Seeking Truth: A conversation with Christopher Fici and Sara Jolena

Last night, Christopher Fici and our advisor eco-theologian Dr. Larry Rasmussen came over to The House of Friendship, where I live, for dinner. Chris came over early and we sat around my kitchen table drinking tea and talking about my recent invitation to him to join the Sequoia Samanvaya team. Very quickly, the conversation “got deep” and I knew I just had to share it here, because Chris had so many beautiful insights! This conveys at least some of the energy of our conversation.

Chris: I was just so excited that you asked me to join the Sequoia Samanvaya teaching team. Taking the ReMembering Course with you last summer was an experience that profoundly changed my consciousness. I don’t look at the world, and my own work, the same way as I did before. The Course brought me back to what really led me to start this journey, back when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan. I read this book, American Holocaust: the Conquest of the New World, by the historian David Stannard. I will never forget the experience of reading it –it shocked me. I realized that, as a born American citizen, that I wasn't being told the whole truth about the foundations of this country. I wasn't being told the truth about the violence, about the catastrophe, of those foundations.

If spirituality is about seeking truth – which usually, in a deep way, is about the truth of God, and about how this Divive truth manifests itself in the world we lived in – then when I read that book, I was like, woah, I am not being taught the truth. Now knowing the details of this history (of the genocide of Native Americans), and realizing I was not being told the full truth of the history of this country, opened up something in me. I had to explore it. I had to learn the truth – the actual truth of this country. I had to learn what the truth actually was, wherever I could find it.

The Re-Membering course reminded me of this foundational experience. The search for historical truth led me to a search for spiritual truth. Now my ongoing search for spiritual truth leads me back to the embrace of understanding our historical truths. They are eternally intertwined. The search for truth is not an ascent into space. It is also about walking around this planet. Sometimes you go back to where you were before, you go back to what happened before, and you walk in that space in a deeper way.

Sara Jolena: The search for historical truths and the search for spiritual truths are related. That's such an important insight.

Chris: For me, they really were. They are. It’s like what our beloved teacher, Professor James Cone, always used to say. People kept asking him, when he was writing his first books on Black Theology, why are your sources white theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich?

SJ: Prominent liberal theologians on whom James Cone wrote his dissertation.

Chris: And Cone couldn’t just write about all the white theologians any more. He had to write about truth – his truth, the truth that came from his experience a black person in America. So he sat down and wrote Black Theology and Black Power. And that book made such a huge impact. And then he wrote The Spirituals and the Blues, which were the real sources, the real soil, of his theology and his experience. Our experience, our religious experience, really matters. He had to speak his truth, the truth that came from his experience.

SJ: Satyagraha.

Chris: Right. Truth force.

We are living in a time where we all talk daily about hatred, and people are becoming aware of how polarized we are and how much we are in conflict with each other. This conflict emerges because we don’t know where we come from. We are ignorant. When we learn the history, it gives you tools. Not just tools of knowledge but tools of healing, tools of spiritual healing The knowledge is there – the wisdom is there if you want to seek it. But there are structures in society that don’t make that easy for people. This work of ReMembering is part of that wisdom, part of resisting those structures.

SJ: What music does this evoke for you?

Chris: John Coltrane, his Love Supreme album. He was trying to blow through reality with his saxophone. He was trying to reach God with every note, with every exclamation. It’s an intense album, the most beautiful album He frames the album as a prayer to God. Its just like how Cone frames it: what are these blues? It is a shout for life in a country that dehumanizes them.

S: So often when we talk about the Blues, we praise them, but we don’t really acknowledge why that shout was needed. We just say the Blues was a way of giving life – not that this way of giving life was desperately needed because people were being thrashed, sometimes to the edge of death, in the midst of slavery and so-called reconstruction in this country.

C: Right. We don’t talk about what was really happening.

SJ: That’s all part of the lie, part of the veil ignorance, part of the dis-membering.

