Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an eclectic as “one who uses a method or approach that is composed of elements drawn from various sources.” I’m pretty open about being an eclectic Neo-Pagan, even though I know this is frowned upon by many. Eclectic spirituality in general is viewed with suspicion. Although there are some good reasons for this, assumptions attached to the word eclectic close off a lot of people’s minds to what can be a serious, satisfying path.

Airy-Fairy Woo-Woo

The Neo-Pagan community likes to see itself as open-minded. Many of us grew up with rigid religious doctrines that placed us at war with nature, our own bodies, and those of different beliefs. If you hang around Neo-Pagan or Wiccan social networks and forums long enough, though, you’ll hear from those who are what I can only describe as zealous (!) about being part of a coven or following a tradition. I find this especially disturbing when they pop up every time a new Neo-Pagan asks a question. They give them the impression that they can’t call themselves Neo-Pagans/Wiccans/Witches/whatever unless they’ve been “properly” initiated.

Eclectics are accused of not being serious because they pick and choose from various systems and cultural beliefs. They’re accused of disrespecting these systems by claiming a deep knowledge they don’t really have. They’re accused of skimming the surface of the belief systems they “borrow” from because they don’t have the discipline to learn them properly. They’re accused of only choosing what’s “happy” and safe from these belief systems and constructing an airy-fairy woo-woo worldview. They’re accused of changing their beliefs on a whim.

I wish I could say these accusers are totally wrong, but I’ve had enough dealings with such people to know they exist. I have a neighbor, for instance, who practices eclectic spirituality and goes around saying, It’s all good. As an abuse survivor, and you can’t be an abuse survivor without understanding the darkness that’s within human nature, this to me is true airy-fairy woo-woo talk. But the eclectic Neo-Pagans I know aren’t like this. They recognize that if approached seriously, eclectic spirituality, including eclectic Neo-Paganism, is a satisfying, beautiful path.

Bowl with stones on a log near a tree

"Pagan Offering" At or near the Brighton Earthship in East Sussex, UK. Photo by Dominic Alves, courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons

The Serious Eclectic Pagan

Whether initiation into a coven or tradition is required to be a “real” Neo-Pagan is, and will likely always be, hotly debated in the Neo-Pagan community. Obviously I don’t believe that it’s necessary. But to be a serious eclectic Neo-Pagan still requires commitment.

Clarity of Values

Spirituality of any kind is closely linked to values. When we’re fuzzy on values, we’re fuzzy on our place in the world, the code by which we live our lives, and the basis for our relationships. Values allow us to decide which beliefs and practices really belong to us and which don’t. Eclectic Neo-Pagans can get into big trouble if their values are wishy-washy. If we’re clear on our values, we have a strong foundation for a belief system that makes sense and allows us to maintain integrity in our lives (versus hopping from one set of values to another as our interests change).

For instance, I mostly love Raven Digitalis, which is funny because I’m not Goth. I just love how he expresses his individuality intelligently and without apology. He did a radio interview a while ago where he and the presenter talked about black magick being acceptable to them if it’s against someone who hurts others. Raven even felt that binding spells were black magick.

I can’t agree, and the Goddess and God know, I’ve had reason to consider this issue! My abusers have hired PIs to harrass me several times in the years since I severed ties with them. Proactively hurting them because they hurt me is, in my eyes, very different from setting a strong energetic boundary to keep them away. My admiration for Raven caused no uncertainty with this because I was clear on my values. A strong foundation of values keeps us from being susceptible to the beliefs of others that are inauthentic to us.

Respect for Other Cultures

I don’t personally believe that it’s absolutely necessary to study the belief system of a particular culture in depth to be inspired by it. If, for example, I’m fascinated by the Native American vision quest, I can learn about it and be inspired by it without having to know the entire Native American belief system. This, however, is very different from going around telling people I follow Native American practices because I know something about the vision quest.

As an eclectic Neo-Pagan, I’ve deliberately chosen not to identify with any particular culture. In my eyes, I’ve forfeited the right to claim deep knowledge of any cultural practice or belief system, even if I’ve studied it for years. That’s the price I pay for going eclectic. I see all belief systems and cultural practices as inspiration only. Which annoys plenty of people right there. There’s a kind of “how dare you take what you want and leave the rest” attitude even when an eclectic Neo-Pagan admits to doing something that was merely inspired by the practice of another culture.

I guess it depends on your emphasis and perspective. Do you care more about individual differences or global similarities? One is only worse than the other when it leads to closed-mindedness. Borrowing from other cultures has gone on forever and will continue to go on until the world blows up (or whatever the fate of humanity will be…). Eclectic Neo-Pagans can respect the practices of other cultures and belief systems while still being inspired by them in their own practices and discarding what doesn’t fit in with their values or tastes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Filtering out the ugliness from belief systems and cultural practices is a very easy trap for eclectic Neo-Pagans to fall into. It’s human nature. But the question is whether following a single belief system or cultural practice necessarily keeps us from falling into that trap as well. How difficult is it for a Christian, for instance, to focus on the messages of light in the New Testament and ignore the messages of evil, darkness, and doom?

Seeing the bad and the ugly in life is part of what integrity, truth, and maturity are about, regardless of the belief system or practices we follow. The fear of darkness is really rooted in helplessness. As we expand our knowledge of the bad and the ugly, we become a little more empowered because we make the darkness more familiar. At the same time, a serious eclectic Neo-Pagan recognizes that spiritual experience includes ugliness we will never understand.

A balanced spiritual system admits the darkness alongside the light. The devil in Christianity is its attempt to understand the darkness. Exploring how other belief systems have tried to explain the darkness, in my opinion, helps us understand it even more. So serious eclectic Neo-Paganism isn’t cherry picking in the sense of consistently extracting only the light from the darkness, although the way one tradition represents the darkness may not resonate as much as another. That’s very different from denying the darkness altogether.

Individuality and Creativity

Eclectic spirituality fosters creativity. If we’re not interested in working that hard, why bother? A spiritual worldview with pieces of other belief systems and practices stuck together isn’t the same as a harmonious system with our individuality and creativity at its foundation. Our values help us get that. So do our personal experiences, ancestry (for some), interests, and influences.

A different culture or belief system gives a different perspective. Some cultures, for instance, see the sun as a personified male. Others see it personified as female. Our first encounter with the sun symbol may have been as “male,” but when we discover there was a sun goddess in Japanese and Norse mythology, we learn of new aspects to the symbol. We may continue to think of the sun as “male” power, but our perspective may be changed to include some “female” aspects. We’ve harnessed our individuality and creativity and created a spiritual experience that’s in harmony with the rest of our eclectic system.

Being an eclectic Neo-Pagan demands a lot of us. We need to bring ideas from various belief systems and cultural practices into harmony with the foundation upon which our path is built (values, respect for other cultures, personality, interests, etc.). We’re constantly challenged in what we believe, how we think, and what we imagine, and ongoing modifications are inevitable. Which makes eclectic Neo-Paganism a dynamic but demanding path.

The eclectic Neo-Pagan path, in many ways, embodies the evolving energy that moves the Universe. Neo-Paganism is, after all, much about coming into oneness with this energy. Following a single belief system is attractive to a lot of people because the foundation is ready made, laid by those who came before us. The eclectic Neo-Pagan must lay his or her own foundation. But when we take the time to do that, our path is no less serious, no less harmonious, and no less just than an established one.

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, run by Rowan Pendragon.