Religion isn’t always about finding God or even finding yourself. For Drew Dellinger, a poet, activist and scholar, it’s more about connecting with others and working to make the world a saner place.
Dellinger, a widely published poet whose work is featured in the acclaimed 2005 documentary, “Voices of Dissent,” is the founder of Poets for Global Justice, a creative coalition that uses art, drama, prayer and humor as a force for bringing about justice and political transformation.
The 37-year-old veteran of the Bay Area spoken word circuit is working on his Ph.D. in philosophy and religion at the California Institute for Integral Studies. He has studied cosmology and ecological thought since 1990 with Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and cultural historian known for exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world and its implications for religion.
I spoke with Dellinger by phone last week from his home in Mill Valley.
You’ve participated in some recent protests against the war in Iraq. How do you think the demonstrations today compare to the ones that went on during the Vietnam War?
In a lot of ways we are dealing with the same kind of imperialist agenda from the current administration, and the same kind of militarist agenda, as during the Vietnam War. So I think there are a lot of similarities.
The administration that’s in power right now is incredibly hardheaded and determined not to be influenced by the will of the people that they ostensibly represent. I’m not particularly hopeful about changing the minds of the warmongers that are part of the current regime. But in terms of the climate in the country at large, I think it’s very powerful to see religious leaders taking a stand against the war, to see Gold Star families — these are the families of people who have lost loved ones in combat — Iraq veterans and Vietnam veterans all saying that this war is not in our national interest. It’s not in the interests of the planet.
Speaking of the planet, you often talk to kids in classrooms about cosmology, the story of the universe as it’s understood by science. What do you tell them?
When you look at the Earth being as complex and diversified biologically as it is and you realize that it’s taken some 14 billion years to reach this state of unfolding, it fills you with a sense of awe and it makes you want to protect it. We are in a mass-extinction crisis. Species are being wiped out at an astronomical rate. So I often talk to students about cosmology and ecology, the present state of the ecosystems on the planet, and I encourage them to become aware of what’s happening and to take a stand. I want them to think about the role they might play in helping ensure the health of the planet for generations to come.
Where do you come down in the ongoing tug-of-war between secular and religious camps over teaching evolution versus creationism or intelligent design in the classroom?
I certainly stand in the camp of evolution, so to speak, but at the same time I think part of the critique coming from the religious communities is a valid one. The scientific story has been presented as something that’s random, something that’s mechanistic and meaningless. And part of what the religious communities are saying is that there is a deep wisdom, a deep intelligence that’s unfolding in the universe. We can feel it, and we see that from within the context of our religious tradition — we just don’t think that science has the whole picture if it’s presenting evolution as merely a random aggregation of molecules that happened to swirl together kind of accidentally.
Part of what’s interesting about cosmology in the sense that I’m using the term, and in the sense of the mentors such as Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme that I’ve studied with, is that it’s kind of the best of both worlds. What they’re saying is that the story of the universe has a physical dimension, but it also has a spiritual dimension as well.
Do you think it’s possible to find common ground between the people on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the hard-core scientists or the hard-core religious people?
There are certainly folks that are so rooted in their particular worldview that there is not going to be a lot of movement. But I think, in general, we are in a period where a lot of attitudes are up for grabs. I think that’s part of what is unique and interesting about the postmodern era, or whatever you want to call it. There are a lot of people who come from a traditional faith background now that are interested in science. They are not interested in turning the clock back in terms of what we know about the unfolding of life on this planet, what we know about the solar system and the galaxy and the universe.
One of the things you try to do in your work is, as you put it, “inspire radical imagination.” How does the imagination enrich spiritual practice?
Imagination is a spiritual practice in a certain way, and there are strong links between art and spirituality — between creativity and spirituality, between poetry and mysticism.
In the tradition of Japanese poetry, they talk about the haiku moment. The idea of the haiku is that it’s just short enough and yet just long enough to capture one moment of connection — one moment of mystical union between an observer and something observed. It’s a moment of poignant connection. I think that a lot of what art does is help us tap into the sacred dimension of our lives. We are surrounded by sacredness all the time, but we don’t always perceive it. Art can help us break out of mental patterns and habits and perceive the majesty and the mystery of the world around us in a fresh and new way.
You have talked about how poetry can evoke a world of possibilities beyond the current regime of war, racism, sexism and ecological destruction. Do you believe that we can only bring about the changes that we can envision? Doesn’t the universe surprise us sometimes?
