Religious scholars may be aware that the title of this post is a paraphrase of Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas’ book ”The Spiritual Revolution, Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality” and Deleuze and Guattari’s ”Capitalism and Schizophrenia”.
Participatory culture is on the rise today. What is interesting is that it manages to make people descend on a particular space, lime quarry or place in the desert, with only a minimal set of rules of engagement. These are as follows:
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
source: Burning Man Philosophical Principles.
It’s fascinating how these principles, not more than could fit on one sheet of A4 paper can function to structure people enough to let (in the case of Burning Man) 70 000 participants annually, behave in a fashion that is both explorative and conscientious.
I would like to explore what kind of theology this could espouse:
Radical Inclusion is a stance where you are not only unafraid of the stranger – or in philosophical terms – the Other. Theology, historically and all too often contemporarily, fails to create an inside, without an outside, without exclusion. Believing correctly is perhaps the most important, but equally important is raising your hands at the right time in the musical worship/praise session, receiving communion in the ‘correct way’; feeling obliged to receive it with a certain sense of it being a solemn event where your body ought to not remind ourselves that we are bodily creatures. Theology could seriously advance the concepts of self-expression, if it did not make people feel hard pressed to discover things in the proper way. Often theology entails enforcing expectations, where you are supposed to not explore and express, but passively receive.
Gifting and decommodification stakes out ways forward where theology, or practising religion should be about a different set of logic where the everyday logic of capitalism no longer applies. Giving what you have, unconditionally, may mean gifting money to certain things (like paying the salary of the clergy or building a new mosque), but often contemporary religious practice leaves very little room for participants feeling like their gift matters. The ”spiritual revolution” Woodhead and Heelas describe is even worse. You can buy your expensive place at a reiki retreat or yoga weekend or crystal healing workshop, and when you return home you are as lonely as you were before. The gift of your presence, as something that means something to the Other seems to be of little value regardless of if one is involved in a congregation or new age spiritualism.
Radical Self-reliance in this case means that you make the things you yearn for happen, either alone or together with others. If everyone buys a ticket for an event but no one commits to sharing their ideas, people will be greeted by an empty warehouse or a desolate desert (which has yet to happen). As humans we are increasingly alienated from this type of freedom. Freedom – yes, but in what kinds of constraints? The human being, allowed to be creative without restriction of edicts, what is ‘suitable’ or endorsed from upon high … that human being is an endangered species today, which the participatory culture provides a sort of wildlife preserve for. The radical self-reliance here, then, is not that everyone should make their own luck, find happiness on their own, but to be responsible and socially engaged enough to interact and enact their longings and yearnings together with other people, that people should be mindful that they are imperative in creating the kind of environment that is safe, and that leaves enough space for their fellow human beings.
It is sometimes discussed whether or not communal efforts and civic responsibilities is something that congregations should do. Not least in my (not yet finished) ph d thesis, it is clear that not everyone counts on religious people being most likely also comes with an ulterior motive, that the responsibility and communal effort is not an end in itself. Here, it should be recognised that eco-theologians have written extensively on this topics, so it is perhaps the point that needs the least exploration here. But the ‘leaving no trace’ principle is a forceful aspect at the end of every participatory event. You clean up after yourself, as if you were never there. Or when possible, make things more beautiful, by contributing to the space (when applicable).
Participation understood as something transformative is something present in organised religion, and has always been. However, in the burner culture the transformation is unscripted. It is not assumed that there is a certain way to align yourself, your body and your self-expressions with the theologically givens, with a set of preconditions. Instead, different events can serve the purpose of what Deleuze and Guattari calls ”the schizophrenic out for a walk”. You may explore and express one particular side of yourself, or a certain sets of beliefs, in one context, at one event. At the next event, you may want to explore and partake in something radically different. And this is 100% fine.
Lastly, immediacy, is something that also has a tricky history in organised religion. On the one hand, you are supposed to ‘be there’, listen to the words of the imam. But it is about being present in order to receive selected wisdoms. Immediacy in the burner community is about the opposite. Not thinking that you know what the particular situation is about. Instead, being open and ‘there’ enough to see what place you want to have in things as they unfold. When things that exceeded your expectations happen; how do you want to respond? It’s sometimes hard not to draw on a script or master-narrative, memories, perhaps even flashes of trauma, but the attempt to do so is seriously encouraged.
These are all part-cures that can transform both theology, congregations, organised religions and society at large. I have previously expressed that the subsecular (see ”what is subsecular arts?” and ”creating the political future”) is the enactment of impulses that allows the secular hegemony to rust, simultaneously, on multiple sites. It is also worth remembering here, that you don’t always have to be involved in making the same site rust, rebelling the same hegemonic claims. The subsecular can be a patchwork where you sometimes make belief-structures that has become as solid as cathedrals of bricks and mortar rust, or develop them into seriously subversive practices. At other times it may be society’s secular veneer that needs a kick in the balls. Immediacy helps facilitate being present enough to see what you can do at this very moment.
(the picture at the top is an aerial photo of Burning Man 2015)