Tradition, appropriation and spiritual legitimacy
Dr. E recently posted an article on his church website addressing cultural appropriation, which has caused much discussion on Facebook. As can be expected those who are sympathetic to incorporating disparate elements from living religions such as Lucumi and Haitian Vodou into an otherwise non-traditional practice are unhappy about Eddy's tone in that article. Initiates on the other hand are praising him for speaking out against the mercantilist appropriations of Lucumi and the other diasporic traditions that we find spreading all over Etsy and elsewhere online.
Let's put aside for the moment the potential harm that cultural appropriation can do to a living tradition.
Those who are working outside of the initiatic tradition but still decide to make use of said tradition's symbols and spirits (either for their own practice or for financial gain) face a conflict - both spiritually and culturally. On the one hand there is the idea that their practice has value and power for them, personally. That they can and should be able to do as they please in their own spiritual life - especially if it feels like it is working for them. Who are they harming, after all?
On the other hand they are faced with the question of validity. Is what they are doing then valid even though it isn't traditional? And here is where it becomes slippery. Once they deem their work valid based on the criteria that what they do has meaning and efficacy (subjectively), they might feel entitled to be acknowledged as legitimate by others. If they feel their work is spiritually legitimate should they then start offering rituals, products and services of a similar sort, using the same signifiers along with cultural currency that those signifiers carry? As can be expected, this kind of validation and approval from initiates is quite unlikely to happen and it generates conflict. Outrage even.
Complicating matters further, we usually see the same strategies that neo-pagans and occultists use to reconstruct or simulate extinct ancient religions applied to simulating religions that are still very much alive - since this is the toolbox at hand for those who would attempt such a thing.
More often that not these strategies entirely miss the mark - both in terms of form and metaphysics. The main reason is that they are constructing their practice largely from the perspective of an outsider looking in. As such what they create for themselves can only be contrived based on what they see, and therefore necessarily must latch on to what constitutes an aesthetic veneer, because the real meat and marrow of the tradition is completely opaque to a non-initiate - since it defined by a continuity of experiences, gestures, materials and relationships that act upon the initiate; and not merely by outer symbols and paraphernalia.
The reason for this is that Lucumi and Haitian Vodou are religions of secrets. Even for initiates there are ever deepening layers of obfuscation and misdirection that only become clarified by ones elders over time through direct ritual experiences and work. And this process never ends since there will always be elders who are more senior and therefor hold more knowledge to reveal. Even those who are legitimately initiated are not entitled to propitiate all the spirits in the pantheon - only those that they have been given access to in various ways, ritualistically.
Additionally, these spirits - much like their worshippers - tend to exhibit insular relationship patterns. They usually demand introduction through an intermediary figure who already has a trusted relationship with them.
Like most humans do, I might add.
This stands in stark contrast to the popular conception that all deities are kind of hanging out in the astral hoping that someone will pray to them, and are pleased at any and all attention they receive. They may not even be willing to acknowledge (much less shower blessings) on anyone who approaches them out of the blue!
Some complain of a lack of access to the traditions, even though they want to get initiated, they say they can't find godparents or a reputable house. Resultantly, they feel therefore they are serving the spirits and doing the work in their personal way out of love and dedication. In principle this is admirable of course. however, lately I'm starting to worry that this isn't a little disingenuous. Here is why:
With Lucumi for instance, I think there is a lot more potential access to the religion (even in UK and Europe) than many realize. If anything what is lacking is the correct approach from applicants. In the UK there are quite a few reputable houses of various blends of nationalities. Here in Amsterdam there are three, perhaps four houses that I'm aware of. There are more in Spain and France. In the US, there are many, many options indeed. So there certainly are routes of legitimate access. The question is: do the various types of people whom find the religion's aesthetic appealing actually WANT legitimate access to the tradition? Are they willing to to submit the process? From what I have seen with those who approach our house (usually the occultists) is they come with a certain attitude. They come with their cups full, as they might say in zen. They want their own trip validated. And let me tell you, that rarely happens in this tradition. Its not easy on the ego. So, then if you are brittle I think it's more comfortable to sit in the liminal zone making your own stuff up because none will be the wiser for it. Certainly you can sell products on etsy and ebay that way.
This is not to say that some people just don't have trouble finding the right house, and not all houses are reputable, welcoming, or even a good fit - but I think if you really want it you can find a house, and most certainly so in the U.S.
And for those who are doing their own freeform thing with an eye on some day getting initiated I see another major obstacle, especially if they are setting themselves up as figures already in some way. Once they do get initiated into reputable house they will find all their dearly held beliefs and personally formed opinions about their practices will almost certainly be broken down completely by their elders, or at best turned upside down in a very disturbing way.
If you have been doing your own thing for some time it's probably going to be a serious blow to the ego. From what I've seen - people who have built up elaborate personal castles of this sort tend to be very reluctant to let their own trip go in favor of the genuine article.