No Easy Answers

Traps and fallacies in emergent thought

Originally published in
Copyright (c) by Context Institute

Charles Johnston’s piece reminds us of the most critical danger of our time: underestimating the magnitude of the change from the industrial era to the new world that I now call the "compassionate era." Failure to recognize that magnitude causes us to short-circuit the massive personal and cultural processes through which we must move if we are to have any chance of creating the profoundly new conditions that our times require.

I find Charles’ techniques fascinating, and I appreciate his description of the difficulty and stress of the balance position he describes.

I believe, however, that this balance point, which I tried to develop in a paper called The Art of Dynamic Balance, is not new. I would suggest that this type of struggle for balance is at the heart of both our theory of democracy and our real understanding of religion. Winston Churchill argued that democracy was the worst form of government – except all the others. He was arguing that the constant pull of committed individuals and groups was the way to keep culture evolving. The practice of democracy, however, requires passion and commitment, and we have lost these qualities in recent years.

The core of all religions also stresses the need for balance. I am aware that all too often this core has been ignored. Yet there are many [religious people] who are ready to wake up and struggle with the implications of a world which needs to be based on the values of honesty, responsibility, humility, love and a respect for mystery.

If these arguments are correct, we often ignore a large part of the public which might cope best with the challenges Charles raises. It has been my experience that it is often the less advanced and sophisticated people who understand the true complexity and meaning of the "balance" issue.

All too often we have downgraded those who remain attached to the age-old values. I recognize that those in the main-line religions also have very difficult issues with which they must struggle, but I am convinced that they are at least as likely to be resolved as the dilemmas which emerge from our sophisticated and fragmented intellectual dialogue.

I have come to recognize that we exclude many potential participants from involvement because we insist that they use our language rather than theirs to discuss the issues. When I work in their terms, I often find their reactions very similar to my own. Indeed, the more excluded and disempowered they are, the more resonance there is to the need for truly fundamental change.

The issue as both Charles and I see it is, therefore, how do we help people to attain and maintain their balance position? One implication of this question is that we must re-examine who can tolerate a balance position most easily.

In closing, let me take up the one point where I disagree with Charles: that of timing. He argues that we are too impatient and that we must not expect the revolution to be completed in our lifetimes. At one level I agree, for the turbulence from our extraordinary shift will continue for decades.

On the other hand, I believe that our world culture will either set new directions for itself before the year 2000 or we shall be moving toward destruction. People cannot function unless their model of the world conforms to reality – if it does not they will become more and more baffled, frustrated and angry. This is the current mood not only in America but throughout the world.

This, in turn, leads to a search for simplistic, traditional answers. The dynamics of the 1988 election in the United States and the 1987 election in Great Britain prove how far we are along this path. We shall either learn to live at the balance point or we shall destroy ourselves. This is the reason for the now common statement that the human race will either grow up or blow itself up.

In the 1960s, the dynamics of the industrial world and our realities started to diverge. Most of us have tried to keep one foot in the industrial era and the other in our new world. The stretch is now becoming intolerable: we shall either connect to the new world or snap back to the old.

For me, much of the change in thought and behavior has already taken place – a point well made by Yankelovich in his book New Rules. The issue now is whether we shall recognize the extent and depth of the change or deny it.

How shall we live as we accept these new understandings? I would suggest we shall need to adopt a pattern of "realistic hope" or "hopeful realism." We must accept where we actually are, rather than operating on wishful thinking. And then we must commit to the belief that our activities do make a difference if we are prepared to commit to them.

Gregory Bateson has taught us that change is not always gradual. It is my deep belief that the shift away from the industrial era will take place very rapidly – if it takes place at all. I realize that this statement is highly controversial. Because of its importance I would suggest that it is one of the areas where we should be spending significant amounts of time and effort.

– Robert Theobald


Dear Robert,

A delight to get your note and hear your thoughts on my article. I think we do differ on when the shift to the emergent world view began (though I don’t think that difference has major implications for what is now critical to do). I see the shift beginning around the turn of the century with the thinking of people like Einstein, Freud (the concept of the unconscious is a radical challenge to the Age of Reason’s core tenet that with time all could be brought into the light), and Darwin (his brazen claim of our relatedness to the most hairy of apes was a first important reassertion of our inextricable relatedness in nature). I see us now in the middle stages of these changes.

Traditional democracy and standard religion are both Age of Reason structures, as I see things. Democracy has its basis in the concept of individuality. While balance has an important role, it is defined not in terms of integration – recognizing the larger contextual process – but in terms of compromise. Traditional religion, while often a voice of moderation, paradigmatically is a polar institution; it is the voice of spirit in the fundamental duality of sacred and secular. The emergent world view is quite specifically integral – this, as I see it, being something very different from simple compromise or identification with the more unitary side of things. For example, e=mc2 is qualitatively more than a simple averaging of the concepts of matter and energy: it is a statement of dynamic four-dimensional relationship. Emerging ideas about gender are much more than concepts of compromise (in becoming whole women and whole men, the ideal is not some unisex middle ground, but the courage to be whole as uniquely who we are). New mind/body concepts in medicine are asking not simply how to balance mind and body, but what mind and body are together as a living, creative dynamic.

So, if I understand you correctly, there may be some differences in both how we see the history of these processes and to some degree in how we frame the dynamics of what you call "balance" in"the compassionate era" and I called (in The Creative Imperative) "third-space" dynamics in "integral culture." But I think our visions of the tasks ahead are extremely kindred.

