I want to talk today about our nation's moral and spiritual life based on how I feel it — my intuitions, the vibrations that I feel in the air. All of these lead me to a deep concern about the unhealthy reticence that exists today to the general discussion of ultimate meanings and the spiritual life — in the media, in the social arena, and especially in our schools.
And yet, as we approach the millennium, I sense in most Americans a deepening thirst for spiritual authenticity, a yearning for connection and a sense of shared moral values. Most people are aware that society has lost its way and, whether or not they think of it in exactly these terms, there is a sense out there that, as a culture, it's imperative we recover a sense of the sacred in our daily lives. By "sacred" I am not talking about your sacred symbols or mine. If we can't find what is sacred in that tree, in that butterfly, in each other — the sacred symbols of our several religions will never satisfy that yearning for connection of which I speak.
Our values are in disarray. Our popular culture celebrates the material and largely ignores the spiritual — and it is not unrelated that many, many decent people feel the moral and cultural ground crumbling beneath their feet. It is also unfortunate that too many sophisticated, better-educated people in this secular, science-oriented culture regard those who try to "live deliberately" — in Henry David Thoreau's lovely phrase — as somewhat odd. As a result, moral and spiritual values seem to be expressed publicly by those on the fringes of the mainstream culture — the Revivalists, the New Age swamis, the "I'm OK, you're OK" ego-boosters — despite the fact that the desire to lead a more purposeful spiritual existence, to search for ultimate meanings, is nothing less than a central theme in the human experience. This response to life, to Being, the impulse to believe in something larger than oneself, is so strong and irresistible as to seem part and parcel of the way we are genetically coded.
Why is it, then, that both our popular and elite cultures are so skittish when dealing with our spiritual needs in relationship to the Divine? Why do they resist talking about the sacred? Why, in our schools, are we so reluctant to grapple with these central questions?
The answers, I believe, can be traced to one of the most powerful unifying myths of our culture — the idea of "progress," commonly understood as the material betterment of human life through science, technology, and commerce in the marketplace. Through our mighty industrial empire, the American culture pursues a vision of human salvation through technology. It finds its embodiment in things that are wondrous, useful, ingenious, and economically profitable . . . but which do nothing to satisfy the needs that relate to the inner life, where the capacities for awe and wonder and mystery abide and seek nourishment.
In a culture dedicated to consumerism and obsessed with material well-being, it should not be surprising that the life of the spirit atrophies. It runs counter to the skeptical, empirical, quantifiable norms of the dominant culture — mainly its indifference and occasional hostility to religion per se and to religious leanings.
While civil libertarians have been triumphant in most legal and constitutional battles, I am troubled that so many remain blocked or blind to the spiritual emptiness in our culture which the televangelists exploit so successfully. And I want to suggest that exploring the paradox of a gnawing spiritual hunger in a nation of such vast material wealth is more than just an interesting academic concern. It is an urgent practical one for the human race — because as our appetite for material wealth continues, as it spreads to impoverished third world countries which understandably want to improve their lives, the pilgrimage toward "progress" is destroying the earth.
Robert Frost captured this sense of spiritual myopia when he wrote, "Back out of all this now too much for us, / Back in a time made simple by the loss / Of detail . . ." and suggested a return to the headwaters of one's life in nature. I do not counsel a nostalgia for some romantic, pastoral idyll. I do urge that we, as a species, begin to assess our role on this fragile little planet. Because at present, we do not know who we are in the universe and have no sense of our place in cosmic history.
There is no doubt that we must address the question of humankind's relationship to the planet — and all of its life forms — and that implies a spiritual reorientation, a fresh examination of what we regard as sacred in the universe, on earth, and in our daily lives. The glory of the human cannot continue to mean the desolation of the earth. So there is reason to strip away our cultural conditioning and give free rein to our instinctual genetic impulses about things sacred and cosmic. In short, we need to nurture more robust and aware spiritual imaginations.
What better forum is there than the schools for allowing students of many faiths — and no faith at all — to talk candidly and respectfully about the common — and I would say genetic — ground they share? Now, I realize that the public schools are embattled institutions these days, but if they are to stay relevant to the times and truly prepare the next generations for the future, they must play a better role in instilling the values that unite us as a nation. They must teach about the role religion has played in our history. And they must inspire students to nurture that inner world, where humans from the very beginning of the species have shared the same sense of awe and wonder as they groped for meaning. All this without preaching a sectarian creed or degenerating into a moral nihilism.
I reject the two extremes of moral absolutism on the one hand, and moral abdication on the other. If it is unacceptable for the schools to adopt a narrow sectarianism, so also is it unacceptable for them to embrace an absolute secularism. Yes, we must promote cultural literacy and mathematical literacy and good old-fashioned literacy. But education also demands ethical literacy — and that requires a full discussion of the moral and spiritual values which tend to bind a culture together.
