Many thoughtful people speak of our planet as now being in crisis. What’s going on? This is an episode in the planet’s biological, cultural, and spiritual evolution. Individuals have the freedom to contribute to progress or not, and in the ways of their choosing. Rejecting the way forward is, sooner or later, self-destructive, and it can delay the process for us all. The evolutionary path is long and difficult. Humankind spent tens of thousands of years in primitive barbarism. Gradually we learned techniques of survival and security. Descended from fighting animals, we inherit that tendency; and society, beginning in the family, must tame us, teach us the ways of cooperation. In economic life, we must learn to compete without violence, and through agriculture and other methods to provide enough food for our population. Having attained survival and security, we went on to develop a higher standard of living, in which comforts, pleasures, and desires multiplied. Civilization develops science, philosophy, religion, aesthetic appreciation of nature and the arts, and moral and ethical values. These areas of achievement inform our responses to challenges—ecological, social, economic, and political. Responding or failing to respond to such challenges in a timely manner, civilizations have come and gone. How healthy is our civilization?
Today we observe symptoms of civilization in decline. Countless people are lost, lacking in purpose and meaning in life, apathetic, anxious, depressed, even suicidal. Thus large numbers of people lack the necessary resilience. Material achievement has linked the world with new technology, deluging us with information, and making us interdependent as never before. Mohandas Gandhi recorded the following evidence of civilization in trouble: “Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, and commerce without morality.” Evolution brings us into existence with material needs and strong self-interest. But a life based on materialism and selfishness cannot supply meaning and purpose. In the world of philosophy, chaos reigns in the competition between science-centered philosophy, philosophy centered on human cultural values, and philosophy which recognizes material and cultural values as finding their place in a framework in which the supreme values are spiritual.
Some of what we see in society today are normal growing pains of the normal human nature struggling with normal problems. But planetary progress has been interrupted in various ways, so that additional factors add to our difficulties. Civilization today suffers from an acute imbalance: material achievement is racing ahead, while spiritual experience and wisdom are lagging behind.
Religion, by itself, is not adequate to the challenge, because religion can insist on unhelpful beliefs and act foolishly. And wisdom by itself lacks the power to transform a nation and a planet. But when religion is joined to wisdom, hope emerges anew. I speak of a religion that understands that all human beings are family, since we all come from one Creator, a divine Parent, even a Father of love and mercy and a friend whose spirit lives within each person. Religion connects with God most directly in worship in the personal experience of the individual or the group. I speak of a wisdom that learns from the past and faces the present, a wisdom that comes from philosophy and prayer, from book learning and personal experience. Wisdom integrates scientific realism with spiritual idealism. In this partnership, religion presents updated moral mandates to stabilize and clarify the social transition. And in any situation that calls for decision and action, wisdom guides reason to bring together the meanings of facts and the meanings of values so that our duty becomes intuitively clear.
Suppose we begin to seek for this combination of spiritual realization and wisdom and begin to find. The second part of the prescription is to promulgate this combination. How? By living it. And by proclaiming it in the ways possible at our stage in life and consistent with the capacity of receptivity of those with whom we speak.
Spiritual faith in a Creator God brings hope and assurance that for all the seeming chaos of evolution, the goal of destiny is not in doubt. No matter how long it takes, humankind will get there.
What if we are facing the threat of defeat? The spirit enthuses over apparent defeat. Why? Because no defeat is ever final in God’s universe. We may not succeed in this life, but we can succeed in the next as individuals. And if humanity insists on sliding downhill and civilization is destroyed, a better civilization will arise, based eventually on a genuine science, a vigorous morality, and a spiritually vibrant religion. In the back and forth of growing communion with God, we will neither panic nor procrastinate. The more we live in the spirit, the more we can be an island of calm within the storm. And who knows the magnitude of the invisible spiritual forces on the planet who are fighting for the same redress of balance that we need to survive and thrive. There is more help, far more help, than will ever show up in the news. In any case, we have the exquisite pleasure of participating in the certain evolution of the spiritual family of God. As we mobilize in calm and joy and teamwork, we help slow a decline and may end up helping to lead an advance.
How, if at all, should we prepare for the possibility that things may worsen? Wisdom joins spiritual idealism with scientific realism. But even to raise some topics can upstage the mission of a person or group that is committed to represent the spiritual truth. For example, getting entangled in social reconstruction or political debates can upstage a spiritual message so that the group begins in effect to function as something more like a social agency or political party than as an essentially religious group. And other entanglements can upstage a mission that was initially conceived as dedicated to spiritual truth. So here we go, cheerfully risking a bit, and unwilling to get embroiled.
The worst case scenario is that humanity has to start over building civilization from the ground up. I am convinced that the Creator would not allow the human race as a whole to perish. Civilizational collapse implies that our civilization had become so fragile that we could be thrown back a thousand or more years in several respects, retaining, I believe, something of our science, morality, and religion, but losing our very much of our material achievements and culture. In terms of human suffering, the danger is appalling. But the Creator’s wise laws are inherent in the very fabric of creation itself. Any collapse of civilization would be not the willful wrath of a vengeful Deity, but the expression of the outworking of divine wisdom. The rest is courage: think of the opening portion of Black Elk Speaks, the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and countless other inspiring stories of courage. Spirit empowers responses that are humanly impossible.
Jesus sent forth his twelve apostles to be ambassadors of a better planetary future, when the kingdom of heaven would bring peace. He wanted them to live as though that future were already here. He never allowed his mission to be upstaged by politics, but his wisdom was balanced, and he gave instructions to the apostles for their protection. For example, he warned them to flee when the Roman armies would arrive to destroy Jerusalem (Luke 21). Today it staggers the mind to contemplate the possibility of war between world powers that have nuclear weapons. A significant portion of the planet could become uninhabitable.
But there are some bad-case scenarios for which it may be rational to prepare. I have read that something like half (was it 40%?) of residents of San Francisco had emergency supplies to survive a major earthquake. I have been told that it is not uncommon for Mormon families in Utah to have supplies that could last for two years. A woman who was purchasing supplies at an Amish department store told me that her town was out of power for nine days because of an electrical storm. Some people would rather not try to survive. But I think that God may want some of us to acquire the possibility of surviving some level of attack.
I also believe that someone like me whose primary commitment in life is to represent the supreme truth and power of Jesus’ gospel of the family of God should not use force to defend such very modest supplies as I have begun to acquire. My wife agrees that we should not purchase a firearm. If the would-be thief comes to the door, unless I am stopped by the spirit, I will go forth with open arms, invite in whoever is at the door for a last supper in reverent and grateful silence and conversation that may transform my guest’s original intention. I have begun to reach out to my neighbors to strengthen social and spiritual bonds and perhaps to broach this topic gently. When I visited my Pentecostal neighbors, the wife warned of how getting supplies for an emergency in order to protect oneself can exacerbate fear and anxiety, and she told me of “preppers” who gather supplies for the neighbors.
These then are today’s thoughts on our planetary crisis. Wisdom is partly universal, found in wise sayings that we ponder and cherish. But wisdom is also specific in its applications to particular and changing circumstances. The combination of these two kinds of wisdom yields experiential wisdom which, in association with intelligent worship and spiritual experience generally, holds up a very bright torch to guide our world.
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