One of the most important things that humanity has to learn for its survival is that the choice between self and other, between particularity and universalism, is a fallacy. It is taken as obvious that there is an inverse relationship between particular identity and universal commitments. The belief goes that the more committed you are to your own tradition and tribe, your particular religious group as a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or member of another community, the less able you are to commit to universal values, the less you are willing to not only tolerate but respect the perspectives of others. Therefore, the best way to build a nation, community, society, or world of tolerance and respect is to diminish, to castrate particular identities, to water down the rich thick identities that have lasted for thousands of years in order to create something new, a shining city on the hill whose walls are made of glass, where there are no colors, where there is total transparency, and no mystery, because we’ve defined all the words, all the terms, all the ideas with perfect precision and perfect uniformity.
In such a society you are told what to believe, exactly when and where it is appropriate to use certain words, to think certain thoughts. This can take place because we have all agreed implicitly to abide by those norms, those new commandments. The supercessionism of this approach is of course anathema to religious identities. It also ultimately betrays us, deprives us of some of the deepest tools and vessels we’ve been given. So for example, if I’m really interested in making peace, there are those who would tell me to let go of my Jewish identity or to minimize or hyphenate it, and to place it as the numerator, not the denominator, of my identity, to be a Jewish American, not an American Jew.
But my American identity is 200 some odd years old, and my Jewish identity is 3000 years old. My American identity harks back to flawed visionaries, authors of a great social experiment, the results of which we have yet to see. While the roots of my Jewish identity are in the Sinai experience, the encounter between the absolute infinite, and the finite. So which one should be the denominator? Shall my religion be an adjective, or an essential noun of my identity? Which one would I go to the stake for? It’s clear, and I believe this is true for many other believers as well.
If I do make that move to a watered down and minimized place for my tradition, I do so at great cost and great peril. The cost is all of the stories and practices that could allow me to actually become a person of peace. I’m not going to become a person of peace, nor will I become a free man, or a whole one, through political conversations or mechanisms, through the study of the founding documents of the United States of America, however much insight those documents may provide, nor through shopping. I have a chance of becoming a free person, a person of peace who can contribute to American society, when connected deeply to the interrelatedness of all things, through religion.
We are all potential Bodhisattvas. If you don’t meditate under a tree at some point in your life (and that can take many different forms), you’re going to be defined by the culture in which you live. You’re not going to provide a countercultural example, you’re not going to be able to really subvert anything because everything you do can be commodified and commercialized. Everything you do can fit into the basic structure and framework of late capitalist democratic experimentation. If you achieve wisdom, it will become a product, a series of webinars or a workshops that you can get for $99 this week only. It’s very difficult to exit that unless you’ve experienced enlightenment, or at least a step on that path, and have really spent enough time to taste a different world, with different assumptions and styles and norms and demands and joys, different sources of laughter, older sources of tears, stories and rituals that extend far beyond you and that link you back to a community that spans many generations and many places on earth.
I’m not arguing that you should spend your whole life under the tree, because everyone else is waiting, and even if it means that you’re able to achieve only a fraction of enlightenment, a fraction of infinity is still infinity. And even if it means that you can’t share very much, you can just share a little bit, that little bit is worth several universes, because each bit is the crack in the door that points to a different reality, different possibilities. And what we need right now are possibilities, the reexamination of all our assumptions. We need to look at wacky and zany possibilities for living, because the ways that we’re living now are so clearly not serving us and are leading us to a dead end, a brick wall at 85 miles per hour. There’s no question about that. We know this, whether we’re talking about climate change, politics, or human psychology, we are heading into at least several hundred years of darkness. That’s our current course, we are moving quickly, and it’s not enough to stop using plastic bags. We have to sit under the tree and then we have to come back and say things that sound crazy.