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22 October 2015

A religion that’s a little of this, a little of that.

Something many pagans are most proud of: The clever little personalized religions they’ve invented.

Eclectic /ə'klɛk.tɪk/ adj. Belongs to no recognized school of thought or organized religion; selects such doctrines and beliefs as they wish, from various religions and schools.
[Eclecticism /i'klek.ti.siz.əm/ n.]

One of the more popular platitudes you’ll hear among conservative Evangelicals is “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship.” By which they don’t actually mean they’re irreligious; they do to to church and read their bibles and pray. They just don’t do dead religion—rituals which mean nothing to them. (Or so they believe. Just for fun, ask ’em sometime for the definitions of certain Christianese words. Sometimes they have no clue.) My point is they do so have a religion; there are plenty of things they do which reveal they devoted themselves to Jesus. Any pagan can see it. And they should; if there are no such signs, that “relationship” we claim to have is gonna suck.

In comparison, your average pagan insists they really have no religion. They don’t pray regularly, if at all. They read no holy books regularly, if at all. They never set foot in a church, except to attend weddings, funerals, recitals, AA meetings, go to the polls (yep, sometimes churches are actually used as polls in the United States) and watch the rare Christmas pageant. They don’t do religion, period. You do—’cause you adhere to a particular pastor, church, denomination, or creed; and you pray and read and do Christian things.

But John Lennon songs notwithstanding, plenty of pagans do so have a religion. It’s just not an organized religion. They believe various things about God. They aren’t always consistent, and didn’t all come from the same source. Some were borrowed from Christianity (i.e. God is love, Jesus was nice to everybody) and some not. They saw some clever Hindu teacher on TV with some appealing teachings. Their Buddhist friends once said something neat. They read this amazing article off the Internet which really resonates with them. They love the sitar parts of Beatles albums. And some of ’em invented their own ideas, all by themselves, because they’re no sheep; they’re really deep spiritual people sometimes.

Basically they’re practicing eclecticism. They just don’t know the word for it.

Organized-yet-disorganized religion.

The human brain is designed to recognize patterns. Sometimes when there’s nothing really there. Hence conspiracy theorists.

This is why structures appeal to us so easily. Even the messiest people have some kind of structure to their chaos. They love it when one belief fits neatly with another. It’s why theology is so popular with certain Christians: They love when all their God-ideas connect like a divine jigsaw puzzle. They really expect God, ’cause he’s perfect and true, would inspire a perfect and true belief system. That’s why they struggle so greatly with Christianity’s paradoxes, like the trinity. Drives ’em bonkers.

It’s also why a lot of humans prefer eclecticism. Christianity is too paradoxical for them. Fr’instance they can’t wrap their brains around Jesus being God, yet totally human. So they decide to ditch the divinity stuff and go with “Jesus is human”—much simpler, and they like a simpler belief system. Something which doesn’t make taxing, inconvenient demands on their brains and lives. If they don’t wanna change any (or much), and wanna feel good about themselves, preferably it’s something consistent with their existing behavior.

I’ve listened to pagans describe their belief systems. They’re quite intricate, and very clever. And a lot of times, more consistent with historical Christianity than they realize (or even want to recognize—they like to imagine they’re unique). They often admit they’re not as good as they wanna be, or oughta be. And maybe it’s not even be possible. But maybe, just maybe, God might make up the difference. Grace ain’t that foreign a concept, y’know.

So they won’t join a church, follow a specific guru, or try to be a guru themselves. They just believe what they believe. They’re quite proud of the fact they came up with their own belief system. They feel it works for them; it’s why they’ve no interest in changing. They don’t wanna be Christians, or Hindus, or Scientologists, or anything—they’re fine as-is. Try to fix ’em, and you’ll alienate them.

It’s a pride thing.

I once had an algebra student who invented his own shortcut for solving polynomial equations. Used it all the time. Used it even though I told him, more than once, to stop it… because it didn’t work. It never got him the correct answer. It might have, once, when he hit upon it and assumed it’d work every time. But I never saw it work, and couldn’t convince him of it. Even though he kept flunking papers and exams, and eventually the class.

Why’d he insist on using it regardless? Because it was his. He invented it. He didn’t care that it didn’t work. Just like any inventor whose beloved gadget keeps breaking down, but he won’t stop tinkering with it, and using it anyway. Unlike the inventor, my student never fixed his formula, or swapped it with one from the book or the internet or anywhere. When it comes to algebra I’m pragmatic: Whatever works. Idealism is for other disciplines, particularly human relations. Earnestness doesn’t solve for x.

No, the boy wasn’t rational. But since when are humans rational?

And this is why eclecticism is so popular. An eclectic’s religion (although they prefer any other term but “religion”) is truly their possession, their invention, their baby. Doesn’t matter whether it’s true. They make excuses for all its inconsistencies, justify any of its less-than-moral tenets, and bash any religion which points out they’re wrong. If I tell ’em, “Well, according to Christianity…” they object: Christians are hypocrites; the bible (they claim) is neither historically accurate nor infallible; they understand God better than any Christian. Don’t you touch their baby.

When you share Jesus with them, sometimes you gotta wait till they’ve finally given up on their beloved belief system. Which may not happen for a mighty long time. They’d have to hit some crisis in their life (God forbid, but sometimes he goes there), which shakes their faith—and leaves a crack wide enough for the Holy Spirit to climb in. Till then they’re the walls of Jericho. Keep marching.

As for us Christians, we need to be careful lest we turn into that sort. We don’t get to make up our own beliefs. We gotta follow Jesus. He determines our beliefs; he’s right and we’re not. Every so often I find myself butting heads with a Christian who invented an idea which they’re sure is better than anything 20 centuries of Christian thinkers ever came up with. As if the Holy Spirit never inspired anyone else, least of all me. Simply put, they’re an eclectic disguised as a Christian, and they’re following their own path instead of Christ’s. It happens. Watch out.