Episode #83 Bringing the sacred to a turbulent world with Sue Philips of Sacred Design lab
As we hover on the edge of the Great Turning, how can we find a spiritual practice that draws from the roots of who we are and yet provides the sustenance we need to help us navigate our changing world? Sue Philips of Sacred Design Lab explores the possibilities.
Sacred Design Lab is a soul-centred research and development lab that explores and interprets the changing landscape of spiritual and community life. The Lab collaborates with divinely restless, intellectually curious and entrepreneurially practical leaders to help design and prototype the spiritual communities and infrastructure of the future, interpreting ancient best practice in the service of transformation.
Sue Philips, one of the co-founders of the Lab says of herself that, ‘I am relentlessly curious about liberating ancient wisdom to solve complex problems. I’m passionate about inspiring spiritual flourishing, designing for meaning making, and witnessing the transformation that happens when people roam around in what matters most.
My wife and I share our 30-minute “family chapel” every morning, to remember who we want to be and what we care about, and to cultivate imagination for “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”1
I’m part business strategist, part design geek, and part monastic. On any given day I might read liberation theology, human-centered design briefs, or business school case studies. Ideally all of them side by side. I graduated from Colgate University and the Episcopal Divinity School, and taught at Harvard Divinity School, where I am a Ministry Innovation Fellow. My wife and I live in Tacoma, WA with whichever of our five children is passing through.’
As we hover on the edge of the Great Turning, increasingly, we seek a spiritual foundation that is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. In this week’s podcast, we discuss how that might come about, how we might recognise broad spiritual foundations that are universal and useful to support our connection with a numinous world.
Manda: My guest this week is Sue Phillips of the Sacred Design Lab. I listened to Sue in a podcast probably around this time last year, and she’s been on my list of people to invite to be a guest ever since then. The Sacred Design Lab is a self centred research and development lab devoted to understanding and designing spiritual wellbeing for the 21st century.
It translates ancient wisdom and practises to help their partners develop products, programmes and experiences that ground peoples social and spiritual lives, and they envision a world in which every person is connected to their inherent goodness, known and loved in communities of care and bountifully giving their gifts towards beauty, justice and wholeness.
And if that sounds remarkably like what Accidental Gods is striving to do, then I think that would be fair. Sue Phillips herself says that she is relentlessly curious about liberating ancient wisdom to solve complex problems. She’s passionate about inspiring spiritual flourishing, designing for meaning, making and witnessing the transformation that happens when people roam around in what matters most. And I cannot think of a more interesting, inspiring, soulful, flourishing way to spend an hour or so people of the podcast. Please do welcome Sue Phillips of the Sacred Design Lab.
Manda: So, Sue Phillips, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you so much for getting up at whatever ungodly hour it is on your side of the Atlantic. What time is it with you just now?
Sue: What a delight. It’s a little after nine o’clock in the morning. So as you see, it’s not that early.
Manda: It’s not. It’s not so bad. And how is life, what part of the states are you in? Just situate us before we do anything else.
Sue: I’m in Tacoma, Washington, which is on the Puget Sound, about 30 miles south of the city of Seattle and beautiful, green, highly oxygenated, fun filled orchid dwelling landscape here on the water.
Manda: Goodness. We’re going to talk about your life and work, which is the Sacred Design Lab, which is one of those things, as I said shortly before we started recording, if I’d known you existed before I started Accidental Gods, I think Accidental Gods would not exist. So I’m glad I didn’t. But it does sound a remarkable thing. So just before we move into what the Sacred Design Lab is and does and hopes to be, tell us a little bit about Sue Phillips and how you came to be here in this place now.
Sue: With a potentially broad and beautiful question that is. If I had to pick a few steps along the the discernment pathway that led me to being on the opposite end of this microphone with you, I would name two or three steps. The first is probably on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world, and probably on a hill overlooking capital city, Washington, D.C. When I was a middle school student, an eighth grader, which here is about 13, 14 years old, and I was a student there when the cathedral was under construction. It took about 40 or 50 years to be built. And on the campus of the cathedral where the sheds of the stone carvers who were at work literally making the final pediments and the baptismal font and the gargoyles, which at the time, raised some controversy because they made gargoyles out of Darth Vader, and some Disney characters, and some real culturally relevant expressions of traditional themes of good and evil, and suffering and tricksters and a playful, modern, at the time, interpretation of the life of people, and the spiritual life that cathedrals have always manifested.
