What follows is a transcript for the podcast Care for Your Soul: Designing Sacred Practices that Work
- Demographic Shift In Religion
- Uncovering What The Human Soul Needs
- What Is The Sacred Design Lab?
- How Do You Contextualize Experiential Non-denominational Seeking?
- How Can We Reintegrate Direct Experiential Practices Within The Traditional Spiritual Practices?
- Transmitting Knowledge Over Transmitting Belief
- How to Rebalance Eldership with the Refusal to Defer to Authority
- What is Covenant?
- How Do We Reconcile Orthopraxis?
- Antinomianism in the Burning Man Community
- The Magic is in the Mundane
- Unlocking Soul Force
- The Collective Longing is What Makes Us Who We Are
Demographic Shift In Religion
Jamie Wheal: All right. Ready? All right. Today, I'm happy to welcome the Reverend Sue Phillips, the ministry innovation fellow at Harvard divinity school, as well as the co-founder of the sacred design labs and the joint partnership between the Fetzer Institute and Harvard divinity school, "How We Gather" which is a project on millennial faith, belonging in community in America. So Sue thank you for coming. Welcome to Home Grown Humans. It's great to have you.
Sue Phillips: What a pleasure Jamie.
Jamie Wheal: Well, this there's so much, I was jotting down notes in preparation for us getting to chat and I literally just have kind of a fire hose of inquiries, follow ups on your work. I think you're in one of the most interesting kind of overlapping places. I heard you have described yourself as sort of part design geek, part strategist, part monastic. And that really feels like sort of a both a very rich place to locate yourself in the culture and and also one with a lot of significance these days. So I think there's been tons of press on the the recent the sort of ongoing Pew research foundation's studies on religiosity and faith in this country.
And obviously one of the milestones that we crossed a few years ago was the idea that the nuns, the sort of, "none of the above" spiritual but not religious, became the sort of the fastest growing. And also now for the first time, the largest portion of our population and there was a lot of death knells for organized religion, now that kind of collapse a meaning that we've been seeing. So, just orient us a little bit before, before we kind of jump into some of the details. What is your sense of that demographic shift? And how do you sort of see that it came about and where is it pointing us?
Sue Phillips: Sure. Well, anybody who pays attention to American public religion has noticed those Pew numbers just going down and down and down for years and years, probably 15 or 20 years at this point, especially among mainline Protestant denominations and the evangelicals are a little bit of an outlier. But across the board, those numbers have been going down, and I think one of the reasons we've been so curious about what's happening is to ask ourselves the question of, okay, institutional membership is going down. That sort of institutional mediation of people's experience, which is those membership numbers that Pew draws from are really institutionally mediated numbers. So we began to ask ourselves, "Well, what are people doing who are not going to traditional religious congregations, and temples, and mosques?" And this is where I think the real interesting a grist is revealed. Is not so much that those numbers are going down, but to look at where people are actually going, to get the benefit that they used to derive from congregational membership.
So there's no question about it. Institutional membership in religious communities is tanking and does not show any signs of slowing down. There are a couple of little pockets of exceptions to that, but otherwise millennials and gen Z are simply are not going to the same places that they used to go for, meaning making and for all those jobs that religion has traditionally accomplished. And one of the things that I spend my day, as long with my colleagues, Casper Terkilan and Angie Thurston obsessing about, is we certainly do not assume that the longings of the human heart have changed in any way. So the question is where are people going for those old religious jobs? And that's what we're currently obsessed with uncovering and discovering.
But there's something really revealing too Jamie, about the names that have been used to describe those large demographic slices with the nuns and the spiritual, but not religious because we're defining them of course, by what they're not. And I think what we're going to see in the next 10, 15, 20 years is growing sophistication and understanding what those folks are. How they're expressing themselves religiously and spiritually and where they're finding meaning and purpose in fresh new ways. We're seeing a lot of really exciting things in the landscape.
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. Well, let's actually just take a moment. You talked about sort of the religious jobs or essentially the pro social, this sort of anthropological functionality of faith and wow. The sort of the four horsemen of the new atheists the Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harrises back then, we're kind of tap dancing on the grave of the end of superstitious, "opiate of the masses," kind of religion. You know, there's a lot of other considered work in sociology and other disciplines that show, "Hey, believers, regardless of what you believe are often healthier, wealthier, happier." There is a prosocial mimetic function to belonging to a community of practice. And in the book that I'm writing right now, which is called "Recapture The Rapture." So it's an, effort to kind of explore this collapse in the meaning.
Uncovering What The Human Soul Needs
Jamie Wheal: I kind of dug around and I'd love to run this past you, but what it seemed to me, there's obviously a thousand ways to slice and dice it, but that if there were three core functions to what belonging to faith has and holds that are really useful, and we don't want to lose, it's inspiration, healing, and connection. You know, if you put it in the kind of the Greek or the Christian sense, sort of ekstatis, the encounters of all with the numinous, katharsis the ability to profoundly heal, and communitas, the ability to feel truly connected to brothers and sisters. How does that track for you and your own assessments? And does that feel like a decent place to begin our exploration?
Sue Phillips: Absolutely. I mean, I feel like any attempt to uncover what soul needs is a worthy effort these days. And you've given those three names to it. We tend to use actually, they're quite corollary. In Sacred Design Lab, we roam around in belonging, becoming, and beyond is the tryptic that we use. It's not terribly dissimilar, a lot of those are analogous to your categories. But in attempt to uncover what is it that the soul needs, and how can we begin to design and build for those needs in some, some fresh new way. So I am totally down with your mental model Jamie, let's go for it.
What Is The Sacred Design Lab?
Jamie Wheal: Well, actually,- just please just re-say those and, even just give us a quick, headline on the sacred design lab. Cause I'm even just the naming of that seems fascinating. So, please restate those, your three B's and then just tell us a little bit more about what are you guys up to at the last year?
Sue Phillips: Sure. Well, Sacred Design Lab is a research and development lab that attempts to design for the human soul. And of course, one of the first things we need to do is understand what does the human soul need and how can we express that with enough dimensionality that it's enriched, but not so much dimensionality that we, we get too specific to cast a big tent, to describe a broad swath of human needs. So that's where we landed at belonging, becoming, and beyond.
So belonging, we define as knowing and being known, loving and being loved, belonging. Beyond is growing in our capacity to become the people we're called to be. We use that word call very carefully. We might, play with long to be or want to be, but becoming the people that we are called to be. And beyond is our connection to something more. We've landed on the "something more" language, obviously, because we want to have room for spirit and God, but also room for nature, for values, for character, for all the sort of broad theologies that might fit into that category. So Secret Design Lab really helps design for those human needs. We help solve business problems, develop new products and experiences and organizational strategy that helps uncover those needs and designed for them.
How Do You Contextualize Experiential Non-Denominational Seeking?
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful. So, I mean I have so many questions and we can go anywhere we want, but one of my thoughts and certainly something that I tracked in the previous book I wrote, "Stealing Fire," which was basically all about the kind of rise in community and culture around alter-states, non-ordinary state experiences and whether that was passive meditation or breath work or whether it was transformational festivals like burning man or any of these kinds of things, really seeing this kind of upswell of non-denominational sort of highly experiential antinomian, sort of agnostic Gnosticism, to string a mouthful of waves together. But I think you follow them, right? The idea of, "You're not the boss of me. I don't want hand me down truths. I want to go see for myself." Right? And we want to have some form of initiatory experience that nonetheless, we kind of shy away from naming or defining rigidly.
