The Religious Counterculture

Mayim Bialik

Actor Mayim Bialik blogged about the difficulty of finding this dress for the Emmy Awards, given the Jewish modesty laws she observes. What if all religious liberals felt such tension between their religious values and the demands of capitalist society? Credit: Heather Weiss.

I’m not easily starstruck, but there is one minor celebrity on whom I have a kind of a crush: Mayim Bialik. She plays Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory and long ago starred in the show Blossom. I have never watched either of these shows, but that’s beside the point. It’s not her acting performance that I admire so much… it’s her performance of her values. She uses her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA to teach science classes as part of homeschooling children in her community. She is a vegan who says that she prepares vegan food for her family to teach her kids to care for the earth. And she is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath, keeps kosher (so it has to be kosher vegan food), and even tries to adhere to Jewish modesty laws in her dress. The last, I imagine, is no small feat for a woman who makes a living in Hollywood.

The modesty issue came to a head as Bialik prepared to attend the Emmy awards last fall. She needed to find a dress that covered her elbows and knees and collarbone, was not too tight, and, of course, was absolutely gorgeous enough for the red carpet. The quest for this perfect dress became very public as she wrote about it in her various blogs and columns. She called the quest, “Operation Hot and Holy.”

We may disagree with a tradition that requires this kind of modesty (although I’ll point out that most of the same modesty laws apply to men). But you’ve got to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously that she is willing to withstand intense social pressure. If women in our culture normally feel pressure to dress in revealing clothing, the pressure must be tenfold in Hollywood and a hundredfold at big public industry events like the Emmys. But she did it—Operation Hot and Holy: mission accomplished—and afterward the blogosphere was bursting with women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, thanking her for her courage in so publicly contesting the cultural rules of how women are supposed to look.

Do we religious liberals and progressives similarly experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world? If not, why not? It’s clear to me that there should be tension. There should be enormous tension. We should feel it in every decision we make. We should feel it when we shop at the grocery store, when we go to work, when we speak to a child, and when (and if) we watch TV. We should feel it when we lie down and when we rise. We should feel like Orthodox Jews in Kansas or Mennonites in Manhattan. Until the world is as it should be—until all wars have ended, until no child is hungry, until we are living gently on the earth, until power is shared, and until all silenced voices are heard—until that day, we should not be able to fit comfortably into this world. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” Questions about the extent of our participation in the dominant culture should keep us up at night. If they don’t, something is wrong.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

Of course, I didn’t invent this idea. Religious communities have almost always started out countercultural. Religious teachers across the millennia have exhorted their followers to stop striving after the false idols of the secular world. Instead, they have called on believers to come together in loving community and connect with God. The Early Christian community described in the Book of Acts is a perfect example. The story goes that people were so inspired by the teachings of Jesus that they completely broke from their social context. Chapter 4 of Acts says:

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. A great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

This is Christian Scripture. This is what many Christians believe was an unalloyed expression of the teachings of Jesus—the first human foray into building a Christian utopia “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Being a Christian was not initially seen as compatible with living a normal life, working a normal job, or even owning land. To be a Christian was to have an entirely different understanding of what it means to be human. On a political level, these Early Christians were not directly trying to change the policies of the state; rather, they were asserting an alternative vision of how people can live together in community.

Sacred Community at Occupy Wall Street

Rev. Jacqui Lewis at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City calls what those Early Christians were doing “rehearsing the reign of God.” By my analysis, this is exactly what was going on in Zuccotti Park this fall. The Occupy Wall Street protesters were not focused on delivering a message because in a very real way, the medium was their message. Their protest embodied a communitarian ethos: reclaiming a piece of private land, declaring it public by their presence, and living on it together in a way that intentionally rehearsed their ideals. They did it imperfectly, to be sure, but they struggled to get it right.

Marching with Golden Calf

Like Occupy Wall Street, a true religious counterculture rejects the dominant culture, instead seeking to embody a radical vision of loving community. Here, three ministers mock the worship of money with a golden calf modeled after the Wall Street Bull. Credit: Tom Martinez/Witness Photography.

They resisted hierarchy and intentionally elevated traditionally marginalized voices. They studied from a free library of donated books. Volunteers taught classes in everything from economics to nonviolent conflict resolution, all to help people reframe their thinking from outside of the dominant paradigms. And they broke bread together. The food was mostly vegetarian or vegan, free and available to everyone, and somehow it fed almost one thousand people per day, loaves-and-fishes style. Although participants might have disagreed, I interpreted the Occupy Wall Street encampment as a fundamentally religious endeavor. The people within it were struggling to embody the beloved community and recognize the sacred in one another. Planting themselves as a brazen non sequitur in the financial district of New York City, they asserted a vision of the world as it should be in the very midst of the world as it is.

The “rehearsal of the reign of God” that constituted the Early Christian church has surfaced repeatedly in different forms, through different religions, and at different times throughout history. The Occupy encampment was just one recent instantiation of it. But, sadly, the trajectory of these movements is almost always one of decline: the commitment fades, the momentum fizzles, the teachings ossify. Over time, people find it too hard to stand so alienated from the lives they once knew. The sacrifices are too great. We all want to be able to look fabulous walking down the red carpet at the Emmys. And so religion loses its radical edge as its institutions become ensconced in mainstream society.

James Luther Adams, a twentieth-century Unitarian minister, had these harsh words to say about what he saw as liberal religion’s slide down this familiar slope:

The element of commitment, of change of hearts, of decision so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius … A holy community must be a militant community with its own explicit faith; and this explicit faith cannot be engendered without disciplines that shape the ethos of the group and that issue in the criticism of the society and of the “religious” community itself.

