Watching the on-going civil war around us, I was reminded of thise chapter from Chasing Smallwood, given to me 14 years ago.
- The Challenge of Our Times
[Friday, February 17, 2006]
All right. It is 8 a.m., nearly, the start of a cloud-heavy morning. If you’re ready to answer [my brother] Paul’s question – what is the real challenge of our time, what is the equivalent of the Civil War to us – I’m ready to hear it.
You have heard it many times, each time in a slightly different context. You have expressed it many times, enough that it is just another of your beliefs. What is your Iona book about, after all?
Pardon us while we circle around the subject. You know how a dog has to circle before it can lie down and sleep, it is a reassuring habit.
Look at what the crisis can’t be. That will add conviction.
Can it be political? Economic? Ideological? You have already fought those battles, and everyone is sick of them. Can it be religious? Same answer. People have struggled over these questions, and some always will struggle. But they do not define your time.
In the 1500s and 1600s, [it was] religious questions – the relation of religious organization to state power and to society and to categories of everyday thought. Once the state monopoly of Catholic thought was broken up, has anyone been proposing to return to it? No, the West moved on to other questions.
In the 1700s and 1800s – again, staying with the West, because that is where the world’s power was – the destruction of the medieval viewpoint and the birth of the industrial viewpoint came in a long series of political and then nationalistic struggles. You have experienced plenty of social upheavals since – but how many fundamentally transforming revolutions? American, French, Russian, in ascending order of fundamental transformation – and of violence. And, the nations expressed themselves. Are there new nations coming forth? Welsh devolution, Scot devolution, the emergence of French Canada, are mere afterthoughts with sometimes slightly comic overtones, in the way that minor actors playing major roles sometimes are.
In the 1900s, ideology. Fascism, Communism, Nazism, and many minor variants not noted. In your day you see the stragglers, your shrill right-wing and left-wing know-it-all podium pounders. Do you imagine that they are the wave of the future rather than the remnants of the shipwrecked past?
What we are saying is that the energy has gone out of all these things. With all the ill-will in the world, with all the cock-sure certainty, no one is going to be another Napoleon riding on revolutionary fervor or nationalism. There are moments of intensity, but it is a fire of straw, quickly flaring up, quickly burning out.
So do not look in old directions for the meaning of your time, or the fundamental challenge. These are shadow puppets that you are projecting against the wall – and scaring yourselves with! And as to partisan politics, we smile. In fact we laugh. The only thing that partisan politics does is to keep people occupied and out of trouble. It keeps lawyers and ad men and activists happy and occupied; it channels vast amounts of otherwise troublesome public emotion; it expresses but does not create public sentiment. This, except very occasionally.
You are fond of quoting Lincoln’s statement about the purpose and nature of politics, which is to create an effect and then fight that effect. Those who understand this have their fingers on the mainspring of things; those who don’t, should ponder the statement. There is a world of practical wisdom there.
But, we say to you – you having asked – politics is not the mover of anything, it is the result. If one of the major parties were to decide to instigate compulsory vegetarianism, say, how far do you think it would get? But if a movement for compulsory vegetarianism were to spring up, how long do you think it would be before one of the parties discovered that compulsory vegetarianism was deeply entwined in its principles? Try not to confuse cause and effect, or perhaps we should say locomotive and caboose.
Neither are the physical and organizational challenges of your day the central crisis of your time. The challenges are very real, and there are a lot of them – and they are all coming to a head just at about the same time. Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?
Nothing of your old ways is sustainable in the spirit in which it operates. Does that not tell you something? Your economies, your environment, your animal companions, your social balance – none of it. You are ringed by the desperately poor economically – and by the desperately poor spiritually and mentally. Is it not obvious?
Hopefully this brief circuit is enough to move you from your accustomed thought. If it is not, then either your accustomed thoughts are closer to ours than the average, or we are meeting no response with you. Here is our thesis, and those for whom it is dead should leave it: Not in politics nor ideology nor religious forms, nor social upheaval is your salvation. Not in technology or scientific investigation or social organization and reorganization is your way out. Not in –
Well, no point in continuing; you get the idea or you don’t.
The crisis in your time is the greatest to be faced in recorded history. (Note the adjective.) It needs to be, to provide the energy to propel you – propel us – to the next stage in human development. And here is where we burst categories. That is what a transformative crisis does – it bursts categories. From the far side of the crisis there is no going back, because everything is different. You are different.
