A few years ago, February 2012 it was, I was sitting in an L.A. cafe, just barely outside of the central downtown metro area. Myself and three or four other members of Occupy L.A. had concluded a particularly positive meeting, a gathering of what we called “Freedom School,” a collaborative discussion group that took place on Sunday afternoons. The mood was upbeat. Discussion centered on the possibilities of real change in the U.S.
I felt optimistic, so I raised a question that I’d been thinking about for a while: “What is our alternative story?” I had to elaborate. “The powers-that-be,” I explained, “have a particular narrative within which a person can put themselves. It’s a greater American story, or narrative, that people can invest themselves in. It gives their lives meaning and purpose.” That narrative is usually something along the lines of this: Work hard, obey the rules, invest yourself in a company or start a business, pay your taxes, complain about your taxes, complain a bit about “big government,” and if you do most of these things, you’ll be rewarded with money and leisure time.
There are variations to the above portrait of the American Dream, but the primary concern is not to question, too seriously, the hierarchy of power and control. Let the 1% control the wealth. The wealthy earned it. The poor are lazy. Don’t question the class system. Be patriotic, don’t question the wars abroad. Give corporations a free hand.
“It’s a simple narrative,” I said. “You can easily carve out your own story within that American Dream story. So, what’s our narrative? What’s the story in which people can make their own story. What is the broader, alternative American Dream that people can latch on to and find meaning in?”
It’s an ongoing question. Whatever this alternative American Dream is, it’s got to be good. Because people are fairly simple. They want safety, security, and a fair measure of predictability. Especially in a crisis, we turn to what we know.
A good deal of my life has been spent trying to answer that question for myself. The conventional American Dream didn’t work for me. It didn’t give me peace of mind, make me happy, or do enough to eliminate suffering in the world. In fact, it seems to me that the American Dream causes far too many nightmares, nightmares for those who aren’t high enough to share in the wealth and prosperity but also for those farther up the hierarchy. Consumerism is soul sucking. There’s something that everyone is missing out on in our world. What’s the alternative story?
Church, the Bible, and more church. These were central influences on my young life, and I was quite happy to invest myself in them. My background is what most would consider “conservative evangelical.” This is the form of Christianity that traces its roots back to the frontier revivals of frontier America. It is generally focused on two things: a “born again” religious experience and the Bible as the self-revealing authority of all truth. The experience of being “born again” is what authenticates you as a “true” Christian, within this paradigm, and the subsequent life as a Christian is to be lived according to the values, instructions, and principles of the Bible. The Bible, the very truth, directly from God.
This point about the Bible was held with fundamentalist zeal by those around me, growing up, later at my college, and then even later at my seminary. Evangelicals also have roots that go back to the Fundamentalism of the early 20th century. For many Evangelicals, their view of the Bible is very similar to the way many Muslims view the Koran: as the ultimate source of all truth given directly by God to human beings.
Fundamentalist elements aside, when I was young, I found in this Christian context a language to express the deeper meaning in my heart and soul. Religion of any kind can have this very formative role in the lives of human experience in that it gives us a way to speak of the mysteries of our being. I have memories of my room, in a dark and fairly damp basement, in the early hours of the morning, reading my Bible at 9 years old. While wrapped up in a blanket with the hamsters spinning in their hamster wheels, I somehow felt this sense of connection to something sacred and bigger than myself. I remember a small “Bible church” in the middle of cornfields and church (at least) three times a week. Invitations to come to the alter and pray, to renew the commitment to God. All of these memories attest to the purity I found in the language of the religion of childhood.
East Africa. 2014.
Nothing is as certain as death and taxes, I reasoned at the age of 18, and so I decided to major in accounting and business in college, although I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Accounting was a practical skill, however, so I would always have it to fall back on. I would rather have studied the Bible, but I figured that would have to wait. After graduating, I did my time in the cubicles and cells of the corporate world. At that time, I was fairly conservative, politically. I believed in capitalism and free markets and people getting paid for their skills and hard work. It’s the way of the American Midwest. There may be starving people in the world, and they may be people working for .17 cents an hour doing dehumanizing jobs, but, I figured, these people were certainly better off than they would have been otherwise.
