When his ship, The Beagle, docked in Southern Australia in 1831 on the way to the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin, one of the leading intellectual skeptics of his day, witnessed naked Aboriginal natives dancing themselves into delirium all night long. In his diary, Darwin wrote that he found this animistic display “a most rude, barbarous scene.”
Times have changed. This year 70,000 people have thronged to the annual countercultural Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Leading hi-tech worthies like Google founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and chairman Eric Schmidt, and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, along with celebrity visitors like Katy Perry (31), socialite Paris Hilton (35), and British actress and model Cara Delevingne (24) now find such “rude, barbarous scene[s]” totally normal and perfectly cool. These contemporary definers of popular culture have thrown off even the outward standards of public decency dear to Charles Darwin. Burning Man sets the agenda for popular culture. In acts of shameless self-expression, they abandon all inhibition and wander around naked in the desert doing ecstasy and acid, visiting the anonymous-sex-orgy dome (open 24/7), joining in fire dancing, yoga, and meditation. No one is allowed a hint of judgmentalism.
Indeed, the right to define one’s self-identity has become the ultimate moral touchstone. A sophisticated and clean version of the Burning Man philosophy came from Supreme Court Justice Kennedy: each person has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such a definition gives every individual the right to declare: “I am whatever I say I am and you must accept my assertion and behave accordingly, otherwise you are a bigot who is oppressing me.” Past ethical norms are obsolete. The new norms are on display at Burning Man in vivid Technicolor.
This temporary city in the desert is equipped with an airport, radio stations, daily newspapers, a postal service, an overnight courier service, taxicabs, a drive-in movie theater, bars, clubs, yoga classes, hair salons, pancake houses, and – no government. It claims to be an “annual utopian experiment in temporary community, dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.”
It is founded on a decidedly Oneist ideology. The founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, a self-described atheist, says: “I do not believe in a supreme being but I believe that being is supreme.” It is like the title of a progressive spiritual book, by Gabrielle Bernstein, Nature Has Your Back. Burning Man seeks to create its own mythology since, as one spokesman says: “All mythologies were created by humans…no god rushed down from wherever to ‘give’ a human some special message. Therefore, what really matters at Burning Man is imagination.” The meaning of Burning Man seems to be impermanence (as the 70 foot “Man” being burned at the end of the week seems to suggest), a principle deeply entwined with Buddhism. Impermanence becomes for burners an annual reminder of the transience of life, the eternal return of Osiris. Jewish/Buddhist “gay” rabbi, Jay Michaelson, an avid burner, gives meaning to the burning of the “Man” when he states: “if religion creates boundaries, mysticism and spirituality efface them.” All boundaries, all binaries must be burned up.
Is such a utopian life possible except for one week in the desert? Alas, it is not even possible there. This year in “Black Rock City” a sad event happened. A band of burners attacked “White Ocean,” an upscale camp for the very rich who fly in on private jets, stay in luxurious air-conditioned RVs and are served elegant cuisine by full-time employees. In this utopia, the unthinkable happened. In the words of one luxury camper, “A band of hooligans raided our camp, stole from us, pulled and sliced all of our electrical lines leaving us with no refrigeration and wasting our food and glued our trailer doors shut, vandalized most of our camping infrastructure….This is evil. This should not happen at Burning Man…This is supposed to be about love, happiness, sharing, giving and appreciating.”
As the burners celebrate liberating impermanence, real sinful humans need help to sustain life. What can a Oneist world do with evil except live with it? If Nature is “supreme” or “has your back,” how trustworthy is it? Perhaps, after all, we need “a god rushing down” to “give us a special message”; a God who tells us that only Jesus can overcome evil by bearing the consequences of our evil on his back. That unique, perfectly just, loving man, is the real “burning man,” who was consumed by the fiery judgment against our sin, but was raised by the justifying, life-giving power of God the loving Creator of Nature. In him, we overcome evil and gain eternal life.