Is Burning Man a Pagan Ritual?

Burning Man

If you’ve seen the movie Office Space, you might have a clear mental picture of the typical people who put down big bucks and head to rural Nevada every year to be a part of the Burning Man Festival. A key demographic going to this curious, eclectic event is thirty- to forty-somethings who have spent one too many days working for companies they don’t like, sitting in a cubicle doing work they merely tolerate. The image of the men from Fight Club comes to mind as well: guys looking for some meaning to life by engaging in staged, semi-officiated brawls. Likewise, the attendees at the Burning Man Festival seek an extreme visceral experience to feel connected to others and perhaps to counter-balance their perception that they are simply cogs in a wheel.

The Burning Man Festival takes place every year in the Nevada desert. Literally tens of thousands of people (more than 70,000 in 2014) come together to camp and engage in activities that are anything but ordinary. This several-day event culminates in setting a massive structure, the “Burning Man,” ablaze.

Each year, the organization that sponsors the event publishes an “Afterburn Report,” which provides information on that year’s demographics. The 2015 report revealed that the median age of participants was thirty to thirty-four, with thirty-six percent of participants attending for the first time. The vast majority of participants held college and even graduate degrees, and forty-four percent had six-figure incomes. A particularly interesting piece of information to me is the following chart, which shows participants’ religious affinity and affiliation. While most participants do not belong to a religious denomination, note that more identify as Catholics or Jews than any other group.

afterburn

The more I read about the Burning Man festival, the more I am struck with how it contains vestiges of the deepest longings and impulses of the human experience. Whether the attendee realizes this or not, the rituals, symbolism, artistic expression, and community-focus that draws so many to this festival gives evidence to the incarnational and sacramental instincts of the human person: We humans are looking for something tangible, even fleshy. A 2014 Pew Center poll reflected that only seven percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, but nearly forty percent of Burning Man attendees identify as atheist or agnostic.  Yet, my strong sense is they are clearly searching for “something more.” It’s a spiritual instinct, whether they know it or not. While many of the activities of the festival are totally hedonistic, the event itself seems to be a sort of spiritual retreat from the daily grind to a pagan “mountaintop experience”—and participants build literal tents to preserve their surreal utopia for a week. In a New York Post article, an attendee laments her return from the Burning Man “mountain” to real life: “It’s a little depressing to get back into the swing of things. Your perspective changes on what’s important …you have this amazing experience and connect so deeply with other people. Upon return you feel so hollow.” This person is searching for something on that metaphorical mountain.

This said, I propose the real reason participants might feel hollow after returning from the festival is that no matter how “spiritual,” “meaningful,” or “other-worldly” Burning Man might be, it is an attempt to satisfy an infinite hunger with a finite meal. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” Like the Samaritan woman, we encounter Christ (the living water) in the Church. We retreat to deserts not to escape from our day-to-day grinds, but rather to learn how to live our ordinary days with meaning. This is a primary reason for the Church. Powered by the Holy Spirit, the Church helps us engage ordinary human experience precisely to sanctify (“make holy”) the temporal and lead it to the eternal.

The Catholic Faith is the true answer to the deepest longings of the human heart. People today are looking in many places for the living water that satisfies, but they won’t find it until they have a rich encounter with God, in Jesus Christ and his richly endowed home of salvation here on earth, the Catholic Church. Like the Samaritan woman who ran home, told everyone that she encountered Christ, and then brought many people to him, we need to go out into our communities and do the same.