We stress this – and we went on that little survey ramble – because it is easier to say something new than to have it be heard as something new. Without new ears to hear, without (in other words) your being at a new place mentally and spiritually, the news will be filtered through your old categories and will seem embarrassingly vapid, or obviously ridiculous, or – favorite thing of the academic habit of mind – “nothing but” that and that comprising element. Why do you think Jesus kept saying “let those of you who have ears, hear.” He was saying “these words will mean one thing to many, but something much more to those who are in a place to really hear them.” So, here. The ears you bring to the message determine what you hear. It can be no other way.
And this, incidentally, explains or should explain why so much that is precious and even vital has not been absorbed. It isn’t that the masters ever wanted to keep it secret! They wanted to give it away freely, but could find only a few ears able and ready to hear. Think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, whose forthcoming destruction must have been plain to him. “How many times did I try to give you the key,” he said, “and yet you wouldn’t and couldn’t hear me.” And – just for an aside to an aside – we deliberately used “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t” to remind you that Jesus wasn’t speaking English! Revere the spirit, not the form.
What can the defining crisis of your time be but a spiritual one? And yet, to say “spiritual” is to mislead. Again, the crisis will burst categories.
In your time the destruction of the materialist illusion proceeds from all sides. It loses its scientific underpinning. It fails the practical test of providing meaning. It offers no hope of a better future. Each of these sentences is an essay in itself, but for the moment we will not stop to provide them. Thought and meditation will provide them for you.
The death of materialism as an operating principle leaves your time at a loss. The poor cannot look to achieving your American standard of living. Americans living it – and Europeans – know that it isn’t an answer to meaning anyway. And the hypertrophy of concentration of wealth demonstrates in any case that a society’s accumulation of wealth is not necessarily to the benefit of any but a predatory few. (And this is how it always has been in uncontrolled society. Remind us sometime to speak of the models that have succeeded.)
You may have guessed that we had a reason for discussing the Civil War. It is the previous step taken. And Abraham Lincoln played a major role in the history – and future – of the world, as is recognized already but only in a restricted context. As matters play out, his ultimate significance will be seen more clearly.
So many essays and side-trails, and we cannot pause for them!
The struggle in your time is between inclusion and exclusion. Here you will find the key to every specific, for every problem in your time will naturally align itself in the magnetic field of the defining polarity. And so you see that Lincoln’s role was to make a major inclusion – bringing the inclusion of another race into the shared idea that was America. In other words from that time it was no more a dream of one race – even a race of many nations but all European “whites” – but now a totally unprecedented expansion to be more than one race. And once black, then there was no logical barrier to yellow, red, and brown. Of course you are still in the initial stage of working all this out – of living the expanded ideal – but the decision was made, and ratified in blood and military success, and there was no going back for the human race.
Yes, for the human race. The American experiment was unique, and might have been held to one race, and would have failed and could not have been re-created. It was to preserve this over-archingly important pattern that states rights was sacrificed, and much more would cheerfully have been thrown onto the fire from this side as best we could.
The struggle is between two ways of seeing things – inclusive and exclusive; unitary and divided; and this means, ultimately, it is between two forces, Love (attraction and interpenetration) and Fear (repulsion and attempted separation).
Now, don’t say “oh, that’s only Course in Miracles” or “that’s only” anything! You cannot hear without new ears to hear with. But once you have new ears, of course you will find that it has all been said – but you will understand it perhaps for the first time.
Love versus Fear. Faith versus fear. Courage, joy, life – versus fear.
This is the crisis of your time. But you may ask – how is this a crisis? What is the practical working-out of this?
Those of you who are willing to live in love will find your way by always seeking to include, rather than drawing logical or other distinctions and drawing lines saying “us” versus “them.” Now of course this immediately brings in a paradox, in that we’re saying in effect, “the world must not be divided, so don’t be like those who divide things.” This too can be transcended by realizing that everything may be seen as part of a polarity rather than as opposition. If you are a part of a polarity, you are a necessary part; something had to be playing that part. So it takes you beyond the blaming and the excluding. Hitler, Stalin, played their part. They were not arbitrary occurrences – nothing in life is arbitrary, despite appearances. They were, you might say, the personification of social forces.
You will live in love, and will continuously draw nearer to all people, to all animals and birds and fishes, to all things created, to all things not physically manifest. You will rejoice in what is, and will not fear the future, even as you work to affect that future in what you do and – more vitally – in what you are.
Or – you will express the other side of the polarity and will live in fear, and soon in hatred and despair. You will divide, and divide, and divide, until you whittle away your standing-place and are alone in a howling wilderness.
You will contribute toward the creation of a new consciousness – for that and nothing less is what is at issue here – or you will lose yourself in a wilderness of repelling mirrors behind which (you will fear) are unnamed horrors.
This is the challenge of your times, nothing less. Do you think, now, that environmental cleanup or political triumph or any other issue is at the same level?