Where Do You Draw the Line: Discerning Appropriate Boundaries for Interspiritual Practice

I recently received a letter from a reader of this blog who grew up an evangelical Baptist, and when to a conservative Christian school, the kind of place where if you doubted that God created the world in seven days, people were worried for the state of your eternal soul. As an adult, he discovered Christian mysticism and writers like Richard Rohr (and yours truly), and opened up a new dimension to his spiritual life, exploring resources and traditions as diverse as Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian and A Course in Miracles. And this led to his letter:

So my question is where do you draw the line? The reason I ask is last night I was reading and stumbled across the concept of Magick. Didn’t explore much and don’t have much experience with these types of things. In boarding school I had a couple wiccan friends and some weird experiences led me to just shut the book on that type of thing. Its not something I want or need to add it just got me thinking.

Honestly, I am not sure where I fall on the topic of spiritual warfare (maybe a different but related topic). However, I get a  “sense” of things being not right around certain topics like a warning sign but also am aware these could simply be neurochemical firings tied to childhood. I also know that my past experience says I should not live in fear while only being comfortable with unknowns that are a certain range outside my existing comfort zone which is ever expanding. I also know what stays in the dark maintains its power.

He finished his email by summarizing his question in two parts:

1.) Insight into safe boundaries for non-traditional spiritual practice;
2.) thoughts on spiritual warfare.

What a rich question, the first part of which I suppose might be on the mind of many spiritual seekers, not just those with conservative evangelical upbringings.

Let’s take them in reverse order.

“Spiritual Warfare”

“Spiritual warfare” is not a term I hear too often, in the circles I move in: among mainstream-to-progressive Catholics, or contemplative Christians across the denominational spectrum. I tend to associate this kind of language with conservative evangelicals and charismatic/pentecostal Christians — basically, anyone with a particularly robust theology of Satan and demonic power at work in the work, actively trying to seduce Christians away from the truth.

Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that evil exists, and followers of Jesus Christ are called to struggle against it. But where I probably depart from how many conservative evangelicals and charismatic Christians view evil, is that I tend to see the evidence of evil less in terms of metaphysical categories like “demonic activity” and more in terms of psychological or sociological concerns, manifesting in toxic relationships, abusive behavior, and systemic evils such as economic injustice, racism and sexism.

In fact I would argue that when we spend too much time worrying about demons or the devil, this can actually distract us from facing evil as it really manifests in ordinary people’s lives. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine you have two children, and one of them likes to play with  ouija boards and the other one is very observant of Christian religious behavior. The “Christian” child, it turns out, is a bully, whereas the “psychic” child is compassionate, the type of kid who tends to befriend the outsiders in their classroom. To me, there is no question which one of these children is in greater spiritual “danger” — it’s the bully. And to the extent that parents might be obsessing over the psychic child while ignoring the antisocial behaviors of the good Christian child, then the parents are actually part of the problem.

(And let me be clear, I’m not particularly a fan of ouija boards — but I see them as far less dangerous than belief systems that are anchored in reward/punishment, insider/outsider worldviews).

Now, back to the question of spiritual warfare. I think there is a place for the language and metaphor of “fighting for what is right” which therefore implies “fighting against what is wrong.” But I think maybe we need to be careful about how quickly we label certain things as good or bad. When Christians reactively and unthinkingly label everything that is foreign to their own religious practice as automatically “demonic” or “evil,” I worry that what is really going on is a kind of psychological projection, or even scapegoating. By labeling other religions or even occult/magical activity as demonic just because it is different is to run the risk of violating Jesus’s commandments to love everyone and to refrain from judging. I think when we encounter religious ideas or practices (or practitioners) who are different from ourselves, we need to discern the condition of their heart (or the hearts of their teachers/leaders). I believe spiritual warfare is most appropriate when we are fighting hatred, or prejudice, bigotry, resentment, judgmentalism, abuse, exploitation, oppression, those sorts of things. That’s where “spiritual warfare” is needed. But we also have to acknowledge that these “enemies” can exist within Christianity (even within our own hearts) just as surely as they might be found in the hearts of others.

It’s harder to be discerning of the spirit of people’s hearts, rather than just the external circumstances of their lives. It’s very easy to be prejudiced against someone because of their skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious practice, or socioeconomic status. We can “read” all these things in how a person presents themselves to the world. But Jesus calls us to love both our neighbors and our enemies, which means no matter which “tribe” a person belongs to, we have no choice but to love them. So if we are going to struggle against evil, we cannot look for evil on the outside, but rather we have to take the time to get to know a person’s heart — and to respond to how their heart engages with others.

