Saturday, March 13, 2010

Grounding - part 3

In my favorite class this semester (philippians philemon and colossians) I encountered an idea that belonged in my second-favorite class (material theology & consumer culture) and my brain just about EXPLODED with major ideas.
So the Paul/Pauline class had an essay on ritual in early (pauline) christianity which dealt with that religious (spiritual) experience in which, practicing a ritual such as baptism, Lord's Supper, fasts or feasts with your religious community, you all feel as if you have entered "mythic time," leaving the ordinary everyday behind and entering the realm of your God. This is, if not a universal experience, at least one common to most religions, and labeled as "experiential transcendence." It helps us all feel closer to our God and to immortal life, but also ties us together as a people who have experienced this together.
Experiential transcendence is linked to a reordering of the dominant symbols and images by which one lives, and this in turn can lead to greater integrity and more courageous moral actions." *
Thus helping the early and persecuted Christians to live radically, sharing all their possessions, serving one another without regard to status, gender, or race, NOT TO MENTION surviving as a persecuted minority under an unhospitable (to say the least) Roman empire. If you agree with this analysis of what it is experiential transcendence could do for people, it must have done a LOT for the early Christians.

Fast forward to today, and I think we are experts in experiential transcendence. At least, Californians are, judging from the per-capita consumption of tibetan prayer bowls, yoga pants, and spirituality books. In the Christian world we are no less experience-oriented. You can go shopping for church-experiences and monastic retreats (and I have). There are fields of scholarship and books written for pastors about how to maximize the "worship experience" for everyone involved, through musical changes, more focused architecture, methods of preaching, and methods of prayer. But the "reordering of the dominant symbols" of our lives? Not quite. Our dominant symbols, before spiritual awakening, were clothes and appearance. Our dominant symbols post-ashram are yoga pants and appearance. Post-youth-group-retreat, your symbols are probably going to be a WWJD bracelet, and maybe even a fish tattoo if you're REALLY hardcore. Some modification, yes, but seldom quite at the level you could call "reordering." Why is there such a disconnect?
In the context of Marin County's conglomerate religion of eco-simplicity and spiritual serenity, I ask WHY do we buy a $4.50 cup of purifying herbal organic African tea (sereni-tea), sip it meditatively, and then walk out the door into our SUV stickered "diva going green"? (I kid you not - you can't make this irony up). Where did we disconnect our spirituality of purity from our actions of consumption?
In the context of Christian sacred practices, and the untouchably holy Service Project Trip, I ask WHY do we buy a dozen plane tickets to Mexico, get "outside ourselves," serve and worship with the poverty-stricken... and coming home (with tourist crap and a vague intention to "be more grateful") proceed to pass by Mexican day laborers in our own neighborhood? How did we disconnect the spirit of service there from the spirit of justice here?

Every once in a while someone actually does something somewhat approaching the ideal of "following through." But for the most part we put our donation in the monk's bowl, walk out the door of the retreat center, and get on with our lives. Preachers and yogis alike.

In Consuming Religion, Vincent J Miller contends we are "spiritually... trained to seek, search, and choose but not to follow through and to commit" (142). We don't know how to Stay, to let our religion have its implications on our life, and to be transformed.
I'd call this one out as a dangerous failure of community. With church compartmentalized into a once-a-week experience (in the early days, "church" used to be your new family, political identity, and social position i.e. lack thereof) it is something you can leave and come back to, and we no longer hold one another accountable to what we profess. Yoga classes are a perfect example of a spiritual tradition turned into a commodity -- where you pay $10 for an hour of elevated consciousness, and never need to have anything more to do with those people or even with those principles -- but do we do much better in the church? Many people come, put $10 in the offering plate, and consider themselves spiritually full for a week or so. Do we offer a life of the imitation of Christ every day of the week? I know I want to live it more than once a week, which of course is why I'm going to be a pastor, but I bet that won't be enough either. I want to sink my feet in, grow, and be completely transformed.

*quote: "ritual and the first urban christians" by Louise J Lawrence in After the First Urban Christians, eds Todd D Still and David G Horrell, p 113. the essay refers here to Robert J Lifton and Eric Olson, "symbolic immortality" in Antonius Robben, ed., Death, mourning and burial 2004. I used footnotes in a blog - I must really be a geek. At least I resisted the urge to use proper and complete bibliographical form.


  1. You can probably delete comments from your blog, so if I ramble too long I will completely understand if you remove my comments. I ought to get my own blog really.
    But your post really got me thinking, and I think we can compare and contrast this consumption phenomenon with environmentalism.

    I think that our consumerist culture makes buying the solution to everything. So when we hear about deforestation and dioxin pollution as a result of paper production, the response is not to start using rags to clean up messes, but to buy Seventh Generation brand paper towels. Same with cars, people don't drive less and bike more, they buy a Prius.

    (As a side note, I gave a presentation on "Schools or Markets" ed. Deron R. Boyles, and it was fascinating to see how this phenomenon plays out schools, teaching kids that money solves all problems, e.g. raising money for charity rather than volunteering)

    It's not that money doesn't help, that money won't pay pastors and yoga instructors and maintain their facilities, or that one shouldn't bother buying a hybrid car or recycled paper products. It's just that those are a first step and not about "commitment and following through" as Miller suggests.

    I wonder if environmentalism is different though, in that you're not even paying for anything like experiential transcendence. You're paying to alleviate guilt. Behavioral psychologists would say it's negative reinforcement rather than positive reinforcement.

    The closest thing is when people find themselves forming communities with local food. farm fresh eggs and vegetables shared qualify as transcendent.

    I could keep writing, but I'll probably keep thinking to myself instead, about whether spiritual communities have it better than the environmental movement, if environmentalism can learn something from spiritual movements, or if both have the exact same problem and need to come up with new solutions all together.

  2. clearly i don't want to delete your well-thought through reflections. do alert me when you start your own blog though =) i'll read it!
    Consumerism is a big part of the common problem. Also, definitely a part of the problematic charity-based "solution" to poverty. Our urge is -- something hurts -- i need help -- i'll buy something and feel better.
    in a lot of places the environmental movement IS a religon. It has guilt, indulgences (carbon offsets), expensive forms of penance, AND an approaching apocalypse in the impending meltdown of our planet! All necessary ingredients for religious fervor. What it may not have, however, (and which i believe we DO have in Jesus Christ), is hope.
    Talitha (no idea why it won't let me post my own comments on my own blog as myself, but i can post anonymously =)