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Column: Can one person influence our culture for the better?

Introduction: topics committed, topics mapped

“I will probably write the next column with the intent to persuade readers that the human project demands that non-conforming individuals challenge culture more and more, as culture more and more escapes our understanding, our ethics and morality, and our capacity to regulate it. Two writers I have recently discovered, the authors whose concern with culture I am wrestling with currently, are Robert Bellah and Merlin Donald. Check out their work if you are interested in the topics of cultural evolution and evolving consciousness.” [I have emphasized some words here that I did not highlight in the original.]

Explaining my words

First, I notice I used a casual phrase as if all would agree with what I mean: “the human project.” In times past, teachers in esoteric “wisdom traditions” have called this project “The Great Work” or simply “the work.”

For example, Rabbi Tarfon, an older contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, said, “It is not your obligation to finish the work, but neither are you free to excuse yourself from it.” Or today, Matthew Fox, an author speaking about the spiritual path, puts it this way: “The 'great work' is the work of the universe, it is the unfolding of creation.”

I mean “the human project” in a sense similar to these examples; saying that, I realize there are readers whose interest wanes when they read it. Why? It seems too fringe-y when the terminology depends on unscientific language. So be it. Scientific language does not have a monopoly on truth.

For me, humanist epistemology has as much credibility as scientific, depending on context. I’m expecting there must be readers who’ve enjoyed the writing of Dr. James Hillman, named the “founder of archetypal psychology,” who will stay with this column about humanity and morality, culture and cognition. Like Hillman, like Thomas Moore, I am comfortable with the word soul and feel no need to justify it to scientists of the materialist school.

Morality

The next word I use that will need unpacking is “morality”…  And again I will use someone else’s  relevant words about what this word means:

You see, I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing ... what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.” (Joan Didion, in 1965)

I found this essay on morality and ethics just as I was getting ready to begin this column, and I am pleased how apt Didion’s observation is.

Morality is not a simple concept; the codes of values by which we try to live are not universally agreed. A complex pluralistic culture like ours that tries hard to insist that a single morality is well founded and agreed, is a culture trying to disguise the troubles it is experiencing.

We seem, to me and to many, to be deep in crisis in the modern world; how one counts the troubles is debatable, but it is not controversial to say that humankind is facing challenges of immense proportion.

In such circumstances, one morality for a global human village is problematic.

“Half a century later, Didion’s point seems all the more disquieting amid our present culture, where the filter bubble of our loyalties has rendered in-group/out-group divisiveness all the more primitive and where we combat our constant terror of coming unmoored from our certitudes by succumbing to unbridled self-righteousness under the pretext of morality.” (R. Solnit)

Self-righteousness is a hallmark of much of what I see on social media, and blind loyalty to our chosen tribe is a political/social trend no one can miss. The divisive state of American politics at present is so extreme, so polarized on political-party lines, that it is remarked by many – myself in the September edition of Arc for example -- that the USA appears to exist now in a state of civil war, albeit a frozen-cold war not yet fought on a literal battlefield.

Culture

And last, in the introduction explaining my words that concluded the last instalment of Arc, I must highlight what I meant by “culture.”

Here is Terence McKenna on the subject of culture:

“… [C]ulture and ideology are not your friends. They are not your friends. This is a hard thing to come to terms with, because a certain kind of alienation lies at the end of this thought process. On the other hand, you can’t live in the cradle for ever; you can’t be clueless for ever. So somebody might as well just lay it out for you, and say: Culture is for the convenience of culture, not for you. How many times have your sexual desires, career aspirations, financial dealings, and aesthetic inclinations been squashed, twisted, rejected, and minimised, by cultural values?

And if you don’t think culture is your enemy, ask the 18-year-old kid who is given a rifle and sent to the other side of the world to murder strangers if culture is his friend.”

Culture is the mind-shaping environment humans alone of all animals create, an environment of materials but more importantly of intangibles in the mind, the ideas, images, thoughts, that we cannot be without because we have consciousness. Culture is our invention, not provided by nature at our birth. There is personal choice in determining what constraints my culture will place upon my actions. My morality may not be the same as my neighbour's.

Clearly, culture is not the same from one society to another, one place to another, and one time to another. It might mean the intangible mental environment of a very small world; for example, we are all-too-familiar with the phrase “the culture of the workplace” or “the culture of the school” when instances of bad behaviour surface at a place like Fox News or at St. Michael’s College.

But it can mean the entire tangible and intangible surroundings of an entire civilization, as when we speak about the culture of the Western world. The West is the civilization whose dominant power created the global village.

