THE STRUGGLES OF LATINO / LATIN AMERICAN ARTISTS & NEW AGERS: A COMPARISON

gallery

I recently read an article by Arlene Davila about the struggles of Latino and Latin American artists. Among other things, Davila discusses how current cultural factors such as multiculturalism and the Euro-centric art world affect issues of identity and recognition or visibility. I was struck by the similarities to New Age’s situation. Both groups have a precarious position in relation to their wider framework that affects what identity is portrayed and what identity is perceived, as well as their visibility.

Concerning visibility, “… U.S.- based [and / or] born Latinos remain in an unsorted and ambiguous category. Considered neither truly U.S. American or Latin American, they are sometimes included and at other times excluded from… ‘Latin American art’” (Davila, 182).  As New Age is often in the gray space between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘movement’ the same issue occurs. Both in academia and mainstream society New Age is often left out of these categories and relevant discussions. This ambiguity often renders New Age, like Latino artists, invisible in their respective niches.

The other issue is that New Age does not fit into any of these categories neatly. When it is forced into one of these categories they must compete in a system not built to suit them. This is not dissimilar to the position of Latino artists in the art world. “… Latinos, versus Latin Americans, are placed in a peripheral position within the field of Latin American art and pressed to seek validation and recognition from the structures that represent Latin American art, while the latter often reject any association with U.S.-based Latinos” (Davila 192).  Similarly, New Age is at the periphery of the ‘religion’ category. Partly due to the criteria enforced by the ‘world religions’ paradigm, and also due to New Agers own rejection of the label and its associations. Being forced resolutely into a category in which it does not belong, forces New Age to be examined with ‘religion’ criteria and held in comparison to ‘world religions’.

In the case of Latino / Latin American artists, the problem is exacerbated by multicultural trends. According to Davila, “… anthropologists have noted that the discourse of multiculturalism reproduces an essential view of cultural identities, whereby these are seen and presented as single, concrete and identifiable entities” (183). For New Ager, the religious-spiritual dichotomy and the world religion paradigm have the same effect. They create narrow views of what constitutes a religious or spiritual system when there is in fact a whole spectrum of qualities. I think that these structures have such black and white ways due to the influence of secularism.

Secularism encourages separation, boundaries, categories and definitive labels. For New Age, this tendency provides not only a skewed view of the variety and nature of these traditions, but also works to create an over-simplified concept of these traditions that in-turn is marketed to the wider culture creating misconceptions, shallowness and stereotypes. Anything outside this narrow view is then regarded as alternative or less authentic. In the Latin American art world, “The evaluations, in turn, led to hierarchies and distinctions…” (Davila, 185).  As New Age structures and practices often fall outside prescribed guidelines they are ranked low in the hierarchy of religious and spiritual traditions. These rigid criteria reduce the visibility of New Age traditions and forces them to be ranked lower than ‘world religions’, which creates misconceptions about the legitimacy of New Age as a religious or spiritual path.

It is a complex issue with no overnight solution. Davila identifies the following as a goal to help resolve the issue, “… it is not appropriate to discontinue making connections with Latin American artists and programs; the goal was rather to redefine the place of [in this case] Puerto Ricans within the larger category of Latin American art” (194). I think a similar effort needs to be made by New Agers. They must remain part of the religion-spirituality system / community to continue making connections and having fruitful conversations. However the efforts need to focus on redefining where New Age fits in that system. The criteria also need to be relaxed to accommodate new and different forms of religion and spirituality.

Davila, Arlene. “Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment,” in Cultural Anthropology, 1999. 14(2), pp. 180-202.

CHURCH SURVIVAL THROUGH INNOVATIVE MEANS

church-closed

As congregations dwindle and money gets tight, many Christian churches are looking for ways to survive. Many have accepted that things will never be as they once were. Religion no longer has a central place in society or in the lives of most individuals. No amount of fundraising or member recruitment efforts is going to change that. Instead, they are looking for creative, and non-traditional, means of survival.

