Tribalization and Cultural Identity

I’ve been reading ‘The Forgotten Ways’ by Alan Hirsch, having finally secured a copy, and have been reflecting once again on the neotribalization of the West and my own place within it. And you know, when I reflect on my own cultural identity, I think I have to place myself amongst the incorrigible eclectics.

I have been finding it interesting to reflect on the various reconstructionist Pagan traditions in comparison with emerging Christian traditions. One of the most obvious parallels is that between Druidic and Celtic reconstructionist Pagan groups and the NeoCeltic and NeoMonastic Christian groups such as Iona.

These traditions, despite their very different spiritual orientations, all draw heavily from Celtic history (both real and reified) and see Celtic culture as a locus of identity. The cultural distance between these groups would seem to be less than that between Paganism and Christianity in general.

Now that’s all very well and good for some, but I don’t identify with that at all. While I feel some affinity for Celtic spirituality I could equally say the same for eastern spirituality, if not more so. This got me thinking about the other Pagan paths, like the Asatru, Khemetic, Heleic and Shamanic traditions … and finally … eclectic Paganism. You know, of all the Pagan pathways, I probably identify with eclectic Paganism and the Chaos magical traditions the most. Not surprising, you might say, given my New Age background. After all the New Age is eclectic if nothing else! But how does this relate to tribalization, cultural identity and Christian spirituality?

Well, here is my take on it. Eclectics are distinguished by a lack of identification with a singular culture or ethnic group or religious tradition. It could be because they are literally poly-ethnic or bi-cultural, or because they are drawn to the exotic or more global issues and find identification with a singular culture or tradition way too limiting.

I personally find NeoCeltic Christianity not to my taste for a variety of reasons, one being that quite simply, as a sixth generation Australian, I have no more identification with the Celtic homeland than I do with anywhere else overseas. But the people I love mixing with are not your parochial sort of Aussie either. Rather, I gel best with the true internationalists, with multicultural individuals who’ve taken on board all sorts of exotic influences. I love talking about travel, I love living in the ethnically diverse suburb that I do and I could max lyrical for hours about Jung, Campbell, theosophy and cross cultural mythology. My cultural sampling is not biased to a particular culture.

So if I had to name my tradition I would probably call myself a culturally eclectic Christian. My blog photo gallery says it all.

But doesn’t eclecticism have a reputation for fluffiness? Yes, and to be honest some of it is well deserved, but here again it’s worth noting some of the eclectic Pagan literature on the subject. There’s a joke that goes, “What’s the difference between eclecticism and ethical eclecticism.” The answer? “References” I think there’s a lot of truth in that, that we should be careful to distinguish between fluffy eclecticism and critical eclecticism, and that one of the primary differentiators would have to be the attention given to the context of whatever you’re appropriating.

Now there are both strengths and weaknesses to an eclectic Christian path. It is both ephemeral and idiosyncratic – you are unlikely to find others following precisely the same path, you are unlikely to be able to pass it on in detail and you are unlikely to receive detailed instruction in it. It requires a lot more personal nous in terms of how to contextualize Christianity faithfully for yourself, if it is not to fall into the fluffy category, and a lot more give-and-take in a group context. But in another sense that is exactly its strengths – what you are interested in passing on is the core essentials, not your cultural idiosyncrasies.

8 thoughts on “Tribalization and Cultural Identity

  1. Very interesting.
    About 40 years ago I wrote an article on The ikon in an age of newtribalism — perhaps I should type it out and put it up on the web somewhere, and then compare what I thought then with how the world liiks a generation later, and see what the differences are.
    In the 1960s I was toren between tribalism and modernity. Now “tribalism” has another name — premodernity, and no one (at least no one that I knew) talked about postmodernity back then. The question I need to look at again is whether postmodernity has resolved the tension.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.
    Now I must go away and think.


  2. Great thoughts. I think, in many ways, the “progessive” and “experimental” Christians that I know in this region of the US very much identify with your feelings. I know I do.