Bellah and Donald, the scholars whose books I depend on for the substance of my column today, possess minds fascinated by, focussed upon, culture and its forms, and describe how culture and cognition, or consciousness, evolve.

So, having mapped my terrain, I stumble boldly forward to deliver on my promises …

Cultural Evolution

Robert Bellah and Merlin Stone are academics, and their work is not nearly so well-propagated in popular culture as the writings and ideas of someone like Yuval Noah Harari or Francis Fukuyama who appear frequently online in Ted Talks and other youtube videos, in public media interviews, and in magazines.

Bellah died in 2013, and his last great work was Religion in Human Evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Merlin Donald is author of Origins of the Modern Mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition.

These are not easy reads, whereas Harari’s Sapiens or Fukuyama’s The End of History are written for a popular audience and are packed with well-turned phrases that readers remember and quote. For example, Harari has a nice turn of phrase about culture and human behaviour: “Biology enables, culture forbids.” It is not easy to find such summary gems from Bellah or Donald.

Nevertheless, Bellah and Donald repay one’s concentrated attention, although their books are written for an academic audience rather than a popular one. The very concept of “cultural evolution” demands an effort of intellectual faculties not widely distributed among the reading public.

“Evolution” is one of those words used so often one easily thinks we all mean the same thing when we use it. We do not. For many, it means simply growth that reveals progress. Betterment, improvement, maturing-to-full-greatness: to many people this is the meaning of evolution. It is used as a synonym for change. It is often used as meaning great change that is similar to revolution but contrasted with it, because it avoids violence associated with revolution and is slower in pace. Revolution is an explosion, evolution a journey.

The meanings for evolution I outlined in the last paragraph are not the meaning of evolution Bellah wishes his reader to apply. He wants the word to be used much more precisely in the manner of biologists, most specifically in the way Charles Darwin meant “evolution” in his monumental book of 1859, The Evolution of Species by Natural Selection. Evolution, Bellah says, is biological history, the story of development in biological organisms over time.

“My particular interest in evolution is in the evolution of capacities, which has been a remarkable part of the story: the capacity … in the case of humans, in raising helpless infants and children unable to survive on their own; the capacity to make atomic bombs …

“… I also believe that there are types of religion and that these types can be put in an evolutionary order, not in terms of better or worse, but in terms of the capacities upon which they draw.” (pp. xvi to xviii)

Why Bellah’s book matters

Bellah was known among his peers as pre-eminent as a sociologist, of religion and of American intellectual history. The book I am discussing here contains the phrase “Axial Age” within its title, and the Axial Age is very definitely a period well-documented by historians and archeologists; Bellah must be an historian as well as a sociologist when he writes about this period.

It is because I am an historian, constantly reading histories, that I came across Bellah’s book, not because I encounter much writing in the field of sociology.

His chapters about ancient times in Greece, Israel-Judah, India, and China, are as much history as sociology because in those chapters Bellah writes a history of changes that happened in those four cultures, specifically in their religious and philosophical thinking.

Something wonderful happened in history in the Axial Age, a breakthrough in human capacity to think and in the teaching of moral and ethical philosophy by some very fine thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, a few classical Israelite prophets, Buddha, Confucius, and a handful of other minds who have left us texts that are evidence of originality.

The Axial Age ended, and the traditions the great thinkers added to human culture stayed with us, but there was  never any guarantee that the moral teaching of those thinkers would indeed revolutionize human behaviour toward less violence and more compassion, though such was their intent. After these great sages taught ethical behaviour, terrible wars waged by conquerors like Alexander the Great, Ashoka, Qin Shuangdi, and Roman Caesars, seemed to indicate that human behaviour  was not substantially altered by the new teachings. Wars were constant; human inhumanity to our fellows continued.

Yet without the breakthroughs in the religious cultures of Greece, Israel, India and China in the Axial Age, who knows how much more horrible our history might have been? Did the breakthroughs, teaching more compassionate behaviour of humans to their fellows, mitigate cruelty in the millennia that came later? There is evidence to support such an interpretation.

Bellah's personal grounding

Bellah worried about humanity’s future, not seeing evidence that we are able to avoid more terrible wars and injustice, more devastation to our planet and to other species sharing it with humanity. He certainly had no intention of showing in his book that “progress” in morality had occurred since the Axial Age. He illuminates what was axial about the new insights of the sages but he knows very well that such insights did not bring about an ascent of human moral behaviour that terminated the atrocity and barbarity that went before.

