Friday, July 31, 2015

Religion and Cultural Appropriation

Well, I wasn't a Taoist for long.  Last night I read a great article on a Taoist approach to parenting, and that site somehow led me to an academic site which pointed out that the concept of a "Philosophical Taoism" is, well, not a thing.  This is an appropriation of the Chinese Religious Taoism by Westerners who have a desire to utilize the label without all the religious "baggage" (as I would've put it) that goes along with it.  As I read about this, I realized that I could not in good conscience use this label for myself, as it would only perpetuate colonialist and orientalist mentalities of taking something belonging to another culture and stripping it of various cultural aspects to make it "one's own".  This is simply unacceptable to me since I didn't want to use the label "Catholic" - to which I have a birthright affiliation - because I knew in good conscience that it meant something to those who actually adhere to the faith.

As I looked over my spiritual journey, I noticed that I found myself going farther and farther away from where I started, and that this actually had much greater implications for my identity.  I've been guilty of exoticising eastern culture, philosophy, and religion, and thinking it was OK because I saw it in a positive light.  But nonetheless I was othering it, and appropriating bits and pieces without valuing the whole.

I found myself saying quietly the following words to myself as I lay in bed:  It's OK that I'm a Westerner.  It's OK that I'm white.  It's OK that I'm Polish.... It's OK that I'm cisgender.  It's OK that I'm straight...  It's OK that I'm middle-class.  It's OK that I'm educated.  It's OK that I'm able-bodied. ... Essentially, It's OK that I am who I am, even if who I am is "boring".  There's the rub.  I've looked outside of myself for religious labels, for identity (I've argued against being labeled "white", saying instead that I identify with immigrants at large), for something that would make me as interesting as I saw these other groups being.  But why?  What in my experience told me that I wasn't just as OK being who I am?

As a child immigrant, I lost the community of my birth.  Being raised by immigrant parents whose personality and circumstances didn't allow a replacement community, I never felt a sense of belonging growing up.  In order not to risk having to admit that I may be rejected by any community I tried to join, I actively set myself out to be a lone wolf.  I technically complained about not having a community to belong to, but to be honest, I don't want to belong to a community.  Belonging comes at a price.  Belonging would mean adherence to a set of norms, values, priorities that benefit the group whether I personally agree or not.  Belonging meant a loss of freedom.

And so I came to realize that my spiritual journey as well as my recent desire to try to fit into some sort of ethnic community are stemming from the same place.  I was disappointed when I recently found out via a DNA test that I do not have Roma ancestry, like I had thought/hoped due to my slightly darker coloring.  I was disappointed!  I was disappointed to be who I actually am!

All my life I've sided with the underdog, rooting for those who were considered minorities in society. I let it get to a point where I started to develop an internalized hatred for those parts of me that were in common with the oppressors of these groups.  Generally, it was Christian whites.  But what if I actually applied something of the Tao to where I'm at without appropriating the label for myself? What if I just accept who I am as I am, and seek the balance within the context of my own Western identity and religion?  What if I simply find the pearls of wisdom to reflect on within the scriptures of my own Western religious tradition?

I seem to be back at square one.  My choices are: 1) call myself "nonreligious" or more specifically "Deist" and leave it at that; 2) call myself "Catholic" regardless if other Catholics would grant me the use of that label or not; 3) call myself some other religious affiliation, which would require officially joining their community (Quakers come to mind).

Why do I need a label, really?  Is it just because I grew up with a religious label and I feel naked without one?  And why am I obsessed with the label having to be perfectly lined up with what the majority of fellow adherents believe?  Am I worried about being rejected, so I try to opt out preemptively so that I don't have to deal with rejection?

What does it matter to me what other people think about how I choose to identify myself?  I can only imagine the turmoil this would cause me if I were transgender and had to hear people tell me I was confused.  In my case, yes, I am confused.  But it's my own doing.

If I call myself nonreligious and someone "accuses" me of being an atheist, I can correct them by saying I'm a Deist.  Or I can just start with that label.  Previously I thought I also needed a religously-based moral outline and spiritual practice.  But really, I don't.  I can be a Deist who bases her morality on a simple scripture quote from my very own birthright religious affiliation:  Luke 6:31 (Matthew 7:12) :  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  It actually matches the three jewels of Taoism that I've taken to heart:  simplicity, humility, compassion.  The scripture is simple in that it's concise and easy to apply to any situation.  It follows compassion in that it forces one to consider the perspective of the other.  It serves humility in that one cannot be self-involved if one is thinking of the needs of others.  Ok, so there you have it, my moral outline, straight from my own religious tradition, without cultural appropriation or misrepresenting another religion.  