I agree completely that many of the people with the greatest potential for engaging emergent reality would not identify themselves with any of our popular categories: holistic, green, new paradigm, globally responsible, new age, etc. Indeed, in my experience, often those who hold most tightly to such labels are some of the people with the least tolerance for how large our emergent challenges in fact are. Yes, it is most important that our language and our vision be kept broad.

In terms of the question of "timing," I’m not sure in fact we see things that differently. I completely agree with you that "our world culture will either set new directions for itself by the year 2000 or we shall be moving toward destruction."

I spoke in my article of the timing of these changes being a "bifocal" dynamic. As I see it, there are aspects which will and must happen quickly, others which will take much time for tempering and maturing. An image that works for me in thinking about paradigmatic change is that of a snake shedding its skin in order to grow. It seems clearly the case that we are in the midst of a time of major "skin shedding" (and one that must be completed in pretty short order or the old skin will strangulate us). But as well it is the case that it will likely be decades, indeed centuries, before we realize the full potential and significance of our "new skin."

I often emphasize the long term part of this bifocal dynamic, but not out of any belief there is time to spare (the title of my book is The Creative Imperative). I do it because so often the concept of paradigm shift is framed popularly in magical terms, as a sudden, "second coming"-like new age that will effortlesly bring solutions to all our problems. I do it to emphasize, as you do so well in your work, the immensity of what is being asked of us in the challenges we face.

– Charles Johnston


Dear Charles,

I feel that we are closing the gap in a number of the apparent disagreements between us. I agree that the dynamic of change goes back a long way – indeed we can argue that the patterns we, and many others, are attempting to surface have been hidden within Western culture for centuries. (St. Francis of Assissi, Blake, Goethe, etc.)

I also agree that there is a profound difference between compromise and the resolution of paradox, about which I hear you talking. The latter can only be resolved by finding the common ground which rises above the paradox. The problem, of course, is that English is a bad language for the discussion of all the issues which are now most crucial. And even more seriously, the structures of knowledge we are using are obsolete. Hence our outrageous goal to write a "new encyclopedia."

I’m glad we do agree that the critical element in being able to deal with these issues is to look at the incredible scope of the current challenges, while agreeing that current labels leave little of the complex reality in place. But we obviously need to give people a sense that they are not all alone as they struggle with these issues.

Finally, on timing. Once again I am delighted to find that we agree on most of the elements. Let me challenge you at one level, however. I agree with you that the current predominant image in the culture is that the new age will inevitably and happily arrive, and we both disagree with this assertion. But we apparently see different critical points. You want to emphasize the immensity and do so by stressing how long the end results of the change will take.

I want to alert us to the incredible implications of shedding the skin of the snake in the next few years and to challenge people to get involved. I therefore stress how much must happen before the end of the century if we are to survive while being aware that the consequences will take decades to work out. Obviously the visions are complementary and convergent.

– Robert Theobald


Sacred Stewardship

by Jean Houston

Let us look again at what is stewing in the closing years of the Twentieth Century. Not only must we contend with factors unique in human experience, but there are many factors thrust upon us by present history for which we are untrained, unprepared, and often unwilling.

Erik Erikson sees modern maturity as the age of the struggle between what he refers to as generativity and stagnation. By generativity Erikson means the responsible guiding of the growth of others, the caring and concern for social organization, and other activities critical to the maintenance of community. In the past this period of responsible guidance didn’t last very long, because one’s life didn’t last very long. Most people could expect to be dead by their mid-forties, after their grandchildren had been born. This fact of thousands of generations of early mortality casts a long shadow, so that many people now, somewhere between roughly the ages of 35 and 55, become unpleasantly aware that half a million years of human experience tells them it is time to die.

Part of this finds its reaction in the so-called "mid-life crisis." One day they wake up and discover that in some sense they have "died" in the middle of all their responsible activities, and they feel neither commitment nor responsibility to "take care" of things anymore. And yet one knows that one is going to live maybe 20 to 50 years longer than all those ancestors who had so brief of a period of "being responsible". The prospect of many decades of doing more of the same provokes a calendrical nausea that causes many people to leave spouse, home, friends, job, and even life itself.

We are still shaped and manipulated by educations, social plans, jobs and therapies that are geared to this limited life span. As a species we have not yet woken up to the thrilling realization that for the first time in human history many of us will have "enough time" to discover and use those latent capacities that could not be tapped when we were prisoners of time, having just enough years to grow up, reproduce, and take care of the basic necessities for ourselves and our children. Suddenly we are sprung from the limitations of merely "biological" time, and we are presented with a vista of possibilities that remains shadowy because we have not yet learned to turn on the light.

In earlier epochs we were often left benumbed when faced with the prospect of cataclysm and profound social change. Now, like Job, the full Individual rails against absurdity and demands that the breakdown of meaning be the occasion for deepening.

Years ago Julian Huxley prophetically spoke of the opportunity and necessity for deepening: "It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution – appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job. Whether he wants it or not, whether he is conscious of what he is doing or not, he is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth. That is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it, the better for all concerned."

As custodians of all life forms and shapers of the planetary future, we have no choice but to accept the challenge. Never before have we had so great an inherent purpose; never before so thrilling and adventurous an opportunity. That is why perhaps we have recently been gifted with such long lives. Sacred stewardship demands that we live long enough and deep enough to learn the ways of evolutionary governance and to nurture the course of changes which can occur now, not in millennia, but in the duration of an 80-year-plus lifespan. Sacred stewardship demands that we educate ourselves by acquiring the inner capacities to match our outer powers, seeking and finding those physical, mental, and spiritual resources that enable us to partner the planet.

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