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We live between two ages: Is it possible to step back from the complex issues that dominate the news, and understand the meaning of our moment in history?

by William Van Dusen Wishard

Nukes in North Korea. Emerging global fundamentalism. Artificial life creating its own civilization. A global AIDS epidemic. Continuing Arab-Israeli chaos. Endangered life forms. India and Pakistan—a nuclear shoot-out? An electronic “Global Brain.” The end of the Homo sapiens epoch. Jihad versus McWorld.

Is it possible to step back from the complex issues that dominate the news, and understand the meaning of our moment in history? We must try. For we are not just facing a few critical problems here and there. We appear to be at some major junction in human affairs. Part of discerning how best to go forward lies in comprehending the significance of our historic moment.

Two people provide helpful perspective.

In 1954, only nine years after the greatest military triumph in history, Adlai Stevenson asked in a speech at Columbia University, “Are America’s problems but surface symptoms of something even deeper, of a moral and human crisis in the Western world which might even be compared to the fourth, fifth and sixth-century crisis where the Roman Empire was transformed into feudalism and primitive Christianity? Are Americans,” Stevenson queried, “passing through one of the great crises of history when man must make another mighty choice?”

Three years later, Peter Drucker noted, “No one born after the turn of the century has ever known anything but a world uprooting its foundations, overturning its values and toppling its idols.”

America didn’t evaluate these assessments then. But it becomes increasingly clear that only with such reflections can we fully comprehend what is happening today.

Three Transforming Trends

At least three trends are at the heart of the transformation suggested by Stevenson and Drucker.

First trend: For the first time in human history, the world is forging an awareness of our existence as a single entity. Nations are incorporating the planetary dimensions of life into the fabric of our economics, politics, culture and international relations. The shorthand for this is ‘globalization.’

Globalization is generally viewed as the worldwide integration of economic, financial and political factors. But it’s far more than non-Western nations adopting free markets and democracy. At its core, it means that the full scope of Western ideas and modes of living are gradually seeping into the fabric of the world. As this happens, existing cultures, traditions, institutions and historic relationships are threatened. As Daniel Boorstin noted, “Rapidly developing countries are those that are most speedily obsolescing their inheritance.“ Thus, the essence of globalization goes to the very psychological foundations of a people.
Many believe that globalization, if pursued wisely and cooperatively, represents the world’s best chance to enrich the lives of the greatest number of people.

But we must recognize its contradictions. On the one hand, it represents a shrinking of the globe that requires us to expand our worldview and sense of identity. In America, such an expansion of outlook happened at the time of the American Revolution; most people found their identity in relation to the state they lived in—Georgia, Virginia, etc—but not with something called the United States. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that a distinctly American identity emerged.

The world is experiencing a similar process today. Easy travel, television, Internet—and seeing our globe from the perspective of the moon—have taken this expansion of awareness to a new dimension. We’re being forced to identify not simply with our nation, but also with other peoples, cultures and nations.

But there’s a reaction. We feel a threat to an older identity. This threat tends to force us backward to familiar patterns of the past. In the process, life-giving themes that once resonated in the soul of our ancestors get reduced to hollow clichés.

Thus, we’re confronted not so much with a crisis between civilizations, as Samuel Huntington has suggested, but a crisis within civilizations: a monumental crisis of identity and worldview. None of the categories of the past—social status, religion, ethnicity, culture, heritage, region, nation—is an adequate context of thought and action in an era that is rapidly becoming global.

To varying degrees, every nation faces this test. This crisis within nations is part of what’s been going on in the Middle East for decades. Everything about an emerging global civilization appears to threaten the identity, even the existence, of Islam, which comprises a billion people. So, some people lash out at what they see as the generator of globalization. And while we must deal forcefully with threats to our life and safety, we must realize that, in the broader context, and in our different ways, America and the peoples of the Middle East face the same challenge: how to adapt past traditions and institutions to radically new conditions; in essence, how to adjust our worldview. Maintaining stability under such uncertain conditions is the critical challenge, especially for America and Europe, and perhaps India. We are going to need what analyst Robert Kaplan calls a “global constabulary force” simply to maintain a modicum of order.

In the end, however, the test of globalization is a profoundly human, not technical, challenge. As Arnold Toynbee suggested long ago, “Technology can bring strangers physically face-to-face with one another in an instant, but it may take generations for their minds, and centuries for their hearts, to grow together. Physical proximity,” he concluded, “not accompanied by simultaneous mutual understanding and sympathy, is apt to produce antipathy, not affection, and… discord, not harmony.” Meeting this human challenge is critical, for we do not have generations, much less centuries, in which to adjust.

Second trend at the heart of the transformation: We’ve entered a new stage of technology development without precedent in history.
At least since Francis Bacon in the 17th century we have viewed the purpose of science and technology as being to improve the human condition. As Bacon put it, the “true and lawful end of the sciences is that human life be enriched by new discoveries and powers.”

But along with technological wonders, uncertainties arise. (Let me interject here that five years ago I had a quadruple heart bypass using the most sophisticated medical technology. So I’m a believer!) The question is whether we’re creating certain technologies that appear to be to replace human meaning and significance altogether.

Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2030, US$1,000 worth of computation will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain. A decade after that, he says, you will be talking to someone who may happen to be of biological origin, but whose mental processes are a hybrid of their biological thinking process and the electronic process embedded in their brain—the two processes working intimately together. By 2050, a computer with the intelligence equivalent to the combined intelligence of everyone on earth—ten billion people—will cost only $1,000. By that time, Danny Hillis tells us, supercomputers will go so fast that some “Omega Point” will be reached, and all life will be transformed beyond anything we can even begin to imagine today.

Thus arrives what some intellectuals call the “Post-human Age”. This era emerges from disparate activities. Kevin Kelly says the “realm of the born—all that is nature—and the realm of the made—all that is humanly constructed—are becoming one.” Sherry Turkel sees the “reconfiguration of machines as psychological objects and the reconfiguration of people as living machines.” Perhaps Jaron Lanier best assesses what’s happening: “…it grows harder to imagine human beings remaining at the center of the process of science. Instead, science appears to be in charge of its own process, probing and changing people in order to further its own course, independent of human agency.”

Gregory Stock sees a time soon emerging “when… progressive self-transformation could change our descendents into something sufficiently different from our present selves to not be human in the sense we use the term now.”

In its broadest perspective, what’s being proposed here is nothing less than the cancellation of the five thousand-year quest to create a moral order for human existence; and the self-destruction of humanity under the guise of something some people say is “evolution.” It won’t materialize in the next decade, but this is what’s being developed for our grandchildren. And much of it proceeds without any public discussion or knowledge, to say nothing of consent.

Ray Kurzweil argues that because their intelligent machines are produced by humans, and humans are the product of natural evolution, intelligent machines will also be the product of evolution.

In the Long Sweep

I believe these scientists mistaken in their belief that what they’re predicting is part of natural evolution. Natural evolution over the eons was not underwritten by the prospect of commercial profit or military application, as is the research of those now suggesting the merger of man and machine. Nor is it clear that just because humans create some technology, that technology is a result of evolution. Humans have created technology that could destroy the planet, which is hardly evolution. Planet Earth will presumably end some day, but that will be within Nature’s larger evolutionary process for the universe.

What the advocates of a post-human age seem to leave out is the entire range of human emotions and motivations. They appear oblivious to their own potential for hubris and ego-inflation. The Washington Post tells of a professor of computer science who was hired as a researcher at Microsoft. Boasted the good professor, “To me, this corporation is my power tool. It’s the tool I wield to allow my ideas to shape the world.” This is a classic example of what physicist Freeman Dyson described as the “technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”

Contemporary scientists and technologists talk of a “progress” that is totally in terms of adapting to the “inevitability” of more powerful technology. There is no discussion of progress in terms of human purpose and needs, or of the meaning of being a human being in an age of total technological capability. And certainly no talk of the seventy percent of humanity who don’t have enough electricity to turn on a light, let alone run a computer.

So, we’ve come to dismiss the counsel of the scientific father of our age. Wrote Einstein, “Concern for man himself and his fate must form the chief interest of all technical endeavors.” His contemporary, Jacob Bronowski, shared his view: “It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination, what we are as ethical creatures; because without that, man and beliefs and science will perish together.”

In the long sweep of time, it appears we have created a scientific culture that is an immense complex of technique and specialization without any guiding moral framework.

We have not even considered Peter Drucker’s question. “The problem created by the breakthrough of scientific knowledge to the core of human existence is not political. It is spiritual and metaphysical. It poses the question: What is the meaning of knowledge and power? What is the meaning of human existence and of human spirit . . . Both knowledge and power must be grounded in a purpose beyond the truth of knowledge and the glory of power.”

Future generations depend on whether we’re capable of understanding the significance of Drucker’s questions, and answer them. As a human family, our very existence depends on whether we address such questions before embarking on “surpassing” Homo sapiens and introducing a “post-human” civilization.

The Forgotten Domain

A critical factor, left out of all such discussion, is the whole realm of the unconscious. In recent decades, psychology has made great gains in understanding the conscious functioning of the brain. Less attention, however, has been given to the unconscious. While certain groundbreaking work has been done, no one of the stature of Jung or Freud has taken their investigation of the unconscious to a significantly new level. Indeed, the implications of Jung’s exploration into the collective unconscious—that foundational layer of unconsciousness common to all humanity—are blithely dismissed by some, and generally ignored by others in the scientific community. Yet the unconscious may well determine far more of our collective activity than does the conscious.

One result, according to Richard Tarnas, professor of psychology and philosophy, and author of The Passion of the Western Mind, is that as scientists and technologists pursue their vision of technological transcendence, “unconscious factors are ignored. It’s just these unconscious factors that will eventually disrupt the developmental trajectory so confidently predicted by technologists.” Tarnas then offers a thoughtful comment about the psychology behind the quest for technological transcendence: “Purveyors of such future scenarios are blissfully--and often manically--unaware of the deeper psychological impulses driving their quest, the shadow side of their aspirations, and the superficiality of their understanding of either evolution or consciousness. When one is unconscious of so much, one can be certain that one’s plans will not go according to schedule. This does not mean that their visions are harmless, only that they are distorted and, in that sense, likely to be highly inaccurate--though not without consequences.”

Unconscious factors are already manifesting themselves. In the 1950s C.G. Jung first diagnosed the “pathological” character of Western art and culture. Thirty years ago, major corporations didn’t have to think much about mental health. Now, mental and emotional health is the fastest growing component of corporate health insurance programs.

As well, books are now written advising eight year-olds how to recognize the symptoms of stress, and to deal with it in their own lives. Character controlling drugs are taken like aspirin. Our very mode of life has now become our principle cause of emotional and mental disorder.
Why is this happening? One reason is the overload of accelerated change that is swamping people. “Future shock” is taking its toll. Psychologists have long known that glutting people with more information and change than they can absorb and process leads to various forms of emotional or mental instability.

Yet, according to Kurzweil, what we’re experiencing is not simply the acceleration of the pace of change, but the acceleration of acceleration itself. In other words, change growing at an exponential rate. He estimates that the rate of technological change doubles every decade… and thus, the 21st century as a whole will experience almost one thousand times more technological change than did the 20th century.

Now, project forward the predicted million-fold increase in the speed of computers and the resulting ratcheting up of the pace of life over the next two or three decades, and one ends up asking, “How much more of this can the human metabolism take before individual psychological dysfunction creates collective social breakdown?” No society can progress and prosper once it drops below a certain level of emotional and psychological balance. Long ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan viewed the USA as exhibiting “the qualities of an individual going through a nervous breakdown.”

It’s not as if we haven’t been warned about the consequences of overreaching. Alvin Toffler noted in 1970 that by “blindly stepping up the rate of change, the level of novelty, and the extent of choice, we are thoughtlessly tampering with the environmental preconditions of rationality.”

