazy territory between performance art and a haunted house. "It involved nudism in a maze-like environment," he recalls, "and there was inevitably some kind of pit."

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