This weekend the desert in Nevada hosts a veritable Brigadoon as the Burning Man festival rises from the shimmering heat in its annual manifestation. There’s been much written over the years decrying the hedonism and anarchist impulse that, at least on the surface, typifies so much of the event. But Jay Michaelson sees a deeper truth in the event, a truth which has deep connections to the way religious life is experienced today.
Powerful religious and spiritual experiences are available to everyone, including people enmeshed in highly regressive religious ideologies. I go to Burning Man and am inspired to express myself more poetically, someone else goes to a religious revival and is inspired to persecute gays. What I think has to separate positive, expansive experiences from constricting ones is the degree of openness and pluralism involved. A dogmatic religionist cannot abide the inspiration of another. Unless it is within the same religious system, it is damned, or confused, or pagan, or worse. Thus the dogmatist is only left with data which confirm her existing categories of thought. All contradictory data is removed from consideration.
Whereas, any religious/spiritual progressive must be inspired precisely by the plurality of revelatory experiences. It matters that I have mine, and you have yours, and they are not the same. We can have different experiences, and both may be of value. This is not relativism—the point is not that every experience has equal value. That is ridiculous. Rather, the point is that precisely because value, meaning, inspiration, and moral imperative can be experienced in different ways, one of the first lessons we take from peak experiences is radical respect for difference.
Yes? No? Making too much out of this? Been to Burning Man and have an opinion?