Polydimensional Spirituality From Antiquity to Modernity

For the past 20 years, various statistical agencies, social scientists and concerned clergy have reported the increasing trend of Americans identifying themselves as “Spiritual but Not Religious”. The term itself is attributed to author, Sven Erlandson (Erlandson, 2000) and usually describes a person that does not adhere to any particular religious dogma but still believes in, is accepting of and/or is seeking more personalized mystical experiences. There are innumerable reasons given for this phenomenon such as hyper individualism, the acceptance of foreign “alternative” medicine and wellness practices, commitment phobia, the proliferation of supernatural themes in popular culture, peer pressure and an ever-increasing aversion to persons of authority. While the discourse surrounding SBNR’s is presented as a contemporary “new age” issue, I will seek to convince the reader that 1) the term “polydimensional” is more inclusive of variant spirito-religious experiences than SBNR and 2) Polydimensionality is not peculiar to the 20th or 21st century but is ubiquitous throughout Western history.


Before I make my case, I want to begin by clarifying what I mean by “polydimensionality”. Every religion or WOL (“way of life”) has parameters within which exists the dimension of “thought space” that believers must inhabit and agree with in order to be considered a member of that group. A person that seeks knowledge and experiences beyond the boundaries of acceptable thought space for that group is usually considered to be in great peril (spiritually, psychologically or even physically) by other members. This is especially true if a major tenet of that group expressly condemns cognition or participation outside the boundaries of its safe dimensional space. However, there are religions and ways of life (many of them termed “pagan”, “animist” or “traditional beliefs” today) that do not demand exclusive intellectual and spiritual control over their adherents. Members of many of these communities are free to explore and participate in rites and rituals without fear of meta or social condemnation, yet they are indeed religious. Therefore, I find the term SBNR only applicable to former or unconventional believers of Abrahamic faiths or any other religions/WOL that generally discourage intellectual or spiritual exploration outside of their realm.

It is because of the implication that all religions have the same boundaries (which they do not) that I refer to all people that feel comfortable beyond a single spiritual/religious paradigm as having a polydimensional consciousness. This does not mean that all polydimensionals are “polytheistic” or “animist” but perhaps polydimensionals have other means by which to determine if they are ready for or if certain information/practices are or are not right for them. They might consult their own conscience, priests/elders from their traditions, divination or any number of other means. Once Christianity became dominant in the Western World, polydimensionals were forced to study certain subjects solitarily while others formed clubs or highly organized secret societies with likeminded people to avoid persecution. Occasionally, the occult becomes fashionable to the masses and it is socially acceptable to host séances, tell fortunes, use Ouija boards or become a devotee of an Eastern Guru etc. (Horowitz, 2010) during which times life is significantly easier for consistent polydimensionals to blend in with the trendy crowd.

The Four C’s of Polydimensional identity Construction

So what are the factors involved in the construction of a polydimensional identity? The answer is prismatic and could be approached by a multitude of disciplines but I have attempted to distill it to four c’s, they are: commerce, conquest, calcification and curiosity. Commerce and conquest affects culture as it relates to the verbal and non-verbal transmission of ideas. In the case of the latter, the material culture of a people communicates information which is then reinterpreted through the lens of the observant population whoever they may be. Humans have always traded goods with or have been dominated by foreign populations whether the outsiders were from another country, “race”, ethnic group or tribe. While it is possible to contain or suppress the process of cultural diffusion as a result of commerce or conquest, it is impossible to avoid it altogether for the buyer, seller, the conqueror or the conquered.

Calcification and curiosity relates to the shift in consciousness that inevitably causes groups to become dissatisfied with the status quo, begin to question its validity and consider other possibilities. This cycle is most often discussed and expected in the realms of politics and fashion but somehow people tend to forget that religions are not exempt from the cycle of life.

On this point, American Philosopher, John Herman Randall Jr. said “Men are prone to regard the body of their beliefs as they do the hills to which they lift up their eyes, as fixed and immutable, and all departures therefrom, as in the very nature of the case absurd. Or they treat them as coins of tested gold, always able to pass current in any land or age.” Randall (1926).

