April 29, 2008
To our pre-Christian spiritual ancestors, spirituality was both contemporary and relevant. In cultures where polytheism (the belief in many gods) was the rule, rather than the exception, individuals were given the ability to find their own beliefs and to choose their own spiritual paths based upon their personal needs and the calling of their own hearts. Households had specific deities that represented the prosperity and protection that the family hoped for their home. Agricultural festivals had gods that watched over the planting, the growing crops, and the harvest. This diverse pantheon of deities created a culture where a person would draw closest to the god or goddess that most clearly echoed the individual's desires, path, and hopes for their life. Even within social structures that did not allow peasantry to rise above the station they were born into, the individual had the freedom to express the sacredness they held within by honoring a deity that most closely represented what the individual honored in their own heart.
This freedom allowed our spiritual ancestors to choose representations of the divine that were found in the world they lived in and, as that world changed through interaction with other cultures that added new threads to the tapestry of society, new gods and goddesses were adopted from foreign lands. This wasn't an indication of a system of spiritual beliefs without a foundation, of religions that could be easily swayed by any new idea, but rather an understanding that as our lives change and develop, we also have the freedom to allow our spiritual paths to evolve as we grow.
The Restrictiveness of "Right"
It's difficult for many of us to understand this concept as the majority of western culture is deeply ingrained in monotheism - the belief that there is only one god or one correct religion. Monotheism does not allow for exploration outside of rigidly prescribed boundaries. Because a monotheistic religion is based upon the concept that the path it's leaders present is the only correct path, it infers, or even promotes, the idea that every other path is wrong. As a result, growth outside of the established boundaries of a monotheistic religion is exceptionally difficult. Churches split over issues of doctrine; individuals are often shunned by their friends within the religion should they decide upon another path; new ideas that aren't endorsed by the current hierarchy are branded as heresy.
When approached from a monotheistic perspective, alternatives to the accepted religion within a monotheistic culture are considered misguided, ill-advised, or occasionally, the work of evil forces bent on swaying the individual from the path of good. This narrow focus effectively limits most spiritual exploration, so the individuals within a monotheistic culture are left without alternatives or even the unhindered freedom to explore and choose the path that is right for them. Those who express an interest in other spiritual paths are often encouraged to pray that these "temptations" are removed.
What was lost in the cultural shift from polytheism to monotheism was the inherent understanding that spirituality is an intimate, personal choice. By allowing our freedom of choice to be handed over to an organization, we also infer that other individuals should do the same. If a monotheistic religion is correct, by default, anything outside of that single religion or belief in a single, accepted god is wrong. If we truly believe that, then we also believe that others who pursue any spiritual path outside of the monotheistic system we have chosen for ourselves are, at best, misguided. Early Christians in the Roman Empire weren't persecuted because the powers that be were afraid of the new religion. They were arrested because their practice of telling others that the pantheistic Roman beliefs were wrong caused social unrest and disrupted trade.
Discovering Spiritual Freedom
While polytheism may not necessarily be relevant in today's society, the freedom and perspective that it inferred are sadly lacking from much of our modern culture. What would we do if we openly had the freedom to select our own path, without pressure to adhere to a widely accepted religion? What sources would we draw upon? How would we begin?
We would begin with the basic understanding that all paths are relevant and real. There would be an understanding that, if we have the freedom to choose our own spirituality then others are free to do the same. In this type of social environment, the practice of spirituality becomes much like the creation of art. We find that our paths become an expression of who we are, of both the beauty we see inside us and the world that we see around us. When an individual is given the ability to express what is within them and that expression is then accepted by those closest to the individual, that individual grows in confidence and self-worth. If the things that they carry within their heart are worthwhile, then by default, the individual must be worthwhile as well. When the individual shares or expresses that intimate perspective and finds that it isn't rejected, they also find the courage to continue to express themselves and their confidence grows.
Once we have the freedom to pursue our own beliefs, it would make sense that we would then either explore the beliefs available to us or that we will blaze a path of our own. Our spiritual ancestors' beliefs reflected the world and culture they lived in. Their gods were drawn from the natural world and from the elements of society they interacted with on a daily basis. Their myths and legends, which they may or may not have believed were real, were effective tools to use as templates for growth and for understanding their place in their world.
Today we live in a global culture. With the power of modern media, the farthest reaches of the planet are brought into our homes. With the click of a mouse, a selection of a button on the television remote control, or the turning of a page, we can find ourselves immersed in a culture on the other side of the planet. The beliefs and perspectives of an indigenous culture are just as accessible as those of our modern society. From this smorgasbord of beliefs and perspectives, we have the ability to select those that speak to our hearts, that resonate within us.