And to my young self, I found this to be absolutely captivating. The smell of the dust and the art, the artistry of the sculptors and the absolute magnificence of a full flying buttress stained glass windowed cathedral literally in front of me. So that is absolutely one step on this path, because it instilled in me not only just the kinaesthetic, like embodied magnificence of interaction with spirit, but also I was so curious, and having, I really wasn’t religious in any traditional sense. My family did not… we were sort of cultural, like suburban white people, Christians, but no more than that. But the human reach for whatever it was that was being reached for in that magnificent place absolutely astonished and captivated me. And in a way, I’ve never stopped being oriented towards that captivation. So there’s one stop. I could go on, but I will very quickly say that that eventually led to Divinity school right after university where I study liberation theology and ethics and then went and did social justice work for ten years before entering congregational ministry in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, which is a very progressive, largely post Christian faith in the United States and England, actually, in the UK.
Manda: I would love to know more about that, but carry on with this and we’ll lead back to that.
Sue: Happy to. And so that’s probably the second stop, my congregational ministry. I’m ordained in that tradition, passed through denominational leadership and arrived at Harvard Divinity School, where I taught a policy class about Unitarian Universalism, because there’s a lot of us students at Harvard because we’re sort of a Boston based headquartered faith. And so there’s a deep history with Harvard Divinity School. And I met the two people who are now my colleagues were students at the time, Casper Ter Kuile and Nancy Thirsted, my beloved co-founders of Sacred Design Lab. And our lives became intertwined there. And we started this new chapter of exploring what it means to deliver ancient spiritual technologies into a bruised and hurting secular world.
Manda: Yes, OK, thank you. That feels remarkably coherent and succinct for what is covering quite a long space of time. So just taking a couple of steps back, tell me a little bit more about liberation theology. It’s one of those things that I have heard of, but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who has studied it in depth.
Sue: Well, I will do my very best to do justice to this worldwide combination of grassroots religious expression. Scholarly pursuit alignment with the poor, very much out of the Christian tradition originating in Latin America, with the Latin American liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and John Sabrino and other Jesuits and mostly men, religious priests, they call them.
Manda: In the Catholic Church, mostly, if they’re in South America?
Sue: Indeed, yes, yes. Yes, absolutely. And its origins, I think of Archbishop Romero as being the expression of liberation theology, a profound solidarity with the poor and a religious assertion that Christ, that Jesus had a preferential option for the poor, as should Christianity. That the entire proposition of Christianity was one in which poor folks were… their experience was at the very centre of the story and should remain that, and that the contention that that has political implications for everybody who professes Christianity in terms of justice making and the means with which they pursued justice. So that’s the contention of liberation theology. But started in Latin America, as I say, is a really kind of grassroots movement, but proliferated into feminist liberation theology, black liberation theology and other sorts of identity based liberation theologies over the course of the 70s and 80s and 90s and beyond, as we learnt how to apply the methodologies in the… to centre the experiences of other marginalised groups in the practise of theologising essentially. So feminist theology is one of those offshoots. I considered the early feminist theologians to be my amongst my greatest teachers, as well as James Cona, another black liberation theologians in the United States.
However, what’s interesting to me is that I’m not Christian and never was. So it was something about the, what would they call it, sort of hermeneutic? It’s an interpretive lens of liberation theology that I have overlaid in other parts of my life, a way of understanding the world. It’s part political analysis, part social justice commitment. It’s a cohesive way of looking at the world and how it works and how it should work is really what liberation theology has given me in my life.
Manda: And it doesn’t require a Christian underpinning. How does one go through divinity school, which in my naivety I assume to be a Christian faculty, and not be a Christian? Do you have to just be very quiet? Or are you there saying I’m not Christian, but…?
Sue: Well, certainly there may be amongst your listeners, folks who would say that a Christian has no business going to a Christian divinity school, which indeed I did. But I mean, theological education is actually very similar in structure across faiths, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish faiths. Once we get beyond that, it looks ministerial. That formation and credentialing of religious professionals in the United States is remarkably consistent across a really wide range of faiths. So that said, I did go to an Episcopal divinity school because in Boston, in Cambridge actually. And the reason I went there is because there were several of the leading scholars of feminist theology, including two of the priests, women priests, who had been irregularly ordained in the 1970s, Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek.
Manda: So I was under the impression there weren’t many women ordained at around about that time. How did you manage to end up studying on the ones who had to be so?
