Zen Teachers?

 

So, I’ve been doing a lot thinking about Zen teachers, about what it means to have a teacher, about what a zen teacher even is, and about what it means to be a zen student, especially in our particular, modern, Western context or situation. So, let’s talk about that right now!

I guess you could say I’ve predominantly been a kind of a self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from practicing meditation, reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, dharma talks etc. It’s only been in the past several weeks that I’ve found a teacher, that I’ve joined a Sangha, and that I’ve taken the Refuge vows and the Five Precepts. In other words, my forays into Buddhism, and now Zen, has been something of a self-guided or self-directed multimedia production.

Yet, the more I continue to study Zen, the more I realize how much the role of a Zen teacher is emphasized. Zen literature is overwhelmingly littered with examples of would be zen students desperately searching for a teacher, often times doing so with great difficulty.

One of the more famous stories is the story of Huike (hwee-kay) trying to convince Bodhidhamra to take him on as a student. Huike stands in the snow all night, the snow piles up to his waist. Bodhidharma still refuses to accept him as a student, and so in an effort to prove his sincerity to Bodhidharma Huike cuts off his own arm and gives it to Bodhidharma. It’s only then that Bodhidhamra relents and takes Huike on as his student.

Now, don’t get me wrong I don’t think this story is literally true. I think its a highly mythologized tale. However, like all mythology, its purpose is not to convey a facticity of historical events but, to convey a deeper meaning. In this case, I think part of the purpose of this story is to suggest that becoming a zen student and finding a teacher is difficult, it isn’t easy, it will take some effort, and it will probably cost you something.

Dogen, himself, writes that “You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way.” In other words, according to Dogen, seeking out a teacher, seeking out training, one must take on a perilous quest to find one. Dogen seems to suggest that its so vitally important to have a teacher that he even goes so far as to say that “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all.” That seems like a rather bleak prescription.

Now, I can’t help but think about the fact that the world has changed dramatically since the time of these quasi-mythical tales of Buddhist seekers traversing to far-off distant lands, risking and limb (especially in the case of Huike), all in an effort to find someone to provide them information, guidance, and direction. This was not a world of high-speed data and an always-on internet connection. Their world was a world in which google searches had to be performed on foot, their search results could take years, if they came at all.

If there is anything I have learned throughout my academic studies of world religion, it is that religion can be extremely adaptive to cultural and contextual change. Religion seems to be constantly reevaluating itself and its orientation to its particular time and place as the social world continues to shift forward.

This is not to say that there is not always a fundamentalist, orthodox, or conservative element that remains. There will, perhaps, always be those who cling rigidly to the classically accepted and well-fortified demarcations of their religion’s ideologies, those who are unwilling to alter or expand the borders and boundaries of their religion.

Yet, it seems to be an undeniable truth of most religions, that within the changing contexts of each new age or era there is to be found some form of reformational endeavor (i.e. the emergence of varying denominations and expanding theologies in Christianity, the evolution of the different schools of Buddhist thought and their corresponding philosophies, etc.).

In each case, the devotee is tasked with answering the question of what it means to be devoted to their particular religion in their particular time and in their particular place. They must ask what their religion or philosophy means in the present moment. A Christian must grapple with what it means to be a Christian and what Christianity means in what whatever socio-cultural context it is present within. A Buddhist must come to a cognizant understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and what Buddhism means here and now.

Ok, so I’m not totally sure that I think of Buddhism or Zen as a religion, although there are probably those who do, and clearly that is how they have been traditionally defined. Regardless, I think it remains true that whether we are talking about religion or philosophy, we must recognize that times change, people change, things change, everything changes, and if the ideas that we value are to continue to be of any value they must change as well.

Also, I’m not trying to downplay the significance of a zen teacher or the potential importance of having a zen teacher. Honestly, I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to know whether or not a zen teacher is still so necessary in the this burgeoning world resplendent with readily available resources and information. What I am trying to do is mindfully recognize the significant ways in which the world we are all presently a part of has and continues to change.

For instance, Rob Bell is a Christian speaker, writer, and thinker, and in one of his books that I read years ago called Velvet Elvis he writes about the necessity of adapting and evolving our ideas:

“Times change… We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

Full disclosure, I’m not a Christian or a theist but, I still think he’s making a really important point here, and one that can easily be applied to Buddhism, or any other tradition or idea for that matter.

Everything is impermanent. Nothing is static. Nothings stays the same.

Not only does everything change but, everything is in the constant and never-ending process of actively changing.

The world around us is constantly shifting and as such, we must continue to learn, grow, and evolve. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.

In fact, my Zen teacher recently wrote an article about being a Reluctant Zen teacher, and he makes a very similar point.

“I think we should be re-evaluating our devotion to authority figures all the time and that we shouldn’t be accepting things on tradition alone. And, as teachers, I think we need to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t doing things that drive a lot of people away or don’t work.”

“I wonder if we make a mistake when we think that models of practice that worked in India, China and Korea should be used here. Should we be making our own way instead?”

“I also wonder sometimes if we could reform Zen for the west, in the same way that a few organizations like Insight Meditation Society have been able to reform Theravada.”
So, if we’re going to explore this approach we have to begin to ask “what is a Zen teacher?”

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” On the one hand a “Zen teachers exist in the context of Zen teaching, Zen communities, a Zen practice environment, so finding a teacher means finding a community, a sangha, a teaching, a context.” But, I also can’t help but think there’s more to it than just that.

As I mentioned Earlier I now belong to the Morning Sky Zen Sangha. In our discussions there, we’ve been going through The Mirror of Zen. One of the verses that really sticks out to me is verse two which says the following:

“The appearance of all Buddha and Patriarchs in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean”.

One way to interpret this verse, as my teacher does, is to say that there is no separation between you and the teacher, both the teacher and student arise from the very same ocean of one-ness, and that “we tend to worship teachers or put them on a pedestal or something” and this is a bit of a mistake. But, also I think that you could read it another way.

Teachers, Buddhas, Patriarchs, arise suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly sometimes from unexpected places. What I mean to say is that because a Zen teacher “inevitably involves a world, a context” and because of this kind on inseparable oneness, anything and anyone that arises can potentially be your zen teacher.

A zen teacher is anyone and anything that you garner experiential wisdom and knowledge from.

I did a four part series on Montaigne and Buddhism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Michel de Montaigne was a French Renaissance writer/philosopher, and certainly not a Buddhist but, while I was reading Montaigne’s essays, it felt as though he was teaching me about Zen and Buddhism, at that moment Montaigne became my Zen teacher.
Returning to my Zen teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg, he says that “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”

In his book, Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner makes the same kind of analogy when talking about a Zen teacher. He says that
“You need to have a mirror to be able to fix your hair or apply your lipstick properly. It’s certainly physically possible to do these things without a mirror and there are no laws against it. But you’d have no real idea what you actually looked like until you walked outside and everyone started giggling at you because you’ve got lipstick all over your nose. A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror. The teacher, in turn, learns to use her students as a mirror in a similar way.”
Brad Warner explains the following in a post on his blog:

“If you’re serious about finding a teacher, you’re probably going to have to do some work looking for one.”

“There’s value to working for things that are important.”

You’re going to have to search. You’re going to have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially in unexpected places, and maybe with unexpected people. You’re going to have to cultivate a kind of open-awareness.

Perhaps, as Dogen says, we do need to climb mountains and cross oceans to find a teacher but, maybe that’s not so much an external journey any more. I think we all have mental mountains that we need to traverse, as well emotional and psychological oceans that we will have to cross if we ever hope to reach the other shore. And what if its the process itself, the journey itself, that is the teacher? What if its the effort and the act of scaling the internal mountainous terrain and sailing across these treacherous and tumultuous seas that teaches us the most?

Maybe its the search itself that is the teacher?

Dogen writes that “You should remember that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. The joyfully seeking mind is primary.” Dogen places special emphasis on the “Way-seeking mind” (doshin).

He says that “wisdom is seeking wisdom” – I think, in a way, he’s suggesting that the act of seeking wisdom is an indication of wisdom or wisdom is attained by the very process of aspiring to wisdom. There is no distance between the two – aspiration is itself a kind of attainment or maybe the aspiration is indicative that you have already attained it, its something you already have. So when he talks about the “Way-seeking mind” or when says that the “joyfully seeking mind” is primary – I think it is an emphasis on the eager openness of beginners mind.

There’s an article I read a few weeks ago by Norman Fisher called “No Teacher of Zen”. In it recounts another Zen story, in which Huangbo says “Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” Imagine his students confusion, their teacher announcing that there are no teachers of Zen – obviously they had questions – if there are no Zen teachers why are they there? Why are there these places of Zen training and study? Why are there people like Huangbo who have set up these places of Zen training and study? Huangbo clarifies stating, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.”

“the teacher can’t teach you.”

“there are no Zen teachers because Zen isn’t a teachable subject matter or skill.”

“students are responsible for their own practice and their own awakening. No one can communicate a truth worth knowing; the only worthwhile truth is the one you find uniquely, for your own life.”

What does it mean to be a student? Perhaps, to be a student of zen it is not to be so fundamentally devoted to a particular ‘teacher’ but, instead to rooted to the practice, rooted to the quest, to search, to the study. Perhaps, it means constantly scanning the horizon in search of any person, place, or thing that can teach you.

Someone recently sent me a great quote from a book called The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by The Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. I think it summarizes what I’ve been trying to get at in this video and I think its a great place to end.

“The teachings and teachers are ubiquitous. Reality is your teacher. Everything that appears can become your teacher. The four seasons can teach you. Anything can be a teacher of Buddhist teachings. Anything.”

Advertisements

Document the Journey: T.k. Coleman, The Minimalists, & Hakuin

I’m two parts into my “Montaigne & Buddhism” series (Part 1 Transcript and Video & Part 2 Transcript and Video) but, decided to take a little sidetrack this week, and talk about some things I’ve been reading, listening to, and thinking about. In the video above and the rough transcript below I talk about the importance of learning, and more importantly, the importance of “learning out loud”, documenting the learning process, sharing it, and transforming it into creative action. Enjoy!

I read a lot of books, mostly on Kindle. I love the convenience of having the app on my phone as well as having access to the Kindle Cloud Reader from virtually any computer. It means I can have the majority of my library with me at all times. I also love that Kindle saves, consolidates, and centralizes all my highlights and notes in the various books I’ve been reading (I do a lot of highlighting and note-taking). I listen to a lot of podcasts on Stitcher, I can stream all my favorite podcasts, listen to new episodes, and I can save past episodes of podcasts so I can listen to them later. I also watch a lot lectures, talks, interviews, etc. on YouTube. My “Watch Later” list is constantly expanding. I consume content and information obsessively. In Evernote I keep a list of all the books I’ve read throughout the year. I also cut and paste all those notes and highlights from my Kindle reading into Evernote, so I can conveniently search and utilize them at any time from anywhere.
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of The Minimalists Podcast, I believe it was episode 131, titled “School”. In this episode their guest was T.K. Coleman. Coleman is an author, thinker, entrepreneur, and he is also the Education Director of an organization called Praxis. Throughout the Minimalists’ conversation with Coleman, he shares some great insights regarding the process and act of ‘learning’.  He says, quoting Chalmers Brothers, that “learning is the process of doing what you don’t know how to do while you don’t know how to do it”.  In this regard, Coleman advocates what he calls “learning out loud”, that is, documenting your journey as you learn, by “advertising those things you’re studying” through either blog or YouTube, or something similar. True to his word, there’s even a section on Coleman’s website called “Reading Notes,” where Coleman “learns out loud,” by regularly posting his reflections on whatever books, blogs, or podcasts he’s currently consuming. Coleman highlights that more often than not when someone is learning something new, or is in the process of mastering their craft, or honing their expertise, “they hide what they’re doing from the world until their confident that they know what they’re doing”. Coleman suggests that such a reclusive tactic not only misses the point of learning but, also misses a golden opportunity. He recommends putting your learning out there. Coleman states that “learning doesn’t count if you’re not combining it with some form of creative action”. I find all of these ideas inspiring and poignant. This is something that I think I’ve been attempting to do myself, although I’m not sure I consciously realized that this is what I’ve been doing.
I started this blog when I began my undergraduate program not as way to share what I ‘know’ or to share my supposed ‘expertise’ but as a way to share what I was in the process of learning, as a way to document that process of learning. In the hope that it would be helpful to others and in the hope that it would deepen what I’m learning about. I’ve personally found that in the act of sharing the things that I’m attempting to learn, my thoughts, views, and my overall understanding of the subject actually becomes more clear and conducive.
I’ve continued trying to do this in my blog as I’ve continued on into my graduate studies and I’m continuing to try to expand this endeavor of documenting my learning, this endeavor to learn out loud, with my YouTube channel. Documenting not only my academic studies, but also my personal studies of the things I’m curious about, and what I’m personally fascinated by. I write these blogs and make these videos not because I’m an expert or because I’m so knowledgeable, but because I’m learning. I’m in the process of learning, the process of doing what I don’t know how to do while I don’t know how to do it, knowing that anything I learn that remains hidden away and disconnected is devoid of meaning, it doesn’t count, and it will be inadequate.
For about the past few years I’ve been dabbling, off and on, with meditation practice. I’ve gotten more serious, more formal, and more committed to mediation in the past two years, and in the past year I’ve actually begun digging deeper into Buddhist thought and philosophy. I’ve been trying to teach myself more about mediation and I’ve been giving myself a crash course in Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism. One of the books I’ve recently finished reading is a book called The Zen Experience by Thomas Hoover. In The Zen Experience Thomas Hoover recounts the long and evolving history of Zen. One of the figures that Hoover discusses is a Rinzai Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku. Many scholars have suggested that Hakuin is one of the most important Zen teachers. In fact, Rinzai teachers, to this day, trace their lineage back to Hakuin. He was an artist, a poet, and a brilliant Zen philosopher. Hakuin breathed new life into Zen at a time when Zen practice seemed to be waning. In many ways he seemed to democratize Zen, so much so that Hakuin has been called “the Zen master of the people”. Hakuin extended Zen teaching, practice, and philosophy beyond the monastic communities of ordained Buddhist priests and nuns, and instead included people from all walks of life. In Hakuin’s teaching, “If meditation bears no relationship to life…It is merely self-centered gratification” (Hoover, 232). According to Hakuin, “Just to hide and meditate on your own original nature produces inadequate enlightenment, while also shutting you off from any chance to help other people, other sentient beings” (Hoover, 233). In fact,
“Hakuin says to test your meditation outside, since otherwise it serves for nothing. And today Rinzai monks are expected to silently meditate during all activities, including working in the yard of the monastery, harvesting vegetables, or even walking through the town for their formal begging” (Hoover, 233).
Hakuin, himself, seems to be saying that “learning doesn’t count if you’re not combining it with some form of creative action”. He seems to go so far as to say that even something as weighty, worthwhile, and grandiose as the idea of ‘Enlightenment’ is ultimately meaningless if it is disengaged from everyday life, if it is disconnected from boots on the ground experience. If ‘Enlightenment’ is shut off and disconnected from other people and from other sentient beings it is an inadequate Enlightenment.
This process of learning out-loud, this kind of documentary learning, is something I’m trying to be more committed to, not only as a graduate student and as an aspiring academic, but also as a person in love with learning, in love with curiosity, and especially also as someone who is becoming increasingly devoted to the practice of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. You don’t have to be a graduate student, an academic, a meditator, or a Buddhist to document your journey, to advertise your learning. Whatever you do, whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you’re interested in and fascinated by, do it and do it out loud, even and especially when you don’t know how to do it.