At the Episcopal church I attend regularly, I sat in on a meeting with representatives from other local Episcopal churches to discuss collaborative leadership. Or rather, how congregations who can not support a full-time priest would cope. One solution raised was to find a part-time priest, or split one between two congregations. The issue with this arrangement is that it often is hard on the rector. They are pulled in too many directions with more work than their paid hours cover. Even if the priest manages to take on a reasonable schedule and work load, there is work that will need to be taken on by the congregation. With limited hours the priest is often at capacity providing the sacraments, while other rector duties must be fulfilled by lay people. Distributing this work is often a point of contention and conflict amongst already struggling congregations.

Another, more innovative proposal is to work with other denominations. This may take the form of sharing a building or in some cases even clergy. This allows two congregations to pool their resources to continue their respective traditions. This secular era is forcing religious groups, in this case Protestant Christians, to cross boundaries in the interest of survival. In this context, the boundary of interest has largely shifted from between faiths and denominations to between the faithful and the secular. Secular society has forced the faithful into cooperation, fostering strength rather that division.

The final and perhaps most radical solution, considering the traditions in people’s living memories, is to forgo a physical church and gather without a dedicated building. Instead congregations would meet in public places or in each others’ homes. This tactic breaks down the walls of organized religion and integrates it into other realms of society, breaking down the faithful-secular divide and perhaps discourage secularism altogether.

The second and third solutions discussed here are not only logical for the situation many churches find themselves in, but they also reflect and respond to the air of today. Specifically, these innovative solutions are breaking through the boundaries heavily emphasized by secular society that work to maintain a separate but equal status for different realms of life. Boundaries of public and private are broken down in order to live out every realm of life to the fullest. Boundaries are also broken down between faiths and denominations in response to purely secular ways of life. These themes are not unique to Protestant Christians but evident in many religious groups and spiritual traditions today. The desire to live a more holistic, rather than an over categorized and segregated life leads people of many different faiths down similar paths. These similarities allow them to bond in the face of secular influences.

NEW AGE: RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY OR SOCIAL MOVEMENT

blore_church_window

New Age is often viewed as an alternative to traditional or ‘world religions’. In the public arena the debate tends to center around the ‘spirituality’ – ‘religion’ dichotomy. But in academia it becomes more complex when trying to assign research on New Age to a field of study. For more on this subject, see my article on secularism and the categorization of academia. This article will explore a variety of view-points on how New Age should be categorized.

Gilhus and Sutcliffe describe New Age as, “… deinstitutionalized religion” (2013: 9). But is there such a thing? Many would argue religion without institution. A cult may operate without institution, a bunch of loonies may proclaim faith without institution, but the title of religion is withheld until there is an established institution to regulate and govern beliefs, practices and followers. This question of where to draw the boundaries for ‘religion’ is difficult for academics.

However there is some resistance to the ‘religion’ label. New Agers emphasize the differences between their ideals and the constructs common in world religions. For those that are seeking an alternative, such as New Age, ‘religion’ is often thought to be hierarchical, patriarchal, narrow-minded, exclusive and lacking in spiritual substance. New Agers don’t necessarily want to be put in the ‘religion’ category, but they would like the same level of respect given to traditional religions. They want their ideals and practices taken seriously rather than regarded as fluff.

The last piece of this debate, as a primary concern of academics, is whether New Age can be called a movement. Steven Sutcliffe rejects New Age as a movement and instead elects these categories, “… small group practice, auto/biographical identity construction and popular discourse on ‘spirituality’…” (2010: 17). In my limited observation of New Age phenomena I think all of these focuses have relevance. However, Melton argues that wider similarities can be seen to warrant a more all-encompassing focus like movement studies, “As applied to the New Age, however, ‘movement’ refers to its likeness to broad social movements… these movements include a bewildering array of people devoted to the cause but very diverse in their institutional affiliations, definition of particular goals, and adherence to variant strategies on reaching common ends” (2007:79). Button and Bloom, leaders in British New Age circles, support this notion of diverse collectivity and describe it as, “… [new agers]… putting together the puzzle using the different pieces…” (1992, 12).

Is New Age a religion, an expression of spirituality or a social movement? It certainly has qualities of all three. The problem arises when a category must be shared with something thought to be undesirable. As a means of avoiding a negative association, whole categories become tainted. This is evident in New Agers’ resistance to the ‘religion’ label. This reaction effects the popular opinion of what New Age is and how relevant research is categorized in academia. However, I don’t think that fitting New Age into one, neat category is necessary or beneficial for its study. But attempting to do so seems to put minds at ease.