So, one of my questions is, techniques of ecstasy, to use Mircea Eliade's old phrase. And Michael Pollan recently, right? Wrote that book, "How to Change Your Mind." And he made a nod- he was quoting someone else. He was quoting actually Jonathan Art, who was this renegade pharmacist at Berkeley for years. But he was talking about how the Eucharist is fundamentally, these days at least, I mean in our current context, is a placebo sacrament. That in the consumption of it, there isn't actually a reliable state shift, there isn't actually a direct- you compare this to the good Friday experiment at Harvard back when with Houston Smith and all the others of siliciden and church and the idea that that was a- that eight of the nine folks at the divinity school who participated, went on to become ministers, none of the ones who received the placebo went on to become ministers, the notions of the native American church, where Quanah Parker famously testified before the Oklahoma Senate.
And he said, "When the white man goes to church, you talk about God. When we go into the TP, we talk to God." So there's this difference between third person encounters with the numinous versus the Martin Buber I thou or even the I eye of the mystical union of Hildegard Von Bingen or something else. So, what we have I think is, a bunch of youngsters out from under the thumbs of the elders, seeking what they would normally call "Sacred" experiences in highly secular environments. With the sort of the transformational festival scene, et cetera, et cetera. So how do you see either- How do you contextualize those experiences in your own realm? And/or is there a fold to bring those folks back under? Or do we need to stretch the tent even bigger to include that kind of experiential non-denominational seeking?
Sue Phillips: Yes. What a good question and way to drop a whole range of theologians across the centuries. To serve the question, first of all, we speak the same language. Well, for one thing, to connect it to the demographic shifts you mentioned at the very beginning. One of the things we've noticed over and over again is that millennials and gen ZERS are very comfortable un-bundling and remixing those religious jobs. So instead of a one stop shop, like your local temple, where they would get a whole suite of services and experiences meant to appeal to all sorts of senses and ways of knowing epistemic approaches and experiential ones. Folks are really kind of grabbing their longing for certain kinds of experiences, like experience of community, going deeper into oneself, for contemplation, for embodied experience, they tend to be going to a lot of different places and then remixing them for their personal use.
So I think you're really noting something important at the trend towards personalization, frankly. But of course there are downsides to that, which we also see in terms of- first of all, having to craft one's own bespoke, personal, spiritual, and religious life is difficult, burdensome, and so many people are just bereft from the pathways that used to teach us how to do that. That's what tradition does. There are just pathways laid by other humans to uncover kind of spiritual practices that make for a meaningful, flourishing human life. So on the one hand, you've got generations that are increasingly bereft of those pathways needing, or wanting, or longing to sort of create their own, but wondering where to go find them. So it doesn't surprise me at all that we're seeing a trend towards sort of, immersive intense experiences that are like this one off blast off into sort of altered States and ecstatic experiences.
Partly because that is what people know to recognize as a spiritual experience. I think part of what gets lost in all of that Jamie, is that spiritual practices really are meant to be slow burns. They're not meant to induce, broadly speaking, not meant to induce an immediate altered state. That's part of why we call them practices, because their value it creates over time. And it's in the intentional return to ongoing practices in community that, most of religious world would claim is part of the recipe for that fulfilling life. So on the one hand, we've got- we understand why people are seeking experiences like that, but I would like to place it in the context of loss that it's not embedded in a more fulsome environment, replete with a wider range of opportunities to grow one soul over time.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And to me, this feels like sort of the latest chapter, it's 21st century, It's kind of wrapped in silicone and smartphones and all those kinds of things. But it is that ongoing tug-of-war between the priests and the Prometheans, there's always been the fire stealers. There's always been the ones storming heaven. And then there's often been the priest clause saying, "Hey, that upsets our orthodoxy. We are the self appointed middlemen to God, don't you dare try and do an end run." Whether that's-
Sue Phillips: Right. [crosstalk 00:20:55]
Jamie Wheal: Joan of arc, or some John of the cross, or you name it, right. It generally hasn't been welcomed with open arms when people name or claim, and I thou relationship or an I eye relationship. Third person hand me downs, okay, tool of social control. The second and first pretty sketchy, and often really, really repressed quite strongly. So how do you, and you made that you made a great case that you said, "Hey, I think they call them spiritual practices for a reason." But I want to tease apart is that just, "Shut up and say your hail Mary's," or are there actually spiritual practices that reliably disclose access to the sacred that have either atrophied fallen away or that could be innovated and adapted? I mean, compare this to a core power yoga or a soul cycle, right. And you even mentioned the evangelical- the exception to growth Protestant mainline, sagging and even mainline Catholicism outside of colonial places also collapsing. But evangelicals, the more experiential elements are actually booming and thriving. And then throw in the kind of easy examples of Hillsong, which, if you look that's where Justin Bieber, and he Kardashians, and a lot of pro NBA players, and things have been going. They've got in fact, I think GQ did an article called "Hype Priests," and it was talking about the hipster priests, the skinny jeans, and the earrings and the leather jackets-
Sue Phillips: Oh yes. [crosstalk 00:22:28].
Jamie Wheal: Right. The whole thing. And if you look at their services, their services are indistinguishable from an EDM concert. You've got snow cannons and huge production value in jumbotrons and amazing sounds. So they are leveraging techniques of ecstasy. You know the sex, drugs, rock, and roll, minus the sex in these situations. Right?
Sue Phillips: Possibly. [crosstalk 00:22:47].
How Can We Reintegrate Direct Experiential Practices Within The Traditional Spiritual Practices?
Jamie Wheal: But definitely using- they're definitely harnessing light, sound, music, breath, concerted movement. Compared to smells and bells, it feels like mainstream folks don't have a chance. So what is your sense of how to reintegrate the direct and experiential practices that everyone seems to be going out and seeking anyway, within something resembling a lineage tradition? Is that possible?
Sue Phillips: Well, it is in my judgment so true that the traditional religious communities have been completely flatfooted in terms of robustifying, their delivery systems for the human wisdom, that they are the stewards of. And what we see in Hillsong and many evangelical communities, is a lot wider palette of idiomatic expression, which is so ironic of course, because the theological core is so- tends to be so Orthodox. And the transmission of that court also tends to be Orthodox, which is held in authority. I mean, religious liberals are much less attached to authority, obviously almost by definition, but much worse at delivering.
... almost by definition, but much worse at delivering the stories and the methods, if you will, of those practices in a relevant new way. So, to me, that's a problem, not of content but of delivery system. And I think, Hillsong, for example, in some ways, has nailed the delivery of ancient technologies.
And I think, to think about ancient technologies might be a helpful lens here, because when I hear about Hillsong, or I go to temple on Friday, or attend other religious services, I see a cosmology of religious practices. There's song, there's text study, there's preaching or interpretation, there's naming of wisdom teachers, there's multi-generational connection, there's a sense of a built set of practices literally over a year where there's a liturgical arc and liturgical calendar. So to me, that's an alphabet of spiritual practices that different religious communities put together in different ways.
And I think that's what folks who go to Burning Man are doing too, all those elements. And I don't want to paint with too broad brush, but a lot of those elements are very much in place. It's how they're being delivered that is dramatically different.
So when you talk about reintegration, Jamie, I don't have a lot of hope for mainline denominations and traditions, especially in the United States. I don't think there's any way to redeem those old congregational delivery systems. But I do think there's tremendous potential in deconstructing those spiritual technologies and putting them together in fresh new ways.