“[T]hose responsible for the most radical breakthroughs were seldom successful. In the short run they usually failed: think of Jeremiah [forcibly exiled], Socrates [executed after trial], Jesus [executed]. Buddhism finally disappeared in India, Buddha’s home ground. Jaspers sums it up starkly: ‘The Axial Period too ended in failure. History went on.’ … [T]hese traditions give us no cause for triumphalism. The failures  have been many and it is hard to gauge the successes. It is hard to say that we today, particularly today, are living up to the insights of the great axial prophets and sages.” [p. 282]

In the conclusion to his book, Bellah is clear about his concerns:

“If there is one primary practical intent in a work like this … it is imperative that humans wake up to what is happening and take the necessarily dramatic steps that are so clearly needed but also at present so clearly ignored by the powers of this earth … If we could see that we are all in this …together, even though we must contend with abiding differences, we might make just a bit more likely the actualization of Kant’s dream of a world civil society that could at last restrain the violence of state-organized societies toward each other and toward the environment.”  [p. 602, 606]

Teaching my history class to seniors, basing my course on Bellah’s book, I have discovered the cultural attitudes in my students that are in fact some of the problematic assumptions about the West and its sciences that Bellah rightly identifies as one source of our civilization’s destructive capacity.

Bellah asserts, truthfully in my view, that our Western worldview and set of theories about what is true, real, and meaningful, have:

 “come loose from its cultural context [and] assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes. To assume that ‘we,’ particularly if we mean by that the modern West, have universal truths based on revelation, philosophy, or science that we can enforce on others, is the ideological aspect of racism, imperialism, and colonialism.”

It is apparent to me, if not to my students, that their attitudes often display this assumed superiority to the people of the past when I am teaching the history of other places, civilizations, and societies. The present assumes a superiority to the past all too often, historians have often noted. Westerners assume an exalted status in the world of values and freedom because of our power and dominance, not because our moral ascendancy is manifest and evident to all observers.

I'm constantly referring students to Charles Eisenstein, who emphasizes history as a long tale of what narratives – The Story of the People -- have dominated human consciousness. His New Story of Interbeing will transform humanity, he believes. I tell many people about Eisenstein, hoping they will absorb the impact of his warning against how science has separated us from nature -- and inclines us to supervise it, manipulate it, make it conform to our purposes.

I do not see the resultant breakthrough in understanding other people and cultures that I would like to see. The antipathy of many students to what they imagine religion must be, is disturbing. They are quite submerged in the Old Story and seem unable to let religion’s intrinsic values be recognized.

Anti-religious attitudes are rife in our popular culture, and as McKenna says, if culture is against it, one might well see a phenomenon as a positive. Our culture’s makers are our elites, who dominate us in the economy, in politics, and in society. We should be wary of what they tell us is valuable. They intend to maintain their dominance, and culture is a fundamental and formidable instrument for them to that end. Anti-religion is easy, there is so much support for it in various venues of the First World, and therefore I suspect it deeply.

If I have any clear purpose myself in teaching history, it is to make a contribution to solving some problems of modern thinking in popular consciousness. It is hard, as such powerful forces of culture are massed against change that would end our domineering stance.

Merlin Donald: evolution of human cognition and culture

Merlin Donald is a very different sort of thinker from Robert Bellah because the latter is so clearly a member of academia for the Humanities, and the former is a member of the faculty of Sciences, specifically cognitive neuro-science. Bellah depends  substantially on Donald’s work, Origins of Mind: three stages in culture and cognition, for a theory of how Homo Sapiens evolved the kind of consciousness capable of Axial-Age breakthroughs in religious culture. Donald does not depend on Bellah for his theory of evolutionary stages of consciousness.

Donald’s work is very highly regarded by his peers. I am not confident in my own judgement to say why his theory is persuasive, so I will accept the strong recommendation of scientists who are impressed by the work. Donald supplies the neuro-scientific basis for the wonderful originality of the Axial Age thinkers, who – particularly among the Greeks, but in all the four cases Bellah studied – became capable of second-order thinking, theoretic conceptual thinking, only in the first millennium BCE.

When I watched Donald explain his theory in a YouTube video, what stayed in my mind is his reply to a question about why he is concerned about the West and our future. He tells the audience his youthful education was at a Jesuit high school and college, and he is aware that perhaps his values were incorporated there. He refers to his individual perspective on what he sees, “living in my own culture, in the English-speaking world” and wonders about the uniqueness of the West, because the modern world began here and there has never been any other modernity, so we cannot compare ourselves to any other historic case. He is questioned about “ethics and responsibility” of individuals, in theory and practice, and whether “machines and the internet” will take those from humans.

