But I’m A Tourist: Differentiating Between Cultural and Spiritual Experiences

I choose to view the world in a very holistic way. The spiritual and the physical exist equally. Equally as strong, equally as present. That’s my worldview. However, while this deliberate perspective makes me more sensitive to the supernatural, I don’t feel I’ve honed or tended to this spiritual gift. I am by nature an analytical thinker, and that can tempt me to reduce the world to the purely physical.

Travel has changed this in some ways as the developing world, as a cultural whole, often adopts the holistic world view. It’s much easier to see the connection of spiritual and physical here. As a result, I’ve been confronted with several spiritual predicaments: Is it ok to participate in an experience that has spiritual roots if it is also hailed as a cultural experience? What about just observing it? I’m tempted to offer the “but I’m a tourist” defense. After all, one of my primary goals in life these days is flinging myself full measure into every iconic experience.

The first time I experienced this inner conflict was while in Malaysia. To set the scene, I must tell you that we seemed to have been missing famous events left and right while traveling. (And it has continued since we left KL!) So of course, we thought we had hit the jackpot when we realized we’d be in Malaysia during Thaipusam– a Hindu holiday which happens just once a year– and Chinese New Year. These would both be huge cultural events that we’d be lucky to observe. Everyone we met, including every taxi driver we had, urged us to go to the Hindu celebration in Batu Caves during Thaipusam. They all clucked their tongues and bobbed their heads and said yes, we were so lucky. We were lucky to be here just at the right time to catch this famous event. “A million people attend every year. And you arrived just in time!”

However, as I started to learn more about the event, I felt unsettled in my spirit. (You can learn more about Thaipusam here, but I have to warn any squeamish readers that a careful perusal of that webpage may make you uncomfortable. The event involves trances and self-mutilation.) But not only was I uncomfortable purely on a physical level, I was also disturbed on a spiritual level as the whole purpose of the holiday is to honor a spiritual deity that I believe is leading people away from the one true God.

Tyler didn’t feel the same uneasiness as I did, so I spent a lot of time mulling over the situation and identifying my motives. On one hand, I felt deep sadness over people being slaves to rituals that I knew weren’t working for them. On the other hand, aren’t there ways we’re slaves to our own religious rituals? Who was I to judge?

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This is a guest post for my friend, Patricia, from Gentile Next Door. Read the post in its entirety at the link above.

  • Laura

    I’m curious what you and Tyler’s religious backgrounds are given the different reactions to partaking in the spiritual practices and celebrations of other cultures. Zach and I have different reactions and definitely had different teaching growing up. I was always taught to be careful what we let into our lives because we could be letting evil into them and Zach thinks that is silly and God is way bigger then that. Charismatic Christian vs Methodist.

    • Oooh, I’m really interested which was which. Because I grew up in a non-denom. background but similar to Baptist. So very conservative, obviously. And Tyler had a huge range of influences, from Catholic to Quaker to evangelical mega-church. (It sounds like you have the opposite backgrounds?) I think my holistic approach comes more from my family than anything.. maybe a little bit of IWU ICD 😉 And I think for Tyler it is more of a family thing than church also. I think his family has a more segregated view of their faith. Both Tyler and I have been struggling with our interpretations of our Christian faith in the last couple of years, but I still feel I’m very sensitive to spirituality in general, which is what always brings me back.