Button, John & William Bloom. “Introduction,” in The Seeker’s Guide: A new age resource book, edited by J. Button and W. Bloom, 1992. London: The Aquarian Press, pp. 11-20.

Melton, J. Gordon. “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed,” in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, edited by J.R. Lewis & D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 77-102.

Sutcliffe, Steven. “Category Formation and the History of ‘New Age’,” in Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2010. 4(1), pp. 5-29.

DEATH THE EQUALIZER

400px-Grim_reaper

With all we have learned since the enlightenment, with as far as science has come, it is impressive that religion remains in the face of reason. Potential reasons for this resilience are plentiful but I will focus this article on one. A rather basic reason: the lack of knowledge concerning death and the afterlife. In this area, science has added little knowledge and given few absolute answers. This time science cannot provide the certainty that often threatens to push religion aside.

Everybody dies. Death is the only guarantee life brings. People from all walks of life, regardless of race, class or culture must grapple with death. The constructs used for this purpose are as diverse as the people of the world. The lack of scientific evidence to support the existence of an afterlife is cited by those who do not believe in the divine. However, I think this is a one sided view as no scientific evidence has been found to support the non-existence of an afterlife either. Religions have scripture, traditions and faith to support adherents’ belief in an afterlife. But when it comes to hard proof, science and religion are on an equal plane.

Death equalizes people. It is a key component of the human experience. It also equalizes religious and scientific, secular views. Is this why religion remains? To help explain a question that science, as of now, cannot answer. This equality between religion and scientific, secular views may offer the opportunity to apply both perspectives to other issues providing a more thorough and holistic understanding of Western society.

THE RELIGIOUS PLATFORM AND WOMEN

Young woman standing outside church door

While some scholars focus on specific cases to add to the breadth and diversity of knowledge, others tackle big questions. They strive to discover the reasoning behind so-called universal truths. Sherry B. Ortner links the association of male with culture and female with nature in her attempt to explain the secondary status of women in cultures across the globe. Ortner identifies three factors that support the notion of women’s closer affinity to nature:

“(1) woman’s body and its functions, more involved more of the time with ‘species life,’ seem to place her closer to nature, in contrast to man’s physiology, which frees him more completely to take up the projects of culture;

(2) woman’s body and its functions place her in social roles that in turn are considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than man’s; and

(3) woman’s traditional social roles, imposed because of her body and its functions, in turn give her a different psychic structure, which, like her physiological nature and her social roles, is seen as being closer to nature” (73-74).

While these factors put women in a domestic role and put children as the primary social contact and concern of women, it does not segregate women from society. Despite the obvious limitations, it gives women a vital role in shaping and maintaining culture. Concerning children, the woman “… in fact is the primary agent of their early socialization. It is she who transforms newborn infants from mere organisms into cultural humans, teaching them manners and the proper ways to behave in order to become full-fledged members of the culture” (Ortner, 79-80).

In the past religion was at the center of culture. Religion and culture are still undoubtedly intertwined. But in the past instruction on belief, ritual and sacred texts would have been crucial in the socialization of children. Such involvement provided women with support, community and often their only social outlet outside the home (Shaw & Lee, 674). In the days before secularism, religious institutions were often heavily involved in societal operations. Though leadership roles were often off limits to women, the church or temple was a public place for women to voice concerns and seek advice and recourse.

As secularism started to make religion less visible, it also made women that depended on religion as their only public forum less visible. At that time more avenues like the workplace and various leadership roles began to open, offering women an alternative. But it is still evident today that these avenues are not without issue. The privatization of religion would have hit women especially hard as it has traditionally been their only source of comfort, support and aid outside the home. Women must adapt not only to closing channels, but must also navigate new ones.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” in Women, Culture, and Society. Edited by M.A. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974, pp. 68-87.

Shaw, Susan & Janet Lee. “Religion and Spirituality in Women’s Lives” in Women’s Voices Feminist Visions: classic and contemporary readings, 4th ed. Edited by S. Shaw & J. Lee. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2009, pp. 669-682.