The debate has been around a long time and probably will continue to rage on long after we’re all gone – Is it permissible to ‘borrow’ aspects from other cultures to use as one’s own? Is it okay to adopt the practices of another group in order to fuse them into our own cultural framework? What exactly constitutes cultural appreciation, adaptation, assimilation, and appropriation (or misappropriation) and who decides where the dividing lines are?
There are simply no easy answers to any of those questions. When you start applying the questions to the religions and belief systems of others, the matter becomes much more difficult to navigate. For someone who is creating an eclectic spiritual practice, this can be one of the biggest potential pitfalls. Determining the balance between the need to find useful spiritual practices and respecting those whose practices we find helpful is a challenge that eclectics face regularly.
Over the years, I’ve heard the entire range of thought on the matter – everything from a ‘anything goes, I’ll take what I want’ attitude to a stern injunction that ‘one must never use practices from another religion’. Neither of the extremes is one that I embrace. For me, there has to be a balance somewhere in the middle that allows both interaction with and respect for other religions and cultures. Still, there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer to where those dividing lines between appreciation and appropriation fall. I won’t pretend that I have any answer to any one’s questions on the subject and I won’t presume to tell anyone else where they should stand on the subject.
What I do have is my own coping mechanisms and guidelines to dealing with the questions of interacting with other people, cultures, and beliefs. While they don’t speak to every possible situation, they do give me a starting point from which to consider questions of culture.
- Being interested in and learning about other cultures is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it’s encouraged. Learning about others broadens my own horizons, eradicates existing prejudices and misunderstandings, and fosters a sense of compassion for all people within me.
- ‘Appreciating’ other cultures is also acceptable. There is a caveat here though. Appreciating another culture must always be done in a way that is respectful to that culture and to the beliefs that are held by that culture. If ‘appreciation’ involves destruction, spying, deception, theft, or other questionable behaviors, then it is no longer a case of appreciation, but one of appropriating. This type of ‘appreciation’ is completely unacceptable.
- ‘Borrowing’ ideas and practices from other religions and cultures must be done with extreme care and consideration for the taboos, restrictions, and rules of those religions and cultures. If outsiders are forbidden from taking part in a practice, I feel that I must respect that prohibition and neither attempt to attend the group’s ritual (ceremony, etc) nor attempt to recreate an ‘authentic’ version of that practice. In those cases, I find it best to determine what is about the practice that I want to incorporate into my own spiritual framework. At that point, I can then start looking for other ways to include an idea in my own practice that does not violate the rules of another culture or religion. For me, it’s far easier and less ethically ambiguous to ‘borrow’ only broad ideas and concepts rather than specific practices and rituals.
- There are some things that are simply not to be done under any circumstances.
- Never lay claim to another’s religion as my own. Unless I have undergone the appropriate and required initiations of that religion, I have no right to claim those beliefs as my own.
- Never lay claim to a religious title unless ordained, initiated, or otherwise welcomed into the religious leadership by others in that leadership. I am not a priest, a shaman, cleric, nun, etc. nor do I claim any of those titles for myself.
- Never present my views as authentic (insert culture/religion here) unless I am truly a member of that culture. With religion, I cannot make that claim unless I am a practicing member of that religion.
- Never claim that I have originated a practice or idea that is not truly and unquestionably my own. I stand on the shoulders of giants and more than willingly acknowledge that I could not create my own practice without the help of others.
All of that said, I sometimes have to remind myself not to take the issue so seriously that it paralyzes my ability to create a working eclectic path. I know that there will be times when the division between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation will not be clear – to either myself or to members of the culture in question. The best that I can do is be open and honest about my intent and keep a sense of humor about it all. By taking only what is freely given and respecting both what is give and the people who give it, I hope that I can avoid the worst of the cultural offenses.