The Dude Abides
When I was in Ireland recently, I came across a news headline on the Internet which intrigued me. ‘What’s the fastest-growing religion in Ireland?’ it asked. I knew that it couldn’t possibly be Unitarianism, but I thought that maybe it was Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I was wrong. The fastest-growing religion in Ireland is Dudeism. There are more Dudeist priests in Ireland than there are Catholic priests. It must be said, however, that it is not difficult to become a Dudeist priest. One doesn’t have to train for five or six years. One can do it in a minute over the Internet as I did, and I have a certificate to prove it. I can now officiate at weddings and funerals in most states of America in my capacity, not as a Unitarian minister, but as an ordained priest of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude.
But, what on earth is Dudeism? I hear you ask. Well, it is a religion (using the term loosely) which takes its inspiration from the film The Big Lebowsky, which was written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starred Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Despite the big names, the film didn’t meet with great critical acclaim when it was released in 1998 and didn’t do very well at the box-office, barely covering its costs. But it has subsequently become something of a cult; people are seeing levels of meaning in it which are missed if the film is approached simply as a piece of entertainment. The plot, which involves mistaken identity, a carpet, a supposed kidnapping, a million dollars, a severed toe, pornography, and ten-pin bowling, is simple but slightly ridiculous. Loose ends are left loose, the language is a bit strong for sensitive ears, and there is no conventional love-interest. But in the casual remarks of the characters, and in the general attitude to life displayed by the main character, people have detected a contemporary presentation of a philosophy of life which is probably as old as the human race but which has been forgotten, ignored, ridiculed, even persecuted down through the ages. That’s why the church is called The Church of the Latter-Day Dude; the principles it embodies have always been around, but here it is, in these latter days, in a new guise, inspired, not by a book as heretofore, but, in true twenty-first-century style, by a film.
And that ancient but ever-new philosophy, which can be found most clearly expressed in Daoism but which is present in certain branches of all the major religions is simply this: take it easy; don’t be fanatical; life is complex and the answers to the big questions aren’t obvious, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to form your conclusions. We’re like children who have wandered into the middle of a movie and we don’t have any idea about what’s going on. Throughout the film we hear, almost as a kind of refrain, ‘It’s complicated man. There’s a lotta ins and a lotta outs.’ A ‘dude’ – a term associated with the laid-back types of sixties and seventies California, and is applied to both male and female in Dudeism - is one who can cope with the intricacies and paradoxes of life by just accepting them; by acknowledging that, just as in ten-pin bowling (a kind of sacrament in Dudeism) there’s gonna be strikes and there’s gonna be gutters. Sometimes you’re gonna hit the target; sometimes you’re gonna roll in the gutter. But through it all, the dude abides.
The word ‘abide’ is interesting and multi-layered. It means ‘to live’, as in the rather archaic, ‘He abides in London’; ‘to accompany’ as in the hymn ‘Abide with me’; it means ‘to act in accordance with’, as in, ‘She abides by the decision of the committee’, and also ‘to tolerate’, as in ‘I can’t abide rap music!’ There is also a sense of continuing, of prevailing, as in, ‘Truth abides when all lies die.’ The dude ‘abides’ in all these senses. He or she lives in the world, accepts it as it is, stays with it, works with its rhythms and ultimately prevails over its vicissitudes.
Dudeism suggests that there are two contrasting approaches to life: the uptight way and the laid-back way. Most of us follow the uptight way – the way of bottom lines, goals, fancy qualifications, keeping up appearances, competition, drawing conclusions. Early on in the film, the Dude (Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges) encounters a woman painting her toenails. She’s with a couple of men. ‘Who are these guys?’ asks the Dude. ‘Oh, don’t worry about them, they’re Nihilists,’ says the woman. ‘That must be exhausting!’ says the Dude. Nihilists (from the Latin word ‘nihil’ – nothing) believe in nothing. But it could be any ‘ist’ – theist, atheist, evolutionist, communist, Marxist, pacifist – it doesn’t matter. They are all exhausting. Holding on to any one of them requires making constant mental adjustments, performing intellectual gymnastics, and accepting some degree of self-deception. For example, if you are a theist – someone who believes in a personal deity – you have constantly to try to square the awful state of the world - the pain, the unfairness, the cruelty of life - with your idea of a loving God. If you declare yourself to be an atheist, you have a tough job trying to deal with all those aspects of your life and experience – and there are plenty – which require explanations that your philosophy can’t give. So you find yourself having to deny their existence. It’s exhausting man! Dudeism simply says, ‘Keep the mind limber. Be open. Don’t be too ready to commit yourself to a point-of-view which you are going to find difficult to defend. And, what’s more important: never try to force your conclusions onto someone else. After all, as the film says, again and again, ‘That’s just like your opinion, man.’