So when I talk about tradition, I'm as much talking about the birthright experience of that cosmology of practices, as I am about any bit of theological content, which is going to get me in a lot of trouble with religious conservatives. And I'm so willing to toss the one out with the other, but it does make a pallet available to us to put together in new ways.
Transmitting Knowledge Over Transmitting Belief
Jamie Wheal: And I noticed in one of your footnotes, you cited very explicitly, Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor, his book, The Innovator's Dilemma, and just that idea of how hard is it? Because I mean, any institution, but certainly a lineage religious institution is by definition, conservative. Something amazing happened back when, and we are trying to conserve or preserve the truth of that teaching.
And how can you ever compete with fast and loose disruptors who are coming in and saying, "We're just going to stop from current reality with no sunk costs, no institutional inertia, and we're going to speak directly into this zeitgeist and capture it." It's a story that doesn't truly hold up, but it's like the idea of the minute men of Boston adopting techniques from the Indian wars versus the red coat [inaudible 00:03:01], marching down the parade grounds of Lexington and getting clobbered. You're like, "How on earth do you ever compete with basically, theological guerrilla warfare?"
Sue Phillips: Well, what you see as new, I see as old. So I'm not quite as willing to think that people are actually inventing new ways of entering into this content. I think it's just the 21st century expression of what has probably always been true about humans, is we're grasping to put the world together in a way that we, A, find ourselves in, and B, helps us feel the way we want to feel. That we probably do agree on.
But, Jamie, we've gathered hundreds of innovators over the years, spiritual and community building innovators, and we've asked them over and over again... And these are folks who lead what are in essence, spiritual communities, even though they may not call themselves that sort of communities oriented around meaning. And we've asked them, "What do you mean-"
Jamie Wheal: And to just give us a few examples, what kind of communities are they?
Sue Phillips: Sure. The Big Quiet, which is a New York and now national mass meditation effort, which convenes meditations in places like Madison Square Garden, and near public library, and museums, and big public spaces, or The Dinner Party, which is an effort that gathers people around tables throughout the country, hosted eight to 10 person small group tables to talk about experiences of personal loss.
And there are hundreds of examples of communities like this, doing super creative things. By the way, totally divorced from any traditional denominational structure or delivery system of traditional religion, but nonetheless, doing similar jobs just to go back to Clay Christensen's framework.
And we've asked them, "What do you need to really thrive?" Because these are independent efforts that are not well connected in community. And other than business models for ongoing economic sustainability, what we heard from these leaders is that they are absolutely longing for elders. They do not feel accompanied by folks who have attempted to do the same things before.
And what's more, they don't feel that they have company in their life just to witness their own struggles as leaders and to grow in their capacity as leaders. What they're asking for is not coaching, it's not traditional expertise. Let me deliver to you how this should be done. It's really literally just being accompanied as humans.
So I bring that up as an example because I don't buy the fact that these one-off ecstatic experiences are actually that satisfying over time. They may result in an altered state that expands our imagination for what's possible, and therefore allows us to pursue it. And I don't want to discount that, but when we pluck those experiences out of a package of spiritual technologies that provide a more fulsome experience like elders and the transmission of wisdom, we actually lose dimensionality.
And I am not arguing for that dimensionality on theological orthodoxy grounds. It's not to transmit belief, it is to transmit knowledge that a more complete package of practices is more powerful over time to help ourselves grow into the people we're called to be. So I know that was a lot of words, but I think that that dimensionality gets lost in these one-off attempts, and I think that's important. When we can design for that, then I'll agree that we're nailing it.
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. There's so much in what you've just said. There's the livelihood business model element, which I'd love to come back to, because certainly I think you could make a case that the spiritual marketplace has never been broader, more varied or more captured by market forces.
And so, there's an issue there, and I'd love to explore, what are some of the solutions you're potentially seeing? And then, there's also this notion that you've come back to a couple of times, which I think is essential and it's to take a very tidy case study. It's the key thing I see conspicuously absent in the psychedelic renaissance, is that people are using compounds to have, by any other term, sacramental experience, but then getting spat back out into a life with no practices, and most specifically no ethic. There isn't a sense of in-service of what and untethered from, which has never been true in all of human history.
Any sacramental initiatory experience has been closely governed, closely chaperoned, all sorts of onboarding and integration pre and post, and a filter of elders, making sure you got what you were supposed to, and didn't go off on a jag. And instead, we're more in the situation now where we've found the toy box full of firecrackers, and we're just setting them all up, breaking the sticks off the bottle rockets and hoping they'll go where you point them-
Sue Phillips: That's right.
How to Rebalance Eldership with the Refusal to Defer to Authority
Jamie Wheal: ... and they tend not to. And there's another thing where you mentioned the elders and the yearning for elders. I'm a Gen Xer, we grew up in the Reagan years. It was relatively Slim Pickens. And so, we had to look back to the baby boomers. We had to look back to the Beats, and the counterculture, and the civil rights movements, the antiwar movements, the back-to-the-land movements, that was our [inaudible 00:08:46].
In retrospect, it almost feels like we were like Japanese blues efficient auditors or something obsessing over American blues, because we didn't have it ourselves. So we went and we studied that stuff because we were in such a dry spell ourselves.
I'm noticing that millennials seem to have a generation gap amnesia about what the baby boomers did. And I imagine it's because it's their parents, and so nothing your parents did could be relevant or cool. And what I've been shocked by, especially in the progressive, again, you can peg it as West Coast conscious culture, but it's all over the place, which is putting it into all the same ditches, lots of magical thinking, lots of deference to guru like, people that they're Instagram gurus now versus living on an Island someplace.
But how do we reconcile the acute antinomianism, literally the resistance or refusal to defer to authority figures? The echo boomer resistance to study the lessons of the past, and yet a yearning for eldership at a time where everything is just in time. Literally, don't even make me sit through four years of college, I want to go to YouTube or Khan Academy. I am unwilling to be disengaged, bored or submit to anything other than what I want right now. How do we balance eldership, a world of ethical commitments that supersede our own experiences and somehow steer this greased pig to the finish line?
Sue Phillips: First of all, I wish I knew the answer to that question. But what we can do together is gesture towards some clues. And of course, the set of traits and problems that you've just described are, to my mind, examples of essentially how we are hard wiring through technology and other kinds of mediations, brains, and hearts of younger generations that make it less likely that they will seek and find what the soul needs.
This is part of why I'm going to map all those behaviors right on to social isolation, mental health crisis, and that the other epidemics that we need to have a major cultural reckoning for. To my mind, these behaviors are both the problem and the cause of the problem. So you're asking, how do we recreate a world in which folks can access wisdom about how to live this meaningful life when folks are intentionally disavowing mediated experience, whether that's from authority or other transmission.
Honestly, I think, in the end, the longing for what people know they need will bring them back to traditional pathways. Not necessarily theologies and specific texts, but looking for those through ways to help them get a grip on what they most need in their lives.
This is one of the things that has always confounded me about these demographic changes, Jamie, which is that youngers have always demonstrated behavior of stepping away from traditional religious communities, for example. Even in the '50s and '60s, if you had... There are only a few studies, but the few that exist suggest that people who are younger, especially in the 20 to 30 year range, go to church and follow those traditional pathways in lower numbers than they do when they're older.
So I do want to say, I don't think this is necessarily a permanent shift among youngers. I do think we're going to see some return, frankly, as there's a maturation in their ability to name their own experience and to look for the places that hold possibility for them to actually meet those needs over time.
