From compartmentalization to integration
In the modern Western cultures, we tend to compartmentalize our lives. So much of how we understand religions, traditions, and belief systems is seen as a matter of taxonomy, as though everything neatly fits into organized categories: Catholics and Protestants; Methodists and Baptists; liberal theology and evangelicalism. We talk as if they are mutually exclusive categories between which exists an immutable and impermeable wall. We reason as though these categorizations are black and white.
Many people in North America have been raised in one religious tradition, only to abandon it as a teenager or an adult. Because their childhood experiences in their faith communities were often traumatic events, they feel as if, as an adult, they are entirely free from the bondage of religion.
In reality, though, we all carry a little bit of our past religious experiences, experimentations, and affiliations. They inform how we think, how we believe, and how we behave (even if it is in a reactionary sense).
In a spiritual direction session with me, we dig deep into how our past religious, spiritual, and cultural experiences shape who we are today. Through an in-depth evaluation of beliefs you have been taught or formulated throughout your lifetime, we can treasure the positives while discarding the negatives.
For example, I have come through a diversity of religious experiences since my teenage years when I first became interested in Christianity and began attending a church. For a long time, I did not and could not speak well of some of the experiences I had (after all, I left those faith communities either because something negative had happened or that I found a greener pasture elsewhere). But now I know that every one of these faith communities gave me something valuable that still informs my values and inspires actions.
From Christian Reformed Church, I gained an interest in theology and doctrines. Had I not come across a CRC church as the first church I had attended regularly, I did not have such a headstart in understanding or appreciating theology.
From Baptists, I learned the importance of liberties above all, and I gained my appreciation of decentralized, localized, and democratic church governance, in which every church was unique and fully autonomous and without any external authorities but God and the Bible alone.
From the Pentecostals and Charismatics, I learned the importance of ecstatic worship, prayer, and openness to the supernatural, beyond a religion that is merely an intellectual exercise but something that addresses the every day challenges of the ordinary people.
Through my year of exploring Judaism, I learned the value of tradition, precedents, intellectual engagement, and reason, as well as the beauty of seasonal celebrations.
From the Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ, I learned the importance of social justice and tangible social actions as an integral part of one's faith, of celebrating diversity and respecting differences, as well as the necessity of solidarity with the oppressed.
From the Anglicans, I learned to appreciate the art and beauty of liturgies, value of sacraments, and the necessity of contemplative spirituality.
From the Goddess spirituality movement, I discovered feminist and queer-positive religious expressions and ritualmaking outside the construct of patriarchy and heterosexism.
From the New Thought movement, I learned the importance of disciplining one's own mind and thought process, as well as the power of words, beliefs, and affirmative prayer; that ultimately, the idea of separation is an illusion.
I cannot unlearn that I've learned any more than I cannot unsee that I've seen. Each and every one of these religious encounters influences and informs what I am. This is also why no religion is a monolith. Each person in any given faith community brings something different to the table. The key is to embrace and integrate, not to reject and compartmentalize.
What about you?
Write down what you've learned and gained from your past religious experiences, and consider how they made you who you are today.
-- Pirkei Avot 4.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash