Emerson said we demand profound answers from our institutions, but we fear to ask the questions. Neither you or I are enchanted by institutionalization so I'll paraphrase: If we don't ask the right questions, how will we get the right answers? Perhaps one right question I'd like to put to you is how is society going to escape its timebound thinking?
Well, for me education means literally to be let out or let forth, and so the most immediate educational experience is how to escape time by changing our perception of time so we can find a doorway to another form of consciousness that's nonlinear or integrative. For me that's analogous to Plato's metaphor of the cave -- mounting up to a vision of the good.From this old Platonic tradition the body can be seen as a cave. If you're closed in and go from heartbeat to heartbeat and thought to thought and obsession to obsession, there isn't a chance to escape timebound thinking. This approach to education seems more important than education through great books. I see a different approach to thinking. It is contemplative. It may start as physical experience and then go up to a subtler and subtler --awareness and intergration. To me, that's the simplest way to escape timebound thinking. Therefore it has to be part of one's education.
Were you ever able to pursue this as a professor at MIT or Cornell?
No. It's hard to take a fluorescently lit, acoustically tiled, concrete block classroom and try to achieve the monastery. I suppose it's a question of taste. In the '60s and '70s there were a lot of teachers who were so enamoured of the human potential that they'd come in and say, "Hey kids, now we're going to hold hands and have a moment of silence. Look into one another's eyes and let it all hang out. We'll tell one another our most intimate thoughts." I preferred the purity and austerity of another environment -- one that is contemplative. It's pretty hard to do that at Ohio State or MIT. It's not surprising that the first approach I put forward at college was exploring a rational way to get beneath the roots of the ecological crisis by looking at our way of mechanizing nature, by tracing backward from people like Faraday and Heisenberg to the Pythagorean tradition --that's always been there, even though some scientists have tried to deny it. Conspiracies don't have to be whisperings in the corridor. They can be simply tacit acceptance of what people assume is the nature of reality.
You quoted Heisenberg: "We do not have a science of nature; we have a science of our knowledge of nature. We do not live in nature, we live in our description of nature." How do you deal with people's assumptions of reality? I try in every way to create a context in which the student can discover the experience on which that is based -- see the way we live, which is not in reality, but in a description of reality, written by a society which focuses each historical epoch on a tiny bit of the universe and elaborates it into one grand ideational scheme.
Many of your references are to Eastern meditation. This seems characteristic of many searchers like yourself who tend to ignore the profound spirituality of undiluted Christianity. On the other hand in "Passages about Earth" you write, "The new evolution of man requires a Christ-consciousness of many upright men." Is this an expanded sense of ecumenism?
I think it's the effect of personal experience. I was arised a Roman Catholic, though my father, who began as a Welsh Presbyterian and a Freemason, became a Christian Scientist. Mary Baker Eddy's books were all about the house, but he never communicated much of it to me. Looking back, I feel his quest was so personal that he did not know how either to communicate it or share it. Nevertheless, there was always an atmosphere in which philosophy and religion were acceptable forms of human life. However I, in parochial schools, found only the authoritarian forms of institutionalized Christianity and had to make the journey East to discover and appreciate Christianity. It's very much what T. S. Eliot says, "The end of all your wandering is to come back where you started, and know it for the first time." My orientation now, I think, is decidedly Christian in that the archetype of Lindisfarne is comtemplative scholarship. We have to avoid the temptation of becoming a religious order because that's an idolatry -- a trap. We're much more effective being in the world, being ecumenical and searchers in general, but the ground and roots, the inspiration, the breath, the wind of Lindisfarne is Christian. The Christian metaphors are very powerful ones, and in an age of ecology, the eucharist is a tremendous metaphor because it goes back to the roots of our humanity. A social scientist like Robert Ardrey will say that when we began to kill other animals we moved out of nature and became human. But Glen Isaacs, the anthropologist and archeologist, says what makes us human is food and sharing. Those two different viewpoints are with us today. One image leads to those who believe that the more technologically advanced we become the more we are entitled to survive. But this, I feel, brings on an authoritarian society powered by nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and moves in every satanic directions. Whereas the other image is one of ecology and mutual involvement and the sacred meal of transformation where the grain is turned into bread -- which is a piece of culture --of culture through the making of bread.
One of the most demanding things is dealing with the intensities of a world where the worst and the best grow side by side, like the tares and the wheat. Sometimes it seems our society is based more on effects than causes, reactions rather than responses. What do you see as our resources for coping with this? it seems these tensions have always been this -- within the narratives that we call history. If we go all the way back to the dawn of civilization we have australopithecine, the small and the robust, we have Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, always two archetypes -- Cromagnon and Neanderthal, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the children of light and the sons of Belial. There's something in the structuring of our consciousness in these black-and-white terms that makes it hard for us to achieve value unless we project the reverse and then live it out in or culture. And some find it thrilling to take on the worn out archetypes and relive them for us -- like punk rock, or movies which entertain with scenes of violence. I sometimes have a sense of strangeness, as if this is an alien planet and my true home is someplace else.
