avant-garde (from French, “advance guard” or “vanguard”, literally “fore-guard”) are people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics. The avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm.
The word “religion” does not appear in the above paragraph. Unlike most other cultural institutions, religions tend to portray themselves as solid, unchanging, absolute –a rock upon which the faithful may build a home that will endure while the world around it shifts and crumbles. The very idea of a religious avant-garde seems contradictory.
But one of the heavyweight champions of world religion was known to be a man who “hath not where to lay his head” and shunned the security of a conventional pious life to minister to the poor and afflicted. He taught that attachment to our socially constructed ego leads to the belief in death, while releasing ourselves from this precious falsehood shows that what we truly are is Life Eternal. He warned us about mere outward observance of rituals smothering the inward transformation they were devised to effect, and the folly of putting new wine into old wineskins. In fact, given an impartial reading of the scant records of his teachings (and some sound deductive reasoning about what was left out), and regardless of the indignities and atrocities done in his name ever since, it is hard to miss the fact that Jesus of Nazareth himself was the epitome of the religious “avant-garde” in his cultural realm.
So was Gautama Buddha. And Laozi. And St. Catherine of Siena. And Jalal ad-Din Rumi. And Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī. And Baruch Spinoza. And Baal Shem Tov. And William Blake. And Ralph Waldo Emerson. And Joseph Campbell. And Aldous Huxley. And countless others who preceded or followed them, many with far less fanfare. Without their faithful and piercing influence on the norms of their times, our wisdom traditions would become as brittle and useless as old wineskins.
A little play on words, and voila –the Avant-God: those who venture into the eccentricity of original thought on the ageless questions, and cause our answers to pivot forward, giving our faiths and philosophies new territory in which to explore and expand.
Some of them changed the course of an entire swath of humanity. Most bloomed like flowers in the desert, forgotten by time but cherished by eternity. But they are all pioneers, leaders of untelevised revolutions, gardeners who plant seeds in the fall so that others may have fresh food in the spring.
The Avant-God are not winemakers; they are crafters of new wineskins. They know the best vintage is at least 3,000 years old and probably much older. And it is because of their efforts to shape new vessels for this ageless wisdom that even a drop of it remains for us now. For these efforts, many of them have been branded as heretics or apostates by their local religious establishment –a brand that once came (and in some places, still comes) with a very hefty price. It is with a fervor not unlike Galileo’s that they bear this mark and press forward, often in loyal service to their very same persecutors, with the goal of liberation in their sights, and the knowledge that nothing sets us free like Truth.
A primary purpose of Not Two is to give a transhistorical voice to this wave of assorted artists, lovers, seekers, holyfolk, Goddess mamas, philosophers, cutting edge scientists, Naturalists and metaphysicians. In our own way, the Avant-God are all working together independently to disseminate, in a wide array of contexts and languages, the idea that a Oneness of immeasurable scope unites everything that exists in a web of “interbeing.”
This Oneness –variously called Brahman, Tao, the Kingdom of Heaven, al haqq, or sometimes just Existence itself or the Universe –is not supernatural, in fact it is exactly what we mean by Nature and reveals how we have trapped ourselves in a subnature of our own device. It lies within us and far beyond us, and our relationship of co-identity with it defies verbal cognition….yet we are verbal beings, so we are perennially in need of novel ways to point us toward our precognitive awareness of the Oneness, and bring this message into mainstream conversation.
I believe the message is more pertinent now than ever. We are blessed to live in a time when intellectual freedom thrives and is spreading to places where it was never known. Yet religion, maintaining a conservative stance that it no longer needs, cannot nourish this freedom and is fading into obsolescence, turning instead to political ambition and violence in its death throes. Here in the West, those who would be makers of new wineskins by and large have harnessed their talents to feed our insatiable craving for entertainment –a craving which, when you look at it closer, is really masking a thirst for the old wine in new vessels, for the ageless stories that have nourished us throughout history to be presented to us in modes more suitable to our sophisticated brains. The existential quandary of life hasn’t changed or gotten any more complicated since the dawn of time –we just aren’t getting the good old wine that gives it all meaning. It leaked out of the holes of the old wineskins.
At this point in human history, it is imperative that we find the courage to pull the masks off of our gods –not to prove, as some would say, that nothing is behind them. On the contrary, until we do this we cannot begin to see that what appears to be nothing is actually Everything; that the face behind the many masks is One and singular, and it doesn’t look like any of the images we have worshiped. The face behind the masks is Existence itself, whole and unbroken, timeless and spaceless, with no beginning nor end, and we are That. For this grand unmasking is really the revelation of our Self.
Cool! Then take me somewhere else. How about The Avant-God Manifesto?
Or just Somewhere???
First published 01.05.2014, revised 10.27.2015 and 2.3.2016