February 21, 2024

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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is It OK to Borrow Another Tradition’s Spiritual Practices?

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Linda Knieriemen, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA), responds:

Syncretism, that is the borrowing of one religions tenets or practices into the life of another, can be beneficial. It certainly is how religions have developed over the centuries as travel brought one culture and religion in proximity to another.  Christians have a washing ritual (baptism) related to the Jewish tradition of ritual washing. Christians have a sacred meal of remembering, not unlike the sacred Seder meal of remembering. Eating, remembering, washing are archetypal practices in which one spirituality is practiced, perhaps enriched from religion to religion. I am perfectly comfortable with this practice. 

I am a bit less comfortable, with individuals borrowing from here and there to create a spirituality which best suits them, not because I find it sacrilegious or because I am protective of my own religious traditions but because by picking and choosing one does not experience the fullness of any. 

Having said this, I am currently at an iconography workshop where, with other student iconographers, all of whom are either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christians. I have “borrowed” icon painting (writing is the correct term)  as a spiritual practice into my Presbyterian grounding.  I am grateful for this centuries old tradition and the richness it brings me but I have no plans to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Orthodox friends find this odd, and so be it! 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

It is my guess that Hinduism and our Buddhist cousins probably have more westerners borrowing our rites and practices than other religions. There are many non-Hindus who perform Hatha Yoga, meditate (with a Hindu mantra or technique), read our scriptures and even have a Hindu guru. Yet many will still identify with the tradition of their birth or claim to be spiritual but not religious. Largely, Hindus have no issue with this. What we do hope is that at least credit is given where credit is due. That is, some will claim that these practices are universal, not connected with one particular religion. Well, they are universal, in that anyone may take part without “Joining the flock.” But it is clear that they did originate in a particular time, place and culture. And that was a Hindu one.

Also, a Hindu spring holiday known as Holi is becoming rather popular in some circles. On that day, people gather to attack one another with colored powder or water. It’s great fun. Yet, on college campuses in particular, this is celebrated with no context as to its origins. I suspect that Christians are frustrated when they see Christmas celebrated minus the religious aspect. But at least there, most if not all, regardless of their religious upbringing, can tell you the Christmas story.

Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

While it’s okay for us to incorporate rituals of other faith traditions into our own spiritual practices, it’s important that we be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation.

For example, it’s become a common practice in recent decades for many Christian churches to host Jewish Passover seders on Maundy Thursday to commemorate Jesus’s last supper. Yet, earlier this year, the Episcopal bishop of Missouri banned churches in his diocese from “holding, hosting, or celebrating seders,” as it “contributes to the objectification of our Jewish neighbors.”

One of my spiritual mentors, the late Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, founded one of the very first interfaith seminaries in the United States. His motto for the seminary was “Never instead of, always in addition to.”

So, yes, in addition to my Christian faith, I can draw upon the Hindu practice of yoga, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and the Native American practice of drumming to assist me on my spiritual path, but careful not to usurp them as my own.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The borrowing of rituals, language, and spiritual practices is prevalent throughout the world of religions. The practice of merging spiritual traditions is called syncretism. The experience of merging or mixing rituals, languages, and spiritual practices is not new.

The American Trappist, Thomas Merton, was attracted to the meditation of Eastern religious traditions. His desire to focus on meditation did not detract from his practice of Catholicism, and his writings enlighten those seeking a deeper relationship with God.

I do not have a problem with others seeking God through Roman Catholic rituals, language, and spiritual practices to that extent if they respect not only what the Catholic Church teaches but also the teachings of other religious traditions. 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

At times Unitarian Universalists do borrow some elements from other religions but we try our best to be as respectful as possible to the other religion. Most often the reason we would borrow an element is to learn about the other religion. And we try to avoid cultural misappropriation. I know of some non-UU churches that use our hymnal, I am not bothered in the least as long as they are respectful of its use.

My response:

Maybe I’m overly protective of my tradition, but I see it as a coherent whole structure with deep meaning, and I’m annoyed when other traditions borrow pieces of it, such as the Passover Seder or elements of a wedding ceremony like the use of a canopy or breaking a glass. Typically, others will borrow the form but not the content, so the actual meaning evaporates.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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