A living culture adapts to the changing needs of its people. Syncretism and fragmentation occur organically wherever communities meet and part ways over time. Imperialism and colonization add a dimension of political and economic inequality to these interactions. A colonizer culture expands in order to plunder material resources. They maintain power by plundering cultural resources and forcibly exporting their own culture. Assimilation becomes a survival strategy for the colonized, and the colonizers reap the value of cultural icons of interest to their own people.

New Age spirituality often reproduces these dynamics. Religious icons, philosophical texts, and traditional clothing are manufactured and sold by colonizers to colonizers, exploiting the labor as well as the culture of the colonized. Literary and philosophical traditions are filtered through teachers like Helena Blavatsky who adopted an “Orientalist” aesthetic to make her spiritual system more exotic and mysterious. As concepts are lost in translation, the colonizer recipients are unable to learn and practice with respect even if they are interested in doing more than bathing in an aesthetic of “exotic” well-being.

Cultural appropriation includes two ethically compromised behaviors. Individuals in colonizer cultures perform cultural appropriation by adopting artifacts of a colonized culture as ornaments divorced from their original context and significance. Cultural appropriation continues when colonizers capitalize on that ornamentation by controlling the production and trade of exported artifacts, often exploiting the labor of colonized people to do so. The latter instance replicates the immoral exploitation of the working class by the owner class, but the former instance robs colonized people of equality and mutual respect.

Colonizers elevate the artifacts that they value but not the people who created them. Cultural appropriation reduces the value of the colonized by making it subject to the pleasures of the colonizers. Mutual respect requires understanding one another as equals, each holding intrinsic value and protected status as moral agents. Looting the material, intellectual, and philosophical culture of a people places colonization at the center of any interaction between individuals from the respective cultures. Culture then become another axis of identity that owners can use to divide the working class and prevent organization against the owner class who drive colonization and exploitation.

As discussed elsewhere some traditions place value on openness to converts and synthesis with complementary features of other traditions. Absent power dynamics, missionary traditions can form bridges between peoples and support adaptation to change. Cultural appropriation remains a risk with missionary traditions when historical and current power asymmetries poisoned peer relationships, but missionary traditions generally maintain a path for proper initiation under the right circumstances. When approaching with respect new members can join and found new branches of the tradition as interpreted through a new cultural lens.

While spirituality may be framed in terms of sentiment and feeling, philosophy often plays a crucial role in defining a tradition. The demand for unquestioning faith rarely appears outside of fringe movements. Most traditions offer an account of divinity, the universe, morality, and how one arrives at knowledge of those things. Reflection on mysteries and paradoxes abound but do not crowd out rationality. In some cases critical analysis serves as a requirement for faith as it requires one to engage fully with texts and concepts.

Through honest and respectful study, scholars may find ethically sound paths into missionary and even closed traditions. Nevertheless, study alone does not avoid the moral concerns of cultural appropriation. One can be a sincere scholar and still participate in colonizer networks of exploited value, and in practice a scholar might not have much agency over that participation. Buying “public domain” texts translated recently enough to copyright may indirectly feed a colonizer-owned publishing or distribution company. Decorating one’s academic office with sacred figures reproduced by the labor of the colonized and sold by the colonizer would constitute more direct participation.

Access and entry into a tradition is defined by the tradition and its lineage-holders. To approach with demands and expectations is to approach with the attitude of a colonizer. If one feels a sincere attraction toward a tradition, one should engage in respectful study in order to understand the tradition, its history, and its boundaries. Irrespective of the specific tradition, one should approach with humility and be open to honest wonder as well as critical discomfort. Colonization has spoiled much potential for organic conversation and synthesis, so we must heal those rifts by forsaking colonizer attitudes, approaching as aspirants rather than novitiates.

Navigating the ethical pitfalls of cultural appropriation requires approaching a tradition with respect and taking only what is freely given. When a tradition offers its deep philosophy, some who study it may find themselves persuaded by the arguments. The intellectual relationship with a tradition contrasts with shallow adoption of practices or rote repetition of summarized beliefs. Mimicry of outward appearance without understanding the underlying substance allows colonizers to redirect value from the colonized. Engagement with the fundamental premises requires deep understanding, humility, and respect.