Sue: I chose the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 80s when I went off to school. And the reason I chose EDS was because of the presence of two of the 11 women, Episcopal women, who had been ordained in the 1970s irregularly by a renegade progressive bishop who did the right thing and ordained these God-loving women. And they were on the faculty, along with an amazing woman as a theologian named Katie Geneva Canon, with whom I studied for the next three years and did. So the Master of Divinity is the degree that most folks in the Protestant and Catholic traditions have, that provides the academic credential behind ordination, including in my own tradition. But there were a number of students there who were not pursuing ordination and in fact, almost no one was ordaining out gay and lesbian people at the time.
Manda: And you were out at the time?
Sue: Yes, yes. I came out as a lesbian in college and went to school out, but it was a very progressive place. So that was there was a juxtaposition. Not only was it unusual for women to be ordained in a lot of traditions at that point, the Episcopal Church had begun ordaining women, but it was virtually impossible to be ordained as a queer person. Right. So I went really expecting to become a theologian. And that was my goal. I wanted to be a theologian and to write fabulous books, but my life path shifted, just really because of liberation theology. And I did social justice work really for the next 10 years. After that, I did affordable housing work in some of the poorest rural communities in the United States after that.
Manda: Ok, having abandoned the idea of writing a book, so did that, did you pick that up later?
Sue: That’s never really left me, if I’m perfectly honest. But the sufficiency of a writing life to contend with the magnitude of the suffering and systemic problems, especially in the United States, it never quite seemed to fit the bill. It just seemed insufficient to me. No offence to great writers everywhere, but I was surely not amongst them. And I thought perhaps my labour might be better used elsewhere.
Manda: And so why did you shift away from that? Because you’re not doing that now. What drew you back into academic work, and then into the Sacred Design Lab?
Sue: Well, I started going to church. That’s what happened. I had all along those years, I never went to church because I didn’t think there was a church, frankly, that would work for me politically and theologically. And also in terms of my family and my sexuality. I mean, it is hard to remember what the United States was like in the 80s and 90s. It was not a particularly friendly place, although that was beginning to change, especially in terms of sexuality. By the 90s, it was the AIDS crisis here. It was the Reagan era and post Reagan era, not a friendly moment.
So I started going to church, and I started going to a Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts where my then partner and I had moved because it was the only state in the United States that allowed what they called second parent adoptions, which allowed gay people to actually adopt out of the foster care system, which was the way that we had decided we wanted to, I will say, acquire children and in the best sense of the word. So I started going to church and that is what changed my life, because I finally found a place that I could be all of who I was with all of my commitment. And that led to a vocational call to congregational ministry for which I was already academically prepared, but I finished the clinical preparation required and went off and was ordained.
Manda: And you called that earlier a post-Christian Church. Can you unpick that one for me? Because that sounds fascinating.
Sue: It’s quite a story of how this how this came to pass. I probably have many colleagues in Unitarian Universalist that would cringe at my depiction.
Manda: But you’re the one on the podcast, so that’s fine.
Sue: I am. Here I am. Let me tell you why I say that. So Unitarian and Universalism Unitarianism are sort of different trunks on the Christian tree. If you think about the two thousand plus history of Christianity in the world, think about it as a long trunk of debates in the faith that became Catholicism. But there was a thousand years of argumentation about what form that that church should take, but also about the theology. Time to canonise certain books of the Bible and not others, synods to debate theologically like the Council of Nicaea, which some of us now know the result of that is the Nicene Creed, which is a really… one has to say, a bizarre contortion of theological argumentation that so many people speak Sunday after Sunday. And the reason I’m laughing is because of how how transparent and inarticulate its depiction is of the theological arguments at the heart of the family, the Christian family tree at that moment.
Manda: So is that 626 Council of Nicaea?
Sue: I think it was 325. And I’m almost embarrassed that I know that.
Manda: No, it’s good. It’s really interesting. So that was that was under Constantine.
Sue: Yeah. So it was… Proto-Unitarians never would have called themselves that then. Sort of lost the debate at the Council of Nicea. And that was about the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God. And we became known over many hundreds of years as Unitarians, which was a derisive term to oppose Trinitarians, OK, which of course believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. OK, so that’s that’s the Unitarian pathway. Much more to be said there. But the universalist part of the story. Well, I’ve had a number of origins, but took kind of minor stage in American religious history in the wake of the Second Great Awakening, which was a period of great religious revival and upheaval in the United States in the 18th century, in which a kind of Calvinist orthodoxy took over mainstream religious expression and required it just painted a picture of a very scary God who was judgemental, who was… only the elect were to be saved from the fiery pits of hell that awaited everyone else.
And in the wake of this really robust, you can’t believe how vivid sermons are of this moment. Absolutely, absolutely terrifying depictions of God. And Universalists emerged as a response to the horrors, I think, frankly, of the second Great Awakening and said simply that there was universal salvation, that God is love, and that as our parent, God is too loving of us to consign any of us to everlasting hell, that’s universal salvation. So these two branches, separate, joined together in the 1960s as a denomination in its current expression, Unitarian Universalism.
Manda: Which word comes first? Universal Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism?
Sue: Indeed, it’s still quite an argument because Unitarians were sort of Brahmins, especially in the Boston area. Unitarians, think Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Thoreau and the transcendentalists were all Unitarians, and privileged class, and our universalist siblings were generally working class, generally rural. And this debate has never left our religious movement.
Manda: Oh, that would be a whole other podcast, I feel. So let’s come back to that some other time. I am just curious before we move on. Did you ever consider becoming a stonemason?
Sue: If I had had the slightest artistic ability, I may have, but I don’t mind to the extent that I have any artistic expression in me it’s with words.
Manda: Ok. It’s just it’s always seemed to me that the building of those big, big buildings and the beauty that is built into them, such an extraordinary and beautiful expression of what it is to be human, that again, if I had thought that I could wield a hammer and a chisel, I think I would have headed down that road, too. But we have words, you and I, so let’s stay with the words and move to the setting up of the Sacred Design Lab. What moved you to get together with two of your students fand create the entity that it now is?
Sue: Actually, Angie and Casper weren’t my students. I was as much theirs. So Angie and Casper are two millennial folks. Angie was born in the United States, in Boulder, mostly grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is known here as a kind of progressive, weed smoking iconoclastic, outdoor culture. Casper was a climate activist who was born in the UK from Dutch parents. And so Casper came to the United States, to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and basically switched over to the divinity school. He got a degree from the Kennedy School, because that’s where people were asking the interesting questions. Casper and Angie hooked up before I knew them, not in… they’re intellectual partners, not romantic partners.
But they had a really juicy and dynamic intellectual collaboration asking themselves the question basically, where are people like us, sort of non church people going to make and find the meaning that they used to go to traditional religious communities for? And this was at a moment when everybody who paid attention to American religious life had seen via the Pew Charitable Trust survey numbers, institutional membership and affiliation going down, down, down, down, down across almost every slice of American religious life for about 15 years. So this precipitous fall had been taking place, and Caspar and Angie did a survey, survey not meant as a questionnaire, but an extensive series of interviews, landscape mapping of the kinds of community groups and individual efforts that were arising out of mostly millennial experience to do the same jobs that traditional religion had done.
Sue: And they wrote a monograph called How We Gather, which really received a tremendous amount of attention. And the reason it did is a core proposition of Sacred Design Lab, I think, which is that no data that we have ever seen, anecdotal or quantitative, has said that the longing for spiritual and religious experience has changed at all in the last 50 years. But the our desire to access the traditional sources, the traditional entities, congregations and other religious entities that did those jobs is has decreased dramatically. So more and more people are less and less religious. But the longing in human hearts for the same big questions and the same experiences has not diminished at all. So it was it was their formation of that question that hooked us up, got us together to think about how we might address it. And that is the effort that became a couple of years later the Sacred Design Lab.
Manda: Brilliant. So how long have you been going then? When did you actually formally set up?
Sue: Yeah, well, we’re in our fifth year of active collaboration, thanks to our partners at the FETSA Institute, the amazing foundation that funded our work early on, and still is our primary partner.
Manda: Do they, the people who fund the On Being podcast? I’m recognising the name.
Sue: Yes. In fact, Sacred Design Lab, before we branded the Sacred Design Lab had a year long incubation at the On Being project where we were able to incubate some of the ideas that we’ve branded as Sacred Design Lab. We didn’t even have a name for about three years as we were writing and learning and talking to people and kind of figuring out what our strategic mission was. And then 18 months ago, we formed Sacred Design Lab.
Manda: Ok, so you’re really relatively quite new. And so in its most recent iteration, the one that arose 18 months ago, tell me what Sacred Design Lab is and does and hopes to do.
