Home » Eastern Orthodoxy » Honesty and More Cultural Appropriation

Honesty and More Cultural Appropriation

corner 2This recent post at a Patheos blog called “The White Hindu” had me reflecting about my Eastern Orthodox experience.

To summarize, the author is a white woman of a privileged background (her words) who has decided to become and live as a Hindu.  However, she is quite sensitive to the idea that it can be insulting to “borrow” cultural items (ideas, beliefs, clothing, etc.) from a historically rich and perhaps oppressed group, in order to make a fashion-type statement.  She doesn’t want to “play with Indian-ness.”  She loves the philosophy and traditions of Hinduism but admits that she may not be capable or willing to take on the burden of Hinduism.

Now just from my cursory reading, I don’t think she has anything to worry about – she seems like a sincere believer to me.  But the post did cause me to reflect on what I do in my spiritual life.

I feel like I am in a transition period.  I am an “active” Latter-day Saint, with “active” in quotes mainly because the truth claims of the LDS church just don’t resonate with me like they used to.  I have lived a very strong LDS life, have a strong extended LDS family, I served a mission, I’ve taught Institute very recently, I attend LDS church almost every Sunday, etc.  And yet, in my private spiritual life, I feel very Eastern Orthodox.  I read Orthodox theology and blogs, I have an active correspondence with a priest-monk who serves as a sort of spiritual father, I have a prayer rule that I try my best to follow and an icon corner, and I even have a patron saint! Orthodoxy has always fascinated me, and I have a feeling that the only reason I’m not fully Orthodox is that it would be extremely devastating to certain important LDS members of my family.

So when I read that post about cultural appropriation I felt a twinge of emotion.  Am I being dishonest?  Deceptive?  Patronizing?  Furthermore, are my interests in Orthodoxy driven by a faddish sense of the exotic?  Am I lying to myself, others, or even God?

It wouldn’t be so bad if Mormonism didn’t have an active tradition of taking theological elements from other religions.  Joseph Smith was an active borrower, and I mean that actually in a good way.  He was able to absorb ideas like a sponge, and reconstitute them in interesting, new ways (the Masonic-influenced temple liturgy is a prime example).  In my experience, since Mormonism is not creedal in nature, individual Mormons have a wide variety of beliefs about God and the church that aren’t official LDS doctrine.  Take the nature of God, for instance:  some Mormons believe the Godhead is utterly unique and beginningless, some believe that God the Father became God and was once a man like us, or that God is one being in a vast (potentially infinite) God-family that includes Heavenly Father’s wife (or wives) and us as His children.  Some hold views that I would describe as Social Trinitarian, while others are Tritheistic, Polytheistic, Henotheistic, or Monolatrist.  It would seem that in the absence of any strong doctrinal creed, Mormons are free to develop, borrow, reject, or shape their individual views as they choose, as long as they can somewhat reconcile them with what is official LDS doctrine.

So from the outside I might very well look like a Mormon who has simply melded Orthodoxy into my Mormonism, very much like the Danny character in the marginally entertaining Mormon film Sons of Provo who tries to practice both Mormonism and Buddhism.

Recently, a friend of mine who is vaguely aware of my interest in Orthodoxy told me, “You should write on your [personal] blog about how you’ve syncretized Orthodoxy and Mormonism.  It would be really interesting!”  And when he told me that, my heart sank a little.  I don’t think I’ve syncretized the two at all – I just maintain the activity of Mormonism while my private spirituality is Orthodox.  I don’t want people to think I’ve melded the two religions together – I most definitely haven’t.  When I am in Sacrament Meeting I long for the Divine Liturgy.

Furthermore, I think the idea of “borrowing” the elements of Orthodoxy that I like and trying to create some kind of Frankenstein’s monster with patches from Mormonism and Orthodoxy is quite insulting to both religions (as I explained in this post).  You can’t take (for instance) the Orthodox view of theosis or Atonement and just copy-and-paste it into Mormonism, because those Orthodox doctrines operate in a vast machine with many interlocking parts, including theosis and Atonement, that all work together to achieve a doctrinal whole.  Taking this or that doctrine out of Orthodoxy because I just like it really sounds to me like the “cultural appropriation” that The White Hindu author was talking about.

This is the sort of cognitive dissonance that keeps me up at night.  Luckily, as someone who has studied psychology at the graduate level, I also know that cognitive dissonance is okay, and that learning to live with a little dissonance can lead to living much more authentically than furiously trying to stamp it out by any means possible.  I just continue to pray and ask God to help me know what to do, and take it one day at a time.  Eventually I think the truth will shake out.

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8 thoughts on “Honesty and More Cultural Appropriation

  1. What do you think it means to convert? Notwithstanding your activity situation, so you think that you have converted? So you think converts to Mormonism worry about “cultural appropriation”?

  2. You mean, do I think I have “converted” to Orthodoxy? You know, I generally tend to avoid the word “converted” because it seems so vague and loaded. I think more in terms of behavior – I do Mormon things at Mormon church and I do Orthodox things at home, and when I read or write about religion it is largely about Orthodoxy. I also think that classical theism is true, and Orthodoxy is the best version of that. So does that mean I’m “converted?” I don’t know, you tell me. If conversion is anything, I suspect it is more about a process of shaping behavior over time rather than a sort of sudden internal paradigm shift. But perhaps that is just the behaviorist in me speaking. There was a few month period where Mormonism really fell flat for me and Orthodoxy came to life – perhaps that is “conversion.”

