[00:00:00] Jackson Steger: Hey there, you're listening to Campfire, the podcast where we interview leaders that are building new cities and other ways to connect with digital nomads, creators, and remote workers. My name is Jackson Stegerm, and I work with Cabin to develop a network city of beautiful co-living properties for remote workers who love nature.
[00:00:19] Today's interview features Casper ter Kuile. Casper has a Master's from Harvard’s Divinity School, and also a Master's from the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy. He's now CEO of The Nearness, which facilitates eight-week guided journeys to nurture one's spirituality. Cabin citizens can get a discount to The Nearness through the citizenship page of your profile on cabin.city.
[00:00:46] My conversation with Casper today answers the question, “how can communities build a tradition of spirituality?” Campfires produced by Cabin, which is building a new kind of city for creators called a network city. Our community is developing a global co-living network of physical locations that we call neighborhoods.
[00:01:06] Last time you heard from us, we laid out our vision for building a network city, and since then, we have launched said network city with 22 properties in nature across the world: from Slovenia and France and Portugal to Bali, Japan, and a dozen locations across the US. Our network city is governed and accessed by Cabin citizens.
[00:01:28] And Cabin citizens are issued digital and physical passports that give them access to our community's global network of properties, experiences, perks, and members. If you want to live or create cool things near nature with other thoughtful people nearby, you can learn more about us and Cabin citizenship by visiting cabin.city. Enjoy the episode.
[00:01:50] Casper ter Kuile: welcome to Campfire.
[00:01:53] Casper ter Kuile: Thank you so much for having me, Jackson. Great to be here.
[00:01:57] Jackson Steger: Really excited to talk about The Nearness, talk about spirituality in 2023, and community, and how those things intersect, and a whole bunch of other fun themes that I'm sure we'll get into, including how Cabin citizens can maybe engage with some of the things that you will speak about today.
[00:02:15] But before we do any of that, would love if you could just give the audience sort of your 60 second background. What has your path been and how did you get involved with what you're working on today?
[00:02:26] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, I mean maybe the five second story would be like gay atheist goes to divinity school. Um, but a little longer one is that I grew up in England, my parents at Dutch. I think Holland with Denmark is the most secular country in the world. And I didn't grow up with any sort of religious background, but I went to a Waldorf school and I'm assuming that the kind of intersection of Cabin and people familiar with alternative education or kind of organic farming— this kind of subculture—is pretty strong, and so I grew up with a lot of ritual and a lot of community, even though it was outside of a kind of traditional religious. Community and definitely as a queer kid, my response to institutional religions was like, screw you. Like it was either cruel or irrelevant. But I became a climate activist in my late teens and then early twenties and was really passionate about justice and the transformation of the economy and sustainability, and I noticed that the leaders I most respected who were able to sustain their kind of like visionary activism nearly always had something spiritual going on, like they had a meditation practice or they were part of a Quaker community: there was just something going on and I felt I'd always had an instinct for bringing people together and eating together and singing together, and there was just like a natural community builder vibe and that's all down to my mother who like organized the village festival and created bike safety campaigns and just ran the village.
[00:03:51] So I inherited that in a big way. And I had a wonderful mentor who sat me down in my kind of early, mid twenties and said, Casper, I'm gonna coach you because you're never gonna ask for help.
[00:04:03] And she was right, and she just encouraged me to explore those. Things that I was naturally interested in, and I ended up going to graduate school in the US to go to divinity school and really discovered kind of the joy of the traditions of engaging with the world, kind of through the language of religion, to see communities and rituals and economies through a different angle, through this kind of religious worldview.
[00:04:31] And it, it just opened up so many creative doors for me. And so, I've spent the last 10 years really thinking about what is the future spiritual infrastructure like, how do we. Form deep, meaningful relationships with each other? How do we center the values that matter most? How do we live lives of beauty and justice in, a profoundly transformed world?
[00:04:51] And those themes of community and spirituality have really been at the heart of my work as a writer, as a scholar, as an entrepreneur, and all sorts of different ways since then.
[00:05:00] Jackson Steger: I think that’s a perfect overview and context on you for the audience to have as we talk about some of these questions in the rest of the episode.
[00:05:08] Also in that vein of just having common language to speak to each other with, could you help distinguish spirituality with religion for, you know, I'm sure they're not the same, but I can't think of a better person to help make that distinction.
