I begin this post with a confession: I am a spiritual shopper. By a spiritual shopper, I am referring to those who are in flux between different traditions, but searching for a place among them. Much like the shopper, spiritual shoppers tend to try on or borrow beliefs and practices from multiple traditions. The image that comes to mind when I think about the shopper category is an American game show called Supermarket Sweep. The show is more ridiculous than it sounds (see the SNL spoof here: https://youtu.be/-UggNH1YeRY). When I was growing up in the church, spiritual shoppers were painted with an image much like the tv show contestants who sprint around a grocery store for 30 minutes on live TV. According to the views of my childhood, they were the creators of their own religion, often coined as a “religion of me.” Each shopper casually strolled down the different isles of religions and spiritual practices putting together a customized faith that ignored tradition, ignored God, and most of all was extremely prideful. How could one think that they are too good for years of tradition? How can one simply pick and choose like it is up to them? Is one’s preference more important than God’s? Being a spiritual shopper was to arrogantly make religion in one’s own image, taking one small step towards idolatry and a giant leap towards relativism. Others claim that when one is in charge of selecting faith/religion there is a tendency to ignore the “hard stuff,” essentially making up their own story that lacks conviction or anything challenging. As a person who falls into this category I could not feel more opposite. What I aim to do in this post is to shed light on the implications of spiritual shoppers on pluralism and interfaith dialogue, while shifting understanding of this label through my personal story.
Half way through my junior year of college I switched my minor from business to religion. At my school that meant I could take 18 hours of any religious studies courses I chose. I had some brilliant friends who were majoring in religious studies, so naturally I wanted to take courses with them rather than introductory courses. In my first semesters I took two courses on the Hebrew Bible and two ministry courses. I was quickly confronted by the messiness of the Bible I had always sworn was authoritative and inerrant. It was around this time that I realized that most of my core beliefs had been handed to me by those around me. This is not to paint a negative light on those who cared for and loved me while I was raised or to denigrate the validity of those beliefs, but rather to note a process that was very impacting. The first thing to go was my belief in a seven-day creation, followed by my belief in heaven and hell, and a literal resurrection. These changes were not necessarily due to inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible, but rather the tearing of the veil that came with it. After my trust in the Bible was breached, a whole landslide of questions and concerns came with it. It was an experience like the wizard of Oz, seeing behind the curtain and seeing the processes through which my faith had been formed.
I consider this the point at which my faith, and in a sense my whole being, came alive. While I believed less than I had before, I had never felt so energized and authentic. I came to realize that the majority of my shopping had been done for me. Salvation was put into my basket at age 7, baptism at age 8, and sexual abstinence around age 10. The awareness of this process of faith did not make my prior religious beliefs automatically false. Rather, it opened a new way of understanding my experience in light of them. In my case, I came into this awareness and realized that my beliefs did not match my experience and understanding so I began to make a change. I want to highlight that this event in my life (still ongoing) was not done on a whim. I did not simply choose this process because I thought it would be fun; becoming a shopper was a very personal and authentic move, one that caused deep rifts in my relationship to the church, my parents, my friends, and not to mention within myself. For me, this meant living over and against all the expectations that the people who loved me had for my life. I went from a worship leader to a skeptic, from a literalist to a mystic. It was not a move that came from arrogance or a lack of humility, but rather out of an acknowledgement that I could no longer be authentic in the beliefs/practices I had been committed to. Becoming a shopper was all at once the most exciting and most painful experience of my life. However, once I saw behind the curtain there was no going back.
I write today as an individual who claims Christianity, really, only as an acknowledgement to my background/lens, who admires Humanism for its value of humanity without it being divinely mandated, and who is intrigued by mysticism and an apophatic approach to God—an individual who most people I was raised with would call an Atheist. On a daily level I struggle to articulate exactly what that combination looks like. However, as confusing and mish-mashed as my faith/beliefs are now, I can say that this is my best shot, my most authentic way of believing and understanding my role in the world. From this place of authenticity came an interest in interfaith dialogue and religious diversity. Placing myself around those who are different from me provided the opportunity to see myself as the alien, to come to terms with my own beliefs and values in light of real people of other faiths. Interfaith Dialogue repeats the same process as my Hebrew Bible courses in that they force me to question my identity and to come to terms with the ways it is being formed. Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity to learn from others who are engaging in the same process as I am, who have had different results and different answers to different questions. For me, facing the “other” is the best way I have found to understand myself and my experiences in a meaningful way. I have quickly learned that what I believe today might not be the same tomorrow, and that I am at peace with that…for now.
My experience with being a spiritual shopper has influenced how I understand pluralism. I have found that pluralism, rather than a belief system in itself, is a mode of engaging the world and difference. To be a pluralist is to carry an awareness of one’s own formation and identity into relationship with the other. Pluralism is an attempt to give credit to others in light of one’s own story. It is because of my own complexities and folds in my story that I can learn and appreciate others. This also means that I do not try and force my own understandings onto someone else. Pluralism removes assumptions because in the same way that the label “Christian” does not fully capture my own story, different labels will not tell the full story of others. Pluralism flows from an awareness of oneself and the processes by which the self was formed. Dialogues and other attempts at interfaith literacy often present one or two people who try to speak for a large group, religion, or church. You might have two men who are the church leaders… but what of the experience of that religion or teaching through the lens of a single mother? Through a senior adult? While the two representatives might speak to a majority opinion or belief in their immediate community, who is to say that the synagogue, mosque or church down the road that claims the same religion has any of the same beliefs? If someone looked at a printout about basic facts about myself, they would see that I am a Christian attending seminary. That hits some of who I am but it in no way captures who I am. While the differences between individuals can seem small within a single community, there are still differences in the way each of us envisions and experiences the world, even if both support the same atonement theory or Trinitarian doctrine. Pluralism leaves assumptions behind because there is no way for one to fully know another’s experience. In fact, it is only through the facing of others that I come to be aware of my own. One of the core principles of pluralism has always been a valuing of difference. Withholding assumptions and carrying a humble awareness of oneself is a move in that direction.
Although I think we are all in some way spiritual shoppers (some more satisfied with our products than others), the number of people who self-identify as being in flux or between faiths is growing. My writing of this post arises out of my own concern for the role of shoppers in interfaith dialogue and interreligious studies. With a big importance placed on owning your own tradition and being able to articulate it, what of those who are up in the air whose principles are in flux? What I am suggesting here is that everyone show their cards in a sense, and take time to acknowledge the processes by which formation is taking place, continuing in the process of confronting ourselves as we enter into relationship with others. For it is only in the face of the other that I can see the roundness of my own self. The process of becoming a shopper has led me to believe that we are all a bit more complex than we let on. I hope that the interfaith space can become more welcoming of those in flux – not because they are becoming more normal, but because of the complexity and uniqueness of each individual.
Photo Courtesy of basketman23