The fastest growing religious category in America is “None,” or no affiliation. I think I could be comfortable there. Although, I generally categorize myself as an “agnostic” with a long Mormon heritage.
Even though “syncretist” has a generally negative connotation, I like this categorization also. By syncretist I mean someone “who attempts union or reconciliation of diverse tenets or practices (definition adapted from the abridged OED)” or someone who attempts “the merger of several originally discrete traditions (adapted from Wikipedia).” I like the classification “syncretist” because I like traveling and when I travel, I enjoy participating in various religions (even if it is only superficially). Each of these experiences has influenced my personal beliefs.
While on the periphery of the old Tibetan kingdom (now in mainland China), I visited the Buddhist monastery of Labrang. Along the exterior wall of the monastery are over a hundred prayer wheels. I enjoyed circling (in a clockwise direction) the monastery and turning each prayer wheel. I made several circumnavigations.
In Copacabana, Bolivia, I visited the city’s old colonial cathedral. Adjacent to the main church was a small dark chapel was a nook containing a black Virgin Mary icon. In front of the nook was a large stone table/tub for burning candles. Just outside the chapel, I purchased 4 candles, one for each member of my family, and went inside and lit them. I find candle flames to be very inspirational.
While visiting the largest of the medieval rock churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, I was blessed by an Ethiopian Orthodox priest. He did this by touching various parts of my upper torso with the ancient Cross of Lalibela (or a replica), and then having me kiss the cross.
Pilgrimages have always been intriguing to me, and none more so than the medieval route of St. Jacque de Compostelle (which traverses northern Spain). So far I have walked about 70 miles at the end of the route and 100 miles at the start. As of now, I need to complete the middle section. After completing the last leg of the pilgrimage, I enjoyed a mass at the impressive medieval cathedral in Santiago de Compostelle (the end point and ultimate goal of the pilgrimage). Tradition has it that St. James’ remains are located in the cathedral.
On a recent trip to Uganda, my friends and I spent a day being hosted by an Anglican bishop. At the end of our stay, the bishop, his wife, other members of the clergy, and our group made a large circle and all held hands. The bishop gave a beautiful parting prayer.
In Cairo in 2006, I signed up for a tour of Cairo, Egypt. As it turned out, I was the only one on the tour. My “personal” guide asked for a list of places I wanted to see. After we had visited all the attractions on my list, he asked me if I wanted to visit a mosque? I had run out of places that I “had” to see, so I answered “Sure.” We then drove to the Cairo citadel entrance, and from there walked over to the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. Once inside, my guide asked if I wanted a brief introduction to Islam? Given my post-9/11 anxieties, I was a little nervous, but said “Sure.” We moved to the middle of the mosque, and sat cross-legged on the floor. My guide proceeded to provide a brief but informative introduction to Islam. He wasn’t trying to convert me, but he did seem to care that I had his version of Islam.
In 1989, my sons and I made the difficult journey–pilgrimage–to Kars in eastern Turkey. West of Kars is the ancient and deserted Armenian city/capital of Ani. At the time we visited, it was adjacent to old USSR, today it is abuts the independent country of Armenia. Ani is one of those locales which seems a holy place. The medieval cities lonely location, its churches in ruin, Armenia’s tragic history, all contribute to this perception. The ghostly atmosphere of Ani make it an ideal location for group prayer.
When I travel, I try to understand (and superficially participate in) the local religious culture. To travel to Egypt and not experience a little Islam, or travel to Spain and not enjoy a pilgrimage, or travel to the edge of Tibet and not encounter Buddhism would be a travesty. But more than that, each of the religions has taught important lessons. Some small portion of each has merged into my own belief system.
To conclude, I’m definitely all three: a syncretist, an agnostic, and a “none.” They are not mutually exclusive categorizations. . . . But my heritage will always be Mormon.