Exploring Spiritual Fluidity
"Exploring Spiritual Fluidity – What Do You Do When One Religion Isn’t Enough?
Sermon created for the SKSM Multi-Religious Intensive (August 2020)
by Dianne Daniels
For those of you that I haven’t met, I’m Dianne Daniels, the Intern Minister here at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. I want to talk with you today about Exploring Spiritual Fluidity – What do you do when one religion isn’t enough to satisfy your need to connect to Mystery – to the Sacred – with more than the tradition you’ve been raised with?
Let’s get some definitions in place so we can all be oriented to what I’m speaking about: To be Spiritually Fluid – or to be a Multi-Religious person – means that you have the experience of being shaped by or of creating and maintaining a bond to, and understanding of, more than one spiritual or religious community at the same time.
Religious and / or Spiritual communities can provide you with wise teaching, loving practices, a holy relationship, and a path to awakening, and because we are human beings with free will and intelligent minds, we can also plant our flag, so to speak, philosophically and theologically so that people in our lives that we have influence over and that influence us know where we stand.
You know I love to use definitions in my sermons, so let’s start with a definition of the word religion. Religion can be defined as the formal structures and practices that shape an individual’s or a communities’ relationship to Mystery and to the world. Religion carries and speaks with a certain amount of authority – and this authority is recognized and accepted by the communities and individuals within the communities that identify as part of the tradition.
We as Unitarian Universalists have a certain amount of authority vested in ourselves and our congregation – the principle of Congregational polity states that each congregation is self-governing, choosing its own leadership, handling its own finances, and choosing delegates for the General Assembly each year.
Our theologies from congregation to congregation may differ slightly, but whether by individual conscience, justice-seeking community, or by God, Spirit, the Universe, Mystery, or the great Beyond, we Unitarian Universalists (aka UUs) are united in a belief that we are part of an interdependent web of existence. Our faith, our religion, is practiced in covenanted community.
We also subscribe to, and accept, the principles that are stated to represent the denomination and were accepted by its supervising body and its member congregations.
These public expressions of our community values, practices and understandings are the information that shape the denomination, it’s member congregations, and the individuals who claim the UU Faith as their primary religion.
I used the term Spiritually Fluid in the beginning, so let’s talk about what it means to be Spiritual, to express your spirituality, and what it means to be fluid within the realm of Spirituality.
To be concerned with and to act in a Spiritual manner means that you’re relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material and physical things. Spirituality includes the recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there’s something more to being human than sensory experiences, and that the greater whole of which we are a part – that interdependent web I spoke of – is beyond us, perhaps divine in nature.
Your spirituality also helps to express your way of relating to Mystery – that which is difficult or even impossible to understand fully or explain. Mystery affects how we - not as a group, but as you – your individual self – view the world, and Mystery touches our lives through our spiritual and religious practices, like ritual, prayer, physical movements and postures, spiritual disciplines, beliefs, values, commitments and traditions, and ways of connecting to the sacred.
Spirituality can connect and overlap with religion but tends to be more local / individual in its impact, and idiosyncratic, that is, something distinctive to an individual.
Spirituality can also work through religious structures, communities, and traditions, but often functions apart from them.
So, with what we’ve talked about so far, what does it now mean to be Spiritually Fluid?
Because Religion and Spirituality are rather amorphous and potentially ambiguous – those dimensions of life that don’t fit into neat, binary categories – the terms beg more exploration and conceptualizing their differences and similarities.
According to Duane Bidwell’s book, When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People, from which I drew considerable inspiration and information for this sermon, religious multiplicity – spiritual fluidity - has been increasing on a nearly daily basis.
One-third – 33% - of U.S. marriages are interfaith – marriage between two people of disparate religious backgrounds or affiliation. I happily celebrated my 30th anniversary in such a marriage this past weekend. When my husband and I married, we were technically an interfaith marriage, with him following the Fire Baptized Holiness Pentecostal religion, and me more accurately described as a “None” with Pagan leanings.
After 30 years of marriage, we both now identify as Unitarian Universalist, but he still has his Pentecostal roots, and I’ve expanded my Pagan leanings into Rootwork and Ancestral Veneration. Still an interfaith marriage.
1 in 8 U.S. residents – approximately 13% say Buddhism influences their daily spirituality – making their personal spirituality more interfaith than singular faith, or to use a different term, making them Religious Multiples – Spiritually Fluid practitioners.
