[Draft of a book introduction]
Say “Religion” in this strange new world of ours, and I see a game of musical chairs. The music stops – that promiscuous Pied Piper world beat that got Catholic priests dancing with Buddhist monks, Israelis with Palestinians, Southwest tourists with sacred kachinas -- and everybody scrambles for their chair: their church pew, synagogue seat, prayer rug or meditation cushion. And in the silence, dotted with distant gunfire, I’m left standing there. Without a chair.
Looking around, I see others here and there who are still standing – or even, in the chilly silence, defiantly dancing. But we seem far fewer, those of us who loved the dance – loved weaving together different beats, swapping steps with strangers – and we’re suddenly self-conscious. America and the world are retribalizing, choosing up sides as if for some final showdown. It feels as if everywhere we go we’re stopped at a checkpoint, met with a barked demand for our identity badges: Declare yourself! What are you? Which side are you on? Where do you belong?
Well, let’s see: I’m Jewish, and proud of my heritage, but I don’t keep kosher, go to shul, or light Sabbath candles. Oh -- and I should mention that I love Jesus. But I’m not entitled to love him, because, among all the other things I can’t get myself to believe (virgin birth, bodily resurrection, eternal hell if you don’t believe it all), I can’t accept that he is the only way to God. What about the Buddha? He shone his light on a path every bit as demanding and redeeming as Jesus’. My karate practice walks barefoot on that Eightfold Path. The only thing I miss on it is the intimate passion for a personal God. But I’ll stray off any of these high roads to visit “all my relatives,” as Native Americans call the ones with the roots and wings and whiskers. Where do I belong? On earth.
Not an answer that would pass muster at a border checkpoint, I’m afraid. Rummaging in my soul’s pockets, coming up with driver’s licenses and lottery tickets from several states of mind, I would have been shot by now.
Terror and Tradition
It’s no accident that my metaphor has morphed from festivity to martial law. So have our lives, even if weeks and months now go by when the menace only mutters in the background: Code Yellow, threat level chronically elevated. Like some brief thaw between ice ages, the post-Cold War party of the late 1990s ended for good on September 11, 2001. On that day, religion, of all things, reared up from its science-sedated tameness and revealed itself to be a matter of life and death. Ever since, religious faith at its most starkly sectarian has riveted our attention—and riven our world and nation -- whether we’ve greeted its revival with belief or disbelief.
Who would have believed, a few decades ago, that fringed and bearded rabbis, cloaked imams, and hellfire-and-brimstone preachers would claim center stage? Long dismissed as living fossils by the “cultural elite,” they are now the only ones to whom the world makes perfect sense. Fundamentalists may be in denial of 21st-century reality, but denial has freed them to seize the day and reshape that reality, while freethinkers founder in a quagmire of nuance. Lacking images anywhere near as powerful as Mel Gibson’s flayed Christ on the cross, the secular, “spiritual,” and agnostic people who shaped the culture for over thirty years were almost envious. The reaction of some Hollywood executives to “The Passion’s” smash box office comically captured the Zeitgeist: “Medieval! Sadomasochistic! How do I get in on this?”
At first I thought it was strange that in the aftermath of September 11, a tragedy caused by religious extremism, so many people would become more, not less, traditionally devout and assertive about it, almost flaunting the kippot (skullcaps) of observant Judaism and the ashen crosses of Lent. But on second thought, maybe it’s not so strange. Conservatism is a natural response to threat. Thrust into new, bewildering, and dangerous circumstances, most creatures retreat to the security of familiar behavior patterns, even when novelty and creativity might offer a better chance to survive. Horses will run back into a burning barn because, in their terror of the fire, the barn is the only refuge they know.
This homing instinct for domes and steeples, however, did not suddenly kick in on 9/11. That was just the tipping point. The trend had been quietly gathering force for over twenty years. And the threat that originally awakened it came not from abroad, but from within: the sense of chaos caused by too-rapid change and too much freedom.