Sue: Sacred Design Lab is a, essentially a research and development laboratory for learning about how to apply traditional wisdom that has been locked up behind institutional doors, and deliver it to solve problems in the so-called secular world. We do this in a bunch of ways. I mean, to be honest, Sacred Design Lab in a way emerged because as we were, did more and more writing and thinking about the challenges that I’ve spent some time just now talking about, more and more people asked us to help them think about what the implications were in their own contexts. And so we were getting tons of requests. Come and talk to us, come and help us think about this. What are the strategic implications of this? And so we did what what a lot of people would do, which is we started consulting. So consulting is just the word that best describes the fact that our partners engage us to help them think about how to apply and sort of bake into strategies, the things that we’re seeing about how the world is working, and what the world needs to serve us all. And that’s what’s Sacred Design Lab does.
Manda: Are these businesses, or individuals? Or both?
Sue: So Sacred Design Lab is a non-profit organisation, that’s important to say. But we had to make a strategic decision quite early on about what kind of change we wanted to make, and to get clear about what our methodology was going to be, and who our audience was. And because we were fortunate enough to have this affiliation with Harvard Divinity School, and we were ministry innovation fellows there for years, until very recently, we had access, frankly, to some lever type sectors and leaders in the business world that people with our credentials almost never get access to, including the academic world. And so we decided early on that we, in order to make the kind of cultural level changes we feel are necessary, we wanted to try to access tech and health care and philanthropy as a strategic decision. Now, you can see that reflected in our website because we use language that is very broad and attempts to be evocative, and yet still carry some of the heft of traditional religious language. I mean, in the end, you can say in a way, we are translators more than anything else, and bridge builders between the so-called difference between the secular and the religious world. We don’t think that any such firm distinction actually exists. But the world thinks it does. So that’s what we do.
We also work extensively in the religious world, advising mostly denominations about how to bring essentially business innovation practises and some frameworks to apply to the religious world to try to begin to do better at delivering the wisdom from that world more effectively, because really the distribution network of traditional religious communities, the United States in large measure, is broken. It’s working very poorly right now, and so we do quite a lot of work to try to reinterpret and apply innovative practises there.
Manda: That’s something I’d like to unpick, but before – so there’s so many routes we could take. You said that there were cultural changes that you felt that you wanted to bring in to tech, health care and philanthropy as a three big, broad areas. So let’s begin to drill down into the depths of this before we get to that. In the world that I inhabit, which I think is not very different from the world that you inhabit, religious and spiritual are not necessarily coterminous. It’s possible to have a sense of deep, deep connexion to the more than human world and the spirit within it, and yet not be affiliated to traditional religion, which sounds like you were for most of your life, until the Unitarian Universalist or Universal Unitarians created, I still haven’t quite got my head around what a Christian churches. But we’ll get to that eventually.
So when people are coming to you, are they coming from a framework that wants what to us is old traditional religion, and this is a world where 2000 years is considered old, and I exist in a world where if it’s less than 10000 years old, it’s very new, and probably not worth looking at. But most people don’t inhabit that reality. So are they looking for stuff that exists within a traditional Abrahamic specifically linguistic and narrative framework? Are they looking for connexions to an actual living spirit, and in your world, is there a potential dichotomy between these two?
Sue: This is a captivating question that has captured human imagination for thousands of years. And in a way, I would duck the question by saying neither. It’s not really any of that. Anybody who has done congregational ministry, for example, knows that people often don’t know what they need or want or the words to use to say it. And that, frankly, is a lot of our experience at Sacred Design Lab, and I don’t say this to disrespect our partners who are uniformly wonderful spirits and hearts and tremendous minds. What we hear from our partners is a longing to create and to live in, as Charles Eisenstein calls it, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. And so we get approached with questions like, these are real examples… I can’t say who the client was, but ‘We want to create a work environment, a literal physical work environment, that helps our employees to know that they belong here, and that we want them to deliver their gifts in service of what it is we’re trying to create here. How can we craft a literal physical environment that evokes imagination and inspiration and a sense of connexion and belonging amongst the people who spend most of their lives here?’ So in that case, we worked with architects to help imagine and design contemplative spaces, and soaring inspirational spaces, and work areas that might be able to help folks rest and integrate in this amidst busy work.
Sue: So that’s one example. And of course, we are not architects. So this doesn’t rely on us having that technical skill, but basically on expanding the imagination of the architects for what the souls who work there need to flourish. So that’s one example. But on the other hand, we’re working in this magnificent partnership with the United Methodist Development Fund, which is a major funder in the Methodist movement, which is huge in the United States, now called the Wesleyan Investive. And with our partners there, we’ve convened twenty or twenty five innovators within Methodism, and also people at the very core of the Methodist Church institutionally, for a many months long conversation about how to deliver the gifts of Methodism to a world that is not Methodist.