So that sounds very altruistic in my view, that folks grow into their awareness of their own needs, and then they go and find it. But when we combine that with what I hope is a cultural effort to begin improving the distribution network, if you will, of some of those ancient technologies, we've also got a reaching back. And I think it's that combination that might make a difference over time.
Jamie Wheal: And I think it goes back even further than the '50s. I know in taking a look, I'm sure you know John Butler's, Awash in a Sea of Faith-
Sue Phillips: I don't, tell me about it.
Jamie Wheal: Gosh, I think it won The National Book Awards, or at least a history award back when I was in grad school, but it's basically his survey of American religiosity through the 17th to 19th centuries, and just goes deeply into second grade awakening, Cane Ridge, Kentucky, all of those kinds of things.
And ironically, I gave a TEDx talk at Burning Man describing that event with no historical tells as to when it happened. And it matches one-to-one to Burning Man. It was in August, it was tens of thousands of people gathering on the Western frontier of the country.
At that point, Appalachia was the outer edge. They had so many people that the preachers had to build scaffolds, and they would stand up in them and they would whip the crowds into frenzies and Sean's, not unlike the DJs these days, there was drinking, and fiddle playing, and fornicating.
It was a mayhem party and the conditions were a second and third generation bunch of immigrants, completely dissatisfied with the Anglican and Catholic churches and the face they came from, convinced that their parents were out of touch and they didn't want to submit to that authority anymore, and wanting to dust it all off and create a bonfire of their own lived experience. And that led to the suffragette movement, abolitionism, temperance. It led to a lot of social justice movements through the 19th century. And you're like, "Okay, so this is fascinating parallels, and there is truly nothing new under the sun."
And so, I've got, again, so many questions for where to go on this, but one of the questions, you wrote a really interesting piece on covenanting and the idea of... And I think if there's a theme we're trying to tease out here, which is freedom plus responsibility, there's an awful lot of access to freedom these days, liberating technologies and experiences. How might we, how must we balance that with commitment, and commitment to ourselves and our own practices to our community of practice and potentially to the broader world?
What is Covenant?
Jamie Wheal: First of all, just wind it back. Let's do some John Winthrop, regional covenant, halfway covenant. Do we need the quarter covenant now, or do we need to actually go back to a full covenant? And what does that look like in your mind zone?
Sue Phillips: Well, you're referencing some of our early American settlers who came together in the 17th century as the messengers as Bay Colony when it was being formed. And of course, there were parishes in every settlement in Massachusetts. And they came together in some sweltering summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and asked themselves, "How can we join together to support and grow our faith and our ability to be faithful Christians in this weird settlement moment as we build the city on [inaudible 00:40:45]?"
And their solution to that was what they called covenant. And it drew them together around some specific principles that allowed for the autonomy of individual parishes, but had some connective tissue and behaviors, frankly, that they promised and pledged to offer one another and to have fidelity to themselves so that there was a community of autonomous congregations.
So that's really important, and I think nuance construction for the 21st century, which is both autonomous parishes that were also agreeing to be subject to communal connection over time. And that's covenant. This is the essence of congregational polity, which this whole tree of Christianity comes off of Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, some Baptist communities use this congregational polity. But the technology at the core is... Go ahead.
Jamie Wheal: Well, I was just going to ask, and wasn't one of the litmus tests to be a covenant in Christian at that point was that you had had a personal conversion experience?
Sue Phillips: Personal conversion experience was more important in the Calvinist arm to display one salvation. You're right that theologically having this ecstatic experience proved that you were predestined, that you were saved, which is a different concern. The congregational polity covenant was really about connecting communities of Christians to each other. It was less about individual experience than it was on a community basis.
And I think the genius of that technology is that it provides both for autonomy and connection. And that's why at Sacred Design Lab, we think, and talk, and write a lot about covenant, because to my mind, it's an inspired solution to the challenges you and I have been laying out about how we have autonomous individuals seeking their own religious and spiritual path, but how do we still stay connected to each other?
And covenant is a kind of spiritual technology that can be agnostic about what are the grounds of our connection, but can still knit together disparate individual experiences. So I think we're really onto something there about what the future of religious and spiritual life might look like. It might look more like a Guild of seekers coming together, not because of orthodoxy but because of orthopraxy.
So they've decided to practice in the same way, and they've decided to collect themselves around that same way, even though the substance of their belief might be quite different. I mean, this approach is one of the gifts of blasting open denominationalism, which tends to be about theological orthodoxies. But when we look at orthopraxy, I think we're open to fresh new ways of bringing people together.
Jamie Wheal: That's beautiful. And orthodoxy, again, for anybody that's just decoding these things in your own brain, orthodonty is straight teeth, orthodoxy is straight thought, and orthopraxy would be straight or shed in this case practice.
And so, to me, one of the things I find fascinating about me, and I'm here in Austin, Texas, so every day, the corner of my street is a giant mega church, they've engaged in strategic roll-ups, they've been buying up other underperforming churches. They now simulcasts on jumbotrons, they have a school that's K through eight, and maybe now growing to K through 12, bookstores, coffee shops. It is a compound, and to see it over the last decade is an impressive sight to behold.
And the same thing with Hillsong, what I'm noticing is that theologically conservative institutions are actually harnessing much more of cutting edge psycho technologies and vertically integrated business models. Literally, one stop shop, we've got everything, we've got kid care, through dating, through bowling, through books, and we disintermediate Starbucks for Christ's sake. It's all here. And we leverage the power of tithing. 10%, folks. We make no bonds about how we gain access to working capital. I mean, if you really break it down to that.
And so, the orthodoxy fields, and the same with Hillsong, for as hip as they are, they are still generally anti-gay marriage, they are still pro quite deferential or subordinate gender roles. There's a lot of stuff that gets in the hype priest model actually gets smuggled into this quite regressive.
And they deliberately haven't updated that stuff. And I find it fascinating that the growth sectors, this is not an evolution of evangelical churches, Southern Baptist Convention, that kind of stuff, the majority of people they've recruit into their communities are the unchurched.
And yet it's with a retroactive orthodoxy. There's several questions here, but one of them is, it is typical of progressive's to hesitate asserting beliefs or truths for others, which is both the gift of open-mindedness and its organizational Achilles heel. Because if we simply practice together, then we all go wandering off defining and deciding for ourselves our own personal truths and our own personal Jesus.
In fact, I just finished re-reading Stephen King's, The Stand, because it just seemed timely. And it was spookily, it was like, "Wow, I'm reading a horror book, and my newsfeed is indistinguishable." But one of the things, Mother Abigail is that old African American woman who's 108, and she's basically the hand of God. And then there's this bad guy who gathers in Vegas.
And the whole point was while we're bumbling around in Boulder having committee meetings, they're figuring out how to get the power back on and how to turn on a nuclear weapon. And so, how do we reconcile orthopraxis, which is open-ended and everybody gets to decide with, I think what you could fairly say is the inability of progressive faith to come anywhere near the organizational effectiveness of more traditional conservative and even reactive sets?
