The Great Unbundling

When you grow up with a life that largely rotates around the church, like I did, I don’t think its rhythms ever really leave you. This is just as true of secular institutions and practices, particularly if they had any sort of ritual component: hunting, a day of watching football, Girl Scouts, or just the weekly ordeal of having your hair washed, brushed, and braided. Sometimes those experiences felt annoying or boring; sometimes we came to resent them. But when they’re gone, we yearn for them in ways that are hard to describe.

This is how I feel every time I hear the Doxology, or Sufjan singing Come Thou Font, and I have to hold it next to all of my anger over the moralizing and white nationalist and exclusionary components of what so many (white) evangelical churches have become. It’s the ritual and the ceremony I miss, but it’s also the familiarity and community, the way my friends and I would write notes to each other during the sermon and then, at the end of the service, rush to the “secret passage” that would get us to the stale coffee hour cookies first. It was a second home, and then it wasn’t, and that will never not feel like a loss.

Which is probably why I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out communities that think of church — or just ritual, and belonging — differently. I’ve written about the Cool Elks Club in Ballard, Seattle; the cross-denominational refugee work in Dallas, the radically inclusive Baptist church in North Carolina that’s committed to debt forgiveness. It’s why I keep thinking about the contemporary devotion to (culturally appropriated) forms of yoga, to Crossfit, and, most recently, to Peloton, which has begun cultivating ride series that fully lean into the more spiritual components of intense exercise.

I linked to a Washington Post piece on that phenomenon in last week’s newsletter, and was really struck by a line from Harvard Divinity Fellow Casper ter Kuile concerning the way in which spirituality and ritual has been “unbundled” from a larger religious experience or community — and what’s lost and gained in the process. I’ve spent the last week reading more about Casper’s work as part of the The Sacred Design Lab and his writing about the place and power of ritual in our lives today, and he and I spent the last few days going back and forth on some questions about how all of this applies to our lives today.

I hope you’ll find this discussion compelling and challenging and maybe even hopeful. If you have questions for Casper, please feel free to ask below.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you started thinking about the things you spend your days thinking about? 

I had no idea that thinking about the future of spirituality and community could be a job. I grew up in England in a non-religious home, and my first real passion was as a climate activist. After a few years of mobilizing young people to influence the UN climate negotiations, I started to question how impactful my activism was. It seemed that policy solutions alone were insufficient, and even engaging political power didn’t get to the root of the problem. More and more. I started to think about the paradigms that construct our reality. For example, is an old-growth forest a “natural resource” that can be priced, or a living ecosystem that has priceless value? The way we frame the question shapes the potential answers. It turns out that religious traditions have been thinking about this for a long time! 

I came to the US for a public policy grad school program, but I ended up at Harvard Divinity School as a gay atheist interested in understanding how religion works, and what elements of spiritual traditions might serve community-building and social justice work today. Divinity School set me aflame with new ideas, intellectual interests, and collaborative relationships that have deeply shaped my professional life since.

What are the upsides, do you think, of approaching some of these questions from a perspective outside of established religious traditions? Also please tell me more about your singing circle — when I taught at a very unique little high school in Vermont, we had all-campus Sing, and I cannot overemphasize how much I miss it, and how much that experience draws former students back to the school. 

Harmony singing with others is the thing I miss most, too. Especially during the pandemic! I think there are definitely real upsides of exploring spirituality outside religious traditions, certainly for people who have been wounded or marginalized by religious institutions. Just look at the explosion of interest in astrology or moon circles — so often led by queer people, people of color, and women. These spaces and practices allow for a focus on trauma healing, contextualization and personalization, and finding a set of practices and community connections that welcome the authentic and whole person. 

Where it can fall short is that you’re often having to make things up or build it on your own. There’s little intergenerational connection. There’s very few structures of accountability. We can lose access to wisdom and experience. And to go back to singing — who will be there to hand on songs from the past? 

Tell me about the recent writing you’ve done — especially “How We Gather” and  “Care of Souls.” What do we even call this work? Part of an initiative? A hope for the future? An idea? 

My co-creator Angie Thurston and I started mapping interesting organizations and trends together as a passion project. We noticed that more and more people were less and less religious. Today, 40% of Millennials have no affiliation to a religious tradition - which is a stunningly rapid change within our lifetimes. But that didn’t mean that unaffiliated people like us didn’t want community, meaning, and ritual. In fact, the lack of religious affiliation to us seemed connected to a desire to find it somewhere else.