Manda: You might have to unpack the gifts of Methodism, because I’m terribly naive about these things. What’s unique?
Sue: Well, I mean, John Wesley, the the founder of Methodism, amazing person, is totally worth looking at. But amongst the things that John Wesley taught is that small groups of people are the unit of and I’m using air quotes here, church, that is most compelling to folks. So in order to have some religious life, we need to do it in community. And the best way to do that is in small groups. So the spiritual technology of small groups is central to Methodism. That’s an example of a gift. And they have hundreds of years of practise in what religiously oriented small groups look like and how they work. Now, that’s a gift that the world desperately needs, whether or not they’re Methodists. And so, for example, we’re helping them think about how to how to do that well for the hurting world that exists beyond their literal church doors.
Manda: So these both sound quite practical. They could be done without religious overtones, and they could probably be done purely on a psychotherapeutic level if one wanted to, and I’m not suggesting you are. But in the work that you’re doing, are you connecting to what I would call the more than human world, the all that is? So that the people that come to you are also asking the question, not only how do we create a contemplative space for the people who work with us, but how does our work then bring us towards an unhurting world? Dooes that make sense is a question? That we’re expanding beyond the ‘how can we do what we do better’ to ‘how can what we do make the world a better place?’
Sue: This is a compelling question. It is a critique of our work, not that you just levied, but it is a legitimate critique of our work that in stripping away. the faith claims and theological structure and history and tradition of some of the ideas we work with, we have first of all, the things we talk about are no longer themselves when they’re taken out of context. So, for example, a contemplative space that doesn’t have a subject of contemplation. It is a legitimate question to ask, is it a contemplative space? It’s just a room, if there’s no orientation or context or content to that space. And it’s a very compelling question for religious and spiritual expression of our time about where that line is between a thing that is still itself, and a thing that becomes something entirely different if it’s taken, or if it’s extracted from, its tradition. We have a way that we have arrived at an answer to that question, which is that in order to deliver some of the wisdom and practises that have been locked up, it is necessary to sort of disacrete some of the institutional structures, the polity structures, and, yes, some of the theological propositions from them in order to make them accessible to other people. There will always be folks who argue that you can’t, in fact, shouldn’t do that.
We try to be deeply respectful of the traditions that we engage with. But by the same token, one of the ways I have resolved this is that I feel like the wisdom that humans have generated over tens of thousands of years about what makes for a flourishing life is the birthright of every human. Now, that could be perceived as a colonial conclusion, right? So there’s a real art form and a justice responsibility to interrogate that carefully on the ground as we actually do it. But ultimately, I do feel like there is a birthright wisdom that folks are being kept from. And there is a way to do this process of discovery and translation with honour. And of course, that’s where we hope we land, and we take it very seriously. Justice is an integral part of the lands that we use in our soul centred work, which I could go on and on about. But suffice it to say, this is something we grapple with.
Manda: Yeah, and I would love to know more about your soul-centred work, but just before we get there, just for my own interest, so we’re talking about the wisdom that humans have gathered over tens of thousands of years. So we’re going way back before the Ibrahamic religions were ever brought up, to a point where if we go back far enough, current thinking has that we all emerge out of Africa, that I have read people who dispute that, but let’s not head down that rabbit hole. I’m kind of interested in how does it come to be interpreted as colonialism if you say the common ancestors of humanity had a wisdom that would benefit us all, and we can begin to try to connect with that in ways that are relevant to the modern day. Where does the glitch happen in that that says we’re white people, we can’t do that?
Sue: There would be finer ways to articulate an answer to that. But my understanding and my belief is that there is actually specific pathways that that wisdom has followed since those moments of origin. And it’s actually in the specific pathways that a lot of the meaning and the practices and the people that lived lives formed by those practices and ideas and commitments that were very specific, and that arose out of specific context and evolved out of specific contexts. And it’s actually decontextualising these ideas that is, can be a colonial type injury. Because, of course, white Westerners have always felt entitled to extract value from other peoples’ land and traditions. And so there is, I think, legitimate concern about how we do that.
Manda: Ok, but given the fact we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction and we’re heading towards the edge of a climate cliff from which there is no return, it seems to me that if there is wisdom to be had, it would be good for us to avail ourselves of it rather than sitting back going well, I’m not sure, that might not be appropriate. It sounds very wise, but actually, I don’t know the context, would be where I would get to in my naivete, I suppose. I think probably the.. because we live on a land, I live on a land where we don’t know how far back invasion went, if you see what I mean, the people who are indigenous to here might well still be here. And the layers of overlay are so long ago that it’s hard for us to find them, whereas you live in a land where we can count the number of years since people arrived and it makes a big difference, I would guess.