Sometimes things happen that are beyond what we can envision. And at the same time, one of the gifts of the artist or the prophet is the ability to imagine that things can be different. When someone like Martin Luther King says, “I have a dream,” or someone else embodies an alternative way of doing things, that’s powerful. The artist has the ability to envision a world based on solidarity, respect and equality, and that can help those of us who are rooted in the world we have now yet trying to move to a different set of possibilities.
Do you believe in magic?
Yeah, I think so.
How do you think it works?
I think it’s important to have a sense of humility, intellectually, that things are mysterious. I mean, one needs discernment, and we need to recognize what’s superstition and what’s not. But I tend to have a healthy dose of humility or a strong sense of not-knowingness.
There is something that we could call phenomenological evidence for things such as mystical experiences. These might not be scientifically repeatable and verifiable in the laboratory setting, but when you have millions of people throughout history reporting that they have experienced the divine or the sacred or the mystical, that’s a pretty solid body of phenomenological evidence.
Were you raised in a religious family? Can you tell me more about that?
I was not. My parents were not interested in religion or spirituality. They never discussed God, particularly, though they were both raised Catholic and I was baptized a Catholic. That was probably about the first and the last time I was ever in a church with my parents. They left the church around the time that I was born, for feminist reasons.
I remember them telling me that they had just kind of gotten fed up with the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control.
So when did you start writing poetry?
I started writing rap lyrics when I was in college. That was my first significant foray into poetic creativity. I was in a hip-hop band, and then we broke up after graduation, and I started writing a cappella raps that I would perform at clubs. This was in the mid ’90s, and Matthew Fox, the author and theologian, invited me to come out to the Bay Area and begin performing at these events that at that time were being called the techno-cosmic mass. It’s now called the cosmic mass. And that kind of evolved into more of a spoken word style as I began to hear more spoken word poets. I went to my first poetry slam after I moved to the Bay Area in 2000, and I was completely taken with it. Spoken word poetry has the energy of rap and hip-hop, but it’s not as limited in the sense that it doesn’t have to rhyme or have a steady rhythm and tempo. There’s a lot of flexibility.
Was poetry always a spiritual practice to you?
I think so. I’ve always felt a lot of spiritual energy coming from the poetry that I’ve read, whether it’s mystical poets like Rumi or Mirabai or poets who may not think of themselves as explicitly spiritual — there is just so much energy and depth and profundity. I remember the poet Billy Collins saying once — I’m paraphrasing — that in poetry, we have the 5,000 year history of the human heart. So even if it’s not what we would call spiritual poetry in a narrow sense, poetry does contain this heart energy.
What spiritual tradition do you follow now?
I don’t have a particular spiritual practice. I’ve been a student of world religions since I’ve been a student in higher education, so I try to draw wisdom from many traditions. I am particularly interested in Taoism. I also love the prophetic tradition — the Hebrew prophets and the fiery prophetic tradition of Jesus of Nazareth. And I’m interested in people who combine mysticism and activism, whether it’s St. Francis of Assisi or someone like Harriet Tubman, who was a freedom fighter and a kind of prophetic leader.
You’ve said that the spiritual path is a journey of cultivating awareness and realizing interconnectedness. Can you tell me more about that?
We live in a world that’s thoroughly interconnected, interrelated and interpenetrated, but our human awareness can sometimes be very solipsistic, or locked into itself. Spirituality helps us crack out of this self-referential mode and recognize our connection to others — to other people, to other animals, beings and ecosystems. It helps us recognize that we participate in a community and that we are always involved and interrelated.
Injustice is as old as human history, and I’m not sure there is any less of it now than there ever was. Do you ever get discouraged about that?
There are valid reasons to feel discouraged. But I think there is something inside us that often rises to the challenges that we face. And sometimes it’s just a matter of asking, How do you want to live your life? Do you want to give up and say that we can’t do any better than we are currently doing? Do you want to say that it’s OK that children are living in poverty in our country and around the world? What kind of example do you want to set for yourself and your family and your friends and the people around you?
It’s less a matter of knowing that we are going to be successful and more a matter of knowing that the effort makes sense, of knowing that the struggle is important. We need to maintain hope while being realistic about the obstacles and the challenges that we face.
Religion can sometimes lack a spirit of playfulness. How can people bring joy and wonder back into their spiritual paths?
Humor has an honored place in our spiritual lives. Some of the most spiritual people are laughing or smiling a lot. You think about the Dalai Lama. He is almost always smiling. In some Native American ceremonies they will have someone playing the role of the trickster or the clown, who will actually disrupt the seriousness of the ritual that’s happening. They may shout rude or even scatological references in the middle of the ceremony. That’s built into the tradition to warn against people taking themselves too seriously.
Are you saying people need to swear a little in church or temple?
It might not be a bad idea.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editorDavid Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.