The classic Christian spiritual disciplines do serve an irreplaceable role in connecting us with the work of God in the world. They are the necessary but insufficient foundation for Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century. But our relationship with our bodily and earthly identity is conflicted in the classic tradition. In the classic tradition the wild, indigenous self is to be feared and therefore colonized and converted.
Many people today recognize the false promises and destructive impact of modern civilization. We often do not know what alternatives exist. Most of us have an unsatisfied desire for wildness and mystery that neither school nor church, neither therapist nor pastor can address. For over two hundred years under the flags of modernity and progress our civilization has been diminishing the biotic capacity of this planet. We have already reached the point of no return. Our ability to effectively respond to our dilemma has been perilously handicapped by dysfunctional political systems and societies that can no longer nurture humans to full maturity and adulthood.
A crucial component needed in contemporary radical Christian practice is the human connection with nature. Classical Christian thought is at best ambivalent about nature and at worst views nature as a hindrance and an enemy to spiritual life. In the classic view nature is to be disciplined, controlled, subdued, or defeated.
In the radical view nature is a crucial ally and companion to the Christian spiritual life. We must begin to honor nature and our own human bodies as part of nature, sacred vessels for God’s presence. To view nature not as an enemy or hindrance to human maturity, to see nature as an ally and friend of the spiritual life is to lay the foundation for a fundamental rebellion against the dehumanizing force of modern civilization. Spiritual disciplines “grounded” in the natural world embrace both external and internal nature. Instead of choosing between God or nature we entrust ourselves to God and nature.
Here are three spiritual disciplines that the contemporary radical Christians might embrace as a supplement to those that Christians have always embraced (prayer, Bible study, etc).1
Rites of passage are crucial to individual and social psychology. Throughout human history the predominant place for these rites has been in wilderness settings outside the everyday life of the village or town. All three major monotheistic faiths were initially shaped by wilderness rites of passage.2
This ancient wilderness psychology has much to teach us today. Modern cultures have forgotten these ancient practices and have not found sufficient substitutes that connect us with the rhythms of earth and spirit. People in major life transitions (e.g. mid-life, marriage, divorce, traumatic loss, etc) may seek out a wilderness rite of passage in order to find clarity and renewed direction. A theist may be seeking a closer relationship to God or a spiritualist communing with “the mystery”. Time alone in the wilderness has often facilitated a radical shift in consciousness and marked a significant transformational moment in someone’s life.
Contemporary “vision fasts” attempt to revive the therapeutic effectiveness of indigenous rites of passage. A typical contemporary vision fast has three phases: 1. severance/withdrawal 2. threshold/descent and 3. incorporation/return. The threshold phase is the central period of living in the wilderness for a limited period of time without food, shelter, or companionship. Experienced guides are always essential to this process. Guides help with preparation, oversee the fast itself, and assist in the reincorporation of participants back into their everyday world.
Going cold turkey against our addiction to civilization even for short periods of time has profound affects upon our mental, emotional, and physical stability. The destabilized ego removed from its normal points of orientation and psychological security must find new and deeper resources and sustenance. Exposure is the key: exposure to a strange environment and terrain; exposure to one’s own insecurities, fears, and instabilities; exposure to one’s idols, temptations, and the ground of one’s faith.
John Davis writes “Making intimate contact with the wild world brings us into contact with our ‘wild selves,’ the parts of us that have not been conditioned by familial and cultural forces. Wild places are those not under our control and not subject to our wills, walls, or arbitrary boundaries. On wilderness rites of passage, as in all forms of deep psychological or spiritual work, we are going into wild places. We are entering realms where the artificial structures and demands of the ego and society have not restricted or walled off our innate guidance, aliveness, generosity, or fascination with the world.”3
Every known human culture until the advent of modernity sought guidance in dreams. Most of us are a bit schizophrenic about dreams, either dismissing them without consideration, or treating them superstitiously. Most approaches to dreamwork differ on the relationship between the nightworld and the dayworld. Some see dreams as mere reworkings of conflicts going on in everyday life. Dreams are ways to work out our own fantasies or anxieties about real relationships with real people. Other approaches see dreams as codes in which every element has a hidden meaning that might be deciphered to reveal some hidden directive.