[00:05:22] Casper ter Kuile: There's a reason we're all confused, which is that no one really agrees on this, so it's helpful to define our terms.
[00:05:28] That's a great start. I would say there's all sorts of academic answers to that question, but maybe the most helpful one is frankly how I hear people use it, and that is that religion is something institutional and spirituality is something that's personal. Now, I don't think it's a perfect definition.
[00:05:45] I think there's challenges with it because spirituality is inherently relational. And I think one of the challenges of the kind of capitalist world that we live in and the way in which spirituality is productized is that it's becoming increasingly isolated. And so, it's you do this just for you when a healthy spirituality inherently pulls us out of ourselves into relationship with the world and the places that we live and the broader systems that we're part of. So, it's not a perfect definition, but that role of the institution, I think is the kind of common street meaning. But one other thing that I would say is that I have become, even though I was deeply suspicious, for good reason, because, and I hope we can swear on this show, like, you know, religion has fucked a lot of things up.
[00:06:29] It's important that we start with a real acknowledgement of the deeply, you know, homophobic, sexist, racist, imperialist foundations that, that so many religious institutions are based on. But there's a difference between the religious institutions and the kind of living, generative, beautiful heart that is often true, whether it's Catholicism or Buddhism or Judaism or whatever it is, that there is always wisdom there.
[00:06:56] And so distinguishing between the kind of manmade institutions and the perhaps eternal wisdom that those institutions are supposed to care for and serve is also a helpful one. So, I don't, I'm not sure I gave us any simplicity there, but at least we developed the smorgasbord of options.
[00:07:13] Jackson Steger: Yeah, and I'd love to take that and just narrow in on our current moment in time.
[00:07:18] There's, I think, many centuries of history of spirituality manifesting in institutions, like you've said, and with these churches, and yet now, like our generation is very much not affiliated with traditional churches, and yet there's still certainly communities out there where spirituality does play a cornerstone role.
[00:07:39] So how would you characterize the role of spirituality in communities in 2023?
[00:07:44] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We are in a profound shift. If you look at this sociologically, more and more people are less and less traditionally religious. That is absolutely the headline. If you're looking at whether people are attending services, how they identify, if you ask them questions of what tradition are you part of? All of those metrics are down, the amount of giving to religious institutions. Everything is in decline, and not just young people. Literally in every generational boundary that you look at, they're all down. But it's especially true of young people. And for the first time in the United States, and this has of course been true in Western Europe for much longer, but in the US for the first time in recorded history, fewer than half the population are now members of a congregation.
[00:08:26] So it's a real kind of epoch shift. Now, my work has always started from the assumption that whether people are members or not, or identify with particular language or not, there are inherent human longings for connection, for the kind of, I'll use a traditional word here, but for formation, for the process of becoming who we want to be in the world and for being part of something bigger than ourselves.
[00:08:49] So feeling part of something beyond. And so, whether you find that through a synagogue or a temple or a church, or you find it in Burning Man, or you find it in a nature hike, or you find it in a silent meditation retreat, or you find it in art or music, like there are so many ways to access those elements.
[00:09:09] That, for me, is the real creative challenge, which is how do we realign these things that we know matter more than anything? The relationships that we have, the values that we espouse, the things that people live and die for. How do we put that at the center of our daily life and not just the inbox and the nine to five grind and the hustle for status, money and fame and all of these other things that are given to us on a plate? Although the hunger for them is given to us through a screen, maybe I should put it that way.
[00:09:37] And so that's the creative challenge and that's what I love seeing what you're doing with Cabin is you're building a new social infrastructure. And I think focusing on how we live specifically is so interesting because if you think about religious traditions, the home is so often the sight of ritual and of relationship, you know, you think of the Jewish Shabbat ceremony, right?
[00:09:58] That's a home-based Friday night ritual. You think about grace before dinner in a Christian family, or so many ways in which the home is at the center. And so, finding ways in which we can ground ourselves and the things that are most important is so often about who we live with and how.
[00:10:13] Jackson Steger: Couldn’t agree more. So just to give a skeleton of where I think we might wanna take this conversation, is I wanna ask about The Nearness and then from there learn about like what makes a good world class spiritual teacher? How can someone develop these practices and traditions that you just referenced? And, how can someone define spiritual principles for themselves?
