The Gaean Path and Cultural Appropriation: Part 3 – Spirituality and Religion

Spirituality and Religion

Before we get into the specific Gaean thoughts about this subject, we should examine a basic underlying principle at work here; namely, the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion”.

Many today describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”, and there is a rising feeling in modern society of fatigue in relation to religion. People say they are “tired of being told what to believe” and “how to behave” by religions. They hate how religions have become overly political and invasive into people’s lives. They see the effects of fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Jewish, or Christian, and they want none of sectarian strife. They read of the sex-abuse scandals and exit those churches.

But they still believe… in something. They might or might not call it “god” or “spirit” or “divinity” or “light and love”, so they say they are “spiritual”. But what does that really mean? Do they have any kind of spiritual practice that they regularly engage in? Maybe. Some do yoga or Zen meditation (separating those out from their cultural origins, a form of “appropriation”, by the way). I think, in many cases, this word “spiritual” is being used vaguely to mean “I still believe in something more than this manifest reality”.

This invites closer examination: One way we could look at the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” is that the latter is a cultural expression of the former. Spirituality is something which exists within individual hearts, and religion “occurs” when people join together for a shared experience around those yearnings. Spirituality is something individual, while religion is something social, and therefore, cultural.

The expectations of conformity which many find so abrasive arise out of the simple necessity of human beings working together, from the same page, when engaged in collaborative efforts. Of course, it often goes beyond that; soon, cultural norms develop which have little to do with collaboration and more to do with simple acceptance and approval. These last are what many find truly abrasive, when tolerance narrows, and certain people are excluded for different reasons, because they are deemed “unacceptable”.

Universal or Cultural?

Ethnologist Adolf Bastian perhaps offers us a little more insight into the distinction between spirituality and religion. He wrote of two sets of thoughts or ideas: elementargedanken or “elementary ideas” and völkergedanken or “folk ideas”. Another way to describe these are “universal concepts” and “cultural concepts”. Universal concepts are those which, when stripped of their particular cultural clothing, are found in one form or another in virtually every society of every people, regardless of place and time. Cultural concepts, however, are local to a particular people.

If we define religion as “the cultural expression of spirituality”, that makes spirituality a universal concept while religion is a cultural concept. So, what does this have to do with cultural appropriation? If we accept that there is a difference between the universal ideas of spirituality and the cultural ideas of specific religions, then only the latter are capable of being appropriated. Furthermore, any attempt by one particular culture to lay claim to the universal ideas is itself a form of appropriation of that idea from all other cultures. For example, if the concept of “prayer” were to be claimed as an exclusively Jewish idea, they could accuse Christians of appropriating the idea from them. Yet prayer is one of those universal ideas, and can not be claimed. It’s for the same reason that you can’t patent the alphabet, nor any letter in it. The alphabet is a universal idea. You can, however, copyright a unique font style which depicts the alphabet.

The question then remains: which ideas are universal and which are cultural? If not every single culture utilizes a particular idea, is it still common enough to be considered universal? What if a concept is only used in two or three cultures? Is it then “fair game”? Let’s use the example of drumming: The idea of a drum is certainly universal. How about the idea of synchronized drumming? Certainly universal. How about ecstatic states of consciousness? That’s definitely universal. So, what about the use of synchronized drumming to achieve ecstatic states of consciousness? Now, we begin to get into a gray area. How many cultures utilize the drum to assist in the achieving of ecstatic states? If it’s something that’s universal, then one might feel safe in incorporating it into one’s spiritual practice, and share it with others, without risking a cultural appropriation. But if it’s a cultural idea, then we might be appropriating it.

Then, we have to ask, do we have the right to appropriate it? It seems that since the idea is constructed from two other universal ideas: synchronized drumming and achieving ecstatic states of consciousness, then we might be safe in saying: “This is something that, given enough time, most cultures would probably stumble onto, so I feel okay in making use of it and teaching it.” Indeed, through cultural exchange, at least a dozen different methods of achieving an ecstatic state have been identified, and could be counted as a toolbox for those who wish to use these states for spiritual purposes.

