In 1999 I joined an entourage of 40 new-thought leaders + guests on a pilgrimage by plane, train and bus to Dharamsala, India, to spend 5 days with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was called the Synthesis Dialogues, an effort to bring together East and West, Mysticism and Science, Buddhism and Christianity in a search for the Holy Grail of some unifying understanding of our modern predicament.
On the final day, I had the temerity to pose HHDL this question:
“We all wonder how the Germans could see those trains full of Jews rumbling through their towns and countryside – and do nothing. Did they not know? Did they turn a blind eye? What are the equivalent trains going right by us today that we are ignoring at our peril? What are we not seeing that urgently needs our attention?”
It took two tries for his translator to explain my question, plenty of time for me to cringe at my naïve stupidity.
But he took it seriously and said, “The loss of spirituality. This is the train!”
What?! I thought… What about injustice? Ecological overshoot? Consumerism or individualism or racism? My mind nigh on to spluttered. I decided that as a spiritual teacher, he’d naturally see it this way… but wisely tucked his point of view away for further consideration.
A woman from India then stood up. “I notice this as well. In the villages people are shifting from religion as Western values take hold. There is less spirit.”
Fast-forward 18 years. I have just finished updating Your Money or Your Life, the NYTimes bestselling book Joe Dominguez and I published in 1992 and in the process stumbled into a buzzing hive of FI-ers (people seeking to be financially independent and retire early – or FIRE as it’s now called) hundreds of thousands strong. It turns out that Joe and I, as one blogger said, are like Adam and Eve of this movement… and suddenly Eve is back. Invited to a week-long confab of such FIRE practitioners, I decide to do what an elder should do – tell them about the history of this very American movement that has braided simplicity, frugality and DIY/back to the land from the get go. I made a list: Pilgrims, Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Transcendentalists, Helen and Scott Nearing/Agrarians, Back to the Land/Communitarians, Voluntary Simplicity, Mindfulness/Yoga, Transition Towns and now FIRE.
Looking at this progression, the Dalai Lama’s words came back to me. The animating force behind life simplification has gone from religious to secular, from ethics to optimizing and minimizing, from values (morality) to value (more for less).
The week before this insight I’d been at a different gathering of committed practitioners: a USA Transition Town leadership retreat. The genius of a British permaculture teacher, Rob Hopkins, the TT methodology for community organizing in the face of the apparently imminent peaking of oil production (and other forms of resource extraction) was laid out in a now 10-year-old handbook that galvanized hundreds of towns and cities worldwide to begin the work of re-localizing food, energy, economic prosperity and more.
The growth bubble of this network seems to have now peaked, and the Peak Everything narrative has been temporarily silenced by both political and financial work-arounds (though that doesn’t mean our earthly stock of oil has increased!). The question arises: what will inspire the next wave of organizing (since the need for community resilience is even clearer in this time of floods and crises)?
I suggested that what Transition does everywhere, besides projects like local currencies or community gardens, is provide a common fire where people of good will can make meaning, learn, go deep, do good and keep the faith. In other words: church. Not just the private spirituality of meditation or even workshops, not just the public community services of food banks and Meals on Wheels, but a congregation that recognizes that these are times that try our souls – not just our ingenuity – and that people-in-community-over-time (faith congregations) are what we need to see us through.
The polite push-back was very clear. Folks were certain that framing Transition Towns in any religious terms would be a poison pill. Why?
How does “church’ not work for progressive social movements? Let me count the ways progressives have recoiled from “church”: It’s superstitious. It’s hierarchical. It’s patriarchal. It’s patronizing. It has fomented and condoned war, genocide, fratricide and slavery. It’s for sheep who would rather follow than think. It’s publicly pious and privately abusive. It fleeces its flocks of their hard earned money. It’s a anti-scientific or perhaps a pre-scientific relic that will die on the vine as we peel back the thinner and thinner veils on reality. It’s the opiate of the masses. Leave religion to the right. It fits them to a T.
At the same time, a range of voices from right to left, from David Brooks to Richard Heinberg, are saying that technology will not save us from ourselves. Politics is gridlocked. Somehow, we need to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps, to recognize that stealing from the future and other creatures is not right, that sweeping the natural world and the world’s poor into the maw of the industrial growth machine to produce trinkets + an obscene and widening wealth gap must stop because it is wrong. Right. Wrong. Here we are at religion again. We need it.
How can we rescue the moral force of the G-word from our collective trauma at the hands of religion – because we need it to muster our super-powers to stop the destruction of life?
First, let’s recognize that there are in fact three very potent, God/Creator centered communities changing lives of the poor and downtrodden.
- The first three steps of any Anonymous program ground recovery in surrender to a higher power, the God of your understanding. The delusional, lying S.O.B. who got you into your addiction has no power to get you out. Reasonableness, good intentions, promises, big insights are all well and good, but you have to humble yourself before a power greater than yourself before you can truly heal. People in recovery (AA has approximately 2 million members worldwide, and there have been more than 130 similar 12-step recovery programs modeled after the principles of AA) understand the transformative force of religious sentiment.
- The church has also been instrumental in organizing communities of color – black and brown – for social justice. The church is not the only force by a long shot, but it animates many leaders (from Jesse Jackson to Cornell West) and many people on the streets.
