Book musings: A Religion of One’s Own

Late last year, I learned that Thomas Moore was coming out with a new book. Moore is one of my favorite authors, so this was an occasion for happiness, joy, and listing the book-to-be on my holiday wish list. To add to the excitement, the book was going to be on developing your own religion/spirituality, a topic that I’ve been interested in for years. Now I haven’t absolutely adored everything Moore has written, so I was trying to have realistic expectations for the whole thing, but when the book arrived, my carefully prepared caution evaporated and I plunged into it. And it has done what it was “supposed” to do. I finished it weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it and the issues Moore tackles. I’m glad I read it and it was an enjoyable book to read. Even better, it’s given me ideas to work with.

A Religion of One's Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World by Thomas Moore
A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World by Thomas Moore

Moore’s concern is that the soul—the more watery/earthy part of us, as compared to our airy/fiery spirit—needs religion to counter the numbing secularism of our culture. Despite the phrase “personal spirituality” in the subtitle, Moore names his interest “personal religion.” It’s a difference in focus: to Moore, spirituality is internal and abstract—the term suggests that it feeds your spirit more than your soul—while religion is grounding, encourages you to be aware of the sacred, and inspires you to act morally and ethically in the everyday world. A personal religion isn’t an isolated one.

I think the way Moore used the word religion distracted me from fully understanding the points he was trying to make. He’s careful to explain up front that he’s using the words soul and religion a bit differently than their everyday meanings, and I get why he decided to do so. But it’s hard to instantly adopt new definitions. Having read his earlier books, in which he’s discussed the soul at great length—he’s probably best known for writing Care of the Soul—I’m used to that word, but his take on religion was new to me with this book. Without noticing, I fell back on the familiar definitions like “the belief in a god or a group of gods” and “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods” (Merriam-Webster). With that in mind, I was expecting instructions or a list or something that would spell out exactly how I should go about creating a personal religion. And since that wasn’t the book that Moore had written, I was disappointed when I finished reading it. But what Moore is doing in A Religion of One’s Own is offering suggestions on how to see the sacred in everyday life and to live more soulfully. Once that finally dawned on me—some time after finishing it—I liked the book more. Although I’ve got to admit some part of me still wants a convenient set of instructions that will spell out precisely how to create my own religion and save me the trouble of wrestling with it!

Many of Moore’s suggestions will sound familiar to Pagan readers, and I’m glad to see them, not only because they’re the kinds of activities and practices I’m interested in anyway, but because Moore is so matter-of-fact about including them. See, years ago, when he wasn’t nearly as well-known, he wrote a book called The Planets Within, which was largely about astrology and magic. The tone of the book wavered, as if Moore felt torn between an admiration for astrology and a sensitivity to the fact that if you want to be taken seriously outside of the New Age genre, writing about astrology as if you take it seriously is a no-no. By now, it’s like he came to peace with it. He writes about astrology and magic as things that you might want to include in your own religion, and he comes across as comfortable saying so. (Now if he’d revise The Planets Within in this mature self-assurance…no? Oh well.) He devotes a chapter to working with your dreams, and refers to the tarot, the I Ching, and reading tea leaves. Because he isn’t tied to any particular tradition, his suggestions cover including music and the arts in your practice, considering angels and muses, some practices from psychology, recognizing a daimon or genius or juno, and learning to see the mystical in the everyday.

Even though I’ve got a better idea of what the book is about now, I still have some reservations about parts of it. For instance, I’m certain that Moore has given this idea of creating your own religion a great deal of thought, because he’s touched on it in other books that I’ve read, and because just what’s in this book refers to a lifetime of experience with religion and spirituality. He advocates looking at the various faith traditions of the world, learning from them, and borrowing from them as seems appropriate—another suggestion that eclectic Pagans will be familiar with! At the beginning of the book, he mentions a common criticism of this approach: that it’s using religion like a cafeteria or salad bar. He responds that that doesn’t bother him and adds, “There’s no reason why you can’t go deep into the teachings and even the practices of a formal tradition without surrendering to the whole religion.” I agree with him on this point, but I think the criticism is often about people who don’t go deeply into a tradition before taking what interests them. He’s not oblivious to this distinction, but since the thrust of the book is towards creating your own spirituality, I’m not sure he was comfortable dealing with the downside. (All of this is pure speculation on my part, but I can’t shake the feeling.)

So, food for thought, ideas for practice. I hope to learn from this book and maybe someday have a practice that I can honestly call a religion of my own.

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