The Democratization of Religion pt. 2

 

Below is the second part to a paper I wrote for my Undergraduate Senior Seminar which seeks to explore the deeper connections between religion and technology, each of their innovative processes, and their potentiality for catalyzing a kind of emancipatory democratization. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

James Gleick writes that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought” (12). This has proven true with the emergence of each of the three previous ages that Pagitt proposes but, perhaps, this medium-transformative shift in “the nature of human thought,” which Gleick describes, proves to be an even more accurate assertion in this the present global setting that Pagitt terms the Inventive Age. The Internet, Social Media, smartphones, and countless other advances in information and communication technologies have drastically altered the cultural landscape, providing whole new ways of experiencing and engaging with the world, and bringing about striking and immeasurable changes to social values. The limitations of locality and geographical borders and boundaries have been daringly transcended. Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that “the worldwide web of information…means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere” (xiii). This creates a kind of globalized cosmopolitanism, a citizenry (politēs) not merely exclusive to nationality but, of the world (cosmos) (xiv). Here, as well, knowledge and information retain all of their importance, esteem, and regard but only in so far it leads to discovery and innovation (Pagitt, 30). Thus, as Pagitt concludes, the impetus of the Inventive Age is focused entirely upon “inclusion, participation, collaboration,” and creativity (30). The parameters of the Inventive Age is precisely what media scholar Henry Jenkins et al, defines as Participatory Culture.

Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy, James Paul Gee, highlights that “We live in…an age of convergent media, production, participation, fluid group formation, cognitive, social, and linguistic complexity-all embedded in contemporary popular culture” (14). As such, Jenkins et al defines Participatory Culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices” (xi). In this regard, as Jenkins et al goes on to explain, “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from individual expression to community involvement” (6). This, then, is not a matter of “individual accomplishment but rather the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media” (4). Participatory Culture is highly responsive and extremely reactive, especially in that it is a bold and outright rejection of the largely passive and inactive orientation of consumer culture. Participatory Culture centers itself upon inter-activity and occurs, as Jenkins et al explains, as a result of the absorption of “new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways” (8). Here, Jonathan Fitzgerald rightly surmises that “the meeting of the digital world of social media and the physical world show that what were once thought to be frivolous wastes of time – sites like Facebook and Twitter – actually have the power to change the world” (Fitzgerald).

Indeed, as Jenkins et al explains, “Participatory culture,” with its technological advances in communication, creation, and information, “is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate” (10). Barry Taylor makes clear that “New technologies have shifted the balance of power in the realm of information,” leading to the full and unabashed democratization of information and culture (12). Taylor adamantly expresses that “Democratization is the key dynamic of our times” (17) as it “seems to be at work in virtually every area of life today” (12), and as a result everyday culture is imminently witnessing both “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (Howe) and “The Rise of the Amateur” (Rushkoff). As a consequence, the ‘experts’, those vested with centralized hierarchical authority, those to whom Dana Ardi refers to as the Alphas (1), and “institutions no longer have the last word or hold the authoritative sway they once had” (Taylor, 11). In many cases the wide-spread and sprawling confederation of Networked individuals are proving that the cumulative and culminating knowledge of the crowd can surpass that of the solitary specialist. Thus, Taylor states emphatically that “The collapse or loss of faith in traditional forms of leadership and structure combined with virtually unlimited access to information has resulted in an empowering of the masses that is transforming culture” (18).

Clearly the religious implications are also overwhelming. Just as in the periods Pagitt describes as the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age, religion in the Inventive age precisely parallels the principles of the time. In 2012 the Pew Research Center released a report demonstrating that in the United States 1 in 5 adults say that they are religiously unaffiliated and a full one-third of those below the age of thirty claim to have no religious affiliation (Taylor, 8). This represents an increase of over 5%, a rise that began at just above 15% in 2007 up to 20% by 2012 (Taylor, 127). Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center, Paul Taylor, writes that not only are the ‘nones’ (the name given to demographic answering ‘none’ to the question of religious affiliation) disassociated from traditional religious engagement “they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them” either (127). Taylor also goes on to say that “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics” (127). Similarly, a Gallup poll has shown that two-thirds of American adults believe that religious influence is declining (Saad). Likewise, a 2012 Gallup poll revealed that only 44% of the U.S. population maintains a high level of confidence in organized religion, a jarring low point, and the result of a progressive downward trend since 1975 (Saad). Many would suggest that the process of secularization is finally winning out as predicted by many philosophical and sociological thinkers, thereby proposing that these figures are indicative of the ending reign of religion. However, this would seem to be only partially correct. 68% of the religious unaffiliated still retain a belief in God; 37% are spiritual; and 21%p pray daily (Taylor, 127). Only the most marginal and miniscule faction of the ‘nones’ are atheists. If the collaborative decentralization witnessed in the other areas of culture exhibit anything it is that something else is occurring in the religious sphere.