Which is one reason why I think Jesus talked about removing the stick out of your own eye before worrying about the speck in someone else’s eye. Most of us have so much work to do on our own hearts, that we really don’t have time to get worked up about what’s going on in anyone else’s heart!

Setting Safe Boundaries for Spiritual Exploration

So now we come to the question of how to set safe boundaries for non-traditional spiritual practice. Alas, the quick answer to this question is that there is no quick answer!

Interfaith and interspiritual work takes on so many different forms — just consider not only how many different religious traditions there are in the world, but also the diversity even within any one tradition (in Christianity, we have Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, Reformed, with too many sub-variations to list). Interspirituality will look different between a Catholic and a Zen Buddhist, a Methodist and a Neopagan, or an Evangelical and an Orthodox Jew. So really, it’s impossible to take about all the many ways that such interfaith exploration can be a blessing — or can have problems emerge.

So let me just offer a few orienting guidelines from my own experience.

  • I believe the single best way to prepare ourselves for interfaith or inter spiritual exploration is to be knowledgeable and grounded in our own tradition. It seems to me that too many people abandon Christianity to become Wiccans or Buddhists or Muslims (or, for that matter, agnostics or atheists) but they really are not very knowledgeable about the religion they are rejecting. Often we are only exposed to people who themselves know very little about the faith they are teaching. That’s tragic, but it’s a reality. But even if you are not rejecting your home faith, taking the time to understand it well gives you the tools necessary to appreciate what’s similar — and what’s different — about the other faith(s) you are exploring.
  • There’s a difference between “learning about” or “learning from” another religion, and actually becoming a practitioner of that religion. Some people (like Paul Knitter) advocate actually becoming “dual practitioners” — joining and adhering to two faith traditions simultaneously. Others, like Mary Margaret Funk, advocate learning about (and from) other traditions, but not actually joining them (that is, undergoing any rite of initiation). I think marriage provides a healthy analogy: think of monogamy and polyamory. Polyamory is the idealistic belief that it is possible to ethically have a romantic relationship with multiple partners. I’ve never been polyamorous myself, but I know some poly folks, and I think it takes a lot of energy to maintain multiple healthy relationships (most folks have a hard time even keeping one relationship healthy!). To me, being a member of more than one religious or spiritual group would be like having multiple romantic partners. Maybe some people can pull this off, but I suspect a lot of people might come to the conclusion that the benefits are not worth the amount of energy involved to do this well.
  • Like it or not, different religious or spiritual traditions have different worldviews, and different beliefs about human nature, the problem of evil, what happens after we die, etc. It’s important to acknowledge this. Let’s face it: we can’t even get Catholics and Protestants to agree on everything; and so that becomes even more pronounced when we talk about entirely different religious traditions. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who talk a good talk about “all religions are one” but if you dig deep it soon becomes apparent that they favor the teachings of one religion over the others. Or, they are the “pope” of their own pick-and-choose spirituality. I’m not trying to judge: I think this is human nature. To truly dig deep in multiple traditions (say, Christianity and Buddhism), we either have to have a healthy dose of humility (understanding that I’m a bear of little brain), or are comfortable with uncertainty and unknowing (what happens after we die? It’s a mystery) or else we are probably going to consciously or unconsciously favor one tradition over the other. Again, I’m not trying to judge anyone’s conscientious choice: but I do think we all have a responsibility to understand with clarity the choices we make.
  • Because of this, blending spiritual practices is probably easier than trying to reconcile belief systems. I love to meditate with Buddhists, and to attend classes on meditation taught by Buddhists. But I tend to shy away from trying to understand topics like karma or reincarnation or nirvana. Why? It’s easy to integrate meditation (a practice) with Christianity, but it’s darn near impossible to integrate Buddhist ways of seeing with Christian ways of seeing. Again, this is just what has worked for me, and someone like Paul Knitter might have a different perspective. “The quick answer is, there is no quick answer!”

I realize I haven’t even begun to answer this question of how to set appropriate boundaries. That’s because I think ultimately it varies from person to person. So let me end by suggesting that everyone who is serious about deep spiritual work needs to be able to discuss this work with others — or at least one other. A spiritual director or companion, a confessor, a community of monastic associates or centering prayer practitioners — finding a community of people with whom we can work through the challenges and opportunities of interfaith or interspiritual exploration is, I think really essential. I know we are rapidly becoming a nation of people who love spirituality but reject religion: and yet I think at its best, spirituality is meant to be social and communal. So find some sympathetic friends you can share your journey with. They will help you to set the boundaries that are right for you.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.