So, what about another method of achieving an ecstatic state? Overheating the body, reducing available oxygen to the brain, physical dehydration, communal chanting, and drumming are all part of that toolbox. These, all combined, are used in a Native American sweat-lodge ceremony. The first three of these tools pose a threat to human health and life, and so must be done in the context of experience and care. People have died from over-ambitious amateurs attempting to run one. But a Native American sweat-lodge is more than the sum of these parts. It also involves the telling of cultural and personal stories, and the bonding of a community. Taken together, a Native sweat-lodge could be considered a cultural idea, even if its components, taken individually, are universal ideas.

Universal Indigenous Ideas

Michael Harner, the famed anthropologist and author of “The Way of the Shaman”, who studied and was initiated into the indigenous spiritual paths of several societies in South and North America, identified commonalities between many of these paths, called them “universal ideas”, and built a toolbox of practices he called “core shamanism”. Since then, many have studied core shamanism, and made these practices their own both as individuals and in groups. There has been occasional disagreement about the appropriateness of what Harner included in that toolbox, but one again must ask if there’s a form of ‘reverse-appropriation’ going on, when a cultural representative tries to lay claim to a practice that a number of other cultures utilize, as well.

As an example: “smudging” a space or person with smoke from some sort of sacred herb or wood in a ritual cleansing. Many cultures use a sacred smoke or incense in their spiritual practices, and they generally use what was traditionally available to that culture. This is a universal concept. Desert peoples of the Middle-East use frankincense, myrrh, and dragonsblood sap. Central Asians use sandalwood and plumeria (nag-champa). South Americans use palo santo wood. North Americans use sweetgrass, tobacco, and sage. Does a specific aromatic smoke belong to the culture, or does it belong to anyone who lives in the region where it can be found? Regarding tobacco, African Diaspora religions incorporated the use of it in their rituals, because it’s what the African slaves had available to them on Hispaniola, Cuba, and other places where they worked tobacco plantations. Although a sacred herb to Native Americans for centuries, at least, were these African slaves “appropriating” its use from Native Americans, or were they just applying a universal idea with what they had at hand? On the other hand, the commercialization of tobacco into a recreational herb has arguably profaned it to the detriment of every society which has adopted its use as a daily (or hourly) means of affecting one’s mood. It could be said that White man has paid dearly for his misappropriation of a sacred herb.

You “Shay-Man” and I Say “Shah-Man”: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off?

Finally, there are words. A word in a specific language arguably belongs to the people who speak that language. When it’s a common, mundane object for which we have no word in our current language, it’s usually not called into question. For instance, if I go to France, and enjoy this moon-shaped, light, and flaky pastry, I have no word for it, and so I ask. They say, “croissant”. I now have a name for this unfamiliar treat. No one is offended when I return home and bake up a tray of croissants to feed to my friends. However, if I start a new spiritual path, and decide that I’d like to call its priesthood “rabbis”, even though my path has nothing to do with Judaism, I might be guilty of appropriating a word from a culture. But what if I use the term “guru” or “patriarch”? There’s much gray area here.

The practitioners of indigenous spiritual practices have a name or title in every culture’s language that has such a person. Some have several titles, depending on specific functions or levels of training. Sometimes, Europeans came upon these peoples and gave their own titles to these individuals. I consider “witch-doctor” to be highly offensive. “Holy man” is more respectful, but also misleading in many cases. “Priest” and “wizard” are even more misleading. When referring to a specific culture’s individuals who fulfill this sacerdotal function, it’s probably the most respectful to simply use their word, but then we struggle to find language to refer to these people, as a class, representing the universal idea of “person who fulfills religious, spiritual, and magical functions within an indigenous society”.

Eventually, it came into common anthropological usage to use the term from one particular people to refer to the entire professional class, regardless of culture: “shaman”. Some claim that this was an appropriation from the Evenki language of Tungusk Siberian nomads. Perhaps it was. Unfortunately, it has come into the vernacular as a generic term. If I go around using a term like “spirit-talker”, the full meaning fails to get conveyed in the same kind of shorthand that “shaman” would accomplish.

So, we need to think carefully about what is universal and what is cultural. One can not culturally appropriate that which is universal, and if any given people tries to do so, then they are guilty of appropriating it from the rest of humanity.


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