[This is an edited conversation I had with a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. For more on Holy Rascals, please visit our website: holyrascals.com/.]
How should I refer to you? As His Holy Rascalness Rabbi Rami?
No need. I use the title only when invited to state dinners.
And how often has that happened?
It hasn’t happened yet, but it never hurts to be prepared. I was lecturing in New Delhi with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and I was tempted to have myself introduced in a similar fashion, but then I considered all the bad karma that might accrue and went with Rabbi Rami instead.
Do you believe in karma?
No, but I could be wrong. That’s why I am ready to join every religion just on the off chance that one of them might be true. I doubt they are, but just in case.
Where is the integrity in that?
Integrity? I just want to be on the winning team when the final score is announced. I don’t want to be burning in Hell and have the guy next to me say, “Well at least you have your integrity.” He can have integrity. I want the brass ring.
And the brass ring is?
Heaven, Nirvana, the Pure Land, salvation, reincarnation as a rich guy, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, all the marketing promises religions make to entice me to join and convince me to pay.
But there are so many competing rings, how do you know which ones to pursue?
I pursue the ones that agree with me.
So you are the final arbiter of truth?
Of course; who else could there be? If you believe in “this” and not “that” it is because, for whatever reason “this” makes more sense to you than “that.” There is no way to know you are right, you just follow your gut or conditioning, and then deny you are doing so in order to pretend you are not the final arbiter of truth. But you are. There is no escaping it.
So is there no such think as “truth” with a capitol “T”?
I think there is, but I don’t think it can be put into words and marketed to us as a “this” or “that.” You come to Truth when you free yourself from “this” and “that.” And once you’re free from “this” and “that” you’re free to play with “this” and “that” for the sheer joy of playing.
This interview is already veering into rascality. Where did the term Holy Rascal come from?
The phrase came from Sister Jose Hobday, a Native American healer and Catholic nun. After listening to a talk I gave at the Aspen Chapel in Aspen, CO, Sister Jose called out, “He’s a holy rascal!” It stuck.
Do you know what she meant by it?
I suspect she meant that Holy Rascals use the language of the holy—religious language, spiritual language—to unmask the absurdities of religion and spirituality. Holy Rascals aren’t against religion, we only want people to see religion for what it is: a cultural construct that can be a powerful vehicle for meaning making and consciousness expansion, rather than as what religions claim to be: absolute truths.
What does it mean that religions are cultural constructs?
All religions are human narratives carrying the memes and metaphors we use to create meaning for ourselves. We are meaning making animals: we are the way nature makes meaning just as bees are the way nature pollinates flowers. Religion is a primary vehicle for creating, preserving, and perpetuating meaning.
Is nature fundamentally meaningless?
Nature evolves, and because it evolves, nature isn’t fundamentally anything. Nature isn’t a thing but a process that, over time, surprises itself with innovations and mutations, some good some bad. Just as nature becomes conscious by evolving conscious beings, so nature becomes meaningful by evolving meaning–making beings.
Can we create new meanings by creating new stories, new religions? Who would allow us to do that?
No one allows us to do this; it is just what we do.
Why would we do it?
When old stories no longer carry meaning, the need for new meanings arises, and with it come Holy Rascals who meet that need by telling new stories with new characters, or telling new stories about old characters.
So Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha are all fictitious characters?
Fictitious? Not necessarily. Fictional? Almost certainly. For example, I have no doubt that Jesus was an historical figure, but the Jesus that matters is the Jesus we know from Saint Paul and the authors of Gospels both canonical and gnostic, and that Jesus is the creation of these writers. The historical Jesus is not nearly as important as the narrative Jesus. The books that convey the stories and teachings of great spiritual saints and sages are not history books, but storybooks. Does it really matter whether or not the Buddha preached the sutras attributed to him? Not at all: it is the teachings that matter, not their historicity.
As creators of stories, Holy Rascals are also the exposers of stories?
Holy Rascals are spiritual culture jammers who use humor, play, creativity, and critical thinking to reveal the human origins of religions and how religions mask their true origins behind the conceit of divine origins. Our “patron saints” are Mullah Nasrudin, the 13th century Sufi teacher who used humor to free people from irrational thinking, and Dorothy’s dog Toto who pulled the curtain back on the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz to reveal a small man with a large megaphone.