So we started to map where folks are going to connect with these longings. Turns out, people are going to fitness communities, justice groups, adult summer camps, even the workplace, to connect with things of “ultimate value” as Paul Tillich might say. In our research we came across countless stories of folks turning to their SoulCycle instructor to ask — on a Sunday afternoon over text — whether they should divorce their husband or not. CrossFitters raising money for one another’s cancer treatment or running an after-hours talent show in the gym. Black Lives Matter activists leading public rituals honoring ancestors and younger employees asking managers for mindfulness, yoga, and breath workshops at work. 

After years of noticing these trends, writing case studies, visiting communities and convening leaders, we founded our organization Sacred Design Lab with our partner Sue Phillips to continue to study this landscape, and more importantly, to try and catalyze the infrastructure needed to support the spiritual lives of people today - whatever their affiliation.    

Can you talk more about the concept of “unbundling” and how you see it working in spiritual and community life today? How much of this is connected to the general shift away from collectivism — and how much of it has to do with the intersection of politics and religion? 

Think of a local newspaper. Whereas fifty years ago it provided classifieds, personal ads, letters to the editor, a puzzle for your commute, and, of course, the actual news, today its competitors have surpassed it in each of these, making the daily paper all but obsolete. Craigslist, Tinder, Facebook, CandyCrush, and cable news offer more personalization, deeper engagement, and perfect immediacy. The newspaper has been unbundled, and end users mix together their own preferred set of services.

So, unbundling is the process of separating elements of value from a single collection of offerings. 

In a religious/community context, whereas a fifty years ago, most people in the U.S. relied on a single religious community to ritualize life moments, foster healing, connect to lineage, inspire morality, house transcendent experience, mark holidays, support family, serve the needy, and work for justice. Now, we might rely on a host of different products, experiences and communities —the Insight Meditation Timer, mountain hikes, Afro-Flow Yoga, Instagram hashtags, Friday shabbatlucks, Beyoncé anthems, and protesting the Muslim Ban. But there’s no common identity and institution. 

The internet totally changed the game. Instead of engaging with a hierarchical institution that sets the conditions for participation, we expect to be able to personalize our experiences and navigate content and community through networks. So we’re in the midst of a huge cultural shift in how and where people are finding meaning, purpose and connection. 

I’ve thought about this so much in my own relationship to yoga and, now, Peloton — I don’t want to ask you to say whether this is a wholly positive or negative development, but I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how many of the things that proffer spiritual fulfillment and ritual now 1) cost money 2) involve regimenting the body in a way and 3) often involve “virtual” connection, which I don’t devalue, but just has a different valence and experiential component than actually being in a room or place with other people. So what is gained, and what is lost, through the process of unbundling? 

For sure it’s not just a positive or negative thing. Like everything else, capitalism finds a way into this trend! Vice released a report a couple of years ago talking about spirituality as the next brand “white space” for example. But listen, capitalism and religion have always interacted — so I don’t want to position what is happening here as anything new.

There are certainly losses when unbundling happens. The one I spend a lot of time thinking about is how, when we find meaning in all these different places, we lose a central community with whom we share singing and grief, social justice activism and coming of age ceremonies. We lose that interconnective thread that ties our lives together, and at least for me, it contributes to that empty, lonely feeling that is so prevalent today. There’s no whole that we get to be part of - and that leaves us yearning for something bigger than ourselves in which we can feel that fullness.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church which, like a lot of churches in the ‘90s and ‘00s, adopted some soft evangelism which eventually turned me off from the church altogether. Over my reporting through the years in and around the Protestant church, I’ve met so many people with similar trajectories, but who find themselves hungry for community and ritual. 

For example: last year, I reported on a church in North Carolina that had committed itself to debt-forgiveness and labor activism, and I kept thinking, wow, if I lived here, I would absolutely come here every week, regardless of my personal feelings about God. But most places don’t have anything even close to that, church or otherwise. How could something like Care of Souls work where my mom lives, in a town of 30,000 in deeply conservative Idaho? What about Brooklyn? 

