On Secularity’s Shallow Appropriation of Religious Artifacts

Figuring out how to relate to people of other faiths (or within our own faith, see the Pope’s extraordinary gracious step ) will likely continue to be one of the most difficult and important things we need to grapple with. It has become a central issue in my life for reasons I won’t go into.

I used “shallow” in terms not of Christians borrowing but secularists borrowing, and while probably most of us who are Christians in North America are thoroughly secular it is the relationship between secularity and the appropriation of religious artifacts without regard for his history or meaning of these artifacts from their religious traditions.

What does American secularity do to religious traditions? One interesting case study is American yoga. (If you want a list of links check out these links.) To put it simply, American yoga to Hinduism is what the mega-church is to Christianity. Americans appropriate the cultural artifacts of other faiths and communities and in the process change something. Others find this offensive.

Most Americans don’t care because of course they simply don’t believe there is anything there. We’re so used to it because we’ve been doing it to Christianity for a long time. Now in the interest of religious diversity we glibly put buddha in the bathroom. . We’ve “eat-pray-love”ified the landscape of religious belief. Glibly pasting a “coexist” bumper sticker is increasingly a statement of scolding from the one group on the list that doesn’t consider itself a religion. The dominant question is “does this work for me to get me what I want out of life, to see myself in a light I find attractive, to be seen by others as I wish to be seen…” so I think “shallow” is the right word for most of this.

I think it is dishonest to not recognize the differing truth claims made by the diversity of religious traditions. It is at this level that the impact of secularity really starts to count. It is easy to look at yoga and say “it’s good for the body, it’s enjoyable, it’s popular today…” but on what level do I engage the deeper assertions that this practice is helping me escape the cycle of reincarnation? Secularity scoffs, sneers or doubts the deeper religious truth claim or says “you can hold it privately but don’t bring it into the public sphere.”

Other things get dragged into the conversation as well. Are those born to poor situations simply getting what they deserve for moral failures in past lives? The caste system made sense within the worldview.

Karma is a popular notion today among Californians I know. They might deny the aspects connected to reincarnation but when trouble befalls an enemy the thought of karma gives a soft, implicit justification for my own schadenfreude.

It isn’t hard to see why Buddhism is popular among the secular, it demands the least in terms of metaphysical commitments. It is a process by which a person can seem to achieve a degree of calm, control and peace in a painful, chaotic world. Whatever you assert about the illusory nature of reality, pain and evil the process of detachment is obviously practical for management of chaotic emotions or behavior.

Buddhism, like Hinduism and Islam all come equipped with some pretty developed moral teachings many of which are similar to Christianity and Judaism. That’s a good thing. It’s hard not to imagine that the selectivity being practiced with respect to the religious traditions won’t also be practiced with respect to the moral systems within these traditions. Humanity’s capacity for convenient moral selectivity is already known by all of us. I don’t think we need much encouragement in this area.

There is an interesting podcast about two English comedians, one Christian and the other an atheist who decided to swap religious lifestyles for a month. The Christian decided to stop going to church, stop praying (he said he slipped a few times), etc. The Atheist tried praying, going to church, following a Christian moral code, etc. The atheist was having a tough time with the Bible until he met a Christian at one of the churches that told him “yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible I don’t like or understand so I just pick the parts I do like and forget the rest” and the atheist said “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that, that helps!”

Now of course even those most highly devoted to Biblical literalism or authority do it without the consciousness or the honesty of the person the atheist met, but complete abdication on the project of trying to maintain some degree of coherence is telling.

It seems pretty obvious to me that the thread of religious belief that has developed into Christianity has certainly been deeply impacted by the wisdom, stories, teachings and traditions of its religious neighbors, sometimes in agreement and sometimes in resistance. Even the most ardent Biblicist must somehow account for similarity of stories in Genesis, Broader Semitic roots of what we find in Biblical wisdom literature (Job and his three friends didn’t have Hebrew names, etc.). At the same time the kinds of claims made by Jesus are truly stark and uncompromising (all authority has been given to me…) and the claims surrounding the resurrection quite dramatic.

For me to shallowly borrow from other faiths would be to take from them without recognizing how the surface artifacts (words, symbols, ideas) relate to the deeper claims. It also means I must grapple with those deeper claims not only of other religious but of secularity too.

The origins debate is forcing a lot of discussion in those areas with respect to a good many things for Christianity. I see people blithely say things like “well science disproves Christianity but I like the ideas of karma and reincarnation because I think they’re cool.” OK, and an eastern pantheism doesn’t also impact how we might think about science? so on it goes. pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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