The Nearness co-founders Casper ter Kuile and Alec Gewirtz were part of an accelerator for new cooperatives called Start.Coop in the spring of 2022. Here, they talk with Start.Coop Co-Director Jessica Mason about their stories, their hopes for The Nearness, and the meaning of the word “spirituality”!
Let's start off with a super straightforward question. What is The Nearness?
The Nearness is a community platform to help people deepen their spiritual lives, with the goal of helping people connect more deeply with themselves, the world around them, and the people they love. It starts with an eight-week journey in a weekly small group where people gather for soulful conversations and ritual reflection.
Our hope is that we're figuring out what the future of spiritual community looks like in the 21st century, when more and more people are less and less traditionally religious but many people are still eager for connection and meaning and spirituality. We heard again and again in research interviews that spiritual seeking is often a lonely process, an isolated experience of listening to a podcast, following someone on TikTok, or reading a spiritual self-help book. There's no structure of community that might compare with a traditional religious congregation for nonreligious people.
People feel kind of stuck on their own and like they’re making it up as they go along. They’re looking for community and for some sense of wise guidance in an open, progressive way. And that's what we're creating.
Tell me about the personal journeys that led you to found The Nearness. Why did you start this cooperative?
I grew up in an atheist Jewish family, where religion was rarely discussed. Spirituality was referenced jokingly as a bunch of superstitions that society was slowly outgrowing. I didn't have a bar mitzvah because it conflicted with basketball practice (!), so religion and spirituality really weren’t on the map for me.
But when I began to struggle with different kinds of mental health challenges, I discovered that I was longing for a depth of support and consolation that secular therapy culture couldn't provide. So I found my way to many spiritual texts, teachers, and communities that deeply consoled and inspired me, without ever becoming too “woo-woo.” And I knew that the cultural story that I had been raised on—the story of inevitable progress into secularization—wasn't the progressive story that it made itself out to be, and it wasn't one that I necessarily wanted to be a part of. So I became obsessed with how people from more secular backgrounds like mine might find their way to spirituality.
As for me, I've really spent the last decade thinking about how spirituality and religion are changing. I’ve done this as a researcher at Harvard Divinity School, as a writer, but also as a practitioner. I co-created a podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, with tens of thousands of listeners who engaged in meaning-making using the Harry Potter books. One of the moments that really was important for me was, when COVID hit, the listeners self-organized a mutual aid fund. It was so exciting for me to see our values of mutuality and cooperation be embodied in this very practical way in a moment of need. And it pointed to me towards what might be possible if we created the context for this to happen more regularly and intentionally.
But, you know, the biggest thing is that I'm looking for something like this myself, something that helps to center my life on what matters most. The culture of individualism—the culture of fame, money, power, success, efficiency, productivity—those cultural waters are so strong that no one can counter them alone. We need a values-based community that helps us to do it. So that’s what it’s about for me: it's about building a countercultural force that can help us enact transformative change in the world, starting with ourselves.
I absolutely love the way you guys are expressing this. But now let's dive even deeper. How would you define “spirituality''?
Well, what I'll say first is that, for me, spirituality is very hard to put into words. It probably doesn't live in language or within the logical categories associated with language.
That said, for me, spirituality is a depth of feeling that we experience at our most profound moments of love and beauty. My journey toward embracing spirituality was a journey toward taking my ordinary experiences of love and beauty seriously: honoring the overwhelming love that I felt when I saw my newborn cousin for the time, honoring the feeling of walking outside and seeing the 5:00pm light caught in the leaves. In those experiences, I felt something that I didn’t have good language to describe, and embracing my spirituality has meant trusting that these experiences were pointing me to something more than my secular upbringing had prepared me to recognize.
I think about spirituality as the quality of connection that we experience to ourselves, to one another, and to the world around us, and to something beyond this world, something transcendent. Religion, its institutions and traditions, have dominated how we talk about spirituality. But religion doesn't have a unique power over it. Institutions are man-made and therefore very faulty in all sorts of ways. Spirituality is something that just is.
That’s all so beautifully said. You know, I think there's a whole group of people out there who would really resonate with what you're saying, who know that this depth of feeling exists and are wondering how they might find it. It's so resonant emotionally on a deep fundamental level that I think it would attract people into what you're building.
But, why did you decide to found The Nearness as a cooperative?
We’re very interested in what new models of spiritual community might be that would avoid some of the failings of traditional religious congregations. Religious congregations can be beautiful, but they’ve also been the site of many profound failings, including the hoarding of wealth and power at the top of abusive hierarchies. The cooperative model held out the promise of a different organizational reality, where money and power are shared. As a co-op, we're redistributing 50% of profits into a communal treasury to support member-led service projects, and also sharing profits with our workers. And, in terms of power and authority, the co-op model is attractive because, instead of enshrining a guru or pope at the top with despotic rule, it allows for shared governance between our different stakeholders—workers, members, investors, and Casper and me as co-founders.
To close, what was your experience like in the Start.Coop accelerator?
Plain and simple, it was incredible. You and Greg [Brodsky] provided such care for us in the emotional roller coaster of starting a cooperative and such practical help and all the nuts and bolts that come with starting a venture, along with access to a network of peers who were confronting similar challenges.
I’ll add that there is something very powerful when someone says I believe in what you're doing; someone who doesn't know you who has no reason to give you compliments. And I think that was one of the most important things we received from you and Greg, hearing you say: “I think you've got something and it's worth trying.” And I don't think we would have gotten here had it not been for your encouragement and confidence in us and our capacity to build what we're trying to build. Thank you!