Sue Phillips: I truly wish that I had a comprehensive answer that would crack that nut for progressive religion of all kinds. But I could take a stab at a couple of the elements of liberal approaches to religion in general, that I think contribute to the problem. And a couple of them are just our epistemology and our relationship to authority, where we have the whole through line of how-
... Where we have, I mean, the whole through line of how truth gets transmitted is just, it's almost what makes conservative and progressive or liberal traditions different, which is how do we know what's true and who gets to say, it's true and how do we transmit what's true? And the structures of all three of those things in more conservative traditions are firmer; they're stronger; they literally have more staying power; they're more consistent over time. And in liberal religion, where there's more of a focus on personal experience on less intermediation of authorities, less respect for authorities as folks who own and interpret the truth, all those things weakened religious liberalism's ability to provide that strong core around which you can adapt the distribution because in a way, in my experience as a religious liberal, it is the way we are together that makes us liberal and in more conservative traditions, it tends to be the substance of the belief that defines religious conservatism. And as long as that's true, I think we're going to be less adaptable with the means. And I think therein lies the difficulty.
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Sue Phillips: It's a problem.
Jamie Wheal: Well, I mean, and there's a couple of books that come to mind as you're describing that. One is, did you ever read Putting On The Mind of Christ by Jim Marion?
Sue Phillips: No, tell me about it.
Jamie Wheal: It's actually neat. He was a gay monk, I believe. Definitely, he was of an ordination. I'm not a thousand percent whether he was a priest or not, but I think he was a monk. He then ended up leaving the Catholic church and having a series of awakening experiences. And what I think is really helpful in that model is he kind of brings a developmental model similar to Bob Kegan or anybody else in that space. And just sort of talks about different relationships to, in this case Jesus, but it could be any Godhead figure at different levels of psychosocial development. And how in a traditionalist model, it'll be very code based, and that's pretty much, that's what the four horsemen, that's what Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris were knocking down.
But then there are opportunities to come back to it and at a meritocratic level, it might be like, well, Hey, this is my social club. This is my network. I want to be participating because it matters to me in those ways. And then the next level of individual, or sort of communalism might be, this is a lot of what you've just described. And I think the last few decades of Unitarianism would be at that level. Jokingly, it would be the sort of whole foods and Subaru crowd, but it's saying, Hey, like we belong together, let's celebrate. And then you would get into the higher levels of direct and an ongoing relationship with the numinous.
And it's just neat because it at least gives people tools. If they feel like, Oh, no, I'm a recovering Catholic or, Oh no, I left the church. It's like, you did leave a church, you left a version of the church. And as you've grown, you might find, it's a spiral and you might have a capacity to come back to it. But I guess the structural thing that I wrestle with is that the traditional code law and order based model is far better at organizing large numbers of people and getting them to March in a direction than is the more individualist, mystical approach. Right? I mean, the Mormon's got an awful lot of people that dig ditches in a desert in the 19th century because they said, stay sober, don't fornicate, here's the rules, here's the bishops, here's the tabernacle and here's our story. Now go do what we say.
Sue Phillips: And if you don't then the afterlife is a very, very bad place.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. You're literally stricken from the good book.
Sue Phillips: Yes. That's the ultimate motivator, shall we say?
Jamie Wheal: Well, let's talk about that because I know that in one of your situational assessments and I saw you relying on Barry Johnson's polarities mapping, which is, again, one of my favorites, it feels like really, you could pretty much solve the world if everybody just mapped polarities, like political parties would go away. It's like a nerd, it's like a management consultant Buddhism, of like, you get to know duality being like it's both and neither.
But one of the things you mentioned was as we're seeing these non traditional communities of practice arise, and some of them aren't even brick and mortar and they're situational, they gather in parks, they gather at a yoga studio, they do what they do how they do it around a dinner table, that it's tricky to justify the tie. It's tricky justifying the subscription or the membership model that is effectively what churches have been. When you know that the archdiocese gets a cut. When they're saying, well, what have you done for us lately? And again, to contrast that with the evangelical mega church on my corner, who's got a very good tops down funnel. In fact, have you seen them? I think they're called the Mighty Gemstones. Have you seen that show?
Sue Phillips: Yes, I have.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah.
Sue Phillips: Crazy.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Funny, really funny. And I read a thing by Danny McBride, who's the mulleted lead guy, but also the writer.
Sue Phillips: Who can forget.
Jamie Wheal: And he's like, we wanted to make it as accurate as possible. We didn't want it to be a disrespectful send up but when you look at how they've done it, you're like, Oh, my stars like, no wonder there are crushes. So what is your sense of how to go from orthopraxis, basically highly localized orthopraxis, we get together and we do a thing, but no one tells us what it means or what to do with it, with anything resembling a meshwork or a hierarchy of more synchronized and integrated movement for a common cause.
Sue Phillips: Yeah. Well, you've named so well that what's sort of missing in more progressive expressions is a centralizing influence and there's not a lot that's drawing people to the center, whether some... There's a core that people can point to as being worthy of support in and of itself. Like if you look at the congregation on your own corner there in Austin, first of all, that is a one stop shop, that is so traditional. It's just that the suite of services that they provide is incredibly widespread. So when you're an individual who's engaging that kind of community, you understand the value that you're deriving from the thing at the center. So not only are you buying your coffee at the coffee shop, you're understanding the branding that's at the center of the really well integrated suite of services you're being offered.
There is of course, no corollary in the progressive religious world. There's no center that can be pointed to as being worthy of fidelity. And that's the problem when we focus on orthopraxy is that there the practices themselves are too disparate to have a common core. And I think that's exactly why there's been this disillusion. Interestingly, Jamie, you mentioned Unitarianism and I want to lift this up for just one second as a story, of course, I am Unitarian Universalist, but the tent of Unitarian universalism, which is a small denomination that has Christian roots in the United States, they are covenantal connected congregations with enormous theological variety. There are Christian congregations, there are atheist and humanist congregations. There are congregations of all theological stripes. And that is a very rare exception about how you can contain such theological diversity within what is still a denomination.
And the reason is covenant because they're connected by their practice of connecting by practice. It's very meta. So there doesn't have to be so much agreement on the substance of the practice, but there is on the ability to place oneself and one's congregation and intentional relationship with others. That's what covenant is. So if to the extent that I see promise for something emerging from the progressive religious world, it's going to look like that, again, just back to that Guild notion. But I don't think it's ever going to look like your church on the corner there in Austin.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. I know it just would never get out of committee.
Sue Phillips: Central brand.
Jamie Wheal: It would never get out of committee. And we look at a lot of the social justice movements these days that are sort of, they briefly rally around common calls and then end up often imploding around difference. And that sort of yearning for orthodoxy. Actually, a Unitarian minister came up to me at a conference in Vancouver last year where I had just given a talk sort of on some of these themes, and he's like, I am so frustrated because everything you're saying is exactly who we are as Unitarians and what we've been doing forever. And playfully, I was kind of like, well sort of, but on the other hand, look at the scoreboard right now.
Sue Phillips: Brutal.
Antinomianism in the Burning Man Community
Jamie Wheal: Like having the ideas are perfect. But on the other hand, we're getting our clocks cleaned by other forces. I mean, for me, the closest I've seen is in that sort of antinomian collectivism has been the Burning Man community, in the sense that you have millions, literally millions of people around the world at this point, who have had that initiatory experience, and I think it's saving grace and it's Achilles heel is that no one will ever tell you what the man means, right?
Sue Phillips: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie Wheal: And that's different than if it had simply been a new age hippie counterculture, it's got an anarchistic San Francisco punk rock element, which was just like smack that stuff out of your hand the moment you get too precious with it. But as a result, it is also subject to capture.