[00:10:34] So we'll get to all of that. But maybe first you mentioned all of these different ways that today people not affiliated in congregations might find spirituality. You mentioned art, music, Burning Man, to name a few. If someone's listening to this episode right now and they feel spiritually empty and they're looking for some sort of channel to get started, how would you advise that person to seek out spirituality or to fill that hole they may feel?
[00:11:03] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, I think one of the big entry points. Well, I'll mention two. You know, one is the kind of conscious seeking, and this might feel right, might be that sense of we or that emptiness or that that feeling of, is this all there is? Right. And that can be kind of, there are certain ages, I think where you hit some of those points of, wait, I thought professional success was gonna answer all my longings and wait, it doesn't quite, or I did all the things right and I still feel this yearning.
[00:11:30] So that is certainly one entry point and I think often, there discovering texts that tell the truth about human experience or practices that help us sit with a tenderness amidst discomfort or building relationships where we get to talk honestly about our experience, that can be so profoundly powerful.
[00:11:51] So there, there's a way in which is about questing, but there's also a way in through suffering, right? When we lose someone we love and we are grief stricken and nothing will ever make it better, or we're struggling with addiction, or there's someone we love— mental health challenges, right? There's so many ways in which we feel just deeply lonely.
[00:12:11] There's so many ways in which that the kind of rough edge of life often opens up spirituality and for me, I think it's because spirituality tells the truth. It opens up this paradoxical awareness of my friend Caroline puts it that life is full of beauty and shit. And it's like both are true.
[00:12:29] And so, now how are we going to live? And for me, a spirituality that engages with the reality of our experience, that doesn't shy away. It is not clouds and floating in Nirvana states, right? It's about we live in a world that is profoundly broken. And so what does that ask of me? What are the responsibilities and the gifts I might share with neighbors and those who are suffering and how can I receive from the world and the people around me?
[00:12:55] One way to think about it is through the three Bs that Sociologists of religion will talk about, and they'll talk about believing, behaving, and belonging. It can be about the relationships that we have, the practices that we learn, and the stories or the beliefs that we hold about who we are and whose we are, right?
[00:13:12] Like how do I fit into the world around me? So, I think whether it's through practices, through stories and myths or ideas or through the relationships we have, those are all ways into it to a spiritual life.
[00:13:25] Jackson Steger: I love that. Cool. I think that's great background for this to then ask the question, what is The Nearness and what is a Nearness journey?
[00:13:33] Yeah. For a lot of us who no longer fit within a traditional religious institution or never did, right, I didn't grow up with one. So, it's not like I left anything. It's just absent. I think a lot of us start out when we start that spiritual journey kind of by ourselves, maybe reading a book or. Listening to a podcast or following someone on Instagram or using a meditation app.
[00:13:51] And so The Nearness is really designed to help people who are taking those first steps to explore life's big questions with other people. And you'll sign up for an eight-week Nearness journey and we'll match you into a small group with four or five other people with whom you'll meet each week at the same time online.
[00:14:08] And it really is the most wonderful experience seeing strangers sign up and after these conversations leave as spiritual friends because it's very rare that we get to spend time talking about these big questions of, we just had an eight-week journey on the theme of letting go. So, we talked about grief and death.
[00:14:27] We talked about the frustration and anger that comes with letting go. We did somatic practices, we talked about poems. We shared our own stories, and so we had all of these different ways to get into this topic, and the next journey is gonna be around being part of something more. So, what are the things that we're part of and how do we move from a place of kind of, individualism and isolation to a place of wholeness, to a place of connection with the natural world, with our neighborhoods, the places where we live, our families, and sense of ancestry and even the divine, however we explore that.
[00:15:00] So it, it's just this wonderful opportunity to explore those questions in a bounded way where, you know, everyone's gonna show up. Everyone's gonna show up in a particular open and generous way, and you get to learn from each other. That's the basic setup.
[00:15:14] Jackson Steger: What's the week to week structure there that enables this sort of openness and yeah, just the broader frameworks that, that you're alluding to.
[00:15:22] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, so it's really key. There's a couple of kind of key design elements and, for anyone thinking about community or designing experiences, we'll get to nerd out on this together. One of them is that I think one of the big challenges for a lot of institutions is they have this static version of membership.
[00:15:38] So you are outside. And now you're a member and you're inside forever. And for a lot of people that's way too big a step. And so, we explicitly make a journey time-bound. More than half the people sign up for another journey cuz they loved it so much. But by making that invitation time-bound, all of us feel much more comfortable making that kind of commitment.
[00:15:55] So each weekly meeting is 90 minutes long, and the structure of those gatherings are very consistent. We always open with a very simple body and breath awareness practice. Just taking some shared breaths, paying attention to our body, paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, and settling into a different, yeah, just different level of intentionality as we show up for the conversation.
[00:16:17] Then, and this is my favorite design piece, we read aloud, the community Covenant, and now all of us will probably have been part of workshops where everyone shares like, okay, what are the rules of engagement? What are the commitments? But for me, the language of covenant is so important because it isn't just a list of values or commitments, it's a living spiritual practice of relationship. And so, not only does someone read it aloud each time, different volunteer, different voice reads it aloud, but we then tend to it. So halfway through the eight weeks, we'll spend some time just reflecting what can we celebrate? What are we doing well, and where are we falling short?
[00:16:54] What can we adapt and do better at? And so, in the Covenant, is a poetic writing up of things like welcoming silence when it arises between us: listening to our innermost intuitions and we can share a link maybe in the show notes to the covenant for anyone who's interested. And we light a little candle.
[00:17:08] Everyone lights a candle when we read aloud the covenant. So, there's this kind of ritual moment of stepping into a way of being together. That just is different from the rest of our conversations. Not that one is bad, or one is good, but it's a different way of being. And then at the end of each conversation, we have the same simple breath and blessing practice to, to help us move out of this time into back, back, into our normal lives. So the structure is really, really key.
[00:17:36] Jackson Steger: So many perspective follow-ups, but I'll go with this. One friend of mine who I've met through this work has this great phrase, which is, don't over salt the food, and don't over cult the community
[00:17:48] Casper ter Kuile: Haha. That's great.
[00:17:50] Jackson Steger: When you, when you start thinking about these structures and calling things something like the covenant, how do you navigate that fine line between cult and community?
[00:18:00] Casper ter Kuile: There's two really central elements to this. The difference between a cult and a community. They may both be easy to walk in of, but the cult is hard to leave. And so, there's absolutely no, no difficulty at stepping back from a healthy community. And that's true from The Nearness too. The other thing is, what is put at the center of The Nearness is not its leadership, it's its participants.
[00:18:21] So each small group is peer facilitated. So, I'm not in every small group. I, I don't know what happens unless someone tells me. What's beautiful is that really my job is to invite people in and help people love each other. And that's what happens over time as you share stories and you, if you are hearing someone talk about their experience and you are showing up with an openness and an empathy, you cannot help but be transformed by it.
[00:18:48] And one of my favorite stories was he had a participant who, for the purposes of the story, it's important to mention she's a black woman who's progressive politically. She said, okay. In week five, I realized one of the guys in my small group might be a Republican, but it's too late because I loved him already.
[00:19:05] And that makes me so happy because I think in a world where we have so much content, And it's wonderful. There's so much great stuff out there. What we are missing are the containers of connection, the places where what we're centering our relationships, and so that's what I hope The Nearness can be as part of this kind of relational infrastructure, without which we're living in a world where loneliness and isolation are escalating, mental health and suicide are skyrocketing. We know that relationships are fundamental to human health and thriving. And yet so many of the world systems and what demands our attention pulls us into an isolated experience.
[00:19:44] And so, The Nearness, hopefully, is one of many wonderful projects that that's seeking to center relationships, not to an individual, but to one another.
[00:19:53] Jackson Steger: I love that so much. One of my personal, most deeply held beliefs is that we have more in common than not, which is informed by, I was born in Missouri, but have spent most of my life in big cities and have, have grown up just around the world and seen that most people all like to eat good food and laugh and dance and that so many of our current institutions are driving us apart when we need these small groups to bring us together.
[00:20:19] Casper ter Kuile: And I should say Jackson, that's not to make invisible the differences, right? But it's to say how do we create the context in which our fondness for one another is stronger than the differences?
[00:20:34] And I think about as a gay person, I think about how has the gay rights movement made so much progress within one generation, and I think it's because straight people have gay children and it's much less likely that rich people have poor children, or white people have black children and the family for all of its problems, and so many people don't have this experience, and I don't want to ignore that, but for the culture, what's happened is that these families were strong enough to sustain relationships, even when someone came out and was so different, and that ultimately the desire to stay in relationship was more important than the differences that were there, and people have learned to actually build a new culture because of that.
[00:21:13] I don't want to paint a brush of, oh no, there's no difference, right? That that's always there, but it's about how do we have the relationships that can sustain discomfort for long enough?
[00:21:23] Jackson Steger: Yeah. And so, to the point of nurturing those relationships, facilitating this kind of conversation, part of what makes The Nearness great, part of what we're really starting to think about at Cabin is how do we have those world-class spiritual teachers?
[00:21:38] How do we make good gathering happen? And so, I suppose my question for you with a little bit of context is that one of the roles within the Cabin ecosystem is the role of the gatherer. So, we also have builders, we have creators, we have naturalists. But the gatherer is meant to help foster a warm, inclusive environment, someone who does everything from logistics, like picking someone up from the airport and giving them a tour upon arrival to a Cabin neighborhood, but also helping to repeat week-in and week-out traditions, like house meetings, that may happen at any particular Cabin location. And I'm curious, in your experience, what makes someone a good gatherer or facilitator of these more intimate conversations?
[00:22:28] Casper ter Kuile: I'll start with the assumption that we work from, which is that we all have the capacity to accompany one another, and so that's why we've designed the inner circles to be peer facilitated.
[00:22:38] We give a very clear structure. I want to stress that each week everyone receives a guide sheet, which literally maps out the conversation in terms of time, and we'll even give little bits that are scripted so people know what to say. But really what it comes down to is an open. Generous, welcoming heart, and with that, you can go a very long way.
[00:22:57] So I would say a good gatherer is someone who pays attention to that inequality that already exists within them. And who seeks to connect, who's interested in other people's stories, who is perhaps always just paying attention to, “huh? This person's sitting by themselves,” or “we haven't heard from that person in a little while.”
[00:23:16] Let me seek them out or seek out their perspective. So, I think it's about paying attention to the quality of relationships. I mentioned the covenant earlier because for me it's a way to practice that. So, if we know that, “Okay. By being in this Cabin neighborhood together, or being in this Nearness group or whatever, being colleagues on this team, if we all know the intentions we have it, it's really a spiritual practice to pay attention to those things.”
[00:23:40] One of my favorite definitions of prayer is that it's sustained attention. If anyone's a fan of Mary Oliver's poetry or just the way in which she describes geese or flowers, or an owl at night. That kind of sustained attention has a prayerful quality to it. So, I guess what makes a good gatherer is someone who has a sustained attention for the quality of relationships.
[00:24:02] Jackson Steger: That’s great. Is there any training, or beyond the like giving folks the guided set of questions, is there any training that you offer spiritual teachers or if not, or even if there is, say there's someone listening to this podcast who's like in college or just tr at an inflection point in their career, and they'd like to become more of a gatherer or spiritual leader. How would you advise them? Would you recommend they follow your path to divinity school or just how otherwise might someone become a good spiritual leader or a gatherer?
[00:24:37] Casper ter Kuile: I'll definitely say that my experience at Divinity School was extremely positive, and if someone is interested in a kind of professional direction to explore it, you could do a lot worse than that.
[00:24:47] And partly because what I was given in that context was not just the academic study of religious communities across time and tradition, but also the invitation to practice it. And so, learning from other traditions, participating in people's community rituals, doing: a lot of my classmates worked as chaplains in a hospital or in a prison, or really putting it to the test.
[00:25:10] It's a wonderful training ground. So certainly, if people are in the deep end and like, yes, this is my life's work. You know, I was lucky enough to go to Harvard Divinity School, which has a very pluralistic approach. That's not always true in every divinity school. So read the brochure carefully before, before you sign up.
[00:25:25] But that's one route. The other thing I would say is, A way to practice is by asking really good questions, and I think of two people in my mind. One is David Sedaris, the comedian, who really tries never to ask a boring question. So, if he gets in a cab, he'll ask the cabbie, not “how long have you been driving for Uber?” But “when did you last touch a monkey?” And just absurd questions, which, not, that's the best way always to gather people, but to it, it gets you into interesting conversations. And I try and practice that when I'm meeting new people instead of asking, what do you do? Or how are you, you know, just, just trying to ask just something a little bit more interesting.