The Critical Moment

Centuries earlier, however, everything in human myth and religion warned about trying to become as the gods. These myths and stories caution that there are limits to both human knowledge and endeavor; to go beyond those limits is self-destructive. No one knows exactly where such limits might be. But if they don’t include the effort to create some technical/human life form supposedly superior to human beings, if they don’t include the capacity to genetically reconfigure human nature, if they don’t include the attempt to introduce a “post-human” civilization, then it’s hard to imagine where such limits would be drawn.

We must remember that myths are more than fanciful stories left over from the childhood of man. They emanate from the unconscious level of the psyche, which connects us to whatever transcendent wisdom may exist. Mind and matter may be but two dimensions of some larger reality, some fundamental pattern of life common to both that is operating outside the understanding of contemporary science. In other words, we may be fooling around with phenomena that are, in fact, beyond the ability of humans to comprehend. Five thousand years of human experience suggests that at the heart of life is a great mystery that does not yield to rational interpretation. This eternal mystery induces a sense of wonder out of which all that humanity has of religion, art and science is born. The mystery is the giver of these gifts, and we only lose the gifts when we grasp at the mystery itself. Nature will not permit arrogant man to defy that mystery, that transcendent wisdom. In the end, Nature’s going to win out.

Some people are already searching for the wisest way to approach such potential challenges as the new technologies present. Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, described by The Economist as “the Edison of the Internet,” suggests we’ve reached the point where we must “limit development of technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” His concerns are based on the unknown potential of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, and the possible uncontrollable self-replication of these technologies. Joy acknowledges the pursuit of knowledge as one of the primary human goals since earliest times. But, he says, “If open access to, and unlimited development of, knowledge henceforth puts us all in clear danger of extinction, then common sense demands that we reexamine even these basic, long-held beliefs.”

Third trend at the heart of the transformation: A long-term spiritual/psychological reorientation. This reorientation is the basis for suggesting that what we are facing is not a crisis between civilizations, but within civilizations. This holds true for all civilizations today—for what once was called Western Civilization, for Islam, as well as for the Chinese and Hindu civilizations. In fact, what once was called a “civilization” is increasingly a less apt description of any particular peoples. For a civilization presumes a shared worldview, commonly accepted standards of conduct, a shared perception of values, and above all, a collective spiritual expression that represents life’s highest meaning.
Such a condition no longer exists in America. 

When we talk of an “American worldview,” whose worldview are we talking about? The worldview of some forty-eight million fundamentalists who, according to Time magazine, believe the world will end in their lifetime? Or the worldview of a Danny Hillis who says that when computers go millions of times faster than today, the world will reach an “Omega Point” and all life will be transformed beyond anything we can conceive of today? Or Michael Brooks and others who see everyone eventually linked to an electronic consciousness and “Global Brain” via the Internet? Or those who assert we’ve reached the end of the Homo sapiens epoch? Or the traditional Christian who believes the chief end of man is to “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever”?

Thus, the crisis within civilizations is a spiritual and psychological crisis that, in America, has been building for at least the past century. We’re now reaching some sort of critical moment.

Historically, religion has been a collective, not an individual phenomenon. The psychological function of religion has been at least threefold: to validate a certain moral order within a given civilization; to offer myths that connect a civilization to life’s transcendent dimension; and to link the individual’s conscious life with its unconscious grounding.

How is the spiritual and psychological life of today’s America best gauged? By public opinion polls that tell us well over ninety percent of the American people say they believe in God? By how many people attend a place of worship? By the proliferation of over 1500 so-called religions in America, including an anomaly called “Catholic-Buddhists”? That’s one way to look at America’s spiritual condition.

Another way is to examine America’s culture and what it’s telling us. Here we find a different story. This is important, because culture is to a nation what dreams are to an individual—an indication of what’s going on in the inner life, in the unconscious realm, which is the crucible of consciousness. In this sense, the unconscious is the crucible of civilization.

An obvious crucial theme of American culture since the First World War has been the supposed “meaninglessness of life.” In The Great Gatsby Daisy says, “I’m pretty cynical about everything. I think everything’s terrible anyhow. Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people.” This was written in 1925 as new technologies were creating new industries, and the stock market was booming. Daisy’s lament was followed in the ‘50s by Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, and later by Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s novels.