    I don’t know if converts to Mormonism worry about “cultural appropriation.” I suppose it depends on the convert – I guess I’m so immersed in Mormon culture that it’s hard for me to really see what parts of it are unique to Mormonism and what parts are just American or people things. And perhaps I’m prejudiced against Mormon culture, but I don’t think that people interested in Mormonism are really drawn to Mormonism due to a faddish exoticism (“I’m just wearing this short-sleeved white shirt and polyester tie to be trendy!” or “Check out all this food storage – I got the idea from the Mormons!”). Perhaps the best candidate is when I see Protestants or Catholics say, “Even though I disagree with their theology, we can all learn something from the way they live their lives/evangelize/practice what they preach.” But I don’t necessarily see this as cultural appropriation in the same way that the White Hindu author sees it, since practicing what you preach is certainly not unique to Mormons.

  3. Syphax,

    look, if you’re going to make things complicated by problematizing the concept of “conversion,” then we’re just not going to have a fun time here

    😉

    Anyway, what I was getting at ultimately with the juxtaposition of conversion vs. culture is that…conversion is about religion. But cultural appropriation is not about religion. Conversion is sincere, unironic, un-self-conscious (if that makes any sense). But cultural appropriation is an ironic posture — wouldn’t it be nice if I wore this (even though that’s not what “I” am *really* “about”?)

    I mean, you’re *not* saying, “Even though I disagree with [Orthodox] theology, we can all learn something from the way they live their lives/evangelize/practice what they preach.”

    Of course, I’m sure you’ll point something out about how “theology” is different than “practice” and whatnot.

    maybe, since you don’t see it yourself, you’re not there yet. But from the outside looking in here, I would probably say, “oh yeah, Syphax converted to orthodoxy. He’s still relatively culturally Mormon though.”

  4. I can totally see that. And yeah, again, I am heavily influenced by Skinner and Behaviorism in my analysis of human psychology, so I will often (probably frustratingly) try to collapse more nebulous or subjective terms like “conversion” into something measurable or quantifiable. I do this thinking it will help the conversation when often it doesn’t. 🙂 So I am more likely to think of things in terms of “in X environment I do Y, but in Z environment I do A.” Etc.

    But if I just broke apart your last sentence, I am still actively Mormon – I go to Sunday School, feel bad about not doing home teaching, take the Sacrament, hang out with Mormons, have Mormon-centered conversations with friends and family. But, I guess, in my heart, I don’t *feel* Mormon. I feel like a person who would really rather be Orthodox. When I compare Mormonism and Orthodoxy on any given point, it is either a draw or Orthodoxy wins. My prayers are Orthodox, and I think about Orthodox theology and saints.

    However, ultimately, I believe that what you’re getting at is right. What I am doing just doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation, and, if anything, is evidence of a true (sincere, unironic, religious) conversion to Orthodoxy. I guess I’ve just never said it so concretely before.

  5. “I will often…try to collapse more…subjective terms…into something …quantifiable”

    Yes. Frustrating indeed. 😉

    I think the real issue is that Mormonism is primarily defined in terms of praxis, whereas Orthodoxy seems to be primarily defined in terms of…well, duh, doxy.

    But…

    Even when you talk about practice, it doesn’t seem clear cut Mormon. I mean, yeah, you’re going to Sunday School, taking Sacrament, (not) doing home teaching (but feeling guilty about it), and so on…but if you say your prayers are Orthodox, and you think about Orthodox theology and saints, these are *also* behaviors, no? These are also practices, no?

    I mean, I guess the question would be if any orthodox person has told you that they think you are appropriating? Maybe I didn’t read closely enough, but I didn’t get that impression that this post was written in response to something like that.

  6. Yes, thoughts and prayers are behaviors. So yeah, I get your point. I feel like I’m being fully authentic to myself, and I don’t consider myself to be appropriating. There are some Orthodox out there who might think that I shouldn’t be “playing Orthodox” unless I am actively seeking to join, or I’ve been baptized or whatever. But I don’t know any of those Orthodox and they don’t know me.

    So I get your point, I don’t think I’m appropriating. I’m just sensitive (perhaps hypersensitive) to the possibility that I am.

  7. When I first seriously began exploring other faiths four or five years ago I immersed myself in the ancient Christian tradition which I only knew in the Roman Catholic form at that point. There was definitely an excitement of sorts that had less to do with whether I actually believed it was true, and more to do with how fantastic I thought the history, music, art, and philosophical tradition were. It also helped that I had two Roman Catholic philosophy professors who seemed to have an unspoken desire to promote their faith through their courses.

    It wasn’t until the hype wore off, at which point I recognized both things I liked about traditional Christianity and things I really disliked or with which I struggled. I believe this is the point at which the individual can better discern whether they are drawn to a faith tradition because of the smells and bells alone, or whether they are a true believer (whatever that may mean). The arrival at this point places one’s current faith on a more level playing field with the faith(s) to which they are considering conversion. It has been a blessing for me to realize that there are still a few areas of the LDS tradition that I admire and perhaps even prefer to traditional Christianity, although I have realized that most the things I admire about the LDS tradition have less to do with its doctrinal claims and more to do with the praxis and culture that has developed within.

    Has your experience been similar?

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