This week, as I've sat beside a beautiful canal in Noosaville, I've wondered about the challenge of charting a spiritual path in our time and the development of rituals to mark that journey. Particularly important when it comes to drawing from existing religious traditions whilst not wanting to be bound by their creeds and belief systems.
Rituals are important for people, whether they consider themselves religious or not. So I was curious when Stephanie Dowrick, writer, commentator and now inter-faith minister at Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, was going to conduct a baptism in an inter-faith service there last week.
Pitt Street is a spirited community with a long tradition of inclusiveness and advocacy. The community is led by Ian Pearson, a gentle, warm and erudite minister who also took part in the inter-faith service that had a gentle rhythm about it, woven together by words and music drawn from many traditions.
The baptism was an eclectic blend that leant towards Judaism, sprinkled with Christian symbolism and mistier connections to other faiths. It was clearly valued by the family leading their daughter onto a spiritual path but as the ritual progressed, questions kept begging for my attention.
What community was this little girl being baptized into? Would she now be welcome in the rites and rituals of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues or other places of worship? Unlikely. So was it an entrance rite or something else? What obligations, if any, did it place on her and her family and did that matter? Wasn't this a kind of pick and mix spirituality, and if so, what was the theology that underpinned it, or not?
Varying forms of Christianity have long debated baptism, forming commissions to wrestle with these weighty theological issues and to decide who fits where and when.
However, I'm not too sure they've yet come up with a category for a gorgeous little girl, baptized into a community of faith that sits alongside the major traditions valuing and incorporating them all in its worship and practice.
I imagine that the little girl and her family probably don't care about all that and why should they. Their need for a ritual marking and encouraging the life journey into a deeper spiritual reality had been met.
This experience began merging with what I was learning about the canal as it rippled past me this week. Once this canal was a swamp but is now enlivened by river water being slowly pumped into it. At the other end of the cycle, to ensure it stays at an even level, excess water flows back into the river over a weir.
Somehow, the river has begun to look to me like the spiritual sea we all swim in while the canal seems to represent organized religion. It's completely reliant on the river for its existence but still has the capacity to offer back a particular kind of enrichment to its source.
Religious traditions have rich knowledge and wisdom gathered through intense entanglement with the deep questions of human existence but they are not, and can never be the final word.
Like all of us, they have to live in a symbiotic relationship with what you could call the great river of knowing that flows just outside their control. Being brave enough to welcome its upside-down, inside-out ideas while still being prepared to freely offer their own abundant wisdom back into the mix.
If, as the I Ching says, real wisdom is in learning to deal with change, the quality of our wisdom will be measured by how spacious and graceful we can make these challenging spiritual interchanges.