Within monotheism, there is an acute dividing line between wrong and right. The world is black and white, good and evil, and once that line is drawn for the individual, they are expected to immediately correct themselves and embrace the morals and guidelines established by the accepted religion. The alternative is to give ourselves the freedom to explore, to try paths until we decide that they are not relevant to us, and to realize that we don't have to get it right the first time. If our path is right for us and we give others the freedom to explore their own way, then by default, all paths are valid. The selection of our personal spirituality stops becoming a struggle between right and wrong. Instead, it allows us to learn about ourselves, our place within our society and our own personal culture, and then gives us the freedom find or create a system of beliefs that reflect that view of ourselves. We suddenly have the time to explore, the freedom to choose new paths when the old lose their relevancy to us and to explore new concepts when we find they echo within our hearts.
Unity Through Diversity
While this approach may seem chaotic and destructive on the surface, in practice it actually alleviates much of the chaos and destructiveness inherent in our personal lives. As spirituality becomes a quest to understand and express our place within life, our lives, our society and our culture begin to grow in value. With our growing confidence and self-worth we discover that we also begin to place greater value on other individuals and the society and culture we create together. If our path brings us closer to God and all paths are equally relevant, we slowly grow to understand a secret that has revealed itself to those in any religion who have dared to continue to explore their beliefs - all paths lead to the same source.
This simple shift in perspective begins to reveal the beauty of diversity to us. To those who aren't called to this approach to spirituality, it often seems as if its adherents are without any type of stability. Holding on tightly to a single approach is commonly accepted as having a strong foundation. What we understand when we begin to embrace spiritual diversity is that all paths have a strong foundation. To use a simple analogy, holding on tightly to a single system of belief and closing out the relevance of all others is similar to someone holding on tightly to a rope that has them suspended inches above the ground. Accepting the freedom to explore is similar to releasing our grasp on the rope and finding the earth beneath us. Suddenly there is an entire world to explore.
The Value of Spiritual Diversity
The other benefit of this approach is that, because we express our quest for the divine in our lives, our culture and our society, we understand that the divine is represented in the kaleidoscope of individual expressions of individual paths. Society suddenly grows in value as it reflects that which we seek in our spiritual paths. Culture becomes something to embrace and hold dear. Individuals who don't work on their own personal and spiritual growth begin to find that, rather than having their negativity embraced and encouraged by individuals who aren't quite clear what they are lashing out at, that their disprutiveness removes them from the beauty and sacredness around them. With a culture placing its emphasis on family, on spiritual diversity, and engraining an acceptance of a wide range of beliefs, any individual can find the path of their heart within such a culture. Crime stops being a statistic and becomes an act of someone lashing out against the sacred, against the divine that is expressed in their victim. Kindness, encouragement and understanding aren't simply things we express to another individual; they become expressions to the divine we see reflected in their lives.
Our daily pursuits begin to slowly shift to things that add value to our lives. We find ourselves watching less television and spending more time with our children, not because it's a sacrifice we make, but because we realize it's what we want to do. We buy less as we rediscover the simple joy of making something by hand and learn to balance want with need. And we begin to realize that, as an individual thread of the tapestry of life, that we have the ability to impact the world around us, both in negative and positive ways. Through this understanding, we can begin to mediate the way we change our environment and have a very real influence on our own lives and neighborhoods.
It would be a mistake to think that we can make a few simple changes and create a global utopia. One of the concepts that becomes understood is that if everyone is given the freedom to pursue their own paths, then by default, individuals also have the ability to disregard any path. There will always be those who disrupt society, either as an individual or through their actions as a leader. There will be those who choose a path that is based upon the concepts of monotheism - our path is right and all others are wrong. While it may be disruptive, it is also an approach that quickly gains followers as it offers answers that are clear-cut, providing a safe refuge from the uncertainty of exploration.
But the objective of alternatives to monotheistic spirituality isn't to change the world around us, but rather to change ourselves. With the changes we create in our own lives, we will find our own personal peace, our own personal joy, and our own personal path to the divine. Individuals who want the same thing will be drawn to each other and will find the strength to pursue their own path, most likely different from those of their friends. Diversity grows. We begin to see the sacred reflected in ourselves, in our friends, and in the tiny culture we create together. While it will never change the world, it allows us to indirectly take control of our own reality and create a life filled with the things we value and hold dear.
by Jeffrey Pierce
July 18, 2001