Religious multiplicity isn’t uncommon – though we might think it is, or was – it’s HERE, and likely coming to a neighborhood near you, if it already hasn’t.
Religious multiplicity is framed by scholars as a cognitive, conscious choice, made by educated, socially privileged, usually white people – though that too, is changing.
The number of African-Americans investigating, studying and learning more about the paths their Ancestors might have followed – using terms like African Traditional Religion (ATR), or in my case, the indigenous practices and wisdom known as Rootwork – is also increasing. People are seeking a “return to their roots” and including forms and practices they were not originally raised with, but which resonate with their spirits and their definition of themselves.
The focus is shifting away from orthodoxy and doctrine and more toward how spiritually fluid people – some might call them seekers - integrate and practice their religion through body, mind, community values, rituals, tradition and everyday behavior.
Some scholars characterize “Elite practitioners” as those who have the freedom, social capital and resources to explore and study two or more paths deeply – being able to travel to immersion experiences for a second spiritual or religious path in addition to having the time and funds to do so.
Who are the people described as Spiritually Fluid or Religious Multiples? They can be Spiritual Nomads – intentionally ignoring the boundaries between religious “territories” in order to find meaning, spiritual nourishment and shelter. They know where they belong, and they’re not afraid to cross institutional or doctrinal lines to find the life they desire.
Some Spiritually Fluid practitioners are born to religious multiplicity as the result of an interfaith marriage, or through a parent or influencer that converts from one religion to another and they intentionally explore and appreciate what was “lost” through the change away from the original religion.
Yet other practitioners identify as Religious “Nones” who explore various beliefs and practices but don’t take the step of formal alignment with a singular path. They would rather not describe their spirituality in institutional religious terms or categories and instead center on relationships and the integration of mind, body and spirit.
There can be many steps between the realization that you may no longer be mono-religious and the concrete step of beginning to study or be involved with a second or third spiritual / religious path.
The first, perhaps, being that you are curious about another path as explained or practiced by a friend or associate, and certain spiritual practices like meditation, prayer or ritual opens the doorway and generates energy, joy, and a desire to do and know more.
Next is the beginning of engagement – making a definite commitment to nurture, adopt or accept a spiritually fluid practice tied to the initial exploration. You begin weaving multiple traditions into your lives, celebrating holidays, and participating in rituals with family and community to celebrate aspects of your new identity and encounter Mystery in various forms.
As you gain knowledge and experience, you can grow into the ripening state where you claim your religious multiplicity with confidence, framing it as a gift and releasing the thoughts and feelings that it might be a liability. Our society emphasizes mono-religious life, and publicly declaring your religious multiplicity / spiritual fluidity carries some degree of risk.
The final step – though learning and spiritual growth continue - is the generative stage, which manifests as concern for guiding and mentoring other people new to the path of complex religious bonds and contributing to the next generation of spiritually fluid seekers. Giving back to the community becomes a central practice as you fine-tune your practices and maintain your spiritual life.
Spiritual Fluidity in thought and practice helps individuals subvert the assumption that religious bonds are singular, chosen, and defined by belief and belonging – there is a commitment to loyalty, not to “purity.” A Spiritually Fluid Practitioner (or Person - SFP) can experience the benefits of thinking and relating in more creative, flexible, and open-minded ways; access a broader store of knowledge; adopt broader world views and greater cultural awareness.
There are many more benefits to Spiritual Fluidity than I can cover in the time I have before you today, but what I hope I’ve done is to open your eyes to an option that may have been right in front of you, but not obviously “seen.”
I’ve found rich and beautiful experiences as a result of my spiritual fluidity – I’ve connected to ancestral practices that help me to feel more authentic in my spiritual path. I connect to my ancestors on a regular basis and tap into the wisdom they have and the feel the love they have for me. I’m carrying forward the energy of my bloodline and while I did not know them while they were alive, I feel their influence on me and their strength renews me.
If you’ve felt a yearning, or even just curiosity about another religious or spiritual path, I encourage you to check it out. Remember, that doesn’t mean you have to leave another path behind – this is a And / With option.My ancestral veneration and Rootwork enhances my UU spirituality and religion as I add my ancestry to the list of sources I can draw from.
Learning more about yourself reinforces your inherent worth and dignity – because ALL of who you are is valuable and worthy of exploration. Don’t be afraid to reach beyond your current threshold – what you are seeking is seeking you and may just be waiting for you to reach out with your hands, your heart, and your spirit.