THE BASIC STORIES A CULTURE TELLS ITSELF – about the world and life – can’t be just anything, for these stories are the gatekeepers of awesome responsibilities, of life and death. To be effective, these stories must go beyond either reportage or fiction to be the culture’s best expression of ultimate reality and wisdom.
To do this, these stories must combine two fundamental qualities. They must be believable and they must be empowering. To be believable, they must be based on the best information available to the culture. To be empowering, they must go beyond just information to provide answers to, or at least a framework for answering, basic questions about the meaning and purpose of life.
THE THREE-WAY IDEOLOGICAL WAR
One of the most fundamental causes of the instability of our present culture is the deep split between our best factual information about the world (obtained primarily through the sciences) and our traditions that have focused on questions of meaning (religion/philosophy/spirituality). Within this second group there are many further splits, but for western civilization, the most important of these is between the Christian tradition and other forms of spirituality and religion.
People have been aware of, and concerned about, these splits for hundreds of years, yet the approach to resolving them has generally been a partisan one. Science has attempted, with considerable success, to portray religion as irrelevant to its endeavors, and by implication, irrelevant to the natural world. Religion has retaliated by claiming that the natural world is irrelevant to the meaning and purpose of human life. And in their battle, both have found it convenient to create a caricature of other forms of spirituality, labeling them as superstition or heresy or witchcraft. In return, these other forms of spirituality have often condemned and belittled both science and religion.
Now, centuries after this often gruesome war began, there are still no winners and no likely prospect that any one of these three will ever "defeat" the others. As a society, we have resigned ourselves to living without a truly whole and satisfying story. We have fragmented into all manner of partisans, choosing fact over meaning or meaning over fact, but never at peace with ourselves, each other, or our world.
LIVING IN EACH CAMP
This is a topic with deep personal roots for me, and before we look directly at the story and its challenges, I’d like share these roots by telling some of my own story.
I have been fortunate to have had deep contact with, to have lived within, all three of these "camps." I got my professional training as a research scientist, a theoretical astrophysicist. My interest in astronomy began even before high school, and when I went to the University of California as an undergraduate, I did so with the clear purpose of becoming an astronomer. My time there, during the mid 60s, was alive in many directions, not the least of which was a wonderful relationship with the Astronomy Department. It was one of the best in the world, and relatively large, but the faculty was friendly and open, and by the time I was a junior, I was part of the club, treated almost like a graduate student. I naturally thrived.
From there I went to Princeton, again one of the best. The department there was smaller and more intimate, and certainly no less friendly. My reputation from Berkeley carried over, and I was able to complete my doctorate in less than two years. My thesis topic involved mathematical extensions of Einstein’s gravitational theory (General Relativity) which allowed me to explore an aspect of the physical unity of the universe – the idea that "space" is created entirely by the matter and energy within it (Mach’s principle). After finishing at Princeton, I spent the next six years in a variety of research and teaching positions.
I eventually left astronomy because of what religiously oriented people would describe as an inner calling. I felt the urgency of events in the world around me, and decided that the stars could wait but the planet couldn’t. As strong as this call was, I still wobbled for many years, searching for ways, such as job-sharing, to do both. When I finally left, I did so with considerable lingering fondness and a deep appreciation for the gifts of this period in my life. I had been able to be part of the inner sanctum at the edge of scientific discovery, to participate in a highly creative sub-culture that had developed remarkably successful ways of blending intuition and passion with careful analysis. You can catch a glimpse of what I mean through some of the best of the space program and in really fine TV documentaries.
Yet that is only part of my story. The more "spiritual" side begins with my family. My father’s father, responding to an urge not unlike what drew many of my generation into the Peace Corps, went to China in 1905 as a missionary for the Episcopal Church. He spent most of his life there, eventually becoming a bishop, and retiring to the U.S. only in 1948. Missionaries, these days, have a bad reputation, but I feel good about what I know of my grandfather’s work. He learned the language, respected the Chinese culture, helped to build a college, and used to refer to a local Taoist Abbot as "his bishop." My father was born in this atmosphere in China, and my parents were married there after my mother had come out to teach.
My family thus had a strong international flavor and a deep (but non-dogmatic) religious commitment. Their involvement and connections within the Episcopal church again gave me access to the inner sanctum of a major cultural institution, and enabled me to experience the kindness, the generosity, the dedication to service that are some of the best fruits of many religious traditions.
On the other hand, the limitations of the church were more than I could embrace. It was not long after I left home that I became a religious independent. Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to explore, in some cases fairly deeply, religious/spiritual/mystic traditions from around the world. I’ve been blessed with enough experience to sense the vast ranges of spiritual experience yet to be explored and to know that these traditions are based on more than just "superstition and fantasy." As with the other two parts of my life, I have spent time with core people in these areas and am at home within their inner sanctum.
I am thus too much at home in each of these areas – science, traditional Christianity, and other forms of spirituality – to be a partisan for any one. Within my own being, the essences I have gained from each are not only at peace, they are mutually supportive. Each enriches and deepens the others.
I have learned, of course, that this is not the common point of view. The joys of this tolerant embrace can be shared, at best, only partially with partisans from any side. Even then, I run the risk of being stigmatized, if not as a traitor, then at least as unclassifiable and untrustable.
It has thus been with a sense of both expansive delight (like the rediscovery of spring) and of shell- shocked apprehension (aware of the cultural minefield around this topic) that I have been exploring what is coming to be known as the New Story. As it is emerging (and as I understand it), this New Story honors the essence in each side, while in its synthesis, it transcends them. It is unlikely to fully satisfy any of the partisans, but it gives me hope that the healing I have experienced in my own life is beginning to find the language to be shared more broadly.
One final comment: Much of what follows is in the form of statements – that’s the way stories are. But it is offered in the spirit of beginning, not finality. Deep stories are meant to be told and retold in a thousand variations. It is only thus that they remain alive. If the material in this issue reminds you that you have another version or portion to tell, please share it with us.