Just as the values of the participatory culture have dramatically shifted from the hierarchy of institutions, so “Religion has also shifted” and “is no longer found in the institutions and public locations – the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings of wood and stone that have traditionally housed the sacred” (Taylor, 100). Religion, too, is being democratized and entering into a whole “new evolutionary phase in which the power and influence of religious formation” is being taken away from the mediating exclusivity of the clerical class and redistributed to the masses “for whom the task of fashioning a connection with the divine is an intensely personal and creative venture” (Taylor,170). This is a new form of religiosity. This is the beginnings of what Barry Taylor calls “Participatory Theology” (201). It seems that the very same technologies that have set the precedent of the Inventive Age have divested the religious establishment of its monopoly on religious truth and meaning. The creative free-flow of collaborative information has forced the traditional institutions of religion to relinquish their corner on the market, rejecting the inactive passivity of religious consumerism, and bringing about an age of participatory customization.

As technology has advanced so has culture and, as result, religion has as well. Each advancement has ushered in a new era, a new age, a new evolutionary phase, each “completely revaluating and revisiting virtually every aspect of the human condition” (Taylor, 14). The democratizing effects of information and communication technologies such as the Internet, Social Media, and smartphones, etc. have aided in creating a post-religious and a post-secular age. That which at first glance appeared to be an indication of irreligion has proven to be the initiating phases of a new kind of religious innovation. This is a dialectical movement in which as Thomas Altizer writes that “the deepest negation embodies the deepest affirmation” (56). What seems to be an outright negation of religiosity is in fact an affirmation of religion. The black and white binary that dichotomously divides the sacred and the profane, the thesis of religion and the antithesis of secularity are dialectically merging into the synthesis of something far more innovative.

 

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J. New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Ardi, Dana. The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence – and Lead. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Print.

Burrus, Daniel. “Predicting the Future.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Davis, Derek and Barry Hankins. New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, 2nd ed. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003. Print.

Fitzgerald, Jonathan D. Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Colorado: Bondfire Books, 2012. Print.

Gee, James Paul. New Digital Media and Learning as an Emergent Area and “Worked Examples”as One Way Forward. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Random House, 2012.Print.

Howe, Jeff. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired. Wired Magazine, June 2006. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Pagitt, Doug. Church in the Inventive Age. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. Print

Raulet, Gerard. “Critique Of Religion And Religion As Critique: The Secularized Hope Of Ernst Bloch.” New German Critique 9 (1976): 71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “The Rise of the Amateur.” MPI Web. Meeting Professionals International, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.” Gallup. Gallup Inc., 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Slobodkin, Lawrence B. A Citizen’s Guide to Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Taylor, Barry. Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. Print.

Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2014. Print.

 

The Democratization of Religion: (ir)Religious Innovation in a Technological Age

Below you’ll find an excerpt from a paper I wrote recently as part of my final research paper for my Senior Seminar in Religion. It is a bit of a lengthy essay so I will be posting in in two parts. The paper attempts to explore the connections between religious innovation and technological innovation, or more specifically the growing numbers moving toward irreligion in Millennials as a kind of religious innovation and the possible relations to advances in information and communication technologies. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

 

The very nature of change is permanence (Slobodkin, 5). Not a permanence in the way of concrete fixity, nor finality but, rather permanent as in permanent unidirectional change; change that moves one-way. Technology futurist, Daniel Burrus, describes this kind of permanent change as “linear change”, explaining that “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back” (Burrus). Burrus elaborates further, stating,

Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences (Burrus).

In this regard, although this linear-orientated change is vast, far-reaching, drastic, dramatic, at times, seemingly unprecedented, and though it’s consequences are indeed profound, ‘change’, itself, is neither good nor bad, “neither wise nor benign nor malicious” (Slobodkin, 11).  Change “simply is” (5). Change occurs and continues to occur, permanently altering not only ourselves but, also the world around us. The world is not the same as it once was, we are not the same as we once were and just as the world can never go back to being the way it had once been before, neither can we ever return to our previous manifestations. Ours is an age marked by increased and ever-expanding technological and social change. We are living in an era in which change is both rapid and ever-present. Simon Mainwaring writes that “The Internet, social media, and smartphones are giving people the opportunity to connect, communicate, and share values on a scale that before was unimaginable” (80). Information of any and every kind has become increasingly ‘open-sourced’ and or ‘crowd-sourced’. Networks abound and immense connectivity, or inter-connectivity is simply part and parcel of our present day context. As a result culture, itself, is becoming increasingly participatory and collaborative. The authority of formal institutions and the experts are not only waning but, are becoming more and more decentralized. In short, every aspect of society is becoming progressively democratized. Religion, then, is certainly no exception. Statistically speaking, attendance and confidence in traditional religious institutions are definitely on a downward decline, and quite possibly the fasting growing segment of the population is decidedly claiming no religious affiliation.  It seems that the religious sphere, too, has become a site of collaborative and participatory, experimental innovation. Does this signal the end of religion? Are we preparing entrance into an utterly religion-less world? Or is a negation simply a moment in the life of a deeper affirmation, a dialectical negation (Raulet, 77). Thus, it is the intention of this paper to explore the effects of the intersections of religion and information technology, in which irreligion and secularization are in all actuality dialectical methods of religious innovation.