In the meantime, I started a Master’s degree, on the side, taking classes part time. It was a theology degree. I studied biblical exegesis. This involved studying the original languages that the Bible was written in – ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek. I also took it upon myself to study things that others weren’t studying. Unlike most, I was curious about the process of interpretation itself, the philosophy of how we interpret a text (like the Bible). This study about the process of interpretation eventually changed my view of the Bible. Rather than a book that floated down from God, I began to see the deep humanity of the Bible, warts and all. Rather than viewing the Bible as a book written by God, I began to realize the situation was a bit more complicated. Humans wrote the Bible, and human beings had to interpret the Bible. Somewhere along this process, mistakes were bound to be made. I never felt this was degrading to the Bible, I didn’t feel like this made the Bible less truthful or inspiring. On the contrary, seeing this human dimension to the Bible opened up new dimensions for me.
At this time, during my mid-twenties, roughly, I was also very active in my church. A hermit by nature, I had realized I needed community. I worked with a small group of leaders to help launch a young adult group. It was a place where we focused on cultivating community and togetherness. I am deeply grateful for these years. As of that time period, I still had not wandered far from the Midwest United States, from the cornfields of Indiana. The feeling of connectedness that was growing in our group led to a form of satisfaction that made me feel as though I would just settle down and live out the duration amongst those fields of gold. But I couldn’t. Things were shifting in me, and over time, they made me take flight.
For one thing, I was changing my theological perspective. Things were less certain, and I was becoming open and entirely un-fundamentalist. And I was fitting in, less and less, with the more confident, dogmatic perspectives of my church and seminary. There were certainly some kindred spirits, here and there, but by and large there was an institutionalism of this fundamentalist perspective. At the same time, I was also becoming disenfranchised with the American Dream and the American system. I was beginning to feel a certain sense of inner despair and a lack of real and authentic happiness that I felt I could trace back to the American Way. I was starting to question our system, beginning to believe that something was wrong with the fact that there were so many people laboring for .17 cents an hour to make things that we used, threw into our garbage cans, then took out to the dump. I began to think that the system actually relied on those sweatshop workers in order to bring me my cheap product and that maybe the system actually wouldn’t work if we didn’t perpetually have people working for next to nothing. But more than that, I began to sense that the dehumanizing of sweatshop workers was dehumanizing for all of us. Centering one’s life within a way of life that places production and consumption as the twin gods of fulfillment is spiritually empty and depressing, to say the least.
Besides being disenfranchised by the American Way, there was more to my inner struggles. I also could sense that I needed spiritual development of some sort, some form of spiritual discipline for my heart and mind. The conventional spiritual practices I knew were too narrow, and they just didn’t work for me. I wanted a deeper sense of peace. I was quite keenly impressed by the “fruit of the Spirit” described by the Apostle Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed. It was hanging out there, that fruit, I knew it; it was the result of an authentic and genuine spiritual development. That fruit, at the moment, though, was out of reach for me.
Let’s step back for a moment. In a greater sense, I had become a member of a club, of sorts, a group of folks who have been termed “emerging Christians.” This isn’t an actual club, mind you, with any kind of membership roles, nor is it a church or church movement or denomination. It’s something of a non-movement type of movement. It is a diverse group of Christians who have found their conventional and traditional experiences of church and Christianity to be unsatisfactory. Some seek to re-format the life of the church, the fellowship and togetherness of Christianity, perhaps by rebooting the experience of worship itself, or by envisioning new ways of organization within the church. Others simply seek to become more focused on issues of social justice, working to create more equality in the culture. Yet others seek a more substantial spiritual experiences. There are yet others, like myself, who wrestle with all of the above. The commonality, if there is one, to what people call “emerging Christians” seems to be that they do not feel that conventional Christianity answers the call for the world we live in, that this era (you can call it “postmodern” or whatnot) presents challenges that require us to rethink what it means to be Christian. Some of these emerging Christians stay within their conventional churches and Christian institutions, others do not.
