Tag Archives: eight shields

Cultivating Heresy

Our communities of faith and justice require heretics– without them, we stop learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may be heralded among liberal circles now—but in his own lifetime, popularity was harder to come by.

Whereas his writings on nature received a handful of reviews in the first few years, his infamously scathing Harvard Divinity School Address resulted in nearly thirty different reviews in the first few months. His call to Harvard graduates was a warning of the role of the institution of Christianity, the deification of Jesus and the institutionally-enforced separation of the divine incarnated in all from the divine incarnated in only a few was deemed heretical. His commentary on the boring and disconnected preaching of his contemporaries was probably hurtful. His critics bitterly scorned him, his fellow transcendentalists adored him—or supported him quietly.

Ultimately, Emerson would be described by some preachers and scholars as the new liberal infidel—a heretic. It would be thirty years until Emerson would be invited to speak again at Harvard while, in the meantime, a violent polemic against him kept him out of religious pulpits and into academic podiums for the rest of his adult career. His ministerial principles remained at the core of his prophetic witness even outside of formal ministry.

They say one cannot be a prophet in one’s own city—this certainly seemed to be the case for Emerson.

But why not? If not your own city, where else?

Why aren’t we anchoring, honoring and cultivating our own, homegrown heretics?

By heretic I’m not referring to “people who complain” or even people who stand on the sidelines or blog-lines in vehement disagreement —but rather, an Emersonian heretic: the people who prophetically challenge and inspirationally name the theological and social idiosyncrasies and operating assumptions that they see as preventing individuals and communities from cultivating and embodying a vision of the beloved community.

Unitarian Universalism boasts a history of heresy, progressive leanings and harbors remarkable diversity. However, this heretical capital is squandered when the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” becomes a theological “free for all”—when beliefs are adopted willy-nilly and remained unquestioned and unchallenged by the community of fellow believers. More emphasis is placed on the people outside our walls—what “they” believe—rather than a thoughtful, principled but deep questioning of what the people in the pews around us believe.

Perhaps, we like to play nice—yes, we’re diverse but we don’t talk about it explicitly—rather than risk the anxiety that is provoked when we really get asked why it is we believe and do what we believe and do.

Heretics, by questioning these assumptions, can push us out of the shallow waters of half-hearted adoption and co-option of faith and ritual and into the depths of our own theology, causing us to ask important questions about the rituals of belonging and belief that we take for granted—why Jesus, why sermon, why Sunday, why interdependence, why Earth, why justice, why not?

We need to cultivate heresy.

In the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore what exactly makes certain stories, urban myths and tales “stick” whereas others fall apart. One of these factors is the role of the unexpected—that something perceived to be “the usual” starts down its usual plot line and ultimately, the expected plot gets turned upside down. After the idea is upside down, a sticky concept shows the viewer a new way to imagine “right side up.” This combination: expected, unexpected, new-undersanding-of-expected is a recipe for “stickiness.”  Without our expectations turned over and new ideas (even if only slightly tweaked old ideas) formed, things don’t seem to stick.

Perhaps heretics help with the stickiness of our own theologies—we need the disruption to help us re-evaluate the beliefs we hold—whether or not we end up changing them. Like those traditions that uphold the archetype of Coyote the trickster—we can see the dual role of Coyote as both, trickster and transformer. Coyote teaches through games and tricks, he surprises those who get too comfortable on the path, she pounces and plays games when the unsuspected stop tuning into the world within them and around them. Coyote teaches us that the moment we stop learning—and living—is the moment we stop paying attention.

Perhaps (and whether or not he would ever admit it) the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School invited Emerson to give the closing address in 1838 because they knew that something needed to be interrupted—they needed a visit from coyote. And I believe, more than ever, we need more coyotes: more coyotes in our congregations and non-profits, in our neighborhoods and social justice movements. Coyotes and heretics among us keep us alive from the real threats to our existence—our own stagnation.

When radical exiles leave other spiritual and social homes that oppress them on the search for a new place to belong, they aren’t just looking for some other safe space that is more “liberal”—they are looking for a place that knows how to stay liberal and how to stay alive. They are looking for places that don’t stop paying attention, that don’t stagnate. They were heretics in their own communities– is it possible they are looking for places where its okay to be heretical now?

Emerson’s life experience as heretic of Unitarianism teaches us that we need coyote in our congregations. Without coyote, without heretics, we stop paying attention—and when we stop paying attention, we stop learning—and when we stop learning, we stop living into the depths that call us together as theological beings.

When are we more alive in our work?

