When Christian media first got wind of Burning Man, they accused it of being the latest fad in Satanism.
They still do that … apparently Satan’s had a slow decade … but now there are so many articles with the premise of “my time at Burning Man as a Christian” that it’s practically its own genre – and many of these articles posit that Burning Man is something the Church can learn from, and that there is a place for the Cross at the Man.
There’s Phil Wyman’s recent article in Christianity Today – along with numerous posts on his blog. Wyman, incidentally, also creates Christian themed art for the playa that fits in perfectly with the rest of our patented brand of madness. (I wrote about one of his pieces here, and he strongly disagreed with my take here, but there’s no question in my mind that his work contributes fittingly to our ethos.)
There’s Steve Matthews posting for The Worldview Center, which is mostly critical (and badly misinformed) but still asks “What the church can learn from Burning Man.” There’s a number of posts about Burning Man on the Sidewalk Theologian blog. And many more.
Which begs a question I’ve been wondering for a while: When exactly did a Cacophony sponsored trip to the desert to build art and shoot guns transform into a major spiritual pilgrimage for the Western world?
Whether or not it’s appropriate to think of Burning Man in those terms, there’s no question that many people do. The number of camps offering morning yoga has increased alarmingly in just the last few years. A number of people talk about Burning Man as though it were an alternative to mainstream religion – as, for example, this recent Huffington Post blog suggesting that because Burning Man fits Joseph Campell’s criteria for a religion it’s ready to hit the big leagues. And as a Volunteer Coordinator for Burning Man, I receive hundreds of volunteer applications every year that say something like this:
“I’ve never been to Burning Man but I’m so inspired by your spiritual energy and the way it has already transformed my karma that I can’t wait to come and open myself up to the vibrational harmonies of so many enlightened souls manifesting positivity until we visualize a new universe full of healing mindfulness!”
No, seriously. They say that over and over again. I don’t think it’s a joke.
The guns are gone. The morning yoga’s here to stay. The person serving your coffee is an enlightened soul manifesting positivity through his chakras. Is that who we are?
Could a temporary city full of bunny costumes and hula hoops really be a supplement – or a replacement – for traditional religion?
It’s an absurd question on its face, but from panicked Christians to optimistic new age shamans, people are asking it.
The fact of they’re asking it, though, has only a little to do with Burning Man. Western culture has been moving away from institutionalized forms of religion since the Enlightenment … or even the pre-Renaissance: if you want to argue that Petrarch prefigured Montaigne in crucial respects, I’ll respect you in the morning. But the watershed moment was when Nietzsche’s mad prophet declared “God is dead.”
For most atheists, that was a triumphant call – but they forget that for Nietzsche’s prophet it was also a harbinger of doom. For all our technical advances, there is still a god shaped hole in our culture. The western psyche has been in such a spiritual crisis that it’s latched on to everything from UFOs to anti-depressants and asked “are you my savior?”
“I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problem of the individual’s search for myths,” legendary therapist Rollo May wrote in 1991. “The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place.”
The need for transcendent experiences has not gone away with belief in the divine. Instead that need has been transferred … most often to art.
It’s no accident that for the last 150 years western elites have tended to talk about art in the same terms priests and mystics used for divinity: art’s transcendent, art gives life meaning, art opens our eyes to new possibilities, art calls us to social justice … life even imitates it. As historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 1959 “For many people art, displacing religion, has become the justification of life, whether as the saving grace of an ugly civilization or as the pattern of the only noble career.”
Scholar James Davison Hunter noted, in an introduction to the thought of sociologist Philip Rieff: “In the material culture, art once addressed to sacred order is liberated from theological reference and now addresses only itself. Accordingly, in the structure of social authority, the artist replaces the prophet, the therapist replaces the priest, and so it goes.”
Or as Rieff himself wrote: “The faith instinct reappear(s) (in modernity) only on condition of its denial.” We’ll deny religion at every turn but we’ll treat art, psychology, and science with exactly the same reverence and expectations, and look to it for both miracles and existential answers.
Not all art, however, is equally suited to the task: the New York MOMA may get donations worthy of a Renaissance cathedral (no accident) but it probably hasn’t inspired as many “spiritual” experiences in its entire history as Burning Man did last year. What’s going on?