Why has there been so little attention paid in our public schools to the "spiritual imagination"? One reason, I believe, is that the ethos of our times is the captive of another mode of thinking and belief — something I will call the "binary imagination." A society obsessively dedicated to the ideals of technological progress is a society addicted to cold, hard numbers as a primary source of values. For the purposes of manipulating data and controlling some slice of the world, the vast, throbbing richness of the cosmos is reduced to monochromatic strings of zeros and ones. This is both a crowning achievement of our scientific age — and an appalling, presumptuous diminution of the role of moral and spiritual values.
In this culture, our children are being raised to believe that there is nothing between winning or losing. The notion that life has anything to do with succeeding at the level of doing one's best is lost to these kids, in a bottom-line climate where leadership everywhere lives for the moment and refuses to make provisions for the future.
The human race is intervening in so many naturally-occurring processes of our biosphere — from deciding which species of plants and animals will live and die; how pristine or polluted our air, water, and soil will be; and in hundreds of similar decisions — that we are taking control of the very life systems of the earth — all life systems, including our own — as we begin the precarious exploration of human genetic engineering.
Now no one can tell me that these awesome powers which we have assumed can be fully discussed in a non-spiritual context. Not if we agree, as I have suggested, that humankind's impulse to believe in something larger than itself comes spontaneously, genetically, with Being. Thomas Berry, author of the remarkable book The Dream of the Earth, is a Passionist father — a priest, 74 years old. I asked him how Christians and Jews and Muslims and others could handle such a discussion without trampling on each other's sacred symbols. It was he who suggested that we may have to put the Bible and the Torah and the Koran aside from time to time and "concentrate instead on what we find equally sacred in a butterfly, in a tree, and in each other."
In that response lies our challenge. In order to get our moral and spiritual development more in sync with the powers of science and technology which we now command, we may have to do more than the religious structures we have inherited or conceived can do by themselves and concentrate on what they profess to be about, namely the spiritual undergirding of everything, that sense of the sacred, that is common to us all.
Perhaps we can invent a new, more spiritually satisfying notion of "progress" — turn away from the millennial faith in technology and rediscover the center of our Being. There are signs everywhere in the culture that point to it. Albert Einstein is being quoted more these days vis-à-vis his attitude about religion. He said that "the whole purpose of art and science is to awaken the cosmic religious feeling." Scientists, generally, are beginning to recognize that some form of intelligent reflection on itself was implicit in the universe from the beginning. As St. Augustine put it so sublimely many centuries earlier:
the frail and mortal objects of earth here below, the blossoms and the leaves, could not be endowed with a beauty so immaculate and so exquisitely wrought, did they not issue from the Divinity which endlessly pervades with its visible and unchanging beauty all things.
Where has that sense of beauty and sacred mystery been hiding in this, our age of progress? And, as Yehudi Menuhin recently asked, "Hasn't this separation of man from his roots in a sense orphaned him?" Has it?
Whatever habits our culture has conditioned us to accept, we know deep in our genes that there is a greater force and mystery framing our lives to which attention must be paid. We must reinvent or rediscover the moral and spiritual center which has been absent in industrial man and woman for too long. There must be a screw in our brains that can be turned a quarter of an inch one way or the other until we realize that the discoveries of science need not be tools to create new products only — but ways to appreciate how precious and beautiful and fragile our planet is — and then we will strive to work with nature, not against it.
Thomas Berry is a historian of cultures, and he points out that modern man in the age of science and technology is almost singular in not having a culturally plausible myth to explain the creation of the universe. He writes:
The historians, even when articulating World History, deal not with the whole world, but with just the human, as if the human was something separate from or an addendum to the story of the earth and the universe. The scientists have derived a detailed account of the cosmos, but have focused exclusively on the physical dimensions and have ignored the human dimensions of the universe. In this context, we have fractured our educational system into scientific and its humanistic aspects, as though these were somehow independent of each other.
Locating our human history in the scientific history of the universe can be an important inspiration of our spiritual imaginations. When we know something of where we've come from and where we're headed, we can develop a reverence for past and future generations, and learn to preserve our precious life-sustaining environment. We can question the myth that we are atomistic individuals in an existential world, now competing in an amoral marketplace for economic advantage.
The challenge I make to the American Academy of Religion is to help us human beings of the late 20th century reintegrate our spirituality with our rationality. Help us rediscover and nurture our spiritual imaginations — the ones that lie beyond the happenstance of theological and ecclesiastical differences that may divide us.
The more that scientists learn from the natural environment — from the universe to our planet to our genes — the more they bump up against the ineffable religious mystery and beauty I mentioned earlier. We need to popularize this sensibility — trumpet it in the media and in our schools — and demonstrate that respecting the natural dynamics of our planet is not just good science, it's a spiritual responsibility and pleasure. An ecological morality and spirituality to fill the gap between science and our religions may be what we are seeking. Let us set off on this new pilgrimage as soon as possible. We have no time to lose.
(From Sunrise magazine February/March 1996;. Copyright © 1996 Theosophical University Press)