Thursday, January 15, 2015

Against Spiritual Tourism

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I have been recently enamored with the situation comedy “Parks and Recreation” a biting satire about life in a small town Indiana Parks and Recreation department, complete with an under functioning, arch conservative director, Ron Swanson, who would just as well like to see government privatized and an erstwhile assistant director Leslie Knope played by Amy Poehler who wants nothing more than to make her department a paragon of public virtue and service.  At one point in the story, Leslie, heartbroken asks Ron why her current love interest is so interesting but so emotionally distant.  Her boss, in a moment of uncharacteristic sensitivity explains it all this way:

‘He’s a tourist, Leslie. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.’

The problem with tourism, whether it is visiting a destination, having an experience or searching for life’s deeper meanings is that it lacks authenticity and commitment.  After all we just go there, we don’t live there. A tourist isn’t invested in the outcome of what they are visiting; they are just consuming that experience. There is no authority in just visiting anyplace or experience. It is empty of the larger meaning that comes from being a living part of where you are. Like all tourists, we vacation in other’s people lives and traditions but we don’t live there.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually love being a tourist. I love to travel and visit places I have never been before. But I am very clear about my role in a new place or new experience; I am there to learn and appreciate. I am there to spend my money which their economy depends on. I am not there to change their world to what I think it should be.  I have a hard time with the so called eco-tourism idea. You can and should be a responsible tourist, but to pretend that your cleaning up the jungle is actually making a difference is ethnocentrically arrogant.  Rarely, do these eco tourist companies actually ask the people who live there what they want.  Instead they make assumptions about what we, the well healed tourists wants.  Our desire for a certain outcome while self-satisfying and perhaps even laudable lacks the conviction and authority of the people who live and experience that part of the world.

So it won’t come as surprise to you then that I am not fond of anything that resembles spiritual tourism either. Even worse than assuming what people need by those who don’t live their lives are those who sample from the spiritual buffet and dabble in Buddhist Chanting, Christian Taze, Sufi dancing, gospel singing and any number of traditions to which the tourist has no intention of learning more deeply and committing their lives to.

Sadly, this is what America’s religious life has largely become.  We visit a shrine or a church or a temple and we partake in the gifts of that experience but we are unwilling to stay especially at the first sign of difficulty.  Such consumerism borders on voyeurism; a sort of looking in from the outside without owning the inside. It lacks depth and meaning. It lacks the authority that comes from actually diving in a little deeper.  I was thrilled to have the Tibetan Buddhist group here two years ago as they spent a week making a beautiful sand mandala. I thought it deeply powerful to witness the ritual destruction of that mandala during a Sunday morning service. But how many of the 240 people from our neighborhood who came to that ritual sweeping away actually came back to our church? I wonder how many became Buddhists.

The power of any religious practice lies not in what you “get” out of it in the short term, but what meaning it gives your life, how it changes you in the long term.  I have known hundreds, perhaps even thousands, who have come through the doors of our churches hungry for spiritual nourishment. That is, after all, one reason why we exist; to nourish the spirit. But sadly, they don’t understand the give and take of spiritual practice. It’s not just about you, in fact, it’s really not about you at all.  You are just the recipient of a by-product of participating in a religious community.  And then, at the first disagreeable moment, a congregational meeting, the minister says something you don’t like, the music disagrees with you, or they aren’t serving sushi for lunch, you leave.  It’s like spiritual pornography, all images, no real love. 

No, my friends, the real love, the authority of a spiritual practice, comes with the commitment. And it becomes the very bedrock of what holds you through the storm and brings you out the other side. Do you think Martin Luther King could have done what he did if he did not have the faith of Christian and the blessing of his church, who he served faithfully for years behind him? His authority came from his spiritual practice, his committed spiritual practice, not from being baptized the day before he marched on Selma.  Meaning is made from the authority of our spiritual commitment.
With Grace and Grit,  John