- The Indigenous rights movements around the world are deeply religious. Standing Rock showed the world the power of a peaceful prayerful people defending their rights, and this spirituality infuses so many efforts, from Idle No More to other fossil fuel pipeline/mineral extraction resistance groups.
In addition, Quakers (people who “tremble in the way of the Lord”) have talked of – and followed the leadings of – “that of God within.” Small in number, they are a moral powerhouse in American society.
Religion means to tie together again. Religion makes us a people. Our faith makes us strong, binds our wounds, grounds us, keeps us in the fight.
I wonder: Is it the religious white, not religious right, who have distorted the G-word so progressives and liberals and “spiritual but not religious” people are afraid to get near it? Has our trauma at the hands of this “power-over” version of religion robbed us of the moral force we need to come together and takes sustained stands in defense of what we hold sacred?
One big difference between liberals/progressives and conservatives is process versus certainty. Liberals like to keep the conversation open; conservative religious armies creep them out. Conservatives believe they’ve found the truth so why keep searching; liberals’ openness to new revelation looks like moral cowardice.
Does this open-endedness drain our moral courage? What are the truths that Liberals hold as self-evident, that they will go to the mat for. I suggest there are 5 categories of higher truths for the spiritual but not religious: values, mystery, awe and wonder, nature and human goodness. Are they enough to get us to stand shoulder to shoulder? I don’t know.
Liberals are more comfortable talking about values than rules or laws or (especially) commandments. We are comfortable with the words holy, sacred and devotion… when posed as a question rather than a scripture.
“What do you hold sacred?”
“What do you consider holy?”
“What is so precious that you will devote your life to it.”
We acknowledge our conscience without having to say God installed it in our hearts. It’s the “still small voice.” Our calling.
Spiritual (but not religious) is easy for us. The Great Spirit has currency – not a personified God but a pervasive invisible breathing that we are in and is in us. Some speak comfortably of the Great Mystery, that which we can never know fully but can feel with and around us. Spirit works for many. Soul is acceptable, even among atheists if you’re talking about food or music. For many, it’s deeper… a felt sense of an enduring essence within that has a purpose… and maybe immortality.
Awe and Wonder
Big words like The Universe inspire some, though not all cosmologists would attribute interiority to that energy/matter process that shoots through – actually is – everything we know. Some might say, “The Universe wanted me to do xxx or gave me yyy…” to the dismay of physical scientists, but the Universe is awe-inspiring for everyone. The recent eclipse gave hundreds of thousands of people an experience of shared awe, a sense of our smallness and vulnerability on this ball in space.
Ecologists and transcendalists and romantics experience some throbbing pulse within “the web of life”. We go to the woods or the shore or the mountaintop to restore our souls, to put our lives in perspective, to empty our minds and experience a sense of oneness and belonging. Or we go into the garden and spend hours transported by beauty. In nature we trust. In Life itself we live and breathe and have our being.
For some “respect,” “justice, and “trust” are powerful guiding words. Justice will get people on the streets and exposing themselves, at worst, to arrest and harm and at very least sore feet and hips.
The Dalai Lama has made happiness the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Higher consciousness is a happy consciousness. Perhaps the popularity of happiness studies now isn’t just seeking answers to the ennui and angst of post modernist life; perhaps we use this research as a stand in for a prophetic call to respond to our higher angels (so to speak). We talk about the helper’s high. Those who give are happier than those who take – science proves it.
Then there are all the words starting with “co/com”, a prefix meaning “with.” Community, communion, cooperation… Many, many efforts are being made now to draw us together in civil dialogue, to think together as a community. “Civics” and happiness may be as close as we are going to come as a secular society for speaking of the moral compass we need.
Finally, love is everyman’s and woman’s access to experiencing ecstasy (ex-stasis or literally standing outside of oneself). Most of us have felt our hearts come alive in the presence of something or someone, that strange lifting up out of our pettiness, producing a desire to be our best selves. Our beloved partner, child, forest, ocean…
Can we at least talk about love in our work for justice or a just transition?
Here the trail narrows and disappears for me, though the question burns ever more brightly. Where will we on the left of the political/religious spectrum find the moral gumption that can bind us together, keep our eye on the prize of a compassionate society, keep the faith as we stumble along, turn the tide of turning our beautiful world into a pile of trash and our beautiful human brothers and sisters into mindless consumers rather than inventive, engaged creators?
I do have a religious sense. I do believe in a Higher Power, in guidance, in a purpose for my life beyond any human invention. I do use the word God because that word points to what I recognize as both infusing reality and within my soul – though I prefer the words Mystery, the Universe or the Great Giving and Receiving. I listen for the “still small voice within.” I congregate with others because I believe God works through all of us rather than being my private valet. I resonate with Thomas Berry’s insight that the universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects – and this sense of communion with the “one-song”, the “uni-verse” brings me joy and keeps me going. This might sound dither- headed to atheists and scientific materialists, but heck, some of my crazy ideas have moved mountains of people towards a more meaningful life.
What animates you? What is the spiritual or religious impulse underneath the work you do to save those parts of our world that you want to protect and nurture? Is there a spiritual or religious teacher or movement that inspires you to do the uncomfortable work of politics or social change? What role, if any, does faith play in whatever you do that brings you out of your private life and into the public square? How do you “keep the faith” as commentator Tavis Smiley often says in signing off?
Teaser photo credit: Photo by Alexander Ramsey on Unsplash