As a complete aside, and just from my own interest, again, when you’re creating contemplative spaces without context, in my mind, what that creates is a space that has the energetic nexus of stillness that is the essence of, or the requirement for us to connect to the All that is, and that then if I enter into that, I could bring Buddhist sensibilities or shamanic sensibilities or Ibrahamic sensibilities. And that space would still be conducive to my connecting to whatever is the greater wisdom that I can connect to. Is that ,that would seem to me to be what you’re trying to do. OK, you’re nodding. This is good.
Sue: Yes, yes, indeed, indeed, because when we, most humans know in our bodies, not necessarily in our minds, but in our bodies, that there is an alchemy, I’ll use that metaphor. Maybe some of your listeners don’t use it as a metaphor, and actually our practitioners. But there’s an alchemy of individual heart intent, practise, preparation, imagination that can in a physical space, especially when joined with other people and artefacts and physical objects in a container that is meant to hold and build and create those experiences, something happens often in those environments that cannot be explained by a reductive sense of the component parts. That’s what we count on, right? Religious people, we rely on whatever magic, I’ll call it, that is. So I’m with you. I believe it is possible to do a lot of that.
But that’s part of what Sacred Design Lab does, quite frankly, is that so much of the secular world lacks trust that such things are possible and that there is there is a, quote, creative force that you might call God, your listeners might call God or Spirit or whatever, that actually is cocreator in those spaces. Now we don’t evangelise or in any way impact on my team. We are widely for various theological beliefs, but the presence of something that is greater than the sum of its parts is something we can all agree on.
Manda: Yes, and the people who are asking you for help must agree with that a little tiny bit, or they wouldn’t be coming to ask you for help.
Sue: So they long for a world that is animated by more than the material world they have helped create. And we can all understand that longing, can’t we?
Manda: Yes, we can all long for that. And so when I very first heard of you, there were three words: belonging, becoming, beyond, that seemed to be absolutely the core of what you did and what you believed and what you helped other people to do. Can you unpack those for us a little bit?
Sue: Sure. So Sacred Design Lab, we have to find ways of communicating what the soul means, because essentially that’s our that’s our remit. We attempt to help our partners to address the soul’s needs. And we had to develop a way of describing, frankly, what those needs are. And in this way, I mean, so have humans for the last really since time immemorial, tried to understand what humans need and how to address them. Our way of describing what the soul needs is a triptych of belonging, becoming, and beyond. And the short definition of these are that belonging is, I need to claim and be claimed by a people – to find ourselves claimed, and to claim a people, meaning not only a group of living souls, but also a tradition and a peoplehood to find ourselves embedded and to find repose there. Becoming is the lived experience of becoming the people that we’re called to be. Finding purpose, and the pathways to practise becoming all that we can be. Not necessarily achievement, but the pathway to becoming. And then ‘beyond’ is connexion to something more, something larger than ourselves. Usually that involves not just the kind of transcendent component, but also lineage across time and a relationship to time that puts us in a kind of cosmic time, if you will. So those: belonging, becoming and beyond, we think is almost a universal description of what the soul needs,
Manda: Tell me a little bit more about putting us into cosmic time.
Sue: Well. I mean, when you’re developing a a theoretical framework, it’s always a struggle to put really abstract concepts into words that are communicable to others, and to not use words that then are so specific that they exclude other people’s interpretations of what those words could mean. But all of our teachers, and all of our reading and study, and all the ways that the people we talk to talk about what matters most to them, it’s more the fulsomeness of what is possible. It’s not just in this moment on this plane, as important as actual presence is to so many religious traditions, like real time, real moment, ‘be here now’ type lessons, but a feeling of connexion to eternity, essentially, not only because it’s that realm that answers questions about the origins of life and what happens after we die. But to find ourselves right sized as humans that live a particular lifetime in a particular moment in the face of eternal time, I think is one of the core human questions that we have to. Most people are curious about knowing where they fit in that eternal time, so that concept of beyond needs to engage that question.
Manda: Beautiful. Thank you. And as a purely personal question for you, what do you think happens after we die?
Sue: I mean, I believe that our bodies go to dust, stardust, from which we came. I also believe that in our presence and the way we’ve influenced others, just as we’ve been influenced by the community of humans before us and the specific people out of which we came, that will be our influence moving forward in the hearts and bodies and minds of the people we’ve influenced, well beyond people who could actually remember our actual person, we will have influenced, including the communities that we live in and the spaces we occupy. But that’s the extent of my claim. I don’t know beyond that. Those things I feel pretty certain about.