My colleague, Daniel and I will be going to India in January 2014 to present at a Jain Concerence in Rajasthan. The conference is the 8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action (ICPNA). This year’s theme is “Towards a Nonviolent Future: Seeking Realistic Models of Peaceful Co-existence and Sustainability.” It is hosted by the Anuvrat Global Organization.

This year’s theme looks at the intersection of sustainability and non-violence. Daniel and I are looking towards sharing what youth mentoring, leadership and organizing has meant in the context of nature connection and the Cultural Repair Movement in California.

I’m new to this concept– but I think I’ve been part of the movement for awhile, especially among those who see activism as wholeness, as living out lives that, in the words of Ivan Illich, are “alive enough to be shared.”  Even in creating this blog, inspired from my Public Scholar Activism course at Claremont School of Theology, my professor was assisting me in making more concrete what it exactly I wanted to speak to. Her suggestion has grown on me: it is about people learning to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before they try to “help” someone else. 

Cultural repair isn’t about self-centered people getting high on their own oxygen masks, but it is about remembering what it was like when we were living more grounded lives– the culture itself was the greatest source of oxygen, our communities, work, families weren’t places to escape from or left us depleted but places that nourished us.

Cultural repair speaks to that aching hunger to return to … something. Something that feels like it is in our memories, something that we catch glimpses of at pot lucks of compassionate friends, circles of allies or sweet moments when our work feels like a creative process that brings more life to ourselves and the world. It reminds us that there are natural cycles that pattern the natural world, and we, as part of that, have cycles, processes and ways of being that we have neglected– the importance of inspiration, the role of focused work, the rejuvenation of timeless siestas and playfulness, nourishing food and the role of story-telling around the fire under a night sky. These things are not luxuries, these are spiritual necessities– deep within us we are aching to return to this memory of well-being.

This movement, most often associated with the work of Jon Young and the Eight Shields Model, is not just about deep ecology and nature-connection– it is also about personal transformation and social justice. In the words of Young, it is about “optimizing the human operating system.”

Can you imagine an organization or faith community or campaign that leaves you feeling more alive than when you joined it? Where the process of gathering is as important as the potential “products”– the voting rights maintained, land conserved, unjust laws repealed are enhanced by the community of intention and care that worked towards them? Where we paid attention to the design of our gatherings, our meeting spaces, our meals, our personal lives and yearnings? Where we started and ended in gratitude?

That is cultural repair. It is about repairing our culture to be naturally healing, sustaining and life giving.

So, Daniel and I are off to India with these questions: what does this movement mean in social justice? What does social justice have to teach this movement? What does this say of the spirit? Further– how does the movement frame itself in a way that includes or excludes different communities of people? When this knowledge is recognized as coming from brown and black bodies (much emphasis is placed on the wisdom from the bushmen communities of the Kalahari to the wisdom of council in indigenous North and South America), yet few folks of color are present at workshops, what does this say of the need to re-design, re-learn and listen more deeply ahead as we acknowledge the classism, racism and exclusion of our environmental movements?

The Jain community of North India will be dynamic conversation partners in this effort. Jainism is well-recognized for its emphatic focus on the life of all beings and the inherent, explicit interconnectedness of all life– physically and karmically. Furthermore, the Jain concept of anekantavada  or “non-onesidedness”/”many-sidedness”, has much to say to the adversarial antagonism of movements for justice that claim absolute truth or prescriptive answers to complex realities.

Our proposals are below– and we are hungry for feedback: what does a movement like this raise for you? Where have you experienced work and life that is “alive enough to be shared” and what made it that way? 

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Presentation Title: “Bird Song and the Listening Spirit: Growing the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In the United States, fragmented movements for ecological and social justice face language of scarce resources and adversarial needs—as social justice movements work diligently for the rights of human beings, ecological justice movements give voice to the inherent aliveness of nature and warning to our self-destruction. Both models, however, often lack the spiritual tools and self-reflection to sustain themselves in the midst of financial, social and political strains and embedded injustice in our society. An inclusive approach to the Cultural Repair movement is a response to this hunger for what sustains us by including earth- and human-connection and fueling (through living) in regenerative ecological communities of care. This paper will examine these philosophical foundations, current manifestations, opportunities and challenges for growing the movement to repair our world.

Workshop/Experiential Learning Segment: “Children and Youth: Our Radical Teachers in the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In Southern California, social and ecological justice activists have come together in common movements to provide learning spaces for diverse youth to reflect, connect, dialogue and take action in healing their community, ecologically and socially. These best practices are part of larger movements, returning to indigenous and ancient wisdom, that engage people in reconnecting to the earth, to themselves and to their own spirits through outdoor activities and community living. This workshop will share (and practice) some of these best methods in case studies from California in which youth and children serve as leaders and teachers in re-discovering what keeps them, and us, alive.