So it's this wonderful anarchist open source experiment. And on the other hand, other forces can come in. And for me, I fully acknowledged my own lenses, but while there's a lot of tittering and nervousness or anxiety in the conservative religious space that Burning Man is this debauched depraved thing. I think it's the most pop post-apocalyptic mystic, Christian ritual I've ever seen. I mean, there, you've got the man who sits up there and everybody idolizes him, worships him, like hat tip, this is the dude, but come Saturday night and it's like, bring us Barabbas, they were like, it absolutely tones and the crowd becomes the blood thirsty. They want to see him go down and it's almost this ancient, it's the sort of Tom Robbins to Robert Graves, it's the sacrificial king, and he now becomes the scapegoat and he purges all of our sins for the new year of bounty and we go forth. So it's fascinating to me to see how these things never die.
Sue Phillips: And this seems to me what Burning Man is so good at getting at, are what are those essential needs. You can almost see the entire like liturgical canopy on display on the Playa. And also, one of the things that captivates me about Burning Man, Jamie, and of course you would know this better than I would, but there's all these communities; Burning Man is not just a mass of colors that have no connection to one another. There's all these communities embedded in communities embedded in practices. Each community has sort of a gift that they offer up in service to the larger community. I would say that that is covenantal in a way. So the connection is, there're autonomous communities on the Playa, but there is a commitment to kind of the core covenant of Burning Man, if you will, which is not only practices, there are actual beliefs that are at the center that everybody agrees to be down with, at least for the time that they're having that experience.
And I think that's why I agree with you that Burning Man is an example of these kind of orthopraxis at their best. Even though there's kind of cataclysmic ending, cathartic cataclysmic ending with the burning of the man. I think that's just fascinating.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And also the template, right? And the temple almost, I'd be curious as to your experience, as a Unitarian minister, but to me it feels about as Unitarian as you could imagine, in the sense that it borrows and integrates architecture from around the world. It's sort of a neither here nor there, but it has focal points. It has sort of Pythagorean sense it does everything that sacred geometry always has. And it's overwhelmingly, like if I'm ever moved to tears, it's in that space, it's the profound humanity of people putting memorials to loved ones, lost ones, writing their prayers. And then ultimately burning that to the ground in silence, that's the opposite of the Saturday night [Bucca Nol 00:14:19], its reverential silence, and literally, sending our prayers to heaven in the smoke.
The Magic is in the Mundane
Jamie Wheal: And so a question I had, I mean in this notion, that is very much a quintessentially American post-modern outburst of our experiential religiosity, I guess you could make a case, I won't state that definitively. But if we go back to someone like Harold Bloom at Yale who wrote Omens of Millennium, he wrote the American Religion. He was fascinated with the just wonky Gnostic, American spirituality through Shakers and Quakers and Mormons and everyone. He made a case, he said, America is a Gnostic country, but it is forgotten that fact, that has literally spent a couple of centuries forgetting that at its core is a technology of remembering of anamnesis, of initiation.
And he said, it's fundamentally, it's both hermetic, it's a secret tradition and it's heretical because it's about anthropos. It's about that city on the Hill that Winthrop talked about way back when is actually populated if we take it to its fruition, to its full apotheosis, by anthropos by Adam Cadman, The sort of what you would find in Qabalah or the Gnostic traditions, perfected man or perfected human. What is your sense of that? That sense of, if you perceive, first of all, just anything uniquely transformational and even all chemical that is here in this American tradition? It's almost as if we're sort of sifting through the wreckage of the last few centuries, but is that something worth resurrecting as it were?
Sue Phillips: Well, for myself, I've always been more concerned with how we survive every day life experiences than in the kind of exceptional ecstatic experiences. So I can't say that I'm that interested in the question you'll forgive me for it would be a good Unitarian Universalist to reject the question.
Jamie Wheal: Nice.
Sue Phillips: But I think what is a much more important question is how people live their everyday lives and survive what comes our way. And to my mind, I don't have to reject the truthfulness of your premise to say that I'm less interested in identifying trends that have to do with kind of explosions of anachronistic expression in this moment than I am in just understanding what humans need day in and day out and how they try to find what they need to live a meaningful life. And it's much less sexy. It's much less explosive, literally, and figuratively. It tends to be dogged in it's attempt and every day in its expressions. And I think that's where the real meat of this conversation lies is in how like everyday people create an everyday world of meaning around them. And when we can crack that nut, Jamie, that is a world that I am trying to build and to live in.
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. Beautiful. And to clarify, I think probably in my enthusiasm to pose the question stopped halfway.
Sue Phillips: Oh, what's the other half?
Jamie Wheal: Well, my hope and really the title of this series Home Grown Humans is based on that. It's based on Dorothy, not becoming the new wizard in Oz, it's Dorothy coming back to Candace.
Sue Phillips: Beautiful.
Unlocking Soul Force
Jamie Wheal: And with helping hands like that zen ox herding parable. The idea that we're not done, if we think we're standing on the mountain top, getting the Instagram selfie. We're done when we come home and all the cliches and see it for the first time, blah, blah, blah. But for me, that notion of being anthropos is the possibility of becoming a twice born human, the possibility of realizing that we are just as Carl Sagan said just star's made of star stuff and that this lifetime, these relationships, this community, that's the miracle. And we cease to yearn to escape it. And we come back joyfully with a desire and an interest to serve and essentially already knowing that our lives are forfeit.
And this is what I'd love to touch on with you now, which I think actually fully braids these threads, which is how we unlock what Martin Luther King called soul force, what Gandhi called Satyagraha. Because in this age where it feels like everything needs to be done, and there's so much grieving and there's so much injustice. And in that, there's a lot of rage and there's a lot of reacting and I think we're in real peril of even the folks who are nominally on the side of social justice, losing their grip on soul force. And we've seen the left from Robespierre and the French revolution to pull Putin Mau, like the right has no monopoly on heinous violence. We can just leave it at that.
And there's a recent study I just saw that, contract did a psychological assessment of progressive liberals, alt right identitarian and... What was their term? I suppose it was militant, social justice adherence. So same value set as the folks in the center of progressive liberals, but a militant orthodoxy around it. And both those far sides shared dark triad personality traits along with authoritarianism versus... Again, back to our question of orthopraxis but no orthodoxy, the folks in the middle were saying, I believe these things, I think they're really valuable, but it's not on me to assert for another. So my hope would be is that can we create something resembling a repeatable process by which many can? Let's just leave it at that, let's call it scalable, but a way to digest our grief and a way to open our hearts and a way to remember what we're here to do, and then go forth and do that with love and compassion, with the transformative power of soul force, not an eye for an eye.
Sue Phillips: Preach. Preach. One of your core questions is how do we get from where we are to that? What do you think the building blocks of that are?
Jamie Wheal: Well, one harebrained scheme that I have would be literally the, what is the megachurch disruptor? What's the Joel Olsteen disrupter? It's just high time. And can we create ritual community of practice that does all the things? And that's movement and breath and song and verse and creates and sound and light and you deliberately, but ethically use those techniques of ecstasy to program epiphany. And it's actually fairly straightforward these days. You can picture a thousand people at a time, obviously quarantine has kind of thrown a bit of a wrench into this, you could potentially have home versions, et cetera. But whereby, again, using deliberate ecstatic techniques, whether it's whirling dervishes and Sufism, whether whatever it would be chanting, prayer, song, again, and synchronized collective movement.