C. You were saying earlier that there’s a lot of talk right now about hatred….. So many white people in this country…. people are so covered up in their own whiteness. The country is becoming more diverse. Dr. Cone says in his last book that America is hitting the jackpot with this diversity. That how beautiful and divine it is to be a human being amidst such diversity. The fact that you are a white person is no longer a guarantee that you are at the high end of the pyramid. And that's a goddamn blessing actually! But people are so attached, like Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, to the fruits of our works and our privileges. That attachment is so strong. Yet one of the first teachings in the Gita is to let go of that attachment, and you will find real life and truth.

SJ: Well that’s always been true. There have always been poor whites who have never gotten to the top of the pyramid. There was never a guarantee. There was just the notion, the false notion, that, as James Baldwin says, no matter how bad it is for you as a white person at least you aren’t black.

Chris: I think the people we want to be working with are people who have some spiritual maturity to embrace this jackpot. They want to heal from this lie of whiteness. They need a process to go through this and help others. That’s part of what ReMembering does. That’s part of why its so great to be a part of this.

SJ: And to see how it connects to climate change, and to what it means to live in a vastly different planet.

Chris: Yeah, the planet has changed so much. You know, Amitav Ghosh just came to Union, you know, he wrote that recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. He argues that future generations will think that we now are deranged because of how we just can’t seem to think well around climate change. We can't tell the stories which got us into climate change and we can't seem to tell the stories to get us through it.

SJ: A failure of the imagination.

Chris: Yeah that’s Ghosh’s argument. He says we just can’t imagine it – it is too big – the violence is too big. We need better narratives.

SJ: Did he even think about the bigness of colonization, which brought us here? I mean, that was a lot of violence also, and there were plenty of people who were quite capable not only of imagining it but engineering it.

Chris: Hah, no, he didn’t make the connections.

SJ: sigh.

Chris. Right. Well, you know, what really got me is that I asked him, where is he seeing anticipatory communities in his own life and work? What are the communities he's involved in, and is inspired by?

SJ: Of course you did, your whole intellectual work is about anticipatory communities.

Chris. Where is he seeing hope? Where is he looking to, getting inspiration from?

SJ: And?

Chris. Nothing. He just didn’t really answer the question. He had nothing concrete. No concrete commitments he could share with us.

SJ: Wow. That’s sad.

Chris. Yeah.

SJ. Because there is hope all over the place. I mean, I constantly see groups and initiatives and people working on these issues in ways that give me so much hope. Its everywhere. I see people waking up and staying awake and leading others to wake up all over the place – we live in an amazing time. This is why for me ReMembering is inherently hopeful. ReMembering and ReEnchanting.

Chris: Right. Marx and Engles got something – they wrote about how the world has become disenchanted. The ecological scholar John Bellamy Foster writes really wonderfully about how Marx and Engles really understood something fundamental about how the turbo-capitalist mindset leads to this disenchantment.

SJ: And now we are in a process of beginning to learn how to ReEnchant it.

Chris: Yeah. I’m inspired by the back to the land movement. I'm just an eco-theologian who really wants to be a farmer. In fact I think you can't be an eco-theologian without wanting to be a farmer, without being able to grow your own food!

One of my favorite stories of Swami Prabhupada, who brought the whole Hare Krishna tradition to the world outside of India in the 1960s and 1970s, is when he was walking one day, he always took a morning walk wherever he was with a group of his disciples, in Los Angeles. He was walking there one morning and he suddenly stopped. He took his walking cane and he pointed at the L.A skyline and said “all of this will collapse you know why?” So his disciples offered up a bunch of answers, probably too theological kinds of answers, about how everyone in the city is in maya, is in illusion, but Prabhupada didn't accept their answers. Finally one of his most intelligent disciples, the great Vaishnava scholar Tamal Krishna Goswami, said “well, they don't know how to grow their own food.” And Prabhupada said YES! That was the answer. We have to learn how to be human again, to be Earthlings, to grow our own food, the most magical thing, if we have any chance of being functional spiritual beings. So that's what I want to learn first and foremost.

SJ. Land, water, air…. Our world is inherently, well, magical. Miraculous. How can we live and not be steeped in wonder? That food grows at all is a miracle – our very lives are so miraculous. I agree we have a failure of the imagination. But I don’t think its because we can’t imagine the horrors. I think it is because we have stopped letting ourselves not imagine but actually experience enchantment.

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