  3. Steve, I would be interested in reading it.
    My personal spin on post-modernity is that it involves both globalization and tribalization. In fact I think it was Irving Hexam who first spoke of the emergence of globalized subcultures, which you will note involves elements of both.
    Now, all cultures are syncretistic to a degree, but what I am talking about here is effectively a culture of cultural syncretism, a tribe of the tribeless, a subcultural grouping of people who have so internalized multiculturalism that what the only thing that can be said to really differentiate them from the wider culture is precisely their unified celebration of diversity in comparison to others.
    Now, the practical implications. A church of cultural eclectics would be very different from both multicultural churches and monocultural churches, even while sharing some of the features of both.


  4. Makeesha, I suspect you are right and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been wrestling with it, with trying to articulate it. I think it is helpful if only for identifying why not all post-modern whites are going to identify with neoceltic Christianity. But I think the real challenge though is going to be the articulation of fluffy vs critical eclecticism, I’ve seen more of the former than the latter unfortunately.


  5. Matt
    There are undoubtedly a lot of different factors that contribute to the eclectic approach.
    I suppose one could reflect on the strong individuality of those who have the deepest affinity with a profound (as opposed to fluff)approach. So, how much of the appeal is about navigating a pathway away from the “herd” of mainstream culture? How much of it takes shape in the individual construction of identity as opposed to the flattening out of personality and identity in mainstream culture?
    If you reflect on the age of computers, back in the 60s the countercultural feeling was that people were in danger of being “herded” into computer data banks with an impersonal file number with data-cards fed into the machine to store your financial and personal data. But only an elite group had access to the tech.
    Now we have that phenomena ensuing in more sophisticated storage systems, while the tech is somewhat more accessible to western culture, and the advent of blogs etc might be seen as involving a “reclaiming” of the tech at the level of individual usage. Yet the blogs etc also facilitate identity construction (whether anonymous fantasy role-plays or genuine profiles being disclosed).
    Perhaps the ephemeral stuff is simply a characteristic of the moment. However I wonder how “new” this is. If we recall Ecclesiastes there is very much a sense of woe about things being transient and people drifting. Again there is the throw-away line in the Areopagus episode where the narrator says that the Athenians loved to spend their time chattering about the “latest” new things/ideas.
    Also the Greco-Roman world involved a lot of cultural changes and religious experimentation and borrowing: witness the influx of Persian ideas and practices and “cults” into Alexander’s empire and then succeeded by the empire of the Caesars.
    So it might be worthwhile recalling that as it was in the past so it continues today. This little aspect of pomo is not exactly “new” in the march of time.
    In the long run novelty wears off, ennui sets in, especially if there is no substance to the eclectic behaviour and choices. Ennui sets in especially at the level of “fluff”. I think you’ll find a hint of this in Augustine’s Confession that leads to his aphorism that “our hearts are restless”.
    I guess I’d also toss in suggestions about “nostalgia” for the past as part of that yearning for something deeper which seems to be lacking just now.
    It is also worth recalling that the western esoteric magical orders of the mid to late 19th century had a lot to do with innovation and experimentation in the context of the great movement of ideas and cultural changes of that day. Over a century later and the experimental trend ensues.


  6. I would certainly expect strong individuality to be a personality trait of Christians who take eclecticism beyond the fluff level.
    Strong experiences that strain beyond the limits of existing traditions is something else I expect.
    With myself, my deep experiences with meditation, a practice normally associated with Orthodoxy and Catholicism, together with my deep appreciation for evangelical exegesis, land me in a place where I identify with all and none of these traditions.
    For some eclecticism is part of the process of transitioning from one tradition to another (Dave Tomlinson for instance). For others eclecticism is part of the process of moving beyond all existing traditions.


  7. Matt, I am interested in what you say about the need to move beyond the fluff level to contextualise Christianity for yourself. That really resonates with me, as anothe ecletic Christian who draws upon a number of traditions yet sits comfortably within none, I happily call myself a work in progress.
    In a culture where more and more people seem to be heading in this direction church leaders need to be mindful of the fact that questions rather than prescriptive teaching are the order of the day, if questions can be posed to help people to think through their own spiritual journey, and consider how well that sits with the gospel, rather than instructions given I think we might see a whole generation of real thinking Christians appearing, folk who are not afraid to tackle the tough stuff, nor worried about pushing traditional boundaries.
    Surely there is a need in every age to move beyond exisitng traditions if Christianity is the living faith we name it.


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