I mean, imagine like the achy breaky heart, but with amazing grace. And creating these experiences for people and you can have had this sort of the headline like, believe what you want to believe. Just never lose the faith. The idea of like, look, we're going to show you a little bit like a farm to table restaurant. Here's the neurophysiology of how we're going to provide you a momentary access to Kairos or sacred time or grace. You can skin it with anything you want, that's true for you, that's part of your culture or community, or that's central and valuable to you. And so we're not even going to get into the doctrine. We're going to get you to the place which passes all understanding. And we're going to trust that that place and that information source that you leave space for grace. We will let the mystery stay the mystery.
But then the idea that and this goes back to your ethics that almost the recessional would be as people come out of those state experiences for them with a partner or anything like that to sort of jot down or document, this is what I've seen because it slips through dreams it's a slippery fish pulling information from that route.
Slippery fish polling information from that realm into this realm without tools to anchor it. So there could be, again, this idea of like this I remember, that's the experience of anamnesis, like I've remembered what I've forgot. So this I remember, and today I begin again. And just that sense of, yes, it's a hard world out there and it's crunched me down and bent my back, but today I stand tall with my brothers and sisters in praise and remembrance, and now I commit to whatever this next six days until our next Sabbath, whatever it might be, I commit to bearing witness to the best of my ability and wait to see how that goes.
Sue Phillips: I love that so much. I love the focus on memory and remembering because there's that sense that that wholeness is out there and here, we only have to remember that it's there, kind of re-sync that taproot into the place that no matter what's happening in our lives, it's still there and then commit to behaving as though we believe that were true.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, how about this? I was saving the, I hesitate to say the best, but certainly one of the things I'm most intrigued by these days because if we're thinking about what does an open source, scalable anti-fragile, meaning 3.0 look like because if you say meaning 1.0 with traditional faiths and we've seen the collapse of them and that was based on salvation, that was always the promise, but it was for a tribe, you had to belong to be saved. And if meaning 2.0, you could sort of say was the enlightenment experiment, Neo liberal free market democracies. And we've really seen that getting a little ragged and jagged these days and less and less people are really signing off on full faith in that. But that was based on inclusion. That was the genius of the enlightenment, but it canned salvation.
So how do we combine in meaning 3.0 inclusive salvation? Is that possible? And one of the sort of thinkers that has intrigued me the most around that is [Tila Deshaden 00:01:14:22] and his notion of the Omega point and the idea that is it possible that the alpha in the beginning was the word, I mean, the religion is pretty good on that one and it's pretty hard to falsify. But the Omega, the end, is really been up for grabs and it feels more up for grabs than other, as to what it's going to look like, what it means, who wins, who loses, the whole bit. And we're seeing that with QAnon, we're seeing that with anti-vaxxer conspiracies, we're seeing that in the void of faith, we're making up a bunch of whack ass shit and not all it is helpful, but [Deshaden 01:15:02] had that idea that I'm sure you're familiar with, which is that the body of Christ is all of us at the end of time, unique, not dissolving into the suit or the borg, profoundly unique in our gifts but connected in our shared recognition of this moment.
And he said, there's going to be three intersecting ox and we won't know how this goes to the last minute, which is the arch of the carrying capacity of the planet, which I thought was pretty profound for someone in the thirties to fifties writing about this. But he says, that's one. And then the other is basically those drawn to say yes to this prospect and those opposed. And it's going to be a crisscross crash. And then he even goes as far as saying, and it has to be this way or the redemption of it wouldn't be that interesting. Wouldn't be good enough.
Sue Phillips: Or it wouldn't work.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And you kind of think like for generations raised on death stars and X wings and death eaters and Hogwarts and even matrices and machines, like we're wired for this. We really are like a small band of rebel misfits against all odds at the 11th hour, polling victory for freedom from the faces of darkness.
Sue Phillips: And left to our own devices, we come up with some really crazy shit. This is part of why I feel like tradition, the whole transmission of practices and pathways of encountering these realities is so vital, precisely so that we do not have to make up our own stuff. The greatest liberation I have experienced as a spiritual person is in not having to create my own religious world is actually, because I was unchurched, beginning to appreciate the gifts of tradition that I can take and put together with a community of other people to create a life that is genuinely flourishing. I am so delighted I did not have to make stuff up. I would certainly be as capable of coming up with just whackadoodle theories that nonetheless scratch the same itches as religion has another century. So that's my hope.
And I'm going to come back to that word of remembering, because I think in a way there are so many opportunities for us to tap into what we can remember if only we get a little help from traditions of the past, again, only in terms of the practices, not so much in terms of the beliefs, although there's a lot of flourishing communities that are rooted in those beliefs that I would never want to diminish with my refusal to center orthodoxy. But Jamie, I think that's a world that we can create. And I hear you asking over and over again, how do we do it? And why has progressivism and liberalism failed so completely to do well what religious conservatives seem to be doing better?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And I guess that it feels to me it's almost like chilblains, or like when you're a kid and you're out sledding and you don't even notice that your fingers are numb and then you go back inside and the blood comes rushing back and it just hurts like hell. And it feels like collectively, we are waking up to things we were numbed to, and it hurts like hell, but that's actually a sign of lifeblood returning. It was the numbness that could have really harmed us. And at the same time, it feels like.. Dr. King's legacy, for instance, that notion of soul force, the notion of taking a stand for the infinite game for inclusion for everybody is under siege and not just under siege by the people in obvious opposition, under siege by the folks on the progressive side of the fence who are saying, he was a Patsy for he pandered to white religiosity. He suppressed basically social justice underneath the banner of polite Christianity and faith. We need something that's angry, that's unapologetic, that's unyielding.
What is your sense of that legacy of King? And he drew on the Bhagavad Gita, he drew on Emerson and Thoreau and, the Unitarian movements, he drew on all of it, and to me that feels profoundly and essentially American, but it also feels like it's potentially more at risk than maybe it's ever been.
The Collective Longing is What Makes Us Who We Are
Sue Phillips: Well, first of all, I should say, I'm not a scholar of the civil rights movement in any way, but what I understand and have a gut sense of is that one of the shorthands that James [inaudible 01:20:17] the great black liberation theologian has given me through his books is a sense that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were part of a continuum of response to the movement moment in the 1960s. And that Martin Luther King was actually super tactical and strategic and intentional in what he drew from and what he inspired and who he was trying to inspire to activate change.
I don't have any illusion that Martin Luther King thinks that that should be the only tactic in that vast continuum. And I think in a way we're faced with the same kind of questions is like, what is the range of responses to systemic injustice? And I don't see Martin Luther King as isolated, but as a part of an ecosystem of responses to those injustices of which he was apart and there were more radical, literally militant, literally people bearing arms with the black Panther, so I guess I have some core faith that it's actually that range of responses that we need partly around that polarity mapping and management that you talked about earlier, that there's something essential in the solution that will really bear fruit, that we have that range and that they stay in tension with each other and that there's something very dynamic about the search for that equilibrium and the process of discovery within that, even if we don't land in any one place. Although I hear you about and clear raising some flags about how the extreme left can begin to look like the extreme right.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, yeah. And my sense is that we are all choking on our undigested grief and that grief is increasing. And in fact, a friend and colleague of ours, Zach Stein, who was at Harvard Ed school, he recently said in a book, we are entering an era where billions will watch while millions die. And that sense of just crushing, overwhelming realization of the pain of human experience. For me as try as I might, I mean, in college and grad school, I studied all things, everything but the European and Western tradition, everything but, and I went to the Boulder bookstore and saw rabbi Zalman Schacter give a talk. And he was talking about his experience and he had been in the sixties, up in Manitoba, he had discovered LSD as a sacrament. He had gone pretty much off the grid and off the reservation into Sufism. He became an ordained sheik in Sufism, Buddhism, the counterculture back to the land movement.
