From Whence This Project Sprouts
This is the assignment: Go out to the local bar, mosey up to a few strangers, and ask them over your beers or whiskey-gingers about God. Do you believe in God? Do you pray? How do you know the difference between good and evil? Basic questions. The kinds some think are all important and some would rather not think about, and everything in between. Once you get past the blank-faced ones who give you raised eyebrows, empty stares, maybe some drunken guttural sounds, I believe you’re likely to find some variation of these three types of responders:
1. The first group: the ones who can’t help it but scoff. At the backwardness of the notion, the anachronistic nature of the word, the crime against the intellect inherent in such a question. “I don’t think about that nonsense,” they might say, or “That’s some bullshit the power hungry made up to justify wars” or put on their best Marx-face and say derisively, “Religion, the opiate of the masses, amiright?” The more polite among them will say simply, “that’s not really relevant in my life,” and you can appreciate that these friendly people do not wish to make you feel stupid for asking them such a ridiculous question. Let’s call this group the hard-core agnostics and atheists, the ones who’ve made up their minds and live comfortably on one end of the God-understanding spectrum.
2. For the second group let’s jump right to the other end of the spectrum. The other ones who seem to know something for sure. Chances are you won’t find too many of these in the bar, but for the sake of the experiment, let’s imagine them there. These are the true believers, the devout, with beards and prayer books, the ones who respond with a look of surprise at such a question. “Of course I believe in God,” they might say, “are you crazy? Life doesn’t make any sense without God.” True, they might not actually say that, it may be implied in anything from a dark glare to a knowing smile to a smirky smelling-the-shit kind of face. I suppose the same can be said for the first group while we’re being honest.
3. The third group is the one that, on our best days, I imagine many young Americans find themselves in. These are the people who, when you ask them if they believe in God, say “Well, what do you mean by God?” To which you might respond, “Well what do you mean by God?” And suddenly there it is: the spark. The meeting of eyes. The opening of mouths. The deep interaction of minds. Lots of people in this group grew up in traditional religious settings, observant if not devout. They might be quick to enumerate their grievances with the established religious institutions: the exclusiveness, the faux-pageantry, the occasional (and sometimes more than occasional) hypocrisies, the impenetrability of the texts, the boredom. They might get angry, because feelings of disappointment with one’s religious upbringing are quite personal and deep, indeed can often feel like betrayal. And yet, with beer in hand and thoughtful expression spreading across the face, you know you’ve found someone interested, someone who wants to converse, a kindred spirit. What do you mean by God indeed.
It’s in this third group that I most often find myself. Although I can’t deny periodic forays into the first two groups. In fact, I’d hypothesize that if you’re in the third group, chances are, at one point or another, you’ve found yourself living with both the skeptical and the pious. Maybe even at the same time.
Next week I’m going to write about a friend of mine who created a “God hack,” a process by which he diligently worked his way from non-believing atheism to belief in what he calls “the real God.” When I asked him the question (“Well what you mean by the ‘real’ God?) he responded, “He goes by many names Yawheh, Brahmin, Allah, whatever. But, you know, it’s the One that everyone is talking about.” he paused a moment and then said, waving his hand, “you know, the Oneness.”
The Oneness. I admit, when I do find myself among the devout, it this conception that is closest to my heart, satisfying both the craving for connection to and within the universe in the present, and my desire to be true to my Jewish heritage and practice. One God, whatever that means, is the core of Western Religion after all. Consider the Jewish prayer the Shema. “Listen O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One.” It’s the prayer we say more than any other. Three times a day at least. We’re even supposed to close our eyes and cover our faces when we say it. Presumably this is to become engulfed in this listening to the Oneness, in which, conceivably, we are included.
And yet on most days this is just esoteric and foreign enough to still leave me searching for more, for better. Better understanding, varieties of understanding, deeper understanding. Maybe you’re interested too, and that’s why you’ve been acting like a crazy person and asking randos in bars whether or not they believe in God. Well then, okay, this project might get somewhere. I reckon we can take an adventure and ask some people what they think.
What do you mean by God indeed.
A Short Introduction to Me
I once had the idea that I wanted to meet and speak with every individual person and every family in America. I wanted to listen to everybody’s stories. Sometimes I thought about it in terms of a presidential campaign. It would be a forty years campaign. I would slowly and quietly make my way across the country, knocking on doors, introducing myself, explaining that I was planning to run for president in 2052 and thought it wise to get to know not just the so-called “everyday Americans” that politicians are always spouting off about, but actually every American. But it wasn’t just to campaign that I’d do it. This was also the only way I believed I could be qualified for the position. How can you lead a country when you don’t know the people? After we’d talked (I imagined mostly sitting at the kitchen table, listening and asking question), I was going to leave a novelty pen with my name on one side in every household in America.