Donald demurs when asked to make predictions about the future, but does say “the ecology of belief and action” has altered out of recognition, and is clearly unprecedented; he wonders very much about the ability of our legal, educational and religious institutions/systems to enable us to cope with the present “in a machine-driven distributed system of massive change at such speeds … They are so out of date.”

Donald's personal grounding

He refers to the West and its historical depths rooted in Christianity, noting his own perspective derives from his cultural origins. We learn values that are “very deeply embedded, that are transmitted in oblique ways we don’t fully understand.” His questioner wonders why not all people share “humane values,” and he explains that culture is the reason for that.

Donald is asked to comment on the internet, on human narcissism, and why dark forces seem to be usurping the online world when that invention once seemed to have started with good intentions.

“… I might, coming from a different direction, I might be very happy, I might enjoy the sword-fighting, the competition, the sheer rottenness of a corrupt (online) environment …

“I’m giving myself away. I’m concerned because basically I’m a spiritual being concerned with egalitarianism, but not everyone is… because of their cultural situation, the culture in which they’re embedded – a lot of these values are not written down anywhere, they are implicit in rituals and attitudes and celebrations and family attitudes … They’re very deep and they’re almost immovable as we can see in the cases of cultures that resurface a thousand years later, and these basic tendencies are still there …

“Why am I concerned? It’s a give-away of my deep culture, my values, and I think I share that with a lot of Westerners and probably people elsewhere as well – although I don’t know the rest of the world as well [as I know the West].”

The emphasis on his words is mine.

Doing Good

As so often in writing this column, I bring readers to a point where the question is “what to do?” with the historical or current information I have attempted to lay out in the column. I have raised questions of ethics and morality, of how humanity might have been learning from our history, or not learning at all.

The Axial Age that Bellah describes is fascinating in its own right, but he ends his weighty historical tome with questions about humanity in the here and now, the perilous present: a planet threatened with the Sixth Extinction event, and a species whose members treat one another horribly.

The prospect of our world now concerns Bellah and Donald because they have deeply-held values, and their books attempt explanations for how we became the homo sapiens that we are, with nature and culture as our foundations.

Culture is held responsible for almost all of what humans do, and very little of our action is blamed on deep instinctual forces over which we have no conscious control. As Merlin Donald notes, we are the only species capable of disciplining our appetites and blind impulses.

Our planetary crisis originates from within our species and what we have been doing. We are the cause of damage to the environment that will hurt our own species as well as extinguishing so many other species. We have been atrocious to one another; history is the record. We have also been very good to one another, and that too is in the historical record.

What can we do to push culture in a direction for more goodness, less evil?

For decades after high school, I concentrated on the outer world and was active in causes to set the world right, to build a just society. My causes included war resistance and the movement against apartheid in South Africa, and the green movement to protect forests in BC.

Then, due to my relations with other people, I took an inward turn and spent time doing therapy and counselling -- while still occasionally being politically engaged as when I ran for local electoral office or in community clubs.

From personal experience, I  deduced this one thing: one must work in the world, external to oneself, with other people and the politics that demands -- and one must work inside oneself on the spiritual plane where no other force but your own sense of self can operate.

Broken people cannot fix a damaged world. But the world cannot wait for perfectly-whole, healthy activists to solve their emotional and psychological problems before they begin to make things right. This wholistic approach to one's self and world is what I so value in Charles Eisenstein's teachings.

Conclusion

As I mentioned in this column, I am aware for myself of trying to learn what the meaning of “Elder” might be, for positive effects on my community. I hear people of Native ancestry speak about Elders with a respect not evident in the wider modern, Western, secular, materialist culture. I wish I could earn such respect. Teaching seniors is one way I build a community role as an elder person, my radio program  is another, this column is a third. I frequently ask my students how we as seniors can build our role. We wrestle with the issue.

The path of liberated personal choice is all I am prepared to offer to readers in a general way, not as a specific example to follow -- but as an offering of my experience in all humility.

Learn your strengths and talents, hone and polish them, engage with them among other people. Changing the great culture by your acts and words for the better, is unlikely to be clear in your lifetime, I believe. I had a vision of the world coming into being when I was 18 years old, and it was not this one. It was a better version, but as Donald says, “all the predictions made in the 1960’s and 70’s about the future turned out wrong.”

You must do what you can where opportunity presents itself. There is plenty to work on, pick your spot and go.