We are aware, I think, of the term ‘cultural appropriation’ whereby someone adopts something from another culture to which they have no right for personal gain or status or simply because they are more able or powerful and can simply do so. This might be a style of clothes, music, dance, art, a performance unique to a specific group. Cultural appropriation can be regarded as exploitative or it is respectful and many aspects of it are controversial. So with this background I was intrigued to hear the term ‘religious appropriation’ recently*.
It was an interesting thesis that people who say that they are “spiritual but not religious” may be guilty of religious appropriation if they believe they have the right to take this from one religion and that from another religion and something else from yet another religion. Religious appropriation is taking up the experience or the technique but without ‘the religion’ so to speak – particularly if individuals believe they have the right to do what they wish. I was intrigued by the thesis. At Christmas time versions of the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ or ‘the reason for the season’ or ‘the commercialisation of Christmas’ have similar concerns. I do wonder whether if we did not have public holidays for Christmas or Easter, how that would affect people’s behaviour at that time?
And yet we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact of religious appropriation because when humanity creates its own religion or defines its deities then we use our imagination regarding what we say is sacred – place, time, furniture, clothing, text, ritual, certain people, and how we should behave. Humanity, by nature, appropriates the relationship God wishes to establish with us by becoming God and ‘saying what religion is’. So people today who cherry pick from religions a cocktail for themselves are doing what people do!
Christianity can seem like another human creation. It has its particular texts, rituals, time, people, places, people, behaviour but its story is one of revelation – not human creativity – and a revelation that is anchored in history – a certain time and a certain place – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, a cross and an empty tomb – and people today are still meeting Jesus who reveals himself and says ‘Follow me’. Each day people are discovering that Jesus isn’t a figment of their imagination or the genius of some clever author but someone real beyond our senses using ‘masks’ (words, water, bread and wine) to give us a new life.
And this means, I think, that we may be that bit more chilled about religious appropriation than some because humanity without Jesus is lost and searching and however people come close to words, water, bread and wine and the stories and environments around them, they are coming that bit closer to Jesus who keeps coming to people to reveal himself because life is so much better with him than without him.
* ABC Radio Religion and Ethics podcast ‘When does religious homage become appropriation?’