You could feel a tide turn in American culture as far back as Ronald Reagan’s election. Around 1980, two decades of experimentation and excess reached low ebb, and a chastened reappreciation of traditional religion and moral codes crept in. It wasn’t just the “silent majority” backlash against frightening hippie freedoms, or the more sophisticated conservative critique of the cult of Self tearing families and society apart. It was many of the weary seekers themselves, crawling back from the exotic edge and the all-too-vivid void, grasping for a sturdy life preserver. It was young people raised in an amorphous liberal sea and longing for limits, for terra firma. It was baby boomers beginning to have families and realizing that they couldn’t reinvent the moral wheel. And later, it was baby-boomer parents reaping raging, metal-studded, drug-besotted teen-agers, the mutated fruit of the “liberation” they’d sown when they were young.
Maybe, after all, it was the very stodginess of the Fifties – built deep into boomer psyches like the calcium in our bones – that had gotten most of us through the Sixties in one piece. Maybe it hadn’t been such a bright idea to throw out all the time-honored safeguards against the dark side of human nature. Tradition might come in quaint, prescientific packaging, but at least it offered clear, confident ethical standards to impart to your kids, and authoritative answers to your kids’ (and your own) questions about death, sex, and evil. And it offered the comforts of community and continuity in an ever more rootless, disconnected world.
Structure, guidance, belonging: boom times may flatter us that we don’t need these things, but hard times humble us into admitting that we do. In the affluent, manic late ‘60s and late ‘90s, we really believed we had the power to reinvent ourselves. New ideas, new freedoms, or new technologies were going to bring forth the new, improved human at last. Then we woke up from that dream on recession’s morning after and found ourselves stuck with the same old, same old: greed, lust, wrath, envy, pride, gluttony and sloth. Almost as fast as Woodstock had turned to Altamont, the Internet turned into a huge hard-core peep show. (“Porn More Popular than Search,” read a Yahoo Technology News headline in 2004.) The paradisal wealth of the ‘60s had been built on war, the Utopian profits of the ‘90s on fantasy and fraud. The “old Adam” of theology was still way too much with us, unscathed by all the latest therapy and gadgetry; maybe only wised-up theologians, like old cops, could take him on. Tough times foster the belief that only traditional values are tough enough to do the job.
These days, with the dot-com bubble’s oblivious Astrodome shattered and the dark wing of terrorism sweeping overhead, God’s mighty fortresses look like good cover. It’s hardly surprising that so many people have sought shelter in tradition. The surprise is that quite a few still have not. Why aren’t we all sorted into our hardened bunkers with the cross, the star, or the crescent overhead? Who are those unaffiliated fools still wandering around out in the open while the air-raid sirens wail their call to prayer?
Perceptions can be deceiving. For decades, the media’s voyeuristic love affair with the cultural edge obscured the fact that a majority of Americans (and of the world’s citizens) remained traditionalists. Now that the spotlight has swiveled onto hard tradition, it would be just as wrong to overlook the sizable minority who remain seekers outside of organized religion. The collective mood has changed dramatically, but the actual numbers have not – at least, not yet.
Gallup poll figures for 2003 were much the same as they had been throughout the 1990s: nine out of ten Americans say they believe in a personal God, universal spirit, or higher power. (Only about 5% are confirmed atheists, and another 4% aren’t sure.) But only two-thirds are members of a church or synagogue – a striking 25% gap between belief and belonging. Over sixty percent say religion is “very important” in their lives; almost twenty-five percent, perhaps trying to distinguish between capital-R Religion and a less regimented reverence, say it is “fairly important.” Sixty percent consistently say that religion can “answer all or most of today’s problems,” while twenty-six percent counter that religion is “old-fashioned and out of date.”
However you slice it, that’s a solid quarter of us who face the same moral, mortal, and parental quandaries as our church- and temple-going peers, yet who resist the siren call of organized worship, trying instead to find our own way by the light of wisdom from many sources. Even as the mortar rounds fly between fortified civilizations, one-fourth of the population is on this unscripted pilgrimage beyond the walls. But are these nomadic seekers the wave of the future, as they once passionately (and presumptuously) believed? Or are they just the dwindling remnant of a naïve, narcissistic past?
