Civil Liberties

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.

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."

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."

Sometimes the Hot Tubbists rented big warehouses for the events; other times, they met in an apartment in Euless, Texas. Eventually, Aydt recalls, "It got to the point where our mutual goal was to provide a spontaneously occurring initiatory experience. It went from being an accidental, 'Hey, we all got together and something very strange happened' situation to a more planned, 'Well, if we play our cards right and do certain things, we can induce this same kind of group experience.'" And so a new religion, devoted to "monotheist pagan mysterianism," was born.

Such playfulness marks the so-called Free Religions. Under this header one finds Discordianism, the "Non-Prophet Irreligious Disorganization" devoted to the Greco-Roman goddess of disorder; the Church of the SubGenius, inspired not by classical mythology but by conspiracy theories, UFO cults, and sales manuals; and the Moorish Orthodox Church, which might best be described as Discordianism crossed with Afro-American Islam. Other Free Religions are one-off efforts, sometimes launched by followers of other free faiths. The Discordian filmmaker Antero Alli, for example, has invented a spiritual practice centered around Fred Mertz, Ethel's husband on I Love Lucy. Mertz, he argues, was a Bodhisattva, master of "such sophisticated techniques as Senseless Bickering, Scathing Indifference, Bad Timing, Advanced Balding and the Five Secrets of Stinginess." There is, or was, a First Arachnid Church whose deadpan tracts honor "the Great Spider and the True Web," and there's probably a similar church out there devoted to the Great Pumpkin, though I haven't been able to locate it yet.

On one level, of course, these are parodies, and some of them don't aspire to be more than that. But there's more to the Free Religions than satire. The Hot Tub group, which drew heavily on both Discordianism and Moorish Science, was in no sense unserious in its efforts to reach a transcendental state. For the Discordians, the wisecracks are there, in part, as a defense against fundamentalism. The theory is that religious texts are metaphors at best, that some of the world's most hazardous social conflicts began because people took those metaphors literally, and that one way to overcome this is to develop a doctrine so absurd that no one could possibly take it at face value. If religion is art, then this is spiritual dada.

In a way, none of this is unusual. There have always been people who discard the elements of their faith that they dislike, and there have always been syncretic religions that fuse one spiritual system with another. What is new is the ease of the former, the speed of the latter, and the extent to which the two have combined.

There is a wide gulf, of course, between someone who merely fine-tunes her Catholicism and someone who replaces the Virgin Mary with the goddess of chaos; between a Jew who mixes milk with meat and a Jew who practices witchcraft. If I am describing a trend, it is one that covers a wide spectrum of behavior, from the ordinary to the outré. As a journalist, I have naturally focused on the latter—but it's the former, obviously, that is reshaping society.

The question then becomes how adaptable these revised and reinvented faiths will be in the long haul. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi notes that one function of religious ritual is to bind the generations, and that it's not clear how useful the new combinations are in that regard. "Most of the people who are inventing these things de novo will not have a second generation," he warns. "They wanted to get the highs out of the individual practice, but they don't do things in the household and families."

That doesn't mean that the spiritual cafeteria itself will inevitably collapse. More likely, the next generation will invent, reinvent, and rediscover its own religious practices, just as its parents are doing now.