[00:26:03] And the other one is an incredible guy in Indianapolis called De’Amon Harges, who has the title of the Roving Listener. And his job became just to walk around his neighborhood and notice what people were gifted at, even if they didn't necessarily realize it themselves. So, they might be good at repairing a bicycle or cooking a meal for 10 people, or they knew where you could pick the best flowers from the community garden or, whatever it was, and he tries to find one of those gifts and match it with a different neighbor's need.
[00:26:37] So if you know how to do some carpentry, here's someone who has a back deck that just needs a little bit of work and it would make it usable again. And it's this sort of asset-based community developed model. But it's really noticing even in neighborhoods that are often seen as poor or deprived, what are the gifts that are here that, that we can give one another?
[00:26:56] And so thinking about if you're in a gathering role, if you wanna step into that, just noticing what introductions might I make that might be mutually beneficial? Who is about to go to Canada for the first time, and who's from Canada? You know, like just little things like that is something you can pay attention to.
[00:27:12] Of course, the Art of Gathering, Priya Parker's book is a wonderful resource. The other place I might look to is Peter Block's work, who has a great book called Community. He's done incredible work in Cincinnati over the years, and it's very practical, so hopefully that's a good primer for someone who's just getting started. My mom's gonna love this episode.
[00:27:32] Casper ter Kuile: Tell me about her. Why will she resonate with it?
[00:27:34] Jackson Steger: I think, so I was raised in a Catholic household, I wouldn't say like overly devout. We went to church every Sunday, and by the time I was in late middle school, early high school was definitely showing consistent resistance to this practice, and my parents eventually understood and stopped forcing me to go.
[00:27:56] But my mom never gave up on helping me become more spiritual, and over the years has done a great job of sending me the books or the articles or the quotes that she comes across that she thinks might help me retain some of that spirituality. So,now at 27, I think, do embrace that and have my own ways to be spiritual and I thank her for that, so she'll appreciate that.
[00:28:24] Casper ter Kuile: That's beautiful.
[00:28:25] I think some of the broad themes of this episode so far.
[00:28:29] Casper ter Kuile: Oh, thanks for sharing.
[00:28:30] Jackson Steger: I wanna switch over now to, we've talked about it a little bit, but the, just the importance of practice and rituals, and I don’t just wanna speak about this in the context of The Nearness, but more broadly and also for Cabin, how should communities create their own meaningful rituals and, and how should individuals too, but really wanna start with communities, and I'll give a little bit of context, which is this week with the core Cabin team, I was mapping out a funnel of how someone might learn about cabin and go all the way through becoming one of our citizens.
[00:29:04] And there's a lot of different ways they become aware. There's a lot of different places to gain further education and context. And then there's several different avenues for connection as well. And this framework probably was not true for any single one person but was true for how many people move through, and they all have their own paths down this funnel. And we as an organization probably need to better highlight a few of these pathways and are starting to think like, which traditions that we already have are the ones that we want to better focus on? Which rituals are the ones that our members get the most out of?
[00:29:45] So again, I'll just repeat the question, but yeah. How do you cultivate those meaningful rituals and traditions and how you know which ones are the ones that you should keep?
[00:29:54] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, I think immediately of a wonderful West African ritual teacher called Maladome Patricesome, who says a community without rituals cannot exist.
[00:30:04] So rituals help us often know who we are and whose we are. And so, they are necessary for communities because even if you're not in direct personal relationship with everyone, think of a football supporting. Like I, I'm a big Leeds United fan in the English Premier League. We just got relegated, so that's too bad.
[00:30:22] Jackson Steger: Oof. Tough.
[00:30:22] Like I, I know other Leeds fans by the songs that we know and by the symbols and by the, for the stories that we tell about the great people and all that, right? All of those things are ritualistic moments. And same with nation states, same with all sorts of communities. Rituals often communicate or embody the invisible values, in visible ways, so through music, or think of the five different senses through movement, through smell, through taste, through touch, through sight.
[00:30:50] They're always in which we get to act out the values that are important to us. So, one of the ways you can look at is this a healthy ritual or not, is like what are the values that it's communicating? What are the stories that this is embodying? To use a Jewish example, again, the Exodus story is ritualized in the Passover Seder.