In terms of religion, it is my observation that most people are not entirely “dissatisfied” with their cosmologies as much as they are dissatisfied with calcified interpretations of it that inhibits movement. Throughout history, failure by religious authorities to recognize the beginnings of calcification and reconsider the changing needs of their constituents breeds a desire for something more which inevitably leads to their downfall. However, there is a lengthy exploratory stage between desire and dissolution that is fueled by the curiosity developed after the status quo’s validity came into question. If during this phase there is access to novel ideas than there is a tendency for people to supplement any perceived deficiencies of the native faith and its rituals by syncretizing the exotic concepts with one’s own.

Initially, those that do this may experience harsh criticism, oppression or worse from representative authorities/adherents of the native and appropriated faiths. Yet, it all begins with tenacious curiosity and what I call an “immortal jellyfish consciousness”, which is a non-conformity that seeks to solve and resolve rather than to destroy or be destroyed. The ancient Egyptian religion was able to adapt quite well despite centuries of foreign invasions and a constant influx of immigrants. It worked because whenever they encountered new ideas that inspired the populace, they incorporated it into their corpus without ever destroying their foundational beliefs (Hornung, 1971). However, it must be noted that the contemporary obsession with “purity” in regards to race, religion, sex etc. began much later in history so they felt in no way indecisive, inauthentic or hypocritical about having multiple creation stories, adding new deities etc. The reason being, that the ancient Egyptians focused on the abstract lessons symbolism of symbols and personages instead of literal or historical facts. It is also important for me to emphasize that the desire for supplementation is not being judged here as either positive or negative. It is merely a common reaction to dissatisfaction with the status quo. The factors of which are dependent on the conditions in which that population find themselves, the influences that surround them and the resources available to them.

Polydimensionality and State Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean and Today

The Mediterranean in the 1st century C.E. was as racially and culturally diverse as New York or London is today. Like modern cities, there were significant portions of the population that were first, second or third generation immigrants that continued to serve the pantheons of their homelands. This undoubtedly had an influence on Mediterranean people who interacted with newcomers on a daily basis either as tradesman, artists, fortune tellers or domestic slaves. Thus, it was during this era that adherents of African and Asiatic mystery cults reached their height.

However, in Rome, the Gods of the state continued to be propagated by all (as was mandated by the government) and it was normal for people to belong to several priesthoods or cults simultaneously. That more or less mimics the contemporary situation for millions of polydimensionals who may still celebrate state religious holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid etc.) or participate in the rites/rituals of state recognized religions (Baptisms, fasting etc.) but in their private, everyday lives their spiritual journey may take them to the mysteries of distant lands.

For the contemporary polydimensional, the propagation of “state Gods” are not compulsory as it was for their ancient counterparts but doing so may be convenient for many. By officially claiming membership in a socially acceptable religion or WOL they may avoid ostracism, punishment or the loss of credibility. For people that are unconcerned about loss associated with their polydimensionality, failure to mention their multi-faceted belief system is twofold. Possibly, because they don’t have the desire to provide an explanation or they don’t thoroughly understand themselves. Unlike in ancient times, the contemporary world is harsh on those perceived to be “hypocrites” and demands that people choose one deity or the other. The modern world simply does not have within its consciousness the possibility of monolatry, henotheism or logic in the form of complimentary propositions. Instead, polydimensionals are accused of having questionable ethics or are dismissed as confused and undisciplined. Adding to the troubles for polydimensionals, is the current appropriation discourse that might make them fearful of appearing insensitive to other cultures. Thus, making them reluctant to seek tutelage or advice from religious or spiritual leaders that possess knowledge they may be seeking.


Today we live in a world that is more connected, more economically interdependent and homogenized than at any point in documented history. Therefore, polydimensionality is not only common but its proliferation was inevitable. Thus, I argue, that the general discourse surrounding religion in the 21st century is largely deficient and should transcend simplistic classifications of belief as more people adhere to multiple ideologies simultaneously as a result of cultural diffusion.

Tayannah Lee McQuillar is a cultural anthropologist and the author of Rootwork (Simon & Shuster, 2003). She has conducted fieldwork in New Orleans and Brazil and is a member of the American Anthropological Association, The Society for the Anthropology of Religion, The Council for Museum Anthropology, The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness and The New York Classical Club.
Tayannah Lee McQuillar is a cultural anthropologist and the author of Rootwork (Simon & Shuster, 2003). She has conducted fieldwork in New Orleans and Brazil and is a member of the American Anthropological Association, The Society for the Anthropology of Religion, The Council for Museum Anthropology, The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness and The New York Classical Club.


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