Perhaps the most helpful model for dreamwork understands that the concerns of the ego’s dayworld are not the dream’s primary theme. In Bill Plotkin’s “soulcentric dreamwork” every dream is an opportunity to learn more about our soul – our primal, unsocialized, indigenous self. Dreams reveal an agenda contrary to that of our everyday world, an agenda that expresses our deepest identity and longing. If heeded our dreams might not facilitate our smooth capitulation to civilization! In this view, dreams are attempts to interrupt our everyday preoccupations so that our deepest desires may be introduced into consciousness in a way that will facilitate our wholeness and maturity. It is not the case that the dreamworld should rule over the everyday world, but the dreamworld should unseat the imperialism of the everyday for the sake of human wholeness.4
SEASONAL CEREMONIES, DRUMMING AND DANCING
OK, so maybe a vision fast (resembling those of Moses and Jesus) or the interpretation of dreams (mimicking Joseph or Daniel) might have some value in Christian spiritual life. Drumming and dancing under a full moon clearly takes us outside of any biblical precedent and perhaps carries us over the boundary into New Age hokum. This impulse to dismiss such practices is more indicative of our capitulation to modern prejudices than it is a witness to our biblical faithfulness.
Not only do we need disciplines that connect us with the external natural (e.g. wilderness fasts) and the internal natural (e.g. dreamwork) but we need disciplines that connect both external and internal and do so with others on the same quest. Seasonal festivals have always had the potential to nurture our relationship with the natural world and bring deep healing to our nature-based psyches. At a very deep and profound psychological level we need to live in accordance with the rhythms and seasons of nature. Rituals around seasonal festivals are one means of reconnecting us with the natural world. They are essential in revising our self-understanding as creatures immersed in nature rather than creatures in opposition, tension, or mere communion with nature.
Ceremony is about connecting our deep selves with each other and with God through sound and movement. Simple drumming and spontaneous dance can be a place to start. Dancing together in unscripted ways has the power to coordinate the inner and outer and force each to initiate their own movement and to respond to the movement of others. Drumming and dancing together in a natural setting in accordance with seasonal rhythms can be a powerful method for individual, social, and spiritual cohesion. Clearly Christian worship limited by the traditional ecclesiastical expressions will never unseat the domination of civilization, nor liberate our colonized spirits. Seasonal drumming and dancing as an expression of Christian worship just might.5
Sidewalks facilitate movement and provide safety in transitioning from one point to another. But sidewalks also guide and limit our movement. An overly reverential adherence to the constraints of sidewalks is not an expression of true human freedom. The yellow brick road may lead Dorothy to Oz, but that’s the only place it will lead her.
When Christians confess that we are “children of God” created “in God’s image” we are exercising our human imaginations. Imagination is in fact crucial to spiritual life. It shapes our understanding of God, of ourselves, and of the rest of the created order.
The question “Is that reality or is that your imagination?” presents a false dichotomy. Spiritual disciplines function interactively with human imagination. Imagination shapes what we do and what we do shapes what we are capable of imagining. At present our response to the world’s environmental crisis is underfunded by our limited imaginations. The classical spiritual disciplines do not access all the spiritual resources God has made available to us.
I am not asserting that three more spiritual disciplines (vision fasts, dreamwork, drumming and dancing ceremonies) will do anything substantial by themselves. What I am arguing is that we need Christian communities experimenting with new spiritual practices in a synergistic manner for extended periods of time and reporting out what they are discovering.
If you are looking for a concrete manner by which you can respond to the fear, rage, and compassion you feel about the world we live in, then this is a direction in which to move. We need “soulcentric” Christian communities breaking their addiction to civilization and living out their new liberated identities as those who can embrace both our heavenly calling and our wild indigenous selves.
- The primary inspiration for my essay comes from the written work of Bill Plotkin and the thirty-year history of the Animas Valley Institute in Durango, Colorado.
- See Ched Myers,“Led by the Spirit into the Wilderness: Reflections on Lent, Jesus’ Temptations & Indigeneity”
- “Wilderness Rites of Passage”, Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, edited by Bron Taylor, pp 1150-1151 (London: Continuum, 2005). For more on vision fasts see the foundational work of Steven Foster and Meridith Little, The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness (New York: Prentice Hall Press 1988).
- The best introduction to Bill Plotkin’s distinctive soulcentric dreamwork is Soulcraft, chapter 7, pp 128ff. Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, (New World Library, 2003). It should be noted here that human wholeness is not equated with the dominance of our wild, indigenous selves. The goal is the integration of our interior wildness with the rest of our personality.
- Even if it fails it is still a lot more fun!
Ric Hudgens is a "conspiratorial consultant" for ProActive: The Prophetic Activism Initiative: "creating spaces for God's freedom dreams". He is a perpetual newcomer to intentional Christian community at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois and pastor-in-residence at a local African-American congregation.