In her 2007 paper “Religion and the Arts in America,” Camille Paglia …
… Can I just stop and say I have always wanted to cite both Philip Rieff and Camille Paglia in the same essay? This is kind of a dream of mine. Let me take just a moment to savor it …
Camille Paglia – an unapologetic atheist and libertarian – argues that only religion can save the arts. When intellectual and religious culture divided, Paglia posits, secular intellectualism took High Art with it, but religion kept the passion that had served as Art’s life blood. Thus most high art in the modern era is … bloodless. Passionless. More devoted to being clever and having a catalogue description with the right buzzwords than with inspiring genuine feeling – let alone transcendence – among its audience. (Music was once the great exception to this, as the “low art” forms of music for much of the 20th century were oceans of passion. I would suggest, however, that the technical advances in pop music have squeezed most of the passion out of that form as well.)
Without passion for the transcendent, art is hobbled and far less effective at inspiring spiritual experiences.
“For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center,” she writes. “The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s’ multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts.”
I would say this is true – except at Burning Man, which has created and curated an extraordinary new visual aesthetic now unmatched anywhere else in the world.
What makes Burning Man the exception to Paglia’s verdict is precisely that Burning Man reunites passion for the transcendent in art – often through an unapologetically spiritual approach. (We burn a giant man in a massive bacchanalia, and then we solemnly burn a temple, for crying out loud.) In an era when people are turning to Art to fill the void left by their refusal to be “religious” in any conventional sense, Burning Man returns the spiritual passion to Art that it needs to effectively fill that role.
Thus Burning Man became, somewhat in spite of itself, a spiritual beacon and pilgrimage site. Not on the order of Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca (let’s keep perspective here), but significant all the same.
This has nothing to do with the reasons so many Christian groups condemn Burning Man: honestly they’ll condemn anything that hints of estrogen. But it is exactly the reason so many Christians are now looking at us and wondering: “what are they doing right, and why don’t we have a piece of it?”
Because for many in the western, post-modern, world, religion hasn’t been doing the job of finding transcendence any better than Art – and the churches and synagogues feel it. They are experimenting wildly, trying to appeal to the next generation of post-modern individualists, incorporating text messages into services and other terrible, terrible, ideas in the hope that something will stick.
Some of them think Burning Man has discovered the magic formula. The implication being that Burning Man could act as a supplement to, or even a replacement for, traditional religion.
Could it? Could Burning Man do that job?
Burning Man can never – is constitutionally incapable of – filling the role traditional religion wants to fill, and used to fill: providing a universal world-view and sense of identity which can mediate the entirety of one’s interactions with the world.
It’s easy for people outside Burning Man to look at everything we do – the sprawling, colorful, thumping, mess of it – and ask “what does it MEAN?” and not realize that we don’t have an answer. But we don’t – and in that we fail the very first duty of a religion: there is little to no sense of shared meaning. We may appropriate the symbols of religion … and frequently do … but having a Buddha or cross at Burning Man doesn’t make it any more of a religious event than having a crucifix made Piss Christ a piece of Catholic memorabilia.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, Burners flock to Burning Man precisely because we don’t impose a common meaning on our activities. Principle me no 10 Principles: they are widely respected but largely unknown – most Burners can’t name more than a few, and have no common agreement on how to interpret them, and don’t feel any need to change that. What does the “Man” mean? No one has any standing to tell you. “Burning” is a verb, not a noun, let alone a philosophy: we will band together tightly to do what we do, but never to agree on what it means. For a religion, that’s heresy – for us, it’s a feature.
Burning Man can never replace or even adequately supplement religion in its historical role: we don’t have it in us, and are successful precisely because we don’t try.
Burning Man often looks like a religion in spite of its incapacity to fill that role because in addition to providing an active link to transcendent experiences it accomplishes something else that modernity desperately needs: it gets people from vastly different backgrounds to sublimate to a common cause. Not a common belief, but a common cause. This is one of the most desperate challenges of a post-modern era: a common culture requires sublimation to it (Philip Rieff: “culture belongs to those who will submit to it”). Otherwise it’s every man for himself, the law becomes legalism, and everyone assumes the system is rigged and no one supports it. Sound familiar?
But at Burning Man, people willingly give freely of their money, time, and possessions. Far from a celebration of individual liberty, Burning Man can legitimately be seen as the iron shackle of art and culture. We give to it – we gift it – without asking what’s in it for ourselves, because we experience something transcendent and that is good enough on its own terms. We bow, to one degree or another, to its demands not for a salary or gain but because we know that by pitching in we make the thing work.
That’s nothing new: in fact, it’s how medieval communities built cathedrals. But at Burning Man, we do it without a shared meaning. That may be unique. It also may be essential to the survival of a post-modern culture where people can’t agree on anything.
That’s not religion … and never will be … but two out of three ain’t bad. In fact, it’s damn good.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com