Re-Envisioning: Toward a New Millennium
by Theresa Scherf
“The thresholds of our lives,” reflects Jan Richardson, “serve as places to choose, to discern, to sort out what we consider important and where we feel called to go.” Standing on the threshold of a new century and new millennium we as a human family have a crucial obligation and opportunity to discern where it is that we will choose to go as we move forward together.
We are at a transition point such as few, if any, previous generations have seen. The scope and speed of the changes we have witnessed over the past decades of the twentieth century are greater, and have greater implications, than at any other time in recorded history. As a result, we are experiencing a profound ‘shaking of the foundations.’ Traveling all too swiftly down a road whose landmarks are increasingly unfamiliar, we less and less sure of our destination—or whether it is actually a place we want to go.
The book of Proverbs warns that “Where there is no vision, the people perish”—or, in newer translations, “the people cast off restraint” (29:18). As we have increasingly lost a shared vision of who we are and where we are going, we are indeed witnessing a ‘casting off of restraint.’ Corporate greed accompanied by widening income disparities, political posturing, conspicuous consumption alongside neglect of the poor and vulnerable, high tech ‘junkie-ism,’ body-image obsession, the proliferation of pornography and sexual promiscuity, substance (especially alcohol) abuse among children and youth as well as adults, increasing violence, a growing acceptance of cheating in almost every sphere of life—all these are hallmarks of our culture. It is little wonder that a growing number of voices from diverse perspectives are warning that we are indeed in grave danger of perishing.
The task of discerning a vision—an image of how our life and world might ideally be that inspires and evokes the best that is within us—is both vital and urgent as we move forward into the future. It is a task which, as a global community, we have never faced before in the same way. The question is whether and how we will face it now.
Often at such junctures it is our tendency to want to try to go back, to hold on to what is familiar, to reject the changes pressing in upon us. It is no accident that in this time of such radical change on a worldwide scale, there has been a resurgence of fundamentalism within virtually every major world religion.
Resistance to change can be meaningful. It raises questions about our choices and the values underlying them. It asks us to consider carefully whether the road we are on is one we really want to follow and why. But the kinds of large, dislocating changes that periodically occur as a part of the unfolding history of living cultures and communities cannot be ultimately avoided. We may try to ignore or deny them or we may try to work with them to bring forth the best of what may be possible, but implacable resistance will ultimately fail and often gives rise to forms of violence.
Science historian Thomas Kuhn has used the term ‘paradigm shift’ to characterize such moments of radical change. According to Kuhn, what is happening in such times is that the old paradigm or thought framework that has been used as a basic point of reference for orientation and understanding in relation to reality becomes so overloaded through the accumulation of new information that it is no longer able to function adequately, creating a crisis.
At the same time, some major new insight or principle is gradually emerging as the potential basis for a new paradigm or framework of understanding. Eventually this, or another, new thought framework will supplant the old, but the time of transition in between is often jarring and characterized by various expressions of opposition and retrenchment.
A different metaphor for such a shift in consciousness is found in Orthodox spiritual tradition, which describes it as a time ‘between dreams.’ At points of radical transition or crisis, suddenly all the familiar images, the ‘old dream,’ that used to make sense of reality no longer seem to work. This is a difficult and even frightening time, one which asks us to think deeply and carefully about our response.
According to this tradition, rather than struggling to recover the old dream, such times call us instead to move forward into the darkness, into a place ‘between dreams.’ There, gradually, a new dream will begin to emerge, a new perception of reality containing new images and structures that are, in fact, more appropriate to our present situation. Ultimately this changing of dreams becomes tremendously liberating, enlarging of our life.
Relinquishing the Old Dream
What characteristics will or should the new guiding paradigm, the new dream, for our culture have? There are already a number of signs that point the way. It may also be useful to look at what we are leaving behind as a way of seeing present changes in context. This can help us understand why the old paradigm with its old vision is no longer able to function for us as it did for previous generations.
The interpretive framework that we are now being compelled to relinquish emerged around the mid-1700s with what has been called the Age of Enlightenment, brought about chiefly by a number of new developments in scientific thought. It viewed reality through the lens of ‘natural laws’ of cause and effect, a perspective that was rather impersonal and mechanistic. Given enough observation and analysis, it was believed, the natural world—and almost anything else—could be fully understood and mastered. This was accompanied by an almost total reliance upon reason for acquiring knowledge about the nature of reality. Science became the ultimate authority, and scientific method the ultimate source of truth.
The Enlightenment paradigm was grounded in and gave rise to enormous fragmentation, despite its aims of reconstruction. Of profound consequence was the way it brought forward to its logical conclusion the process of dichotomization between science and religion, between knowledge and faith—and thus between perceptions of material and spiritual reality,that began in the Middle Ages.
One result of this has been the split between the public world of ‘fact’ and the private world of values and beliefs that has come to characterize much of the life of this country, although it has never been completely accepted. It is a telling commentary upon the old paradigm that the public sphere is now seen by a majority of our citizens as adversarial and alienating. This split has also had a very problematic impact upon our educational system through the implementation of its tenet that public education should be ‘values-free’ (which is, in fact, an impossibility, since ‘values-free’ becomes the value that is taught).