One thing’s for sure: they – we -- are under fire as never before. The scoldings about spiritual dilettantism, the exhortations to turn back – the root meaning of “Repent!” and of baalei teshuvah, the term for newly Orthodox Jews – now come from family and friends, as well as from forceful voices in the pulpit, politics and culture. Tradition is “in,” with all that word’s cozy connotations of security and superiority; so-called spirituality is fast on its way “out” – on the fringe, in the cold -- and its devotees are increasingly viewed as flaky navel-gazers. The nontraditional quest has almost become a synonym for self-absorption, as if to opt out of organized religion were to reject God Himself and make a god of yourself.
“Enough About Me,” declares a 2004 headline in Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine and trend-tracker of the book industry, followed by the subtitle, “Spiritual memoirs refocus on classic traditions.” “A year and a half ago, the interior-journey category predominated,” reports contributor LaVonne Neff. “[W]riters seemed to be migrating in droves from the faith of their fathers to the faith of somebody else’s ancestors or, sometimes, to a spirituality uniquely their own, examining their feelings at every step of the way. By contrast, current . . . memoirists locate their personal stories firmly within the larger story of a religious tradition. . . . Open-ended seekers are passé; . . . ancient traditions are coming back into favor. Books in the ‘why I left my faith’ category are being supplanted by books telling about rediscovered strength and beauty in familiar places.”
Long gone are all those warm bodies that once thronged the self-congratulatory rock festival of the open road. Today’s pilgrims, writes Neff, “want their journeys to end in a destination.” Doubtful and dispersed, spiritual questers are doing their time in the wilderness. And in this harsh climate, their ranks may start to thin for the first time in two generations, as more and more give in to the drumbeat to find a nice congregation and settle down.
Others, however, will find that they can’t make that choice even if they wanted to. Tempting as it may sometimes be to trade in their lonely load of questions for a ready-made community and cosmology, it’s too late: a hatched chick might as well try to get back in the egg. When they do venture into a place of traditional worship – out of nostalgic yearning, or just for somebody else’s wedding or funeral, baptism or Bar Mitzvah -- their ears can’t unhear the primitive superstition and tribal jingoism all mixed up with the timeless wisdom of the scriptures. I don’t know how many times my heart has been warmed by the deep familial glow in a synagogue, only to sink into my shoes as the Bat Mitzvah girl stumbled uncomprehendingly through some recipe for animal sacrifice from Leviticus. As “Donaldito,” born Catholic, posted on the popular website Beliefnet: “I consider myself a seeker, and returning to the place that started me on that journey feels pretty good . . . until I actually listen to a lot of what's being said.” Now that the free-form quest is no longer in fashion, it’s your gut that will tell you whether you’re a spiritual refugee, homesick for the right roof over your head, or a spiritual nomad, at home in the open.
It’s for you hard-core wonderers and wanderers – my scattered tribe – that I want to send up a flare, pitch a tent, put out some desert rations. I don’t care what faith you were born into, what you call your higher power, what spiritual disciplines you do or don’t practice: if you viscerally resist having your religion organized for you, if living with your questions is the only form of worship that feels honest and alive to you, you’re one of us. Like many of our biblical forebears, we postmodern pilgrims answered a call to leave the houses of our fathers and strike out for an unknown future. We’re deeply convinced that that call came from the Spirit, and we’re not turning back. But right now a lot of us feel lost, with no promised land in sight. Tradition’s new triumph is our crisis. That means, of course, that it contains both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that we’ll slowly lose our convictions, or watch them splinter into a thousand consoling little niche cults. The chance, the challenge, is to become fully conscious of those convictions for the first time.