Toes are an important recurrent theme of the film. The woman with the Nihilists was painting her toenails and, later, a severed toe was sent by some kidnappers to the woman’s husband to prove that they were holding her. But, as Walter, the character played by John Goodman, says, ‘The toe proves nothing. I can get you a toe by three o’clock this afternoon.’ But ‘toe’ is not just the name for a digit on the end of your foot. This is where the film gets deep: TOE is an acronym for Theory of Everything. That’s what the physicists are after these days it seems, and it’s what the various religions have been pretending to offer us for millennia. So, ‘I can get you a toe by three o’clock’, is indeed correct. There are plenty of TOEs. But, sadly, this toe is at variance with that toe; the Muslim toe seems to be hostile to the Christian toe; the atheist toe opposes the religious toe; the Communist toe is in conflict with the capitalist toe. Toes are ten a penny. Keep the mind limber. Keep the mind flexible, supple. To all of these TOEs and many others, the dude responds: ‘It’s just like your opinion, man!’
Rugs are a theme too. A rug, we are told, ‘ties a room together’, just like a Theory of Everything ties a life together. But in the film, rugs are borrowed, stolen, and even urinated upon. Getting and keeping a rug to tie the room together is not an easy task.
When I first became aware of Dudeism, I looked up the Dudeist website and found a section called Famous Dudes Throughout History and was pleasantly surprised to find that it contained virtually all the people I had referred to in my sermons over the past twenty years. The great figures of what has been called the Axial Age – six centuries or so before the Common Era - feature prominently. Lao Tzu, whose work The Dao De Ching, is one of the shortest, most profound, least ‘preachy’ scriptures among the world’s religious books, is claimed as a dude. (There’s even a contemporary Dudeist interpretation of the Dao De Ching called The Dude De Ching). The Buddha, with his insistence that there are more important things to dedicate our lives to than empty theological speculation, fits in very nicely with the way of the Dude.
The Sufis are there. Sufis are Muslim dudes who reject the norms and conventions of society and prefer stories and dancing to complicated theology and philosophy. Jesus is there with his advice to concentrate on today and let tomorrow take care of itself – a consistent Dudeist sentiment. My hero, Walt Whitman, with his easy-going, generous, magnanimous attitude to life, is claimed as a dude, as is Emily Dickinson who wrote that ‘to live is so startling it leaves but little time for other occupations.’ Discovering, or rediscovering the startling nature of existence by paying attention to it, by being present to it, by ‘abiding’ in it is one of the great themes of Dudeism.
I was also pleased to find Mark Twain, the science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut (a Unitarian, who once remarked, ‘We’ve been put on this earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you any different’), and the great and much lamented Bill Hicks who told us that:
The world is like a ride in an amusement park ….. and we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.
Amen to that, Bill.
And we Unitarians get a specific mention. Dudeism claims that Transcendentalism - a movement among mid-19th century Unitarians in America towards simplicity in religion and simplicity in life – was in the Dudeist spirit. This is what The Abide Guide says about it:
A Unitarian minister and writer in Boston by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson got the Transcendentalist ball rolling back in the 1830s as a middle way between the reactionary Calvinists and the intellectually uptight Unitarians. Because he thought both groups preached compulsively and without joy, Emerson left the ministry and hung out in Europe for a while with a bunch of his compeers in the Romantic movement. He was also one of the first Americans to get some kind of Eastern thing after reading newly translated Hindu and Buddhist texts.
Emerson wrapped up all these influences into one philosophy that urged everyone to stop waving dead theologies around and to abide in what he called the Oversoul, or the cosmic rug that really ties everyone and everything together. In doing so, he helped to create a whole new American ethos that basically says: If you will it, dudes, it is no dream. A great deal of America’s social reform can be said to have come to us directly from Emerson, down through the pages.
I’m glad that we Unitarians feature because I think that Unitarianism has a great deal in common with Dudeism. Both advocate a non-dogmatic, comprehensive approach to life; both eschew ‘waving dead theologies around’; both accept that finding a TOE or a rug which ‘ties it all together’ will constantly elude us and generally divide us, so we have to take life as it comes, abide in its realities, enjoy the ride, accept its strikes and gutters, and marvel at its strangeness.
So, maybe the fastest growing religion in Ireland is Unitarianism after all. Except that now it’s called the Church of the Latter-Day Dude.