Monday, September 13, 2010

Cultural appropriation

On Facebook, my profile says "Political views: Pragmatic anarchist (i.e. Lib Dem). Religious views: Unitarian and Wiccan pantheist / non-theist".

It took me quite a long time to arrive at that particular combination of things. I have been a Wiccan since 1991, and a Unitarian since 2007. During 2007, I went through quite considerable spiritual upheaval before settling on Unitarianism as my path in addition to Wicca.

I have had some ups and downs with regard to Wicca, and have made quite a bit of effort to learn about Unitarianism in depth. So I thought long and hard before identifying as both Unitarian and Wiccan or Wiccan and Unitarian. I feel entitled to call myself both, because I am a member of both the Unitarian community and the Wiccan community, and recognised as such by other members of that community. I do not identify as a Pagan., though Unitarianism has included pagan and pantheist ideas since its early days, and first referred to the divine as a Mother in 1850.

It also took me some time before I felt that I understood Unitarianism and other Unitarians well enough to call myself a Unitarian.

I briefly toyed with the idea of identifying as a Taoist, because I like the writings of Lao-Tsu and sometimes refer to the ultimate source of everything as the Tao, but decided that I did not understand Taoism sufficiently, and I am not a practising Taoist, so it would be mere cultural appropriation if I claimed to be a Taoist.

I call myself a pantheist because I believe the divine (however you conceive of it) is immanent in Nature, and I find my source of spiritual renewal in Nature. I call myself a non-theist because I do not believe that the divine has a personality - it only has the fleeting instances of personality that we project onto it. And I do not think the divine has an objective existence as a being either.

By pragmatic anarchist, I mean that I find anarchist ideals inspiring, but am not sure that they would work in practice, so my pragmatic response was to join the Lib Dems (the nearest mainstream political alternative).

I was pleasantly surprised when a chap from America contacted me to say that he liked my political and religious views. During our chat, two things became apparent. He had no idea what I meant by non-theist, as he believed in an omnipotent God with a personality and a will, which I do not; he didn't seem too sure what a pantheist was, or what I meant by pragmatic anarchism; and he was neither a Unitarian nor a Wiccan in the sense of belonging to either of those communities. Imagine my surprise then, when I looked at his profile and it said that he was a pragmatic anarchist and a Unitarian and Wiccan pantheist / non-theist.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so they say, but honestly, if you're going to identify as the same thing as me, at least find out what is meant by the terms I am using and whether you're entitled to use them. Given the painful process by which I arrived at my particular self-description, I am not happy with somebody else appropriating it without even knowing what it means. I am sure he means well and everything, and I genuinely wish him well in his spiritual journey - and maybe one day he will earn those labels by being a member of those communities and actually being a pantheist and/or a non-theist. Until then (in the nicest possible way), get your own label.

It's impossible to say that you agree with the beliefs of the entire Unitarian community or the entire Wiccan community, because beliefs about the nature of the divine vary widely among both those groups, and values are more important than beliefs in both traditions (but especially in Unitarianism). Membership of something is not the same as identifying with it.

I believe in love, wisdom, freedom, reason, tolerance, inclusiveness and peace - but that could be said of several different liberal religious traditions (with varying degrees of emphasis). I identify with the values of Unitarianism - but that still doesn't make me a Unitarian unless I am a member of a Unitarian community and accepted as such by other Unitarians.

I identify with many of the values of Wicca (as I understand them): reverence for nature, distrust of hierarchy, feminism, the celebration of sexuality and sensuality - but that doesn't make me a Wiccan unless I am a member of a Wiccan community (initiatory lineage, coven, wider Wiccan community) and accepted as such by other Wiccans.

I put pantheist, anarchist and non-theist in lower-case because those describe my beliefs, not communities of which I am a member. I am not in touch with other pantheists, non-theists or anarchists particularly (except where they also happen to be members of the two communities of which I am a part).

I am not for a moment suggesting that it's impossible for another person to arrive at the same identity and worldview as me (indeed I know another Unitarian who has arrived at a similar worldview by a completely different route, which I find very affirming) - but I would hope they would have put in a certain amount of effort (spiritual, emotional and intellectual) before claiming the labels.

In a wider context, this raises the question, what is that makes you a member of a religious community? Is it membership, identity, belief, practice, values, or a combination of these?


Angela said...

I think you can only accurately say that you're a Unitarian if you are part of some defined Unitarian community and worship with them. Community and worship are loosely defined. If you're going to claim any identity, you should understand what most people mean by it, and be able to backup your claim.

It's hard to avoid the one true Sportsman fallacy though.

Yewtree said...

Yes, I agree.

I am not familiar with the one true Sportsman fallacy.

The Rambling Taoist said...

Sounds to me that you could easily describe yourself as a philosophical Taoist. That said, labels are just labels. They truly don't mean much of anything.

Yewtree said...

I probably could, but my label is complicated enough as it is!

Kay said...

Let's see ...

I identify as a panentheist, as I still think the Source has an objective existence and a personality.

I am drawn to Druidry and Wicca, but do not belong to either group.

I am drawn to UU, but am not a member.

Politically I'm an independent. I have anarchist leanings, but have the same reservations you do. (I like the term "pragmatic anarchist" btw.)