Stars to Steer By
In our adversarial – no, gladiatorial -- culture, I know I am now expected to spend the next 100 pages bashing that old-time religion. I’m not going to do that, because it’s not that simple. I have a close relative and a close friend to whom faith is everything, and I’ve watched it transform their lives. I can’t deny that my Orthodox Jewish cousin and my Pentecostal minister friend -- both repentant secularists -- have much more purpose and joy than before their conversions. And while much of what they do and believe is alien to me, there’s also much that I admire and even envy: marriages that don’t shake with every wayward flutter of the heart; communities as all-embracing as the Amish in “Witness”; children so radiantly polite you’d think they were from a better planet. These are fruits of the Spirit that require pruning of the self, and that therefore flourish best in the orderly orchards of tradition. It may be the strongest argument (short of the inarguable “God wants you to”) for submitting to an organized faith. When I look at my cousin’s and friend’s choices from this point of view, instead of “How could they do that?” I ask myself, “Why can’t I do that?”
The answer, it turns out, is, “Because it’s . . . against my religion!” I didn’t know I had one. And I don’t, of course, in the literal sense. But when I really questioned my own heels-dug-in determination to stay outside the fold, any fold -- even if blesséd community and boundless love beckon from within – I discovered that underneath my no there is a yes. The demands of tradition that I cannot force myself to accept for any reward – demands to disdain the world, exclude the Other, and believe the unbelievable – are clues to a coherent worldview I share with other spiritual nomads, one we hold fast to even though it isn’t fully articulated yet. In its essence, it is a worldview of the here and now, rather than of a thousand or two thousand or five thousand years ago.
These are scary times largely because of the yawning gap that has opened up between our beliefs and our reality. Traditionalists look back to the cosmologies and moralities of a vanished world for a clear and comforting order – at the price of perpetuating old fears, myths, and hatreds along with the wisdom. Spiritual nomads face ahead into the tumult of science, technology, and globalization, trusting that out of the whirlwind of the new an intrinsic order will emerge – at the price of risking chaos till that order comes clear. Fortunately, I think we’re further along in that labor than we know. A cosmology for the 21st century will be one that fuses spirit and science: in the wonderful words of my friend Marc Barasch, “Now the views from the Hubble are our stained-glass windows.” A morality for the 21st century will be rooted in insight, not fear, firm without being rigid and flexible without being adrift. Pieces of this new understanding are already being lived -- searching, open-hearted ways of reaching out to the cosmos and to each other. To be explored in Part One, “Soul in the Open,” eight of them are:
1.) God, By Any Other Name
2.) Open Tribes
3.) Open Questions
4.) Natural Miracles
5.) Many Mansions
6.) Communities of the Body
7.) Life is the Practice
8.) If Not Now, When?
It’s not that we’re arrogant enough to imagine we can live without, or improve on, the eternal truths revealed through the great religious traditions. On the contrary, I think that the gravity of the times, and personal experience of the failure of too much freedom, are driving spiritual nomads back to those uncompromising truths -- to the recognition, missing from so much recent “spirituality,” of just how much the Spirit demands of us. (Ask not what your universe can do for you . . .) There’s a real sense in which the party’s over – that premature celebration of oneness and abundance and liberation – and we’re back to the hard work of being human: the struggle between the primal instincts that make life vital and the profound insights that keep those drives from being lethal. Never over, and never easy, that battle now has to be fought in the middle of a hurricane. Buffeted from within by desire and fear as we always have been, we’re now buffeted from without by unprecedented temptations and stresses, tearing us apart from the people closest to us and throwing us together with people from the other side of the planet. We can either crawl back inside an old authority structure that will tell us exactly what to do, or we can find stars to steer by and learn to navigate through the storm. Those stars, for spiritual nomads, are the core truths of the whole world’s wisdom. Part Two, Multitraditional Values, will focus on eight great spiritual discoveries from different times and places that light our way through the choices and challenges of today:
1.) The Golden Rule (All Traditions)
2.) The Law of Karma (Hinduism, Buddhism)
3.) All My Relatives (American Indian)
4.) L’Chaim! (Judaism)
5.) We Are Loved (Christianity)
6.) Submission to the Will of God (Islam)
7.) Honor Your Ancestors (Africa, China)
8.) Equality of Women and Men (No Tradition)