[00:31:08] And so, through these different foods and these different blessings and the four questions and wines, we're retelling the story of how the Israelites left Egypt, were liberated, you know, and, and the plagues that fell on the Egyptians and the promised land that awaits us still. And the Catholic mass too is a retelling of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.
[00:31:29] So you can see those are two religious examples, but they're often embodying a story or they're retelling, or they're lifting up the values that this community claims to hold dear. Now, that doesn't mean they always embody them. But it tries to recenter them at the heart of the community. And rituals are powerful, meaning making tools.
[00:31:49] And so you were just talking about the different stages in Cabin or in any community that people might go through, just like in stages of life, right. The transition from childhood into adulthood or adult into old age, those are moments that are threshold moments, and we as human beings are meaning making creatures.
[00:32:06] And so we seek transitional rituals to help us cross that threshold: a wedding ceremony, a funeral, a graduation ceremony, right? All of these are very simple or sometimes very complicated rituals that help us know something here has changed and what was is no longer, and what will be is now here.
[00:32:26] Thinking about community design, thinking about how do we create a healthy community? Rituals have to be part of that, and that's why we have those. You know, in The Nearnness, we have those opening words and those closing words. We have the candle lighting. We have these consistent elements that just help us live in a healthier rhythm too. I think one of the signs of modernity is that we live in this sort of like constant streaming of life. There is no pause and there is no return. It's just next, next, next, next, next. Right? Like the inbox is never empty. And so rather than living in sort of time as an arrow, how can we live in time as a circle where we come back— “oh, it's Friday night. It's time to turn off my phone. Oh, it's Monday morning. It's time to greet the new day.” Living time in that different way, I think is profoundly healthier, and that's where rituals come in.
[00:33:15] Jackson Steger: I love that. I love the sort of combination of philosophical and tactical in that answer. And on that more tactical vein that you, you concluded with, any specific advice on rituals that might best bridge online spaces and real world gatherings?
[00:33:34] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, the best, especially for new communities, there's some design work that you can do, but there's also noticing what are people self-organizing? Like often the most meaningful and the best rituals are built on something that has already started. Designing from scratch often feels a little hollow and kind of meh.
[00:33:51] It's so much better to build on something. So, thinking about digital and IRL, I think we've all learned that doing both at the same time is not a winner. So, for me, it's all about sequencing and trying to lean into the thing that is uniquely possible in that context. So, for example, my book was published at the height of Covid in June 2020, and I was really sad, right?
[00:34:14] I had a 20 city book tour planned, and we're gonna do these live shows with my podcast and all sorts of wonderful things. Those were canceled. But instead, I did a sort of book launch and suddenly all my aunts and uncles from Holland and my family in England and all friends across the world were able to be present at this digital thing, which made it really much more meaningful cuz it was really personal to me.
[00:34:36] And so there was a beautiful way in which that celebration enabled participation across time and space that wouldn't have been possible IRL. On the other hand, when I'm gathering people in person, now I really think about the physical things: dancing, eating, cooking, singing, all the things that really suck on Zoom, but are so rich, being outside, right, that that are possible IRL.
[00:35:00] But again, one of the things you can do online is connect with people you otherwise would never meet and have really deep, enriching conversations in what feels often safer and more accessible. Because worst thing that happens, you just close the computer and you walk away. Right? So, leaning into what's possible in this modality that isn't possible in the other, turning up the volume on those things.
[00:35:25] Jackson Steger: This has been an amazing conversation, and as we approach close, I wanna ask some, maybe a bit more derivative questions, but ones that I'm just personally, selfishly excited to ask, which is about this intersection between tech and spirituality. Yeah, I think that, in some ways they are diverging and in other ways they're converging faster than ever.
[00:35:48] And first, maybe more of an academic question, but throughout history, like I'm, I'll preface this. I'm gonna ask you about AI in a second, but before I do that, I'm curious, are there other major inflection points in history of certain technologies coming out that have just profoundly changed how our spiritual communities have formed and flourished?
[00:36:10] Casper ter Kuile: Enormously, and we would be fools to think that theology does not respond to technology. And perhaps one informs the other as well. But the most obvious one in the kind of western mind is the introduction of the printing press and the huge impact that had on the Protestant Reformation in Europe especially.