The kind of commitment Adams is talking about is a pretty radical kind of commitment on the part of the community as a whole. He uses the terms “holy community” and “militant community” in the same breath. He is describing a kind of community, like the Early Christian church and like Occupy Wall Street, that is dramatically different from the surrounding culture; sustained by the power of love and fundamentally incompatible with a world where poverty, oppression, and violence can exist. He is talking about a religious counterculture.

A Hard Look in the Mirror for Religious Liberals

If we religious liberals look in the mirror, do we see the religious counterculture that we ought to embody if we really believe in the things we say we believe in—the inherent, sacred worth of all living beings; the delicate interdependence of all existence; the goal of a just, peaceful world community; and our special obligation to the powerless? Do we act as we would act if we had really internalized the revelation at the burning bush—that the force that authorized and empowered the Israelites to free themselves from oppression was the very ground of Being itself?

For the most part, in a word, no. Many of us have fled the oppressive and seemingly arbitrary obligations of our religious childhoods and have since focused our energies on affirming personal liberty. Others of us were raised in secular families and don’t really understand the meaning of religious obligation (but figure that whatever it is, it doesn’t sound pleasant). Most of us are liberal about our liberalism. We take our religious commitments lightly, measuring them against a secular understanding of what’s “reasonable.” In rejecting the particular obligations of traditional religions, we have rejected the notion of obligation itself. This, I believe, is our tragic flaw. It leaves us adrift. We fail to take our religious selves seriously and so we fail to be taken seriously by others, especially in the political arena. And as our convictions become flaccid, our congregations dwindle.

There is another road, other than traditional (conservative) religious observance on the one hand and watered-down liberal religious toothlessness on the other: we can become religiously observant liberals, together forming a religious counterculture. The claims of liberal theology, if taken seriously, generate fairly radical obligations. They call us to lovingly and substantially take care of one another. They call us to refuse to participate in systems of oppression. They call us to raise our children, cast our votes, eat our food, spend our money, and act toward the stranger within our gates in ways consistent with our faith in a loving Universe that bends toward justice. They call us to embody our religious ideals no less than the claims of conservative theology call the Religious Right to embody theirs.

What would the world look like if religious liberals became religiously observant? What if those of us who consider ourselves spiritual progressives began joining (and founding) religious communities in droves? What if we began tithing to those institutions? What if we became Sabbath-observant together and radically disengaged from social and economic structures every week? What if we began lobbying on religious grounds for environmental stewardship, and what if liberal Senators quoted Isaiah on the Senate floor? What if those of us who have high-paying jobs refused to accept a salary that was more than seven times what the lowest-paid worker makes in our organizations (and explained to the stunned custodians, “It’s because we’re really religious”)? What if we only ate food that was sustainably grown, humanely raised, and for which the farm workers were paid a living wage, even if this ruled out most of the food we currently eat (and explained to our outraged children, “It’s because, in this family, we’re really religious”)? What if straight couples refused to get married until there was marriage equality for everyone (and explained to their disappointed parents, “It’s because we’re really religious”)? What if we stopped to pray two, three, five times a day?

By adapting and redeploying traditional religious disciplines in these ways, I believe that religious liberals and spiritual progressives could find our gravitational center. Our connection to our own God energy would deepen as our lives took on a religious orientation. As we aligned our practices with our values, we would build internal coherence and integrity. It is no coincidence that the deeply devout Amish people of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006 were able to find healing through forgiveness for the killer of their schoolchildren and compassion for his family. We too could access such preternatural compassion if we so fully embodied our spiritual ideals in our daily lives. It is no coincidence that conservative religious communities have such longevity and political influence. Their strength comes from a sense of mission—a belief that they are doing God’s work on earth. Our religious communities too would thrive if our members shared such a common sense of purpose. Our voices too would have gravitas and power in the public sphere if we believed that the Universe itself authorized our words.

Small Steps Toward Social Transformation

Can we get there from here? I believe that we can, if we do it together. The unit of change has to be the congregation or small community. And if that community is supported by an interfaith strategic body like the Network of Spiritual Progressives (, so that its members know they are part of a larger movement, all the better. Religious practices and prohibitions can feel meaningful and even joyful if done in community, but feel like deprivations if done alone. We need a religious community to sing songs with, play with, and eat good food with. A religious community can serve as a Petri dish where we try to create an internal culture that embodies our best vision. In this Petri dish we slowly, collectively work through our ambivalences about our role in the larger society. With the support of a religious community, we don’t need to retreat from modern life as much as live in counterpoint to it, sifting out what we don’t want and continuing to embrace all that is good and joyful in it.

This is not a call for moral or spiritual perfection but rather for us all to think of our religion as central to—even inseparable from—our lives. None of us will do it perfectly and there will be tension as we negotiate our desire to simply participate as normal people in this society. We’ll hear ourselves saying, “Can’t I just enjoy a friggin’ cheeseburger, for God’s sake?!” We naturally want to succeed in this world. We want to make money, we want to have fun, we want to feel accepted. We want to be not only holy, but hot too! (Even Mayim Bialik mused aloud about whether God would mind that much if maybe just her left arm were exposed.)

The important thing is not that we live austere lives but that we remain ever conscious of the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be and we engage with that tension. We’re not there yet. But I believe that religious liberals and spiritual progressives have the potential to form a religious counterculture that changes everything. Together we can assert a holy vision of the world as it should be in the very midst of the world as it is. By taking ourselves seriously, we can start a revolution.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)



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