Wednesday, May 04, 2005


One of my two favorite professors at Evergreen was David Marr. I took his courses even though what he taught was American Studies, and I'm not ordinarily very interested in American thought or letters. But David always challenged us -- he was constitutionally incapable of following a party line, any party line. He made us think hard about our origins and presuppositions. His holy mission was to rout out sloppy writing and sloppy thinking. He welcomed dissent -- one of the few people I've known who really did. He was much happier with forceful disagreement than with vague agreement. In a notably scruffy and shaggy faculty, he was always trim and precise. Short-haired, clean-shaven, neatly dressed, almost prim: in that haven of bearded radicals, his bare face glowed with an unearthly radiance.

He came to a party of ours one night, at our shabby one-bedroom duplex. On finding out that Martha and I were natives of Oregon, he declared himself unsurprised. We seemed like Oregonians, he said. In the manner of one of his seminar participants, I immediately demanded details and evidence. What were Oregonians like?

A familiar pause, while his eyes widened behind their glasses and he consulted some inner oracle. Then he pronounced: "They don't take shit offa nobody."


Why does Marr come to mind now? Partly because it was from him that I learned to question American individualism. He was an unabashed Socialist, of an un-trendy political sort. He prefigured a lot of the ideas about family that have since been taken up, in a weak eviscerated way, by neo-cons. Almost any social structure that stood in the way of Capitialism was okay by him. To him, individualism was the ideology by which Capitalism divided and separated us, leaving us by turns hoodwinked consumers and dependent, servile wage-earners -- in either case fragmented, alone, and disempowered, thinking we were pursuing our individual happiness while collectively we were being backed into a smaller and smaller life. We worked longer hours, and a whispering media always urged us to capitulate to the little desires of flesh and vanity, while the larger desires for freedom and meaning withered.


To me, getting backed into a purely private spiritual life is letting Capitalism have its way with me. Churches, like families, like enduring friendships, are bastions of non-Capitalist association, places where the rules of Capital are held at bay. They're the places where we say no. No, everything is not for sale. No, I am not, ultimately, a commodity. Some things are not on the market. By the rules of Capitalism, one should "trade-up" when one has a better market position. Get a better house, a younger wife, a classier friend, a church with better connections. And you see people doing that, sometimes. But fewer than you might fear, given the enormous current setting in that way.

I love, about my sangha, that a man like Michael has authority and influence over people who make five times as much money as he does. That people simply give money to the sangha or to the retreat project, with no expectation of ever profiting from them. To me every inch of retreat-land ground, every minute of worship at the urban center, is another thumb of the nose at Capitalism. Every practice-question raised in a public space is an assertion that the life of the spirit is something we have in common, something that connects us, something we do together in public. Capitalism hates that. It wants us to consume our individually-packaged spiritual commodities in private, convinced that we're all following our unique absolute freedom.


Now, this does not mean that I think everybody can or should be "churched." People repeatedly take me to mean that. I'm not sure why -- I'm sure I'm saying something that can be construed that way, but I don't know what. There are plenty of people who simply don't live within reach of any church that they could be a part of. And there are some people whose spiritual lives are at once very intense and very fragile, for whom a group would simply be disaster. The last thing those people should do is "hold their nose and go to church," or deliberately put themselves in the way of ruining their practice. Our first spiritual responsibility, always, is to ourselves.

But it's not our only spiritual responsibility. Every life should have in it some spiritual service, some opening to the spiritual life of others. It doesn't have to be sitting in a row of pews or a line of zafus. It can be writing a blog (i'm thinking of Paula's "transcendental etudes," here.) It can be making a space for reverence in your child's life. It can even be simply holding ourselves open to the religious aspirations of others, making an effort to believe in their reality and validity, without ever saying or doing a thing in "the real world."

There's nothing wrong, in fact there's a great deal right, with a private spiritual practice. But it's a mistake to hold it as something we do only for ourselves.

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