[00:36:28] And the reason why it did that is certainly religious knowledge and the word of God in Medieval Catholic Europe was mediated by the priest, and for people who were illiterate, they did not have access to the scriptures themselves. And as you see the spread of the written word, the refrain of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation was Solo Scriptura, was the word, only the word. That's what matters. And all of these other rituals that have been created, like confession and the buying of indulgences, not only were they unscriptual, they were wrong. They, they were evil. And so, what we have to return to is this word of God. And so that's why you have really the, even still I think in America today, in our subconsciousness, religion equals “do you believe in Jesus Christ?” It becomes so much about, “do you believe in this particular figure that's written down in this book?” That is what this kind of simplified meaning becomes. So, I think the, the introduction of the printing press is enormous. But you might also think, if you look at the rise of Methodism, for example, you see how industrialization really disrupted some of the status quo organization in religious language. You would talk about the polity. What is the kind of governance and structure of the church? So traditionally, both in the Catholic and in the Anglican church, and I'll just talk about England here, that's the context I know best, religious life was organized by parish.
[00:37:53] So you'd have a church, you'd have a little area around the church that those people would belong to. And this is of course, just in a Christian context, but as you have mass movement of population to new urban centers because of industrialization, you have the clearance of common land. You have new populations that no longer bounded by geography in the way that they were.
[00:38:14] And so you start to see the rise of religious movements like Methodism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously said, the world is my parish. So, he was breaking with this old way of. Organizing spirituality and community and saying, “actually you can choose which church you go to, and it doesn't have to be the one that's nearest to you.”
[00:38:33] Right? You can choose. And so, you start to see a little bit more of a consumptive mindset of choosing which one I want, which is still very much alive and well, not in a kind of Evangelical world now. All of which is to say as we think about these new technologies like AI, or even computing generally, right?
[00:38:49] I would say the last kind of 20, 30 years, really the flourishing of the internet already has shifted how we think about where authority comes from. So no longer do we wanna look, and forgive me again for a Catholic listeners, a Pope in Rome who sits at the head of a triangle hierarchy, and he's supposed to have all the answers, he’s absurd in an Amazon review era where, of course we're gonna trust the wisdom of other reviewers more than just one expert who was elected by who? and has authority how? We're gonna be much more interested in our friends up peers, the people we trust, “what was your experience?” That's where authority comes from now. I don't know how AI is gonna shape our spirituality, but I certainly think if we'll present new opportunities, and I hate to say, but very many challenges too. And I think one of the key purposes of spirituality in the 21st century is to help us know what makes us human.
[00:39:43] Well, how would you answer that question? I have to answer it theologically, but I think my understanding, and this is just for me, but I think part of what makes us human is that an inherent belonging to one another. And I find the language of soul helpful here. That we are not just bodies, but we, but there is something in or around or beyond us that makes us more than just the physical bodies that we are.
[00:40:09] And my experience is that those— I struggle with the language, but whether you use energy, whether you use whatever language works for you, but there's something in us that is the kind of the spirit of life and that that belongs to something big, bigger. Now, who knows? There may be technologies that find that they have that too.
[00:40:30] But, uh, technology ultimately is, is a tool. And I think we are not tools. We are worthy and have inherent goodness and dignity. Whether we are useful to an economy or not. And so, that for me is really important, that we don't lose sight of what makes us worthy of being alive.
[00:40:50] Jackson Steger: Thank you so much, Casper, for joining us.
[00:40:53] For folks who would like to participate in a Nearness journey or learn more, how should we direct them? And I'll also add that Cabin citizens receive a special discount off of a Nearness journey, so if you're a Cabin citizen, go ahead and check it out. But Casper, I'll sort of leave it to you to provide the right call to action there.
[00:41:16] Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, absolutely. Come check out The Nearness. It's at thenearness.coop and if you just click the Start Your Journey button, you'll see the next eight-week journey that kicks off in the week of July 10th. The signup deadline is July 2nd, do check it out before then. And if you are a Cabin citizen, use the code Cabin People, which will give you a nice little discount.
[00:41:36] But we also have a pay what you can option. We really want everyone who's interested to participate. And yeah, please let us know. We've got some info sessions as well if you wanna just get a taster. Um, so we'll hope to journey with you over the summer. Thanks, that was great.
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