Culture, of course, is simply a mirror held up to a people’s psychic life. Western art, literature and cinema have long revealed a profound reorientation taking place in the depths of the Western psyche. In one sense, The Great Gatsby represents a turning point for America. Its publication and resonance in the American psyche signaled that Christianity, the historic religion of the West, was no longer the informing dynamic in the soul of America’s “creative minority” who give us our literature, theater, cinema, music, science and education. At the same time, in Europe T.S. Eliot, Wassily Kandinski, W.B. Yeats and others were signaling the same message. The “falcon cannot hear the falconer,” with the result that we are “hollow men.”

Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that when thoughtful Muslims view the West, they see the social and psychological crises that have accompanied secularization, modernization and the Western worship of technology. So, thoughtful Muslims are concerned that the Western model of modernization may ultimately mean the very extinction of Islam.

This contributes to the increasing presence of fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Shinto. It’s worth considering this trend, as it’s obviously a growing force in national politics and world affairs. It’s also clear that fundamentalism is only one of several expressions of a gathering global psychic epidemic—three other manifestations being the searing fury of terrorism, the projection of ancient archetypes fueling the Arab-Israeli madness, and the quest for technological transcendence discussed earlier.

For Christian fundamentalists, the Book of Revelation is a reference point. It spells out the “end times,” the Apocalypse, and it is taken literally by millions of people. Herein lies perhaps the basic difference between fundamentalists and what might be termed traditional Christians. The latter take Revelation symbolically, as did St. Augustine, not literally. All fundamentalisms tend to divide the world between insiders and outsiders, between true believers and unbelievers, the saved and the sinners, “us” and “them.”

Those who interpret Revelation literally believe “end times” means the end of the world. But another interpretation might be that it means the end of the Christian eon. The Church fathers long ago prophesied the end of the Christian epoch, but no date was given as to when it would happen. The meaning of the Apocalypse may not be the end of the world, but the end of a particular way of interpreting transcendent reality, while a new spiritual dispensation emerges. It has happened several times before in history.
Now?


The word “apocalypse,” from the Greek, means “revelation, an uncovering of what has been hidden.” According to depth psychologist Edward Edinger, who wrote a book on the psychological meaning of Revelation, there are four features of the image of the Apocalypse: revelation, judgment, destruction and renewal. Revelation discloses new truth about life. Judgment assesses the state of contemporary conditions in light of this new truth. Destruction is the collapse of old forms that are no longer effective within the context of the new truth. Renewal is the recreation of civilization according to the requirements of the new truth. The Western psyche has focused on the destruction aspect of the Apocalypse, virtually ignoring the renewal that will follow.

Against this background, from a psychological point of view, the story of the 20th century might be seen as the working out of these four features of the meaning of the Apocalypse. Humanity has gained more new truth about nature and the workings of the universe in the 20th century than in all previous history combined. Against the background of this new understanding of nature and the universe, we have judged the effectiveness of former beliefs, relationships and institutions. It’s the cause of our redefining the status of social relationships, or the role and authority of the nation-state. Then has come the destruction or collapse of old forms of how we have organized our affairs, forms that are no longer effective in light of our new discoveries. 

This collapse is seen in our need to reinvent our institutions, from education to new modes of self-government. Finally comes the birth of some new pattern of civilization based on the new truth or understanding. A harbinger of this new birth is the greater openness and opportunity for the individual, whatever his or her background or social status. It’s also seen in our expanding sense of identity as we learn more about other cultures and peoples.

Given this interpretation, it appears the Apocalypse doesn’t mean the physical end of the world. Rather, it suggests the end of a particular view of the meaning of human existence, while some new dispensation comes into fulfillment. For those with a literal rather than symbolic interpretation of Revelation, it is world shattering. As Edinger wrote, “Revelation lays out the final scenario of the end of the Christian eon, and describes symbolically the concluding events of the Judeo-Christian myth, the myth that has been the womb and metaphysical container of Western civilization.”

