As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis normally associated with traditional forms of religion. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being “self-centered” and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality. The continual growth of Burning Man (the festival sold out for the first time in 2011), defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.
Gilmore argues that this annual pilgrimage to the desert, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is forcing academics to
“reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience” (Burning Man Blog).
After returning from my second journey to Black Rock City earlier this week, I can say with some degree of certainty that Burning Man represents the emergence of new, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and science into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful intelligence. Its gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world.” Its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the environmental crises of the coming century.
2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change, representing Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of existence. No longer simply about burning the Man to revel in the destruction of the shackles of the patriarchal status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly recognize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace it. 2011 also marks the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after the young festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being perceived as a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee recently welcomed the BMP back to the city of the movement’s birth.
Despite its encouraging expansion back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in the movement are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, engineers, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a landing pad or interdimensional portal for a new kind of intelligence to incarnate upon the earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future is being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.