From the book proposal I'm working on, tentatively titled OUTSIDE: Spiritual Nomads and the Way Beyond Religion:
When you live inside a tradition, and that includes scientific secularism, you agree to view life through its window -- an outlook, a way of framing reality, carefully preserved through time. That frame has a fixed form, originally designed by and for a world long gone. It can allow embellishments or simplifications, but not ideas -- not even self-evident truths -- so new or foreign that they would pull it apart and make it unrecognizable. Every tradition demands that you accept its inherited ideas, even those that violate our evolving understanding -- Jesus’ mother was a virgin! the universe is blind, mindless matter! -- and reject or give second-class status to ideas from other sources, even those that might better illuminate reality. These demands are presented as tests of faith, but they are always also loyalty oaths to authority, and shibboleths proving membership in a tribe. Because of people’s natural need for security and belonging -- and not least of all, their need just to make some basic assumptions and get on with life -- it can easily happen that the frame becomes the view. Fidelity to one way of looking becomes more important than seeing.
“Outsiders” have all the same human needs -- for community, for a conceptual operating system, for metaphysical and not just physical shelter -- but they find themselves unable to deny the central fact of our time: that all the old certainties are being destroyed by two great new transforming forces, science and globalization. (Science is now evolving so fast it’s trashing its own certainties.) To defend any crumbling fortress of certainty today is to go to war not only with the defenders of other certainties, but with reality itself. The reality is that we’re being hurled back to square one, to a naked primordial unknowing face to face with the universe that challenges us to rediscover it from the ground up. News of other cultures, other galaxies, maybe even other universes (as in string theory), leaves us feeling we know as little as the hairy primate who stood up clutching those first stone tools of the mind, “What?” and “How?” and “Why?”
But the same forces that are stripping away the answers are equipping us as never before to live in the open questions. When you swear exclusive allegiance to no one tradition, their multiplicity is no longer a threat but a vast resource: the record of over 10,000 years of research, a grand reference library for the study of reality (not a “salad bar,” the prevailing meme that trivializes outsiders’ interest in all traditions). Like the spinning thigh bone that becomes a waltzing space station in the movie “2001,” “What?” and “How?” and “Why?” have become the Book of Genesis and the Hubble Telescope, the Rig Veda and the particle accelerator, the Origin of Species and Mitakuye oyasin (Lakota: “all my relatives”), the scientific method and zazen. These great documents and instruments, and thousands more, now belong to all of us.
While no one can encompass more than a tiny sliver of it all, no part of it is off limits to anyone on earth who dares to reach across fading boundaries; it’s our heritage. And it’s as packed with potential remedies for the crises we face as the Amazon rainforest. Each of us personally, and all of us collectively, can search its entire database for insight and direction as we find our way through a radically reconfigured reality by maps we’re still drawing -- a work that, bit by bit, adds up to a new revelation. (Though great prophets may come, or technocrats may bid to replace them, ours is not a messianic age but a demotic one – “of or relating to the common people.” I like to think of this mosaic or holographic process of building a new vision out of billions of individual choices and glimpses as “the democratization of revelation.” And, of course, it’s carried and hurried by technology: the remote satellite feed, the Airbus, and the Internet.)
The irony is that every tradition would be a vital tributary to this process if they could only be trusted not to go for each other’s throats – or come after the rest of us with a flaming sword. The mutation that turns the benign “This is right for me” into the malignant “This is right for you” can infect any religion, including scientific secularism. Its root is denied doubt -- if everyone else doesn’t affirm that I’m right, I might be wrong! – and its fruit is the destruction of vital diversity. God forbid everyone should think alike! The fact that we have not just books or recordings, but living people keeping alive the practice of Amish barn-raising, Talmudic disputation, djembe drumming, and Tonglen meditation is an amazing treasure. It’s as important for culture as the preservation of original wild seed stocks is for agriculture – living seeds, not just the genomes of the extinct. If everyone in the world became a “global nomad,” the very heritage that “outsiders” draw on would be lost. But if no one did, our chance of a common future would be slaughtered on the altars of a thousand pasts.