It should be stated from the outset, however, as Derek Davis and Barry Hankins make clear, that although “We humans have tendency to think that we are living in unique times, and often we are disinclined to look at our pats as a help in understanding the present” it should be recognized that “Religious innovation and the controversy surrounding it goes as far back as history can see” (9). These statements may seem to imply connotation of something seemingly cyclical but, to be sure, this fact does more to emphasize the consistent continuation of permanent unidirectional change and its cultural and societal consequences then it does to refute it. While the specific changes experienced by a particular society are indeed unique to their culture, what is irrefutably undeniable is the irrevocability of the alterations presented there within, each of which found building upon the previous and moving forward in a singularly linear fashion. In other words, every culture at one time or another has been consummately transformed by its technological innovations. Indeed, these occurrences in and of themselves serve as a kind of historical, sociological, anthropological, and calendrical marking or place-holder, defining that particular age or era in its entirety. As a result, in each instance religion has been as equally as innovatively affected.

With this in mind, author Doug Pagitt proposes that culture has moved through “three distinct ages – the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information age” (4). The Agrarian age, occurring as a result the Agricultural Revolution which was initiated by the invention and implementation of technological advances in farming aids and tools, allowing for the manipulation of nature, saw a development of a culture that was highly “localized, organic, [and] almost-tribal like” (Pagitt, 15). Religion in the Agrarian Age was, then, a perfect mirrored reflection of this rural and pastoral way of life. Here, geography was of greater importance than theology, and religious leaders were the quintessential shepherds; the word pastor, itself, meaning “shepherd” (Pagitt, 15-16).

Likewise, the Industrial Age was brought on by technological progress, in this case, the mechanized manufacturing innovations of the Industrial Revolution, each of which emphasized efficiency, repetition, and replication (Pagitt, 19). With this age came increases in the density of populations residing in smaller areas of land and with it the beginnings of urbanization. Around every corner “life-changing innovation” was arriving; “the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane” (Pagitt, 19). Religion too, followed suit on all fronts. New religions were being produced with an innovative factory-like precision; “Mormonism, Christian Science,” and a wealth of others (Pagitt, 20). If in the Agrarian Age religious leaders were likened to shepherds then, in the Industrial Age the figureheads of religious communities became “factory foreman”, seeking to efficiently replicate congregants in an effort to build or manufacture a religious brand (Pagitt, 20).

The Industrial Age subtly transitioned to the Information Age (Pagitt, 21). The Information Age is just that, an age defined by the prevalent accentuation of information and the ever-increasing outlets for its prevailing predominance. Because of the mass-production of the Industrial Age the availability of books expanded greatly and as a result this period saw a tremendous increase in literacy and a profound emphasis was placed upon education, especially as it provided a pathway out of the factory (Pagitt, 22). In this way, the cultural values shifted from production to knowledge, what one knew was considered to be drastically more important then what one could manufacture of produce (Pagitt, 22). The Information Age also witnessed the iconic emergence of the television, a technological advancement that allowed for an even wider distribution of information which rivaled many of its predecessors (Pagitt, 23). And just as it had in the previous eras, these trends carried over into the realm of religion, which echoed this new premium placed upon the essentiality of information and knowledgeability. Likewise, religious authorities emphasized their roles as educators, arbiters of knowledge, and CEOs, religious communities becoming organizationally patterned epicenters of learning and information (Pagitt, 23-24).

Yet, the forward motion of change is both constant and persistent. Just as the Agrarian Age gave way to the Industrial Age, and the Industrial yielded to the Information Age, Pagitt assesses the current context of culture well when he proposes that a fourth age has dawned; the Inventive Age

 

