THE TRANSFORMATIONAL PERSPECTIVE (2)
AN EMERGING WORLDVIEW
By Hank Wesselman
(continued from last time)
It is no news to anyone that a widespread spiritual reawakening is currently taking place—one that has two distinct aspects. On one side, we find a resurgence of religious fundamentalism that embraces an historic view derived from the Middle Ages—a literalist belief system that proclaims this world to be the kingdom of a remote, transcendent authoritarian father-God, alternately wrathful or beneficent—a narrow perspective that has been embraced in our time by misguided religious zealots who have the capacity to ensure that this world will be their God’s kingdom… or nothing. On the other side and in opposition to this view, we have the spiritually awakened and expanded perspective of the secular humanists who perceive an omnipresent, immanent Divine Presence or Creative Force existing within all of creation, one that is benevolent, life enhancing and life sustaining (2).
It is significant that this latter view is quietly, yet definitively, being embraced by increasing numbers of well-educated, well-informed, and well-connected individuals, many of who are in professional and social positions from which they may influence the larger society’s ideas and trends. Their secular yet spiritual perspective is intensely democratic, cutting across socio-economic levels of achievement and status, transcending cultural, political, and ethnic boundaries as well. In response, a broad social movement is taking form, one made up of people who hold a set of beliefs and values that differ considerably from those of the fundamentalists as well as those of the public at large. The number of people who hold the new view is not known with certainty, but fourteen years of sociological research conducted in the United States by demographer Paul H. Ray and his wife Sherry Ruth Anderson, has revealed that more than fifty million Americans fell into this group as of the year 2000, representing more than twenty-six percent of the adult population. This is not a small number, and it appears to be growing (3).
Ray’s analysis suggests that we Westerners have arrived at a point in our history in which our prevailing mythologies are not working any more. The fifty-plus million among us know, without being told, that the time has come to create a new cultural mythos in which we synthesize a new set of ways of viewing ourselves and our society, our problems and our strengths, our communities and our world–a concern shared by another ninety-or-so million in Western Europe (4).
Ray and Anderson have observed that a shift of this magnitude in a dominant cultural worldview happens only once or twice in a thousand years, and this one is occurring during a period of ever-accelerating social change, enabled by a high technology and a communication system unlike any seen before. Their survey reveals these citizens who hold the new view to be socially concerned, environmentally aware, and spiritually focused, creative people who are carriers of more positive ideas and values than in any previous period in history. These awakened souls know with absolute certainty that if we continue to do business as usual and fail to produce a new story, Western Civilization may well collapse, taking the rest of the world with it.
As the awareness of this percolates into the public psyche, it is being reinforced by the specter of catastrophic environmental change, producing a sense of urgency, accompanied by a growing insistence on social, political, and economic reform that will benefit everyone, not just the powerful and the privileged. Anthropologists might call this a new kind of cultural revitalization movement, one that is oriented toward the future rather than retreating into the past, and a recent analysis of Western history reveals that this one is happening right on schedule.
Recurring Phases in Western History
Historian Richard Sellin has suggested that our Western preoccupation with the linear development of human civilization is, in fact, a misconception, and that the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times embodied within the intellectual trends and moral values characteristic of any age or epoch, has tended to express itself in cycles that repeat themselves every several thousand years (5).
From my perspective as an anthropologist, the Neolithic Period could be considered as the first of these cycles, a long one that began with the closure of the last ice age and the end of hunting-gathering as the predominant lifeway. This cycle lasted for perhaps four thousand years and was defined by animal and plant domestication and by the establishment of settled communities. Spiritual awareness during this period was animist, a view that affirms everything, both animate and inanimate, to be invested with its own personal supernatural essence or soul. For the cultures of the Neolithic, everything in Nature was ensouled and the religious practitioner was the shaman.
This cycle came to an end with the emergence of the first city-states in the Middle East, and it was among them that a new religion took form—polytheism, a stratified, hierarchical view of the supernatural world that reflected an entirely new perception of ourselves.
The cycle that followed lasted about three thousand years and included such cultures as the Sumerians and the Akkadians, the Babylonians and the Persians, the Assyrians and the Egyptians, the Mycenaeans, the classical Greeks and the Romans among others. All of these cultures expressed polytheistic religions featuring various high gods and goddesses situated above and beyond Nature—a new perspective that resulted in the creation of the first organized hierarchical religions run by full-time priesthoods. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, this second cycle came to an end, and as before, a new religion emerged: monotheism.
This new belief system, originating in the deserts of the Middle East, could really be considered a form of polytheism with an omnipotent creator deity variously known as YHWH, Jehovah, Allah or simply GOD as the divine CEO, the heavenly father, king or president on top of the supernatural stack, with all the reified saints and prophets, angels and demons ranked below it. Monotheism’s three major expressions —Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— have been the dominant religions in the Western world for our current two-thousand-year cycle.
Sellin has proposed that our cycle began with a comparatively long Theocratic Phase in which society relied heavily on religious doctrine and truth was determined by divine direction from the father God operating through a bureaucratized and politically motivated priesthood. Any informed overview of Western History reveals that such has indeed been the case from the emergence of Christianity at the end of the Roman Era until the Renaissance, a period that lasted roughly fourteen hundred years. The spirit of the times changed considerably at this point. The rise of science, as well as the infrastructure of the current corporate world-state through the guilds, initiated the second stage of our cycle, a Secular Phase, in which an expansion of our geographical and intellectual horizons, as well as economic power, occurred on an unprecedented scale. In response, truth was redefined within a new mythology—science–and religion was generally discredited. This relatively shorter phase, dominated by rationalism, has lasted for about three hundred years.
The current spiritual reawakening suggests that it has now drawn to a close. With the dawning of the age of Aquarius, Sellin asserts that we are moving into the third and final stage of our two-thousand-year cycle, a Spiritual Phase, in which science and spirituality are being synthesized and integrated in an attempt to transcend both previous stages. The plethora of recent conferences that have featured mystics and scientists, shamans and quantum physicists as plenary speakers are a testament to this impulse.
It is also significant that this revitalizing impulse appears to be associated with the appearance of a new spiritual complex, emerging much in the same manner that Christianity took form at the end of the last cycle.
(Continued next time)