YES. I LOVE THIS! Because it speaks to the fact that communities of meaning and purpose are still desperately needed. And, in fact, since starting to learn about religious communities a decade ago, my respect for good religion has grown enormously. My most important mentors are now these incredible nuns who have the most committed, radical vision for the world. Campaigns like the Poor People’s Campaign, co-led by Rev. Dr. William Barber III and other religious figures, is another example of the best of religion, I think.

We’re seeing innovative spiritual communities pop up in all sorts of places - and online, as well, of course. Some are starting from a secular foundation, others are reimagining their own tradition. One of my favorite rural spiritual communities is led by Edwin Lacy in western Virginia where he gathers folks for a potluck, conversation, communion, and a banjo session. There’s national networks of hyper-local gatherings that happen in people’s homes (pre-COVID) like The Dinner Party, which brings people who’ve experienced significant loss together for a meal and story-sharing. But unsurprisingly a lot of the most prominent examples are urban. My favorite example that sadly closed a year ago was The Sanctuaries in DC. They managed to create a multi-racial, multi-religious (and none!) community of artists with soul who were sharing their talents in service of justice in the city. 

Broadly, these newer communities aren’t looking to build a long-lasting institutional presence with a building etc. Many are primarily online, even before the pandemic, and will gather for an in-depth experience every year. Burning Man is a classic example.

The website for your organization, Sacred Design Lab, is gorgeous. It feels hip and inviting, but I’m also wary of it, because I’m wary of all “cool church,” not only because I think they can easily become manipulative, but also because it’s so easy for aesthetics to cover up just how little substance an organization actually offers. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with Sacred Design Lab — but how do you protect against that?

Great question. The first thing to say is we’re not a community but a three-person organization who think, write, consult etc. So there’s no offering plate being passed around! (Though there are some interesting examples of explicitly secular congregations out there, like Sunday Assembly.)

But the deeper question stands: religion and spirituality can be weaponized to cause incredible harm. With two queer and two women co-founders we are very aware of that! And yet, spirituality and community — when engaged safely and ethically — are also the most amazing generators of healing, of justice, and of imagination for the world as it can be. At their best, when we engage with religious practices and traditions, they help us do things together that we couldn’t do alone. They disrupt so many of the toxic narratives we live in: that our worth is only to be found in our consumption and production, for example. Spirituality and religious community, at its best, can give us a foundation for our identity away from capitalism and white supremacy. 

Practically, we very intentionally only work with organizations that align with our values of collective liberation - including racial justice and healing, LGBTQ+ equality and economic dignity. And of course we are held accountable by our board of advisors and partners!

Over the last year, I think a lot of people have been coming to terms with our desperate need for community and systems of dedication to one another outside of the individual family. What gives you hope about this moment, and the months moving forward? Are we ready for change? 

We need each other — that’s clear. 

Community is wonderful, but it is also awful. People are hard! So one of the things that gets me most excited is to find new structures of relational commitment. Namely, what committed relationship do you have, beyond parents/siblings/partners? Organizations like Thread in Baltimore that create circles of 3-4 adults to support a young person through high school and into college. Centering Healthcare Institute that builds a small group of parents-to-be to go through the pregnancy experience together. 

We need these structures to hold us together even when it is hard. Because if we engage with our community and spiritual lives as consumers, and we check out when it isn’t immediately satisfying, we end up losing the most precious experiences of life. 

What advice do you have for people who have struggled — because of their schedules, because of a lack of experience with situations that aren’t immediately satisfying, because of demoralizing previous experiences with communities large and small — to help foster the resolve and intention to stay with this work moving forward? And where should they start looking, if they don’t know where to start? 

Without being gross, that’s what my book is about — so please check out The Power of Ritual. What I hope to invite readers into is a process of discovering what the meaningful moments are that already exist in their lives. A favorite recipe that reminds them of their mom, a movie or book that they return to again and again, a special place in nature — all of these pieces of our lives are doorways into a spiritual life that is authentic and grounded. I try to pair these sacred moments with some of the best of religious traditions: to bind innovation with tradition so that everyone who wants it can find a language and practice that is resonant, safe, and expansive.

We don’t need to shell out cash to take the next step on our spiritual journeys. It can start by lighting candles before dinner, offering a blessing to the kids at dinner, journaling, singing in the shower, reading poetry, sharing what our hearts desire with a mentor…It isn’t exactly easy, but it isn’t exactly complicated either.

You can follow Casper on Twitter here — and learn more about his work with Harry Potter and the Sacred Text here. And yes, buy the book.

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