Some people are called to preserve and transmit a tradition in its purest form. Others are called to try to integrate their inherited or chosen tradition with the new global and scientific realities. Good for them. But “come out, come out, wherever you are” is a calling, too. In fact, it may just be the unceasing call of the Spirit. And each time we humans heed it, as in the myths of the Pueblo Indians, we emerge into a more spacious, more wondrous world.
(©2006 Annie Gottlieb)
UPDATE: Answer to Seth
Responding to my request for responses, Seth Chalmer wrote a truly generous post about this post. In it he said:
My only little quibble is that my own corner of the spiritual tapestry is not represented in that linear conceptual form. To me, loyalty or exclusivity to one tradition and openness to the world do not make a sliding scale, or a zero-sum game. Both are possible simultaneously. Adherering to one's own beliefs -- and here I refer not only to rituals and cultural flavors, but to actual dogma and specific theology as well -- does not mean invalidating other beliefs. The world is complicated enough to hold multiple truths that may seem contradictory. [ . . . ] I have respect for those of you who are spiritual nomads. You reject a home tradition and roam free. I guess I simply have a different definition of the boundaries of my tradition. I insist I can walk with you, side by side, seeing what you see, learning what you learn, and still stay within my tradition's borders. Those borders are further off than the human mind could ever go.
Dear Seth, my post was an excerpt from the book-introduction-in-progress. I want you to know that the passage immediately preceding the above was what follows -- and that you were one of the people I was thinking of as I wrote it:
The crucial divide, as this new millennium opens, isn’t “God or Not” -- the title of a monthly duel between devout and debunking bloggers. It’s between those who are sure they know the answers (or know the only place to find the answers), and those who are living the questions. This could actually prove to be a matter of life and death. Daring not to know may be the only way humans will survive our fraught, nuclear-armed reunion, because it’s our bedrock ignorance and wonder that unite us. Even two groups of people who are killing each other over their answers have the same questions. What is real? What is good? Who are my people? What do we owe each other? Who says so? Why do innocents suffer and evildoers prosper? Where did I come from? Why do my beloved ones and I have to die? Then what? How can I live without knowing?
It should be said right away: there are religious people, and there are atheists, who are living the questions. You’ll know them by their fearless openness to differing points of view. Their devotion to one way of approaching the mystery doesn’t rule out every other way. They are capable of coexisting, and even collaborating with people of different traditions, or none, to explore and honor reality. Yet it’s a rare mind, especially in the West, that can really hold both belief and openness. The tension between the two is always threatening to become a flat-out contradiction. The believer’s sincere interest in other views is often tinged with condescension or defensiveness, ready, if provoked, to break out in a fight.
That’s why I’m outside.
Seth, you went on to say:
Besides, the truly pious of every tradition are humble before the miracle of existence. The truly pious are also open enough to be able to explore the world through their own traditions for their entire lives, without running into limits beyond which they may not look. The truly pious don't fear knowledge. The Talmud says that there is nothing in the world which the Torah does not contain. This means that any question can be asked.
Ah, if only this were true. I'm sure it is true of an exceptional soul like Rav Heschel. But the sad story of the banning of Nosson Slifkin, the "Zoo Rabbi," shows how often, within the mystical depths of our own tradition, it is not true.
But I'll always be happy to walk with you, side by side, learning not only with you, but from you.
UPDATE II: Here's another great response, at Ales Rarus. A put-down, actually, of the narcissistic fence-sitting self-idolizing Spiritual Nomad -- but an eloquent one. I am out to refute the assumption of traditionalists, on display here, that you can't be a serious, moral, committed, communitarian, sometimes self-effacing person outside tradition, that if you were such a person, you would by definition be found properly inside one tradition or another. So it will be interesting to watch the sparks fly.