One of the features of the new paradigm that seems to be emerging is the desire to transcend this sort of dichotomization. There are signs of a shift from an ‘either/or’ way of looking at things to one that also allows for ‘both/and.’ It raises the possibility of a breadth of perspective that encompasses the whole range of human perception and experience, all the different ways of seeing and knowing that are possible to us—even if these at times appear contradictory or are beyond what we can presently explain.
This is reflected in developments that have been occurring in a number of fields, most notably that of physics. An oft-cited illustration of the both/and principle is the fact that light at the sub-atomic level appears to be constituted of particles when viewed in one way and of waves when viewed in another. Both ways of seeing are in fact ‘true.’
A related insight suggested by reflecting upon the old paradigm from our present vantage point is that a conceptual framework adequate to the age we are now entering needs to be integrative and interconnective. It must be capable of moving us from fragmentation toward greater wholeness and interrelatedness. As one example, it is no longer ‘enlightened’ to think that we can separate the intellectual or rational dimension of our life from the emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions or to assume its superiority.
Recovering Our Spiritual Awareness
Nowhere, I believe, is this reintegrative work more critically needed than in relation to the material and spiritual dimensions of reality. This encompasses what is often referred to today as the ‘body-mind-spirit connection.’ The dichotomy between science and religion rooted in the early centuries of the millennium now drawing to a close must be overcome if we are ever to share a common vision in the new millennium that is at hand.
Our culture has come a long way over the years of this past century in recovering its awareness of things spiritual. Indeed, it may be this development, together with the advances that have been made in physics and some of the other sciences, that has more than anything else acted to bring about the collapse of the old paradigm. How far the nascent dialogue between them will develop, and along what lines, be remains to be seen.
Clearly we are now witnessing a spiritual renewal movement of significant proportions, not only within our own culture but worldwide. And it is occurring on two fronts: within traditional religious frameworks and also within new contexts outside of them. Perhaps the most significant example of the latter is the ‘New Age’ movement that has emerged over the past few decades. There is, moreover, a certain degree of fluidity and overlapping between the two.
Within Christianity, perhaps the most important development since the fourth century has been the ecumenical movement that began in the first years of the twentieth century and continues to unfold. Closely connected with it has been the contemporary charismatic movement, focusing explicitly on the spiritual renewal of the church across denominational lines.
In recent years, the ecumenical impulse has been further strengthened as persons from different religious traditions across the world have begun to meet and work together. This was brought home to me in a personal way several years ago as I visited with the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Burma. Near the end of our conversation, he said to me with great feeling: “We people of faith must join together in our prayers; we must create together spiritual currents that will flow out across the world and help to change it for the better.”
The tremendous flowering of religious life in the former eastern block countries and China has also been a significant development. Although repressed and at times persecuted, churches in these cultures have actively influenced the social, economic, and political spheres of national life, serving as a major catalyst in the sweeping changes that have occurred in the past decade. And new connections between Christians of different nationalities and cultures have made a significant contribution to the development of the ‘global village.’
An enormous hunger for and affirmation of things spiritual has also been manifested outside of organized religion in recent decades, often resulting from a sense of alienation in relation to it. While New Age bashing has been chic in some circles, that movement has continued to expand, and some of its insights are finding their way into mainstream religious life. Its emergence and growth clearly indicate a failure on the part of organized religion in our culture in some fundamental ways. It is also leading the way in recovering some meaningful spiritual tools and resources that the Age of Enlightenment was allowed to discredit.
There are several aspects of this multifaceted renewal of spiritual awareness that I think are particularly significant. One is the sense of human interconnectedness, indeed life interconnectedness, that they affirm. This is has led, among other things, to new understandings of the nature and basis of human rights and a growing focus on environmental and ecological concerns.
In the arena of science, too, interconnections within and between species are being noted and explored. One intriguing example is the way in which new developments among one segment of a species have been observed to spread to other segments with which they have had no contact. Some scientists have advanced the theory that the interconnectedness of members of the same species is ultimately such that new insights or advances made by one member or group of that species become accessible within a short time to the whole.
In addition to affirming the inherent interconnectedness of human beings, the present focus on spiritual renewal stresses the existence and importance of the spiritual dimension of reality, together with the possibility and desirability of increased experience of it. This includes a recognition of the continuation of life at another plane of existence beyond the material world of time and space. Investigation and insights from widely diverse sources have created a growing body of literature and research projects aimed at mapping the contours of this ‘other world’ more precisely.
As a result of the old paradigm, many came to dismiss the possibility of life continuing after death or to dissociate it from the rest of their ‘more scientific’ worldview without really thinking too much about what, specifically, it might mean and how it relates to present life experience. It is just here that some of the most significant new developments have been taking place.
Over several decades, physicians such as Raymond Moody and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, as well as a number of others, have done in-depth studies of ‘near-death’ experiences in which persons have passed out of their physical body to another plane of existence and then returned. While alternative explanations of these experiences continue to be put forward by some segments of the scientific community, this work has gained increasing recognition and respect.
