We tend to think of the ancient world as having many distinct religions, all somehow pure and authentic in themselves. But the truth is more complicated, of course. Muslims, Christians, and Jews debated each other at times, and their religions influenced each other. Platonism also influenced these three religions, or at least their more mystical and esoteric schools of thought. Moreover, even in antiquity people often practiced different faiths, having, for example, to be a part of the state religion, for example, while practicing their own religion in their own lives. In the modern era, in Freemasonry, we find the influence of Hermeticism, alchemy, ancient Egyptian culture, etc., in the “higher Degrees.”
Today, whether ancient or modern, dead, obscure, or having millions of members, every religious tradition is available to us in some way, even if only through books. It is an odd thing to see, but esoteric schools, such as Martinism and those following the teachings of Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, virtually inaccessible two decades ago, now regularly appear on the net, including in my social media streams.
Yet, in the West, fewer and fewer people seem to be born into a religious tradition, except superficially. And there is an enormous rise in the number of people calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I, too, grew up in an essentially secular family, though I developed an interest in paganism, shamanism, occultism, esotericism, etc., at a young age.
I had, perhaps, wanted to find the pure source of religion and mysticism (if there is such a thing) — and no doubt that accounts for my early interest in pre-monotheistic faiths. We all want to be authentic, and to practice what is true. Hence, we can, for example, come to regard our martial arts school, religion, or even the style of art or music we practice as the most legitimate.
Nevertheless, in our age, it seems impossible to stick to one cultural tradition, for example, practicing the religion, eating the food, listening to the music, and reading the literature of only one tribe, nation, or even continent. The embrace of other traditions is sometimes championed in politics (i.e., as “multiculturalism”) and sometimes denounced in politics (i.e., as “cultural appropriation”). Things change, and politics changes faster than many things. We need to go deeper than that.
Although there has been much political outreach to other traditions — especially Islam — this has not proved very effective, usually because the religion or tradition that is the recipient of the outreach is expected to Westernize — and what Western culture is, in regard to religion, spirituality, values, etc., is no longer entirely clear.
In many cases we also find spiritual practitioners mixing together various traditions — Islamic, Buddhist, etc. with little real thought or understanding.
While it is a good thing to have a wide knowledge of religious, spiritual and other traditions, this approach is shallow, and often somewhat political, or aimed at improving one’s self-image, though not necessarily one’s own self.
But there is another way to embrace traditions. This means not reinterpreting them to suit us, but allowing ourselves to be molded by them. This is a kind of subtle, and long term initiation. In this case, we have to study and absorb the teachings of the religion or spiritual tradition over time, contemplating them seriously, and finding ourselves changed.
I can say that personally, it is probably not entirely a coincidence that I gave up alcohol (with exceedingly rare and small exceptions) after studying Islamic mysticism for quite a long time. True, I have never really been a heavy or frequent drinker, and I don’t like the taste of alcohol much. So, in that sense, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. But in another way, it has been a great lesson. When I go to a bar, typically, I am the only one not drinking alcohol. It takes a little discipline. It is a reminder of my own spiritual quest and desire for ongoing self-improvement (and I’m generally happy that I can work out or write later that evening or the next morning without feeling sick or sluggish). And it forces me to not do something unthinkingly, out of habit, or out of social pressure — which gives me a different perspective on culture more broadly, I believe.
Such a process is not for everyone. It requires being willing to change our minds about the traditions we are studying, and, more importantly, perhaps, about who we are. That is not easy. It requires listening with sympathy to the Imam, Lama, priest, monk, esotericist, or spiritual practitioner, etc., trying to understand why they would think what they do, and what it is exactly that they think, rather than immediately interpreting it into what we already think.
We don’t have to agree with everything the spiritual teacher says. We can disagree. And if we do, then we have an opportunity to practice respect for someone we disagree with. But when we find something new that we believe is important we can let it mold us for the better. That might be only one thing that is said, or only five percent of what is said, but, often, that is enough to guide us in a better direction.