In freeing people from irrational thinking you…
Free them for reality.
In pulling back the curtain, you…
Reveal religious authorities for what they are: men and women with megaphones. Again, religion is a human construct for the creation, preservation, and perpetuation of meaning and meaning making that is all too often corrupted into a fear–based system of control promoting enmity between people, and the economic and political elevation of a privileged religious class.
I think a Holy Rascal is someone who reveals that the Emperor has no clothes.
Without clothes, the Emperor is no longer an emperor. The clothes are the stories the Emperor tells in order to justify being Emperor. This only works if the Emperor can convince us that these stories are really histories. Holy Rascals delight in proving the opposite. A Holy Rascal teaches us how to examine our narratives, how to see the constructed nature of the holy and the sacred, and how to use reason, intuition, imagination, and contemplation to free ourselves from narratives that no longer serve our quest for universal justice, compassion, and meaning, and to shape new stories that will.
Once you reveal religion as story, doesn’t religion disappear?
Not at all. Religions are like any other product. They make claims that promote their brand over and against competing brands. The cool thing about the Jewish brand is that the Jews are God’s Chosen People. The cool thing about the Southern Baptist brand is that it has a monopoly on salvation. If you want to be Chosen, buy Jewish. If you want to be saved, buy Baptist. Every clergy person is marketing her preferred brand. This is why a Methodist can no more discover Krishna is Christ than the marketers of Coke can discover that Pepsi is “the real thing.”
For the record, and just in case a Coca-Cola executive is reading this and wants to send me a case of Diet Coke, I prefer Coke to Pepsi, though I can’t exactly tell you why. Knowing that Coke spins a story to get me to drink Coke doesn’t make me like it any less. But is does keep me from committing jihad against Pepsi drinkers, or damning them to hell for all eternity.
Clergy as “Mad Men.” Do we really need them?
Sure. Clergy are like Dungeon Masters in the Dungeon and Dragons role playing game. If you want to play the game you need a Dungeon Master to weave the story. If you want to play Catholic Mass, for example, your need Catholic priests to turn wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. No one else can do that. So Catholic priests are essential to the Catholic game. The same is true of other clergy in the context of their respective games.
Calling religion a game seems demeaning.
I don’t think so. All life is a game or a complex of games. The issue isn’t game or no game, but what kind of game you are playing.
There are two kinds of games: finite zero–sum games and infinite nonzero games. The goal of finite zero–sum games is to win at the expense of the other. Tennis, for example, is a zero–sum finite game. The goal is to end the game with you or your team as the winner and your competition as the looser.
The goal of infinite nonzero games is to keep the game going. Playing rather than winning is the point. And nobody can win unless everybody wins. Friendship is an example of a infinite game. The goal of frienship is to keep the friendship going not to end the friendship with one friend winning at the expense of the other.
Religion can be played as a finite or infinite game. When played as a finite game, religion is all about winning and losing, retributive justice, and the in–group triumphing over the out–group if not in this life than at least in the after–life. When played as an infinite game, religion is all about compassion, distributive justice, and seeing to the thriving of all as key to the thriving of any. We humans cannot help but play games. The question is what kinds of games will we play? Holy rascals promote infinite nonzero games.
Of course millions of believers like to play finite, hate–filled games.
No, I don’t believe that. Millions of believers participate in hate–filled, fear–driven, finite zero–sum games, but they don’t know they are playing a game. They’ve been convinced that their story is history, that Coke is true and Pepsi is false—and worse the beverage of the Devil. Once they are helped to see that this is all a game, and a hurtful one at that, they will stop playing. People don’t want to hate, they are simply coerced into believing in a god who wants them to hate.
Do you ever envision the end of religion?
No. People are inherently religious, and religion won’t disappear. Holy Rascals aren’t working to end religion; we are working to shift religion from zero–sum to nonzero, from the finite to the infinite game, from fear to love, and injustice to justice.
What do you envision?
I can’t predict the future, but what I see happening in the present is the emergence of a new seeker class: spiritually independent people willing to cross the boundaries of religious brands in search of narratives that give their lives meaning, and practices that bring those narratives and their meanings alive in their lives.
And where are Holy Rascals among these spiritually independent seekers?
We are behind them pushing; we are ahead of them pulling; we are on the sidelines cheering, and we are among them struggling.