This same process took place as the ancient gods of Rome gave way to Christianity, when the poet Lucretius wrote of the “aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage.” Sounds like today. This process took several centuries to work itself out after the Roman period. As Toynbee noted, the contemporary process has been under way at least since the 18th century. With the advent of instantaneous global information technologies, it has been vastly accelerated, for information technologies transmit not only information, but psychic states of mind as well.

Thus, we’ve been discussing: (1) Globalization—possibly the most ambitious collective experiment in history; (2) a new stage of technology, the objective of which is to supplant human meaning and significance; and (3) a long-term psychological and spiritual reorientation. These are only three of the basic trends moving us between two historic epochs. It’s because of the magnitude and significance of such trends that this essay argues that the crisis is not between civilizations, but within civilized life itself. Thus, the next three decades may be the most decisive thirty-year period in human history.

How do we respond to such a situation? In the USA, all our institutions are being redefined and restructured. In education, countless new experiments are underway, from vouchers to charter schools to home schooling. The legal system is being assisted by the increasing use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Functions formerly executed by local governments are now undertaken by civic and charitable organizations. Numerous steps have been taken to redress the severe environmental imbalance we’ve created.

Perhaps this is a modest start, but at least it’s a start. Clearly, there’s another level of effort to move to. As Bill Joy suggests, such efforts must include a decision whether or not to continue research and development of technologies that could, in his words, “bring the world to the edge of extinction.”

As well, how are individuals to live in a world that’s changing faster than our institutions can assimilate? How do we maintain anchorage and balance when we’re in between two historic ages?

The starting point is simply to understand the underlying changes taking place. As it says in Proverbs, “With all thy getting, get understanding.” This may sound a bit simplistic, but there’s a psychological reason the scriptures say this. The great scriptures of the world are not the expression of the rational intellect as it has evolved over the past five hundred years. Rather, they’re the expression of the unconscious, more particularly the collective unconscious. So it’s our link with the source of transcendent wisdom that’s telling us to “get understanding.” We must get it not simply on the intellectual level, but we must assimilate it so it becomes a part of us.
There seems to be a transformative effect about absorbing understanding. Intellectual understanding doesn’t change us deep inside. Assimilated understanding does. Unless our understanding aligns our approach to life with the needs of the times, it’s of minimal ultimate value.

One place to start is with the some of the subjects considered in this article—globalization, where technology is taking us, what’s our culture telling us, and what’s the meaning of the spiritual/psychological reorientation taking place. We could add: the increasing separation of human life from most other manifestations of life, and the virtual war humans have waged against non-human life, be it the sea, the soil, the sky or other species. This essay has offered certain views on these topics, but others may come to different interpretations.

In summary, we live between two ages. There’s a new epoch of human meaning struggling to take shape for us all. Through the chaos and the killing, through the heartache and inner emptiness, the birth of a heightened consciousness is fighting its way out of the womb into the light.

The womb that nurtures this New Time is nothing less than the human unconscious, especially the deepest strata that is the source of humanity’s greatest potential. The key to unlocking this deeper realm is to know ourselves in a new and deeper way; to become aware of life’s opposites—the persona and the shadow, the good and evil, the loves and hatreds—that dwell within each of us, all of which constitute the totality of who we are. The task is to strengthen the dialogue between consciousness and the limitless creative powers of the collective unconscious, wherein resides life’s highest meaning.

Some eternal, infinite power is at work in each of us, as well as in the universe. This power is the source of renewal of all man’s most vital and creative energies. With all our problems and possibilities, the future depends on how we—each in his or her own unique way—tap into that eternal renewing dynamic that dwells in the deepest reaches of the human soul.

Such is part of the meaning of our moment in history.

William Van Dusen Wishard heads WorldTrends Research, a consultancy concerned with how global changes affect individuals and organizational decisions. His writings have appeared in the Encyclopedia of the Future. He has worked in over thirty countries with international information and education programs. He helped found Up With People, the international educational program for young people. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 11, No. 4, issue 39, Spring, 20