Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation
By Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox
Young interspiritual guru and homelessness activist Adam Bucko and old radical theologian and rave-mass priest Matthew Fox engage in a rambling dialogue inspired by the soulful ideals of the Occupy movement in this book. Most fascinating to me, an old radical pastor, was the emerging global spiritual landscape described by Adam, whose “souljourn” has taken him around the world – from his native Polish Catholicism shaped by the Solidarity resistance to Communism, to busking in the subway stops of New York City, to ministering to the sick and addicted in India, to co-founding a spiritually-centered outreach to homeless youth in New York. In his short life he’s experienced spiritual practices and disciplines from the old traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, different branches of Christianity, and Sufi Islam, as well as new “home-grown” ones emerging around the world today.
Adam Bucko and millions like him are fulfilling a prognostication of Walt Whitman quoted in the book. Long ago he said: “There will soon be no more priests…. The gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall rise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest.” Matthew Fox was defrocked as a Catholic priest for acting as if Whitman’s vision should come true. But Fox, now an Episcopal priest, has a much stronger personal and institutional bond to traditional Christianity than does Bucko. The consequences of this difference are evident in the book, which both celebrates religious tradition as well as liberation from its confining doctrines and structures. The book is at least as much about “occupying” religion in order to break it open as it is about “occupying” Wall Street in order to reveal alternatives to its assumptions.
The book stirred my blood. It inspired me to work harder to change history, not just lament current repetitions of old, bad patterns. It reminded me of my own moments of resistance to The System. In 1981, just starting my career as a pastor and was candidating for ordination in the United Church of Christ, my conscience spoke to me. In a system that encouraged pastors to sweep controversial theological issues under the rug, I chose to be up-front about my unorthodoxy. Before the ordination committee, I said, in language that might have been blunter than necessary, that I didn’t believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, I didn’t believe that Christianity was the only true religion offering salvation to humankind, and that I believed in the priesthood of all Christians – that anybody could serve communion and preach and do ministry, whether ordained or not. Some of the committee members winced at my words. I knew my career was hanging on the balance. (I should add this disclaimer: I also knew that I had been hired by the second-biggest and second-richest church in the Conference, which could adjust its financial allotment to the Conference at will, so it was going to be politically tough for these folks to vote against me.) I got some “no” votes and some grudging “yes” votes – just enough to move on to ordination. I’ve spent the rest of my career working to open the windows and doors of the church to the fresh air of religious pluralism, a flatter hierarchy, a post-supernaturalist, panentheistic spirituality, and work for social and economic justice. I’ve paid a price for my public profession of “heresy”: among other effects, it limited my job opportunities.
Times have changed, and traditional religious institutions are generally ten steps behind. Much as I love its progressive values and people, the United Church of Christ denomination expends much if not most of its energy now, as it did over 30 years ago, in rearranging the deck chairs on its sinking institutional ship. But the UCC church to which I belong is breaking out of the old model. We are doing “Occupy Spirituality” by de-occupying our old, creaky building that ate up too much of our time and money and energy. We sold it! Mt Hollywood Congregational UCC really is experiencing a new life – we all feel lighter, freer, and more focused on what really matters: being a community of service, mutual support, and progressive spiritual awakening. We’ve gone from big pulpit to no pulpit. Our new minister, Anne Cohen, preaches in her bare feet. The theme of her preaching: simplicity of spirit and lifestyle. We rent a wonderful, intimate, remodeled space in a church building that’s in the same neighborhood we’ve occupied for 100 years.
But we’re radicals. Most churches can’t bring themselves to restructure their congregational life in such a dramatic fashion. And, in fact, our church lost a lot of members who could not make the transition. We’re smaller in size but a lot bigger in spirit! Resistance to change in old institutions means that many of them will die. And then, over time, new faith institutions will emerge. It’s happening now, and this book is a window into the process.
Adam Bucko de-occupied the Catholicism of his upbringing, in order to occupy a new “interspiritual” space where any one soul-centered community celebrates the others, and eagerly seeks to learn from them. This book vividly describes fascinating emerging communities and movements. My prediction is different than Whitman’s. I think he was prescient about demise of the religious institutional structures of his time, and the emergence of a spirituality of and from the people. But people being people, it is inevitable that they will create new religious or spiritual institutions upon or away from the ashes of the old ones. There’s no reason these new organizations can’t continue to embody the “Occupy” ethic of being “leaderful” and maintaining a culture of 100% participation. People are likely to have a more fluid relationship to these institutions, moving from one to another through their lifetimes of growth and change.
We are entering an era not of the collapse of religion altogether, but of the collapse of some big, old religious organizations and the emergence of amazing new ones. Matthew Fox will continue to be a wise elder advisor, urging on this process. (I aspire to the same role!) Adam Bucko is a recovering anarchist. I predict he will move from an “Occupy” tent to a more enduring edifice of spiritual community. And the world will be better for it.
Jim Burklo is Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California, and author, HITCHHIKING TO ALASKA: The Way of Soulful Service (St Johann Press, 2013) and a new novel, SOULJOURN (Patheos Press, 2013).