More recently, there has also emerged a growing body of research regarding ‘life before life.’ Prompted by instances of the spontaneous recollection of previous lifetimes and experiences by persons undergoing hypnotic regression therapy, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have undertaken studies producing a growing body of documentation of past-life memories, as well as of significant emotional healing and reintegration as a result of past-life regression work.
Although this new process of investigation regarding the spiritual world is still in its early stages, some lines of wider convergence are suggested. There is increasing acceptance of the existence of a dimension of life beyond time-space reality in which we participate at one or more points. Our spiritual being, a core self that is transcendent, is seen to be overarching, and there seem to be multiple ways in which we can and do have access to the spiritual realm while living on the physical/material plane of existence. There is also a growing recognition that there are manifestations of both good and evil at the spiritual level, although the way in which this is understood varies considerably.
This wider investigation of the spiritual dimension of reality is still very rudimentary and relies more on scientific methods than upon the insights and experience of established religious traditions, although it is in conversation with them at certain points. For the latter, such a process appears very truncated to the extent that it omits consideration of the experience of God that is at the heart of religious life. Traditional religious structures and practices offer extensive resources for such experience, and there are significant similarities in this regard among the major world religions.
William James’ classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience might serve as a bridge for conversations between these two approaches to spiritual awareness. And there are other, more contemporary works that might be used in a similar way. What is important is that a more in-depth dialogue begin to take place between the scientific and religious communities, as well as other spiritual movements, in an effort to achieve a more balanced and holistic understanding of the nature and purpose of human life and the world that is its home.
It is important to note that it is not only necessary for those pursuing these investigations through the sciences to listen to the wisdom and experience of persons from religious/spiritual backgrounds, but also for the reverse to take place. Persons of faith need to be willing to learn and grow with regard to their own metaphysical concepts and understanding. The church has too often relied upon theological and philosophical formulations that were shaped with reference to paradigms of the past that are no longer a frame of reference for contemporary culture. Our understanding of God and creation and the ways in which we communicate it need continued expanding as well.
Seeking a New Vision
Persons of faith, together with all those who have hopes and dreams for a better world, face the awesome responsibility of discerning and articulating a new vision for a new age. It cannot simply be the old vision reclothed. That vision emerged out of and was addressed to an age that is passing away. It must be a vision that is capable of engaging and informing the new paradigm, the new dream, that our human culture is now entering.
Vision is a gift of and response to Spirit, to spiritual engagement and receptivity. According to the Hebrew scriptures, the outpouring of God’s Spirit gives rise to new visions and dreams (Zech.2:28). This was lived out in the unfolding of the early church’s life, and it has continued to be experienced up to the present time among persons and communities desiring to be open to and guided by the Holy Spirit in a decisive way. As people and circumstances change, as paradigms change, the Spirit offers new visions, a glimpse of new possibilities, that can enliven and inspire them and offer insight and guidance in relation to the challenges they face. This is a part of God’s ongoing creative work.
The seeking and naming of a new vision is one of the most crucial tasks of our time. Equally important is the manner in which we respond to it. We can be intentional and committed, taking up this task in community with others around us—including those who are different from us; we can try to resist or ignore it; or we can adopt a sectarian stance that is exclusive and isolating.
In the words of Bishop Pike, the church can be either a headlight or a taillight. Too often throughout our history it has been the latter. Now we must choose again and, along with the rest of the world, live with the consequences of our choice.
Perhaps the ecumenical movement was given to us in preparation for such a time and task. We have very precious experience and insights that can help to inform and inspire those around us who are struggling with the enormous changes we are all confronting. At the same time, we need to be willing to continue learning and growing with one another as we face the challenges of our diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
At the heart of all our re-envisioning is our vision of God. As we seek to articulate and nurture that vision, we need to remember that God is finally mysterious and uncontainable—as indeed we are to one another. We need also to remember that with spiritual engagement comes what the early church tradition called spiritual warfare. The experience of God opens us to struggle with evil. Finally we need to remember that the test of authentic experience of God is growth in love and compassion for others. A sign of the adequacy of our vision will be whether it helps to deepen our community with one another.
The writer of Ephesians affirms that God had a purpose for human life long before the creation of the world. This purpose is for us to grow and develop to full maturity as God’s dearly beloved, for us to come to reflect more and more fully the imprint of God’s own image, God’s being, that is expressed uniquely within each of us. Then, ‘in the fullness of time,’ God will bring together, into community, all of creation—‘everything in heaven and on earth.’ We are described as partners in this process. It is our work of creation too.
This is why our task of re-envisioning is so important. It is nothing less than the work of helping to shape the fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation. Some would say that, on the whole, we have tended to be more destructive than creative. Clearly we have a lot of scope in the making of our choices. Yet we continue to sense at some deep level an energy and forward momentum that draw us on and compel us to keep trying.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” At this turning of a year, a century, a millennium may we commit ourselves to the work of helping to bring a new vision to birth.