Sacred Fire, Ritual Play
by Christopher Brown
It is minutes before dawn. A shaggy-looking guy in a loincloth kneels on the desert floor, oblivious to everything except the eastern horizon, where gray is evolving into the peach pink of morning. He is beckoning the sun with his hands as a hundred of us huddle against the chill. Watching him, I can't shake the feeling that I am staring through 10,000 years at the origins of religion.
Thirty thousand of us have come to the desert for Burning Man, the annual festival of free expression and countercultural values. This year's theme, “Beyond Belief,” asks us to “explore faith and belief beyond the dogmas and creeds of organized religion.” This place is so UU.
Yet it is a far cry from the coffee hour theological discussions at my church in Santa Monica, California. This late summer week on the hardpan alkali of the northern Nevada desert is devoted to passionate doing on a grand scale. We Burners are building our own theology miles from any map-worthy outpost. Divided into several hundred camps, we spend a week building elaborate shrines. Then we burn most of them down. It is tribal, visceral, and purgative.
I've rarely associated these emotions with my Unitarian Universalist faith, although these memories stand out: standing on the docks at Star Island chanting, “We will come back, we will come back”; witnessing our young people come of age; sharing our grief at the 9/11 service; and participating in rousing sessions of Wink with the kids in YRUU (“Young Religious Unitarian Universalists”), our program for teenagers.
My camp is called “Steal Your Soul,” which is just what we do: We take a digital photo and put it on a personalized postcard. How's that for blending Native American mysticism with modern technology? People are tickled to walk away with a real postcard with their face on it; there's a disclaimer about not guaranteeing the return of souls, but no one heeds it. And that's because Burners are taught not to take anything too seriously—not the Barbie Death Camp, not the Catholic Confessional Peepshow.
It's because as a counterculture festival Burning Man wears a face of postmodern self-awareness. It exists partly to mock the McCommodification of American society. That sense of fun is best realized in the large art installations. I ride my bike to a massive chandelier that looks like it fell from a goddess's bordello and took a piece of the celestial ceiling with it.
You won't find that hip sensibility within the Temple of Honor, this year's masterpiece by artist David Best. If nothing else is sacred and holy at Burning Man, the temple is. In 2002 Best created a hundred-foot-tall temple from the discarded wood cutouts of a dinosaur toy—part Japanese pagoda, part Balinese temple. This year's temple is made of papier-mâché fashioned into onion domes and covered with black and white mosaics. Best's temples are dedicated to the dead, and to stand inside one is to be enveloped in collective grief. Last year I watched a man in a festive tunic hold a pen to the temple wall, sobbing as he wrote a tribute to a friend who had committed suicide. The temple burns on Sunday night.
Some people go to a church primarily to worship a higher being; for them, the community is just the means to that end. Most Unitarian Universalists see the means as the end. It's the act of worshiping together that really matters—the human connection, the comfort of ritual performed alongside familiar faces. Burning Man is my cathedral, but we Burners have dispensed with the dogma—in Unitarian fashion—and genuflect to an eighty-foot wooden man that has no meaning at all.
The meaning comes in the interaction with that pink-haired fairy-winged stranger next to me. “No Spectators” is the prime directive. Everyone is included.
The meaning is found in the fact that a city of 30,000 —Nevada's fourth largest—can spring up and disappear with nary a bobby pin left on the ground. (Workers scour the playa floor with magnets for weeks after. “Leave No Trace” is another mandate.)
And finally, the meaning is in the spirit of giving. After the cost of your ticket, almost everything is free. The camps spend over $1 million providing services from car battery jump-starts to astral head washes to workshops on Kabbalah. And it's all given away. The more I chew on this, the more UU it all seems, just encrusted with a little body paint and glitter and often clouded in dust storms.I say to Burners: We Unitarian Universalists need your passion and creativity and irreverence in our congregations. I know some of you are already there. And to all you good suburban Unitarian Universalists, I say: Try radical self-expression for a week in the desert. It's good for you.
Christopher Brown is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, California.