Manda: And I have never asked anybody that before, and at least not on the podcast. I’m just curious, I think partly because for reasons too complicated to go into just now, I’ve had a real sense of my own mortality much more than before. So I’m experiencing each day as if it were were absolutely new, but also potentially the last one, without without any particular obvious reason. It’s not that I have some kind of terminal diagnosis. It just feels as if death is right around the corner, and that life is therefore much richer. But also I’ve become curious as to to what next, whereas before I held kind of theoretical views that didn’t ever really feel as if they were going to be tested. So, yeah, it’s interesting. So tacking on the end of that, I still don’t quite know where to post Christian churches. Can you give me the edited highlight of that?
Sue: Sure. So in the in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, especially, although not exclusively, you can just see in the history, if you like, sort of enlightenment history, questions of the relationship between science and religion and epistemologies of like how do we know what we know? What our faith claims are rooted in? Is it revelation? Is it direct experience? Tracking enlightenment thinking through the transcendentalists in the United States where Emerson and Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and the other transcendentalists essentially railed against the sort of the reason part, the scientific heart of the Enlightenment and said, wait, there’s more to experience about spirit, about God, than can be measured in scientific method. There’s got to be more to it. So the transcendentalists were transcending essentially just reason as the epistemological part of what we know about religion, which is itself strange because most Christians and other religious people don’t recognise reason as a primary source of religious wisdom. But my people did. And so by the early 20th century, Unitarianism, in particular, became sort of humanistic, religious, religious humanism began to carry the theological day, which is sort of moving away from Jesus as an actual divine figure and actual belief in God.
Sue: Now, this happened over many years and was always about sort of who are the privileged people in our movement and what do they think? which was always highly academic and Unitarian, especially Unitarianism. And so religious humanism began to transplant a Christian centred notion of what was the sort of religious project of how God and Jesus were in relationship to one another, so that by the early 20th century, many of our congregations were humanist. And as much as we retained the kind of traditional Protestant churches in New England, all of the white steepled churches most people associate with religion and America, not the evangelical religion, those are Unitarian churches. So we still have those white steepled churches in the centre of the town, Green and Lexington and Concord and all those places in New England. And the structure of worship looks the same. There’s still hymns, there’s still sermons, there’s still children’s stories, but the content is not biblical.
Manda: Right. Is there still Christmas and Easter and things like that?
Sue: Still celebrate Christmas and Easter as an attempt to sort of refresh the interpretation of what those holidays, what that liturgical arc that our ancestors gave us mean in this moment. And different people, different generations answer that differently. And we do have Christian congregations, but in general, we’re given the freedom to interpret as we will and not to be, the freedom not to be biblically based.
Manda: Ok. And you have to go very shortly. I had one final question, which if you can answer it possibly very succinctly: as you’ve moved through time, as Sacred Design Lab has been asked by, I’m guessing, increasing numbers of people for help. Are you seeing a sense of people coming together, that would help to balance out what is otherwise looking like a deeply polarised society and world? Can you offer us light at the end of the tunnel, in essence?
Sue: Well, it’s always the religious and spiritual project, to focus our hearts and our intentions on the light that is always available, that’s the core of the religious project, is to say as my teacher Victoria would say, to plant our feet at the gate of hope, to plant our feet at the gate of hope. I mean, to the extent that I feel optimistic right now, even in the face of pandemic racism in the United States and and covid and Trumpism is a growing awareness of what is essential. Not just in terms of the workers who serve us in pandemic extremity, but also in what the heart that is literally locked up in our own houses, what those hearts need, how to balance a meaningful life between the capitalist project and everyday life, for example, what humans need to actually thrive, have been refreshed. Our desire to ask those questions has been refreshed by extremity, by necessity. So many folks who were protected by privilege have had scales fallen from our eyes about what is really happening. So yes, I do find renewed hope that the urgency will be there to more boldly step into this more beautiful world our hearts know as possible, and I pray that it is so.
Manda: Fantastic. That feels like an extremely good place to end. Sue Phillips, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Sue: What a pleasure. Thank you.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Sue for the depth and integrity of her thinking, and her capacity to frame the most complex and important questions of our time in ways that are so inclusive and so open for all of us to engage. We could have talked for another hour, at least we could probably have talked for the rest of the day. But here we are. That was our hour. And I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
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