Obviously there are a few problems with this plan, not least of which is that I have no desire to be president. At least not of the United States. Maybe, maybe, I could imagine being president of somewhere like Belize, you know a little tropical country with great beaches and a cool local fruit like the pattaya. I mean maybe one day - not today - and definitely not America. It’s too difficult a job. Too big, too complicated, too much time having to tell really meaningful lies. That said, my desire to hear the stories of Americans remains strong. Not to build my qualifications for an office I don’t want, but simply to find those beautiful and weird hidden nuggets that deserve to shine in the light of day. I know I’m not the only one. Storytelling is everywhere. Competitions sell out big auditorium events, radio shows are tripping over themselves to find new exciting ways to tell stories, television shows and movies and novels (yes, I still believe in the novel!) abound, youtube channels and experimental blogs (that’s this) are innovating even further. It’s an amazing time to be a storyteller. Granted, it’s not that great of a time to be a storyteller if you want to make money, but that’s never really been the draw (support the blog!). The point is, we’re all hungry for stories. It’s the new gold rush - to uncover those glinting ephemeral building blocks of the human soul - and so I join the stream. Here I am, picking up my axe and bucket and sieve (is this right? I don’t know much about gold prospecting) and heading into the frontier. To start, like one putting together a puzzle, I’m going to the outposts, the fringe.
Let me finally say this: I am not writing to offer any answers to the age-old quests of humanity. I take off on this project out of curiosity, especially concerning the central topics of this blog (God, prayer, new religion, spiritual innovation) and, naturally, in the spirit of adventure, but also because as a writer, to (mis)quote Kurt Vonnegut, “I choose cultural anthropology since it offers the greatest opportunity to write high-minded balderdash.”
An (In?)Auspicious Anniversary
Today, the day of the launch of Spiritual Fringe, happens to be four years to the day that protestors in New York marched into Zuccotti Park and declared that they were Occupying Wall Street. I did not plan this. However, to a storytelling cultural anthropologist investigating spirituality on the fringes of America, a coincidence like this cannot go by unchecked. Just consider the words of Maimonides who said that coincidences and miracles were basically the same thing, or something like that.
There are, naturally, a few easy connections. Occupy Wall Street was a movement of Millennials, self-proclaimed and everything, and Spiritual Fringe is too a movement of Millennials, although I use the term “movement” and the “s” at the end of Millennials loosely. Point is, they’re both generational things, specific to this contemporary world of the here and now, and they’d likely be impossible for the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers or the Lost Generation or The Romans, who spanned a long generation indeed, to pull off. A second easy connection is: I’m writing about and for both (here is my Occupy New Orleans manifesto).
There’s a deeper connection too, and this might fall into a more serious category that a deep thinker like Maimonides could get behind. This is it: Both Occupy and Spiritual Fringe are ultimately concerned with understanding the depths of our connectedness, with revealing us to ourselves. I remember when the movement arrived in New Orleans, the first loud day of marching and chanting and speeches from the Orleans Parish courthouse to City Hall, there was a simple subtext to the exchanges between the wide demographic of people meeting in those spaces for the first time: “So what are you doing here?” “I’m angry about all the bullshit.” “Yeah. Same.” Maybe our respective individual bullshits were different, but the sentiment that settled on the group was similar enough to, at least for a few months, sprout communities. That’s the phenomenon I intend to sniff out and chase in Spiritual Fringe.
All that said, while I believe there is some strong tether of spirit linking this project to the Occupiers, I kind of hope the coincidences end here. Occupy Wall Street, for all its successes in giving our generation a place to scream out our angry cry in the night, ultimately fell hard. There was government surveillance, arrests, pepper-spraying, intra-encampment crime, some very silly political arguments, not to mention the terrifying mind-control mechanism of the “human microphone.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t expect those things to happen with Spiritual Fringe, only that I’ll do my best not to invite them by, you know, occupying anywhere.
So this is it then, the launch, the first post. Who knows where exactly things will go from here, but I can promise it’ll be interesting. In two weeks I will hit the road and begin my travel to intentional communities, eco-villages, new churches and old, in search of what my generation believes about the ancient questions. Even in the Internet Age, with all the excess of content spread across the globe through servers and signals, there are still thousands of hidden stories, all connected to history and each other, just waiting to be given some daylight.
This blog documents an ongoing journey-event, and so while each blog post is written to (hopefully) stand alone, the context of past posts might also (hopefully) enhance the reading experience. And check out the Mission Statement.
Writer based out of New Orleans
A Note To Readers
This blog is meant to be interactive. If you're reading and you have thoughts and questions and comments, please don't be shy! You can post them below or you can send them to me privately by clicking on the "Get in Touch" button at the top of the page. And if you're one of the people I've interviewed and want to respond to what I've written and open up dialogues, do it! It's the wonder of the Internet!
The Grange Farm School, California, and Transitions
Into The West
A Budding Story
On The Maharishi Effect, Prayer, and Faith
Fairfield, Iowa: Transcendental Meditation Capital of America
One and Two
The Threshold Society, Sufis of Louisville
On Resonance and Continuity (Root and Branch pt. 2)
A Response to Recent Events
Root and Branch Church
More Words on Words
On Vibrations and Telepathy (The Farm pt. 2)
The Farm: Come for The Midwives, Stay for Community
The Mystic and The Skeptic Podcast
Through Tennessee, The Trip Continues
On Wicca and A Common Cosmology (Earthaven Pt. 3)
On Details (Earthaven Ecovillage Pt. 2)
A Word on Words
On Submission and Argument
The Cohens: Jewish Intentional Community Builders
Florida, The Trip Begins
The God Hack: Almig and Real-Life Bokononism
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