To be continued…

It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

I recently came across an article on Patrol Magazine written by editor Jonathan Fitzgerald entitled “We are the Reason They Don’t Believe.” Fitzgerald is also the author of a book I’ve recently begun reading entitled, Not Your Mother’s Morals. The book explores the ways in which modern popular culture is changing the very ways in which we engage with and understand morality. Fitzgerald terms this new permutation of morality that now seems to be permeating through current films, art, music, and other mediums, the New Sincerity. This is something of a call to authenticity and a rejection of cynicism.
In the article Fitzgerald shares his reactions to the growing numbers of the social demographic now referred to as the Religious Nones, a subject that I myself have also been quite drawn and have written about previously as well (you can find the post here). Fitzgerald expresses his heartbreak over the angst and “unbelief” of the Nones stating:
I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
Fitzgerald emphasizes his point stating over and again “We’ve failed them.” He also goes on to say that “As a believer, I want to win those ‘Nones’ back.”  Even though I identify as an Atheist and would certainly have to be numbered amongst the Nones I can sympathize with his point and I appreciate his honesty and sincerity. However, I can’t help but feel that he’s leading off from what I find to be inaccurate assumptions.
To begin with, the religiously unaffiliated should not necessarily be synonymous with “unbelievers.” As an unbeleieve myself I realize that I represent a minority within the Nones. Amongst the Religious “Nones” there has not been an overwhelming abandonment of theism. While this demographic has adamantly rejected religious identification, the clear majority have retained their belief in God. The largest group of nones (68 percent) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Within that group, 30 percent of them are certain God exists and only 27 percent of nones say there is no God. Clearly, most of those that claim no religious affiliation have not ceased to believe.
Nor have the Nones ceased to believe in ethics and morality. They are drawn to activism and rally around the mobilization of social issues. They care deeply about equality, human rights, as well as social and economic justice. In many regards they have actively embodied “religious” ideals more thoroughly than most religionists. Perhaps here, Nietzsche was more right than we realize when he said that “Christian dogma was destroyed by Christian ethics.” Theologian Don Cupitt explains further that “Christian scrupulosity eventually forces people to admit that they can no longer believe Christian dogma.”
What is it the Nones don’t believe? It’s neither God nor ethics that is most adamantly being denied. They don’t believe in institutions, be they religious or non. They reject the concretizations of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But this is to be lauded. They have sought an autonomous authenticity outside the walls of formalized structures.
In Entertainment Theology, Barry Taylor highlights the that “this anti-institutional posture toward religion does not result in a rejection of the sacred[…] What is advanced instead is a new understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the secular. The sacred and profane are blended into new configurations.” The old binary ways in which we have sought to order ‘reality’, society, experience, and the world can no longer suffice.
In a Big Think video technology futurist Daniel Burrus discusses what the occurrence of “linear change”, that is, change that is distinctly one way, unidirectional, as Burrus says, “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back.”
Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences.
While some of the Nones we may still feel a desire to “believe”, the simple fact remains that, because of the rapid exponential changes of technology, communications, globalization, social media, and the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, Nones are seeking to upgrade from the outmoded technology of the church and can no longer “believe” the way we once did.
Yet, if you look deeper I think you will see that they are reinventing belief, redesigning what it means to believe. Perhaps this is post-religious thought, whole news ways in which one can be “religious” are being innovated. In his article, “Critique of Religion and Religion as Critique: The Secularized Hope of Ernst Bloch, Gerard Raulet calls this “Dialectical Secularization.” Raulet writes that “Dialectical secularization does not abolish religion and its themes, but instead, inserts them into a dialectical secular practice where they retain their interpretative potentials.” He goes on to say that “Secularization, according to Bloch, is defined both as a break with and as the continuation of Biblical hope.”
In many regards, then, you could say that the church has not failed the Nones. The church has failed itself. It is has consistently failed to live up to its own designs, systems, and models. It is not because the church or religion has failed that the Nones became so. Rather religion and the church has failed to keep up with those who have become Nones. Religion has failed to make the strides that the Nones have made on their own.
In response to Fitzgerald’s article I must be clear, I did not choose to be religiously unaffiliated because you have failed me. You are not a failure because I am an Atheist and a None. You have failed me because you have seen my atheism and my religious disassociation as a failure.
 Paul Tillich drew upon such a distinction in his idea of the “latent church.”

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who are not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church[…] Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

This begs question what if the Nones are in fact the best example of the New Sincerity, what if the most authentic progression of religious scruples is religious disavowal?
What if instead of the church seeking to get Nones to join the church, the church sought to join the Nones? What if religion itself became religiously unaffiliated?

