Eclecticism or Liberation? – By Elizabeth West

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(This Article was first published in ‘Running Tide’. The Magazine of the Amida Trust., April 2006)

The word ‘Eclectic’ has unfortunately become one of those words that religious people use to beat each other over the head with! The dictionary definition tells us that it means ‘selecting from various styles, ideas or sources’. Who, then is not eclectic? In modern society we regard choice as one of our rights. We certainly cannot go shopping without being eclectic. Even within our own religious tradition we tend to be eclectic about what we read, what we want to hear, and fundamentalists are very eclectic about which passages of the Bible they choose to quote to prove their point. Yet as soon as someone moves out of the confines of their particular faith or denomination, they are accused of being eclectic as if it were some dreadful sin! Thus it seems we are allowed to be eclectic about everything except choosing our sources for Truth.

For a long time I have always tried to fend off accusations of eclecticism, but it seems time to ask what exactly is being implied in this accusation. In the past packaged truth in all fields was generally accepted. There were the few who knew and the rest of us accepted what they said. This was true in fields like medicine, sciences, and most general fields of learning and particularly in the army and religion. “Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die” These famous words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson were generally taken for granted. No longer, we are a more educated society than ever before and we regard it as one of our human rights to take responsibility for ourselves. It seems this applies in every field except the most important; our right to seek Ultimate Truth in a way that is true to our own hearts.

We live in a time when we have access to all world faiths and religious groups in a way that our ancestors would never have dreamed possible. At the same time the Church authorities often demand beliefs that appear incompatible with modern science and our understanding of the universe. They also fail, certainly in many ordinary churches, to offer the tools for contemplative growth and transformation that people need for modern living. It has always been the case that religious leaders and institutions have attempted to control their followers by demanding adherence to norms and beliefs which they claim come from God. The Catholic Church has in the past been particularly notorious for this. It has often left people with a sense of fear and guilt when they honestly seek for truth and skilful means elsewhere.

This is not to say that shopping around is fine in every way. Chogyam Trungpa, one of the first Tibetan Lamas to teach in the West, has written a famous book called: Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. The title alone gives warning of the wrong approach to seeking Truth. This makes it clear that we need to be aware of what we are doing and why, when we step into what has been called the spiritual supermarket of today. Just as we go around the supermarket picking the things we like, so we can be tempted to do the same in the spiritual life. Go to this workshop and that group, get a bit of satisfaction here, some relaxation there, consolation from that teacher, exiting experiences from another and so on. This approach will lead us only deeper into the mire of egoism and self-indulgence.

Guidance and rootedness are important. We need to look deeply and long at our motivation. Above all we must be honest with ourselves about what we are seeking. In my own experience these factors have been very important on the journey. The most important question for me has always been; “Am I truly seeking the Truth?” For me I think the most liberating thing for the journey has been the growing realisation that whatever is encapsulated by the word ‘GOD’ must be beyond the control of the human mind and therefore human language and institutions. From working with a Dzogchen teacher I have come to realize that we are kept in delusion and bondage by the belief we have in our and others conceptual fabrication. The world we know and even the god we know is the result by and large of ideas we gather through life. Only when we can deeply realize that these are empty, they are only fingers pointing at Truth, not Truth itself, can we begin to be free. The only way we can really know, as the great Christian mystics as well as Buddhists and others tell us, is by the way of unknowing. The way of letting go of clinging to our ideas and our hidden assumptions, above all about who we are and what the world is. This requires developing our awareness and seeing how deeply our ego, our false self, clings to its identity, rightness and its existence as a separate entity.

If what we learn from other faiths helps us to understand with the heart the meaning of Jesus words: “Love God above all things and your neighbour as yourself”, then we are truly on the path to liberation, and only we can know this for ourselves. With this deepening should come a greater and greater freedom from fear and the threats of eclecticism from our friends in the church or elsewhere. Ultimately only we can know the sincerity of our search. This to my mind is what real faith is: taking the risk of giving all in the quest for Truth. This Truth is ultimately greater than all our expressions of it put together. Surely Bernadette Roberts is right when she says: “..I know each religion feels it can ford the stream alone, I would think it far superior to ford it together, because it is a difficult stream to cross no matter how well the life-preservers are constructed.” I would hope that this is what people are doing when they enter seriously into spiritual practice across more than one tradition.