I think we're beginning to recognize mental patterns objectified. I think moral and spiritual demands are being shaped coincidentally. That's true, but it's all grossly caricatured at a popular level. At a turn of the spiral, you can get a more subtle version of the same caricature. The people who can't deal with this face the desperate need to violate a norm. We live with perpetual paradoxes. I suppose the energy of destruction is in some sense involved in the transformation into different values. This is traditional for certain forms of mythopoetic thought. In Bosch's picture of the Last Judgment, all hell is breaking loose in the lower part of the painting and above, the sky is cracking open and Jesus is coming to judge the fallen world. There seems to be a relationship between those two. When a civilization disintegrates, its energy polarizes to its most intensely opposite positions. As it moves and expands and reaches its end, the good becomes in a sense more good, the evil more evil, and the whole thing dissolves and moves to a different level. Or something from another dimension erupts into the system, as in "The Last Judgment." We live in a culture in which average men and women are involved in these forms of deeper experience -- though we often see them caricatured in the peddling of consciousness -- in the various things that come out of California.
But even the caricatures sometimes describes a character. With terrorism and the threat of themonuclear war we have clear examples of the moral order coming apart at the seams. Under these pressures the very fabric of civilized life begins to unravel.
We also have tremendous counterfacts to terrorism: you're not abandoning your responsibilities if you attempt to see the counterfacts in a fresh light. A cultural historian must have to be predisposed to alternatives, rejecting many of the assumptions of what's called reality.
I suppose one becomes a cultural historian because of the search for alternatives. It's a way of delivering us from the imprisonment of the present. It's like driving in a car. The image of the past you see in your rear view mirror is directly related to your motion in the present. And as you change your position in the present, the view in your rear view mirror changes. Seeing where you've been can help you change your direction at this moment. Sometimes, of course, people get caught, look only at the rear view mirror and drive over a cliff. Politicians seem to be classic examples of people who are always invoking the past. For example, this presidential election is inv voking all the shibboleths of a culture and a world system that no longer exists. All the presidential candidates are looking in the rear view mirror.
In one of your books you write, "We must not let anyone near the political process who has not stepped out of a small mind and encountered the fullness of being. If he is still operating from the same old limitations of ego he is going to generate chaos." How long shall we wait?
Our candidates are images of us. But we're coming to a crisis -- and I think Orwell's date of 1984 is faily accurate -- in which the world system will crack at the seams in terms of industrialization, urbanization, nationalism. I think all the old cliches invoked in 1980 will be obsolete. Then the pattern you were talking about will become more pronounced. Things will polarize into stark good and evil. I have my candidates for both sides, and I would identify the good ones in the camp of decentralization and ecology and windmills and solar collectors and those concerned with a humane environment, where science, religion and art can unite in harmony for the sake of life.
Then this means dealing with our myths. Voltaire said that history is the lies we agree upon. But myth might be a kinder, more exact word than lies. How long are we going to support the myths our societies have created? I think we will support them as long as they seem descriptive. If we don't live in reality , to go back to Heinsenburg's point, we live in a description of reality. Each cultural epoch lives in such a description until the description wears out, whether it's the Sumerian description or the Graeco-Roman, the Medieval or the rise of the modern world in the 16th century which is described as basically scientific, materialistic, humanistic. Now we seem to be coming to the end of that description. So once again, the implicit components become more polarized and you get the grossest form of rugged individualism, of "me and mine," the worst forms of industrialization, of biased fear, of nationalism. I think the ' 80s are going to be caught between a kind of American fascism -- almost a wedding of black magic and technology -- and a totally different quantum leap to a different culture and a different system. America isn't ready for it yet because it still believes the old is adequate. And sometimes that's good, Because if everything coming down the pike were immediately adopted, we'd lose many great values. But I think we are coming into a new world system and new politics. I imagine we'll have four-party instead of two-party system is capable of describing the dynamics of change. The transition may be apocalyptic because people don't change unless forced. If you give people a choice between high employment and ecological conservation, they'd rather destroy the biosphere than lose their jobs. They'd rather work in a nuclear reactor than worry about the next mortgage.
So we really have totems we're supposed to honor as well as myths we're supposed to propagate?
Yes, they're all forms of idolatry. Gold is a good example because in a culture that doesn't realize value isn't in objects but in relationships, value becomes something that can be locked up and hoarded.
What kind of risks are we going to have to take to make changes in our planetary contract?
Well, we're risking ecological devastation, for one, so we'll learn the need to shift our systems from economics to ecology. We're a society desperate for a fix -- addicted to oil and unable to give it up. This is insanity -- it's the pathology of the junkie. And by "our American way of life" people don't mean Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. They mean Cadillacs and Las Vegas.
But there is a counterforce to this.
Our best chance is that planetary damage will force us to move from economics to ecology as a governance for organizing society. And that warfare will force us to move beyond nationalism. The failure of support systems for cities like New York and Calcutta will force us to decentralize. I take heart that the point of view I've been trying to put forth as the meta-industrial village in my book, "Darkness and Scattered Light," is shared by others whom I respect. I'm not the only person making this critique and offering a different blueprint. I think it's going to be more relevant in 1984 than now. But at the same time it begins to be relevant, its near opposite will be verym opposite. There will be a group of really hysterical people seeking solutions. I think 1984 is going to be the year when the sons of light fight with Belial. It's going to be dicey.
Where will the sons of light come from? Will they be artists? Will they come from the pulpits, ashrams, institutions? Or will they be simple people, with a spiritual vision?
I tend to see the fullness of culture as forms of individual regeneration. Artists, yes. The artists first understands the prophet, then writes his book or poem or music for a large audience. We live now in a period in which our institutions are woefully inadequate to deal with the transformation -- though they include many great things. This is the part of me that is very conservative. It likes the comfort of being a college professor, and the comforts of tradition, and the B Minor Mass and all that. But there's another part of me which