A Declaration of ‘Cloud’ Independence

One of my current research obsessions is exploring the intersecting of anarchism and technology, or more specifically, the ways in which ‘The Cloud’ is a space ripe for the construction of Temporary Autonomous Zones/Pirate Utopias and for offering alternative social, political, and economic structures of engagement and participation. Mark Van Steenwyk suggested in his book, That Holy Anarchist,  that “One of the central challenges of forging peace, justice and freedom in our time is to experiment with political models that promote the dispersal, rather than the increasing concentration, of power.” I believe that the ‘The Cloud’ and all its inherent potentialities offers just such a platform for exactly this kind of experimentation and dispersal. I’ve recently written two previous posts dedicated to this idea,which you can read here and here.
The two works that primarily incited me to make this correlation was Kester Brewin‘s recent book Mutiny! and the Cloud Surfing by Thomas Koulopoulos. I have since been investigating this notion further and in the process began reading a book edited by Peter Ludlow entitled Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. This text is a culmination of essays from various contributors, all of which are intended to explore the immense innovation and creativity taking place within the Cyber world, especially in regards to the formation of autonomous communities and spaces that are ultimately seditious and defiant of the normative governance of the nation state. Though this work was originally published in 2001 and the Cloud had not achieved the still burgeoning maturity that it currently has, the text is still unwaveringly relevant and applicable. In the book’s forward Edward Barret correctly predicts that “We are witnessing a profound revolution in communication and learning in a post-Gutenberg world” (xiii). Thus, Ludlow accurately surmises that “the reason that anarchy becomes a topic of interest in cyberspace is simply that with the widespread availability of various technologies it now appears that certain anarchist ideals may be possible, if not inevitable” (xvii). For instance, Ludlow highlights that “traditional nation states have no legitimate authority over cyberspace” (xviii). This is seeming to be more and more the case with the rising prevalence of the Cloud and all that it offers.
One of the first essays of the book comes from John Perry Barlow, which was written as an email in 1996 in reaction to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and then widely distributed by Barlow. The work was entitled “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” and was intended to be a scathing statement to not only the United States Government but, to governments of the world that Internet is not held with any of their borders and is thus outside all of their jurisdictions and exempt from their authority. I found Barlow’s declaration is to be incredibly poignant and it has lost none of its teeth. Below you’ll find excerpts from Barlow’s original paper crafted together in such a way so as to serve as means announcing same kind of radical, subversive, and disruptive independence that is ‘The Cloud’.

Governments of the…World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from [the Cloud], the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. [The Cloud] does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature, and it grows itself through our collective actions.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions…

We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different…

[The Cloud] consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere…

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here…

In our world, all sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air on which wings beat…

in our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish…

We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

We will create a civilization of the Mind in [the Cloud]. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

T.A.Z. Unbound: Pirate Utopias Set Free by ‘The Cloud’

This writing is in large part a brief continuation of my previous post entitled “Pirates in ‘The Cloud’s or the T.A.Z. Cloud”, in which I set out to begin exploring the intersections of Pirate Utopias/Temporary Autonomous Zones and ‘The Cloud’. This continuing investigation and thought experiment was inspired predominantly by Kester Brewin‘s recent book Mutiny!, which explains the socio-cultural significance that piracy has played throughout the ages and on into the present, and also by Thomas Koulopoulos‘ book Cloud Surfing , which explores the immense potential and disruptive capabilities of ‘The Cloud’.

It seems that in many ways my previous post was much belated by at least a week. Just one week prior what may very well be the most infamous and possibly the most visited BitTorrent, The Pirate Bay, made a captivating and intriguing announcement.

So, first we ditched the trackers.

Then we got rid of the torrents.

Now? Now we’ve gotten rid of the servers. Slowly and steadily we are getting rid of our earthly form and ascending into the next stage, the cloud.

The cloud, or Brahman as the hindus call it, is the All, surrounding everything. It is everywhere; immaterial, yet very real.

If there is data, there is The Pirate Bay.

Our data flows around in thousands of clouds, in deeply encrypted forms, ready to be used when necessary. Earth bound nodes that transform the data are as deeply encrypted and reboot into a deadlock if not used for 8 hours.

All attempts to attack The Pirate Bay from now on is an attack on everything and nothing. The site that you’re at will still be here, for as long as we want it to. Only in a higher form of being. A reality to us. A ghost to those who wish to harm us.

Adapt or be forever forgotten beneath the veils of maya.

The Pirate Bay is the first site of its kind to become completely and entirely Cloud based. Their decision to do so was as a means of stifling and avoiding the raids of law enforcement which they have frequently experience and been subject to. The magnitude of the the Pirate Bay’s maneuver is unprecedented. Their totalizing   move into the Cloud is a near precise example of the paradigmatic subversiveness that is readily available in the Cloud, especially when harnessed by the autonomic hand of Piracy. This is a profound exercise in the ‘unblocking of culture and the commons’, as the Pirate Bay has “managed to take away money from the equation of information distribution.”

This is also a poignant  illustration of exactly how optimal the Cloud is for creating, constructing, organizing, and ultimately enacting Pirate Utopias and Temporary Autonomous Zones. This may indeed represent one of the most advanced evolutionary developments of T.A.Z. Thanks to the Cloud this is T.A.Z. occurring at a meta level, freed from the constraints of physical context, and unchained from the limitations of geographic location. This is the Pirate Utopia set from metaphysics, paradoxically everywhere and no where, the transcendent and intangible wholly transfigured into here and now, radically immanent, permeating everything. It is the T.A.Z. become one with the “All surrounding everything.” The Pirate Utopia that is “immaterial, yet very real.”

It seems that the entrance of the Pirate Utopia into the Cloud represents the T.A.Z. at its most dialectical. This is where, as Thomas Altizer would say, “absolute nothingness is an absolute totality, and as such can be understood as an ultimate dissolution of every possible dualism” (Altizer, 16). It is where T.A.Z  “realizes itself only by losing all the essence and substance of itself” (39). The deepest and most ultimate affirmation occurs and arrives through the deepest and most ultimate negation (56).

“For everyone is now no one, every actual ‘I’ has now disappeared or is silent, a new anonymity is now truly all in all, and this as the consequence of the birth of a truly new world” (69).

 

Altizer, Thomas J.J., New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print