All of these shiftings in me eventually became quite difficult to deal with. Upon graduating from seminary, I was thoroughly discouraged with my faith and my life. I didn’t fit. So, I hit the rode. I began a life of traveling and wandering. I always had a book at the ready (recall my studious, reclusive nature), but I became more interested in the experiential and lived reality of life. I fell in love with the outdoors. I’ve always been active, but activities like running, cycling, and hiking became more rich and full in places like the Grand Canyon, among the redwoods of northern California, or in the wild spaces of Alaska (my favorite spot on this earth).
Love. Yes. True love. My love of nature quickly led to aligning myself with environmentalists, which quickly led to critiquing not only our modern destruction of the natural world but all of the violence and domination that marks our modern era. And so I became a bit of a radical, a quite subversive fellow. As I kayaked, hiked, and camped in pristine wilderness areas, I could juxtapose the beauty and freedom of the wild with the pollution, relational detachment, control, manipulation, and existential displacement of our civilized modern world. At this point in my journey, the voices of non-religious thinkers seemed to me far more relevant to our times and more representative of truth than many of the religious ones that I had been familiar with. Still, I remained inspired by the Bible, by the attempt at an egalitarian community created by Moses, by the bold protests of the biblical prophets to the injustices of their world, by the spiritual vision of the writings of the Apostle Paul, and most especially by Jesus. Though so often the Bible is held hostage for use of reinforcing conventional norms, I began to see that in order to do so, a good large chunk of the Bible had to be ignored or softened.
Along the way, I began to pursue meditation and similar spiritual practices that are a part of what can be called the “contemplative” Christian tradition. Meditation and contemplative prayer are spiritual practices of silence and solitude that seek to still the craziness of mental life, to bring peace to the mind. And I felt it begin to work for me. It was working slowly. Slowly, but surely. I began to study what these silent practices looked like in other, non-Christian traditions like Buddhism. I read the Tao Te Ching again and again, then read it again, impressed by the emphasis on letting go, easing the grip that the ego usually had on me. I was inspired by the “lovers of wisdom” of the ancient days. People, like the Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, and Socrates, who weren’t merely theoretical scholars but people who embodied the alternative paradigms that they advocated. They were social critics and also teachers of a way to inner peace.
This brings me back around to Occupy, to Los Angeles, back to a cafe and a question. This blog, and my life, is an attempt to work out an alternative story, something that will inspire us to make substantial changes in our inner lives and in our culture. To me, one thing seems supremely crucial: we can’t have social change without inner transformation, and we need social change and cultural awareness to be a catalyst for bringing about inner transformation. The two are intimately connected. I am endlessly intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between the two, that when we ignore the connection, either our spiritual pursuits or our attempts at social change will be the worse for it. If we ignore the suffering that our actions and our culture cause, then we shut off a very important part of us. The ills of society seem to me to be symptoms of a spiritual sickness, just as our personal inner struggles are symptomatic of our culture of manipulation and control. Because of this, spiritual development is, I think, not primarily about sitting in meditation or prayer, as important and fundamental as these things are. For me, meditation is not about a solitary pursuit of my own happiness. This would too quickly become a self-centered goal, and I would lose motivation. For me, spiritual pursuits are about our interconnectedness. We are relational and communal beings. Ultimately, we are on the path to healing and wholeness when we are open and engaged with others, with other human beings, with the natural world, with our culture, and in fact with the world as a whole.
In addition to blogging, I am also currently working on a book that explores this connection between spiritual transformation and confronting and subverting the destructive nature of our culture. It’s a book that walks through the Bible, unturning the stones of radicalism while at the same time contemplating the teachings that are at the heart of a genuine, personal revolution of the mind. I want to explore the connection between these two things – personal spiritual peace and the ways in which we might remake our culture. It will be an attempt to answer that question of an alternative American Dream, grounded in an engagement with the Bible. Once again, I’m impressed by Jesus. Spiritual teacher of the way and dude who protested the empire by overturning the tables of the temple.
January 26, 2014