And he was telling this story of going back to the wailing wall in Jerusalem. And he was having a bit of a crisis of faith. And he's like, okay, Lord, what should I do? What should I do? And, every time he prayed into silence, this voice came said, but Zalman, you're a Jew and he would ditch it. And then he would try and rationalize it. And again, but Zalman, you're a Jew. And so he was like, Oh fuck, okay, I can't hide. I can't deny my lineage. I can't deny the culture. And the customs that I came up in. This is my faith as much as I've wanted to push it.
And, I've felt overwhelmingly like that. My whole, I suppose, at a minimum young adult to adult life around Christianity, it was the sense of back to that traditionalist thing, having very little time or belief in the Orthodox bureaucracy of the last 2000 years, but constantly getting pulled back to the archetype of the Nazarene. And realizing, it felt like Buddha was sort of like the Roger Federer of enlightenment, he was so effortlessly graceful, you're like, are you really even working at this buddy? Like I'm not feeling the same thing I feel when I try to do what you look like you do. And like Lao Tzu, you're like amazing, but he just shows up, he's completely out of time, he's fully formed and he's just this laughing mystic completely attuned to life. And any time you screw it up, well, that's because you weren't inline with the dao.
And you're like, okay, neither of those gives me a whole lot of guidance on this highly ambivalent cluster fuck that is my life. And so the notion of the Christ has felt profoundly resonant, and it feels like that intersection of Kairos and Kronos, like we're in this world, but we're not of it. You can feel as filled with grace and possibility as possible, but you're there nailed to the tree of being born, dying, seeing everything you love turn to nothing of being betrayed of, of being filled with doubt, of feeling abandoned and having to do it any way willingly. So, for me, I guess that's my question is, is there space for a cosmic Christ and again, the branding issues are so pronounced that my sense is like the Omegans, that's the way [Desharden 01:25:55] has lit it up for me. I'm like, Oh, well, maybe we could call it that. Is there space for the Omegans at the end of time as we march each other home?
Because the other crazy thing for me at least, is that the cultural touchdowns, that to me speak most poignantly about the Christic initiatory experience, aren't from Christianity at all, it's like Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddhist nun. And she says to be alive, is to be continually thrown out of the nest. Leonard Cohen, a Zen Jew is saying there's a crack in everything it's where the light gets in, a broken in a perfect hallelujah. Chung Z in China is like joy bathing, you literally, we heal ourselves through the experience of bliss and joy, like Wabi Sabi in Japan.
You're like, Oh my gosh, I think this is everywhere. I don't think this is a stitch up from the middle East. And I certainly don't think it's preacher man telling me how to live. It feels so universal and so essential to the human experience. So, that's my question is, is that possible? Is there a chance to without enforcing dogma or doctrine to share truly the good news that for all of us around the world, there's the possibility of being Omegans together? There's a possibility of walking each other home?
Sue Phillips: Humans have been asking that question since the dawn of time is what is that? And how can I get there? Can you please help me? Can we go together? Will the people I love be there waiting for me when we get to that place? And what gives me hope that that's possible, honestly Jamie, is thinking of this world as a cathedral stained glass window. You can see that's one of the idioms that matters to me full of refracted light, barely boundaried, merging colors together, and believing that there are so many expressions of that longing and that the kind of human transmitted chances we have to discover both that longing and meeting it, you just gave us a huge range of cultures, times, places, idioms beliefs, theological frameworks.
And I genuinely like to see that all part of that same stained glass window, where it's the reaching for that, that I think honestly is the core human condition, not the finding except in rare cases. And I know that your life has, in some ways been devoted to the finding and the intentional reconstruction of experiences that will get us to that next experience, that next level, so that we can expand our imagination for what's possible for us. I love that so much, what a worthy pursuit. And at the same time, I feel like it's the longing that makes us who we are, not the achieving. And if we can find ourselves in good company as we're longing together, to me, that is everything. That's the whole thing.
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you.
Sue Phillips: Perhaps. It's a frightening and scary place to live though. Isn't it?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And to be sure, if I've been some advocate for like climbing mountains in real life as well as metaphorically, it's because it feels really fun, something to do and the views give us more of a sense of life down on the flats. But everything you're advocating for is actually where my heart is more and more and more. And that feels the missing link. It feels like getting high is pretty easy these days; staying high and even more to the point getting grounded is the magic.
Sue Phillips: That's right. The thing with yourself when you're not feeling high, is I think the challenge of all challenges, but the way that you articulate that horizon is everything to a longing people, that could be enough, being able to name that horizon that we're aiming for. That might be enough to keep us going and you do it very well.
Jamie Wheal: Well, thank you so much for everything. I wanted to talk to you about, maybe I'll just say it because what the hell we're here, but the church of Beyonce that grace cathedral, I'm sure you must've...?
Sue Phillips: Fantastic.
Jamie Wheal: Yes.
Sue Phillips: Fantastic. It's everything.
Jamie Wheal: Right? It is so rad. It's things like that where you see those kinds of innovations and you're like, okay, so that's for women of color. That's LGBTQ folks. That's everybody welcome. And my sense, and I just kind of dropped this stitch when we were talking about anthropos because I didn't want it to feel esoteric, individualistic or overtly ascendant, because my sense is is that in our living tradition in America is the sort of Arcana Americana, which is our redemption songs. Do you know that Dolly Parton tune traveling through? Did you ever hear that?
Sue Phillips: I don't think so.
Jamie Wheal: I will send you the link.
Sue Phillips: I'll click it up.
Jamie Wheal: It was on the soundtrack for trans America, that movie with Felicity Huffman, but it's gorgeous. And she does it at the Oscars. She's just by herself on stage. And she just brings that house down and my sense, like but juxtaposed between like Dolly and Beyonce, is the entire African-American spiritual tradition, jazz, blues, gospel, country, folk, and it's all the same. It's all I've been down so goddamn long, it looks like up to me and I rise up singing. It's like I'm going to tell you my woes and we're going to rise up singing. And that to me is like, if we have something in our back pockets right now, like a super power, it feels like that, it feels like those redemption songs.
Sue Phillips: I think you're onto something. There are glimpses there of the way that we can give expression to the things you and I have been talking about in fresh new ways that just feel so important. Anytime we can name Beyonce and Dolly Parton is like, the theologians that they are, so grounding too, so grounding. That's a space I want to live in too.
Jamie Wheal: Awesome, amazing, Sue thank you so much.
Sue Phillips: Thank you Jamie.
Jamie Wheal: That's beautiful to connect and yeah, I look forward to staying in touch. I think that we got connected via, gosh, I forget his name, but it's the Sunday assembly fellow.
Sue Phillips: Sanderson Jones.
Jamie Wheal: Sanderson, what an interesting character. Demented English nobility. I think they always get a little cookie around the edges. But that notion of what you guys are up to, what I'm trying to do with this book, it feels like it's shared and overlapping work. So I'd love to stay in touch.
Sue Phillips: I trust our paths will cross.
Jamie Wheal: Beautiful.
Sue Phillips: I hope so. I wish you well, in the meantime, you and all your crew who I know are out there, but I can't see you. Be well, you all. Thank you. [crosstalk 01:34:02] is coming back. Take care of yourselves.
Jamie Wheal: Awesome.
Sue Phillips: All right. Be well, bye-bye.
Jamie Wheal: Thank you.
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