If I call myself "Catholic", it would be because of my ethnicity, my upbringing, my having received the Sacraments, the fact that I attend a Catholic church regularly, my familiarity and affinity to various Catholic traditions, my celebration of Catholic holy days and holy seasons, my familiarity with Catholic lingo, and my having symbols of Catholicism in my home.  It's true that faithful, conservative, traditional, believing Catholics would tell me these things do not make me a Catholic. But I do not need their approval.  That's the whole point!  They may think I'm fooling myself, and that's fine.  I don't believe in their version of the Truth, so I'm not worried about "reprecussions" of not "returning to the fold of believers".  If anything, I'm a bit concerned about misrepresenting the religious faith of Catholicism, but let's be honest.  The pope himself has been accused - by other Catholics! - that he's "not Catholic enough".  If Catholicism isn't about serving others, bettering ourselves, and being in awe of our Creator, then it's only a mythology, scare tactics, and rituals.  But if Catholicism is indeed about being in awe of our Creator, bettering ourselves, and serving others, then I belong to this Catholicism, and therefore have every right to call myself a Catholic.

I know some may say that I could use this same logic to just wake up one day and say that I'm Jewish, or Muslim, because these faiths at their core stand for the same things.  But the difference is that I don't have a birthright affiliation with these other faiths.  I do have a birthright affiliation with Catholicism.  And what's more, maybe that's the point - that at their core, religions are all about the same three things:  self-improvement, compassion, and reverence for God.  And if that's the case, it really doesn't matter what religious label one slaps on, if at all.

Regarding spiritual practice, I've found that I absolutely do not follow nor desire to follow any Catholic spiritual practices, perhaps with the exception of Lectio Divina and contemplative meditation (which has also been accused of not being Christian!).  But do I need to practice Catholic spirituality - and only Catholic spirituality - in order to call myself Catholic?  I say no.  I say the point of these practices is to better oneself, help others, and revere God.  If a practice - Catholic or otherwise - doesn't do this, why bother?  And if a practice - Catholic or not - does do this, I'd be a fool not to utilize it. 

The third option above - officially switching religious affiliation - is the least likely for me.  As I've mentioned, I do not desire a community, and switching affiliation would imply that I am joining a community.  I am happy to learn about other traditions but don't want to do so under duress or to the exclusion of other traditions.  If I truly believe that religion is about revering God, improving oneself, and serving others, then there's no reason to switch if I am already affiliated with my birthright religious tradition.

The path of lease resistance is to do nothing - wu-wei in the Taoist sense - and allow that to be the most fruitful path.

My spiritual life is and will continue to be as follows:  attend Catholic church, study various traditions, apply various philosophies to my life, look for the commonalities among the different paths, and when someone asks, have a label that is both informative and authentic.  I'm reminded of another scripture verse: 1 Peter 3:15 "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you."  Of course, Christians interpret this verse to mean that Jesus - and the whole salvific story - are the answer, and accordingly "Christian" is the label that sums it up.  But I stand at a crossroads where I need to take ownership of my own spirituality.  I need to stop outsourcing it to the interpretation of others.  Yes, many are much more learned than me in issues of theology.  That does not mean they have a closer grasp at the nature of God than me. Society, which values academics and formal education, would argue that it does mean that.  I choose to disagree.

Given the above description of my spiritual life, the choice remains between embracing the label of "Catholic" once again, willing to let it mean what it means to me without worrying about what it means to others, OR choosing the label "Deist", which prevents the conflict with believing Catholics at the cost of distancing myself from my birthright religious tradition.  I will need to ponder which of these options is the one that will serve me best.  My husband has opted for embracing the Catholic label without worrying about the implications.  I am tempted to join him, as it would simplify things. Then again, he still uses Christian terminology and concepts that fly in the face of his claims to be spiritually independent.  I'm tempted to actually be spiritually independent and call myself a Deist, full stop.  Time will tell.

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