The first lines of the The Crucifixion were written in a lonely corner of Mozambique, as Theodore Richards took shelter from a storm. There, huddled in a dark bathroom, in the poorest country on Earth, as the rain hammered down and leaked through the ceiling, Richards experienced a flash of clarity. One of those fleeting moments we all seek when the whole of our existence—past, present and future—becomes clear to us.
The story that came to him in this moment was one of Africa. The lines that came during that violent night were gathered up—brought home with him across the Atlantic and in time became a story that, not only told his journey but that of several generations of African Americans trying to find their place of belonging amid the harshest circumstances.
The Crucifixion is a modern American myth reframing the Old Testament in terms of the flight of African Americans from the Deep South during the Great Migration and the New Testament as the struggle for meaning in the modern, urban America. It is the story of a young man who is lost and alone, and must return to the city of his birth to find his place in the world. Ultimately, the man must awaken from the urban nightmare in which the world is “black and white” to realize that he and the city are embedded in a world of living color.
Recently, I sat down with Richards to discuss his latest work, which is due to be released in a few short weeks on Good Friday. This is not the first time I have had the pleasure of interviewing Theodore. A year ago I had the honor of interviewing him just before the release of his award-winning non-fiction book, Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism and the Birth of a New Myth. I have worked with him as a colleague in the year since; Cosmosophia has become a permanent fixture on my nightstand and my “go-to gift” for any friend beginning their spiritual search.
Over the time I have known him I have come to deeply admire Theodore’s interfaith philosophy and more recently his proposal to bring an ecological awareness to children of the urban school system. He is a man who walks his talk. He is not a theorist, pondering in a study far removed from day-to-day reality; rather, he rolls up his sleeves and gets involved. He is a three-time author/poet, the executive director of The Chicago Wisdom Project and a Dean and Lecturer on world religions at The New Seminary in New York City.
[L.M.] Theodore, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. Let’s delve right in shall we. Your biggest news is, of course, the forthcoming release of your first novel. In a recent article published online, “The Crucifixion: Words from Mozambique” you described the origins of The Crucifixion. After reading the piece, I had the feeling that this book seems to have come to you very organically as if the story were the flash of a vision, rather than a conscious literary undertaking. Would you agree?
[Richards] I think that’s accurate. I was pretty young when I started the work, and it really did arise organically out of some of the experiences I’d had at that point in my life. A lot of it had to do with my travels and how leaving the place I grew up allowed me to see that place, to see the place I came from, in new ways. The time I spent in Africa (I worked for an NGO in Zimbabwe) was a sort of coming of age experience for me, culminating in camping out on a beach in Mozambique. As I describe in the article, Mozambique was a difficult and beautiful place at the time. It was the poorest country on earth, having just endured something like 30 years of war. I began to write the book there when I had to find refuge from a storm in a little bathroom. Like any coming of age experience, it was a largely unconscious process. I was working through how to be a human being in a world that, well, like the world of The Crucifixion, was not yet entirely real, not entirely in living color. Of course, over the years I’ve returned to the manuscript and engaged in a more conscious process of crafting the story.
[L.M.] As a novelist myself, I realize that the fictional characters we create so often are imprinted with parts of our own personality. More than any of your previously published works, The Crucifixion seems a deeply personal significance. Were any of the main characters written from your own life? Underneath all the fiction, is one of these characters you?
[Richards] I think that question can only be answered by saying that—and maybe you’ll agree with me here as a novelist—all the characters we create, if we are writing with honesty and integrity, are parts of us. And any story we tell comes out of some sort of experience. Obviously there are more similarities with my own identity and that of the main character, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying any character is me—or anyone else for that matter. The book is a world that has come forth and, to some extent, has its own reality.
[L.M.] Essentially the main character of the book is struggling with the very human desire of wanting to find one’s place of belonging. We all struggle with this longing. Over the years, as you defined yourself and your unique philosophy, do you feel you have found your place of belonging? In your opinion do we, as individuals, find our place of belonging or create it?
[Richards] I think that is an accurate description. (I am glad that came through!). I would say that we are all, always, wavering between longing and belonging, between the comfort of the womb and the terror and beauty of birth. To some extent I have found a sense of belonging—as an artist, as part of a spiritual community or movement, as a father, as a body in a the greater body of the earth. But belonging is a struggle, too. We don’t exactly live in a culture that embraces creativity or depth, so the life of a poet or a philosopher can be a lonely one. I have an easier time finding community when I’m talking about basketball (which I love to do). But finding a sense of belonging is a process, never quite finished. I think that we both create and find community. Ecologically, we are certainly part of a community that is not completely of our own making. And we are born into families, born into traditions. But we also have the opportunity to create our own traditions, our own worlds.
[L.M.] Speaking of “creating our own traditions” and walking the “lonely path,” share with us a bit about your spiritual journey. You have traveled to dozens of countries, studied at University of Chicago as well as The California Institute of Integral Studies, you are a dean and lecturer on world religions at The New Seminary, where you were ordained—these experiences certainly must have shaped your briefs. Where did your philosophical/contemplative life begin? Was there an inciting experience that sparked your interest in the deeper matters or was the curiosity always there?
[Richards] My spiritual journey has frequently also involved physical journeys. I mentioned traveling to Africa, but I also spent time in the Far East, India, the Middle East, Latin America. These all affected me profoundly. But I wouldn’t want to leave out my experiences closer to home. I think that one of the major themes of The Crucifixion is that, while it can be important to leave in order to see one’s home in a clearer way, the return is also important. For me, that home was urban America. It became clear to me early on that, while I had some early Christian influences on my life—my grandfather was a Baptist minister—I wanted to take an interfaith approach to spirituality. My daily spiritual practice, for example, has been mostly Taoist-based martial arts and meditation. The Crucifixion is the most Christian-themed book I think would ever write; and I employed those themes because they are American themes, not because they are necessarily any better than any others. I really believe that we are headed toward a revolution in how we approach spirituality, that the atomized notion of separate and distinct religions is going the way of many other Modern concepts. It is very Newtonian when you think about it. As I have grown in my spiritual life, I have also come to see that is not enough to merely say that “all religions are basically the same”—we are living at a moment in history when there are particular threads that we desperately need to find in our spiritual traditions, and each of these traditions expresses these threads a little bit differently: the mystical, that which embraces the paradox, the earth- and cosmos-centered. We need to remember that we are interconnected.
[L.M.] The Crucifixion deals with politically-charged subjects—tension between those of different races and religions—struggles that regrettably are still relevant today, especially on the heels of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In your own words The Crucifixion, “…reframes the Old Testament in terms of the flight of African Americans from the Deep South during the Great Migration and the New Testament as the struggle for meaning in the modern, urban America.” Do you feel that bringing new context to such culturally embedded stories can help a generation better understand the greater significance of current events?
[Richards] I was once told by a Sufi that, because the Qur’an cannot be translated, Rumi’s work was actually closer to the “Persian Qur’an” than any translation could be. The idea is that scripture isn’t translatable outside of its context, that it must be breathed into life in the language in which it is read. So we have this book, The Bible, which is the lens through which so many Americans have understood themselves, their identities. But I wanted to ask these questions: how do those stories actually look in the American context? What is the journey that is unfolding in this country? Steinbeck or Baldwin or Whitman or Walker, for example, are writing books in this American Bible. I think most White Americans think that their story doesn’t involve the African American experience. But there is no such thing as a “white” person without it’s opposite, right? The very concept of whiteness was constructed to divide, was based on a dichotomy. We have crafted identity out of a series of dualisms: white and black, good and evil, etc. But the ultimate American gospel is that there is no America with reconciling those opposites. White America, in spite of the Right Wing rhetoric, can’t even begin to answer the question of “who am I?” without Black America. Black America, on the other hand, understands America and the American experience more deeply than most White Americans can. As far as current events are concerned, I think that America’s struggles are related to these unresolved dualisms. Whether it is the Islamic world or the natural world, we are seeking out our own identity by contrasting our selves to the other. But this never resolves anything; it only creates more hate, more destruction.
[L.M.] You would say then that: we cannot understand ourselves and our role on this earth until we understand that we are a part of one another?
[Richards] Yes. That’s a good way to put it. Or we could say that we are all part of the same story, all humans, all a part of the Earth. We are of course, unique expressions of that same whole. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am suggesting that the diversity of humanity is a bad thing. But diversity is something very different from isolation. The idea that the self is limited to the individual—what Alan Watts called “the skin-encapsulated ego—really is a big part of the problem. We are unique, but we are each like the story in the book about the bookshelves: we are collections of all the stories that have come into our lives.
[L.M.] An underlining message in The Crucifixion seem to be that, while the colors of the races composing this country vary and our religious perspectives differ, our individual and communal identity is defined by the whole. Not by just one side—the Blacks or the Whites, the Christians or the Muslims—but rather, by how all our paths intertwine. It is of course ignorance and fear that has always divided people; be it our own fear of what we do not understand or fear that has been driven into us by political rhetoric and/or religious fanaticisms. The first step in unifying peoples at odds with each other is to realize that, despite our differences in appearance or ideology, we all share the same story—the same cosmology, as it were. After reading a great deal of your work I must ask: Was it your intention in Handprints on the Womb, Cosmosophia and now The Crucifixion to help your readers see the unifying threads?
[Richards] I think maybe we want to think about how our stories can be at once unique and varied and, at the same time, draw us into a participation in a shared story. I think it is important for a culture to embrace its story, its traditions, because it helps to orient individuals to their own unique place in the world. The key, I think, is to allow that tradition not to become too concretized, too inflexible. The worldview of Christianity is quite different from that of, say, the Yoruba or the Buddhist practitioner. And that difference is OK—its beautiful, in fact. There are many ways that they all intersect and complement one another. Just look at Santeria, or the work of Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton or Meister Eckhart. As for unifying threads in all my work, there undoubtedly are some. I think it was more conscious in Handprints and Cosmosophia, because I put them together concurrently (although many of the poems are much older). The Crucifixion was less consciously crafted to have those unifying threads, but they are certainly there. All the work, of course, is a part of me and a part of my psyche. And just like the philosophy of Homebound states, I put a lot of emphasis on creating myths and telling stories, and that’s what The Crucifixion is.
[L.M.] Looking ahead, the book comes out on Good Friday (April 6th, 2012.) Do you have any upcoming readings events or lectures planned?
[Richards] Yes. I have a launch party planned here in Chicago on the sixth of April. I will be at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC, on April 27. I will be speaking in New York City on May 12, then at Breathe Books in Baltimore on the 15th. I also have an event at the Lakeshore Interfaith Institute in Michigan on July 1. The schedule is evolving and I should have a couple more in the next few months.
[L.M.] Finally, I am curious, in the introduction to Cosmosophia you reference the birth of your daughter; when your daughter is grown and sets down to reading this book, what would you hope she takes away from it?
[Richards] I pretty much wrote the book before Cosima was born, so I suppose it was inevitable I’d have a daughter one day. I’d like her to see that, while there is a great deal of suffering in the world and we often do terrible things to one another, a new world is possible if we can look that suffering in the face. I’d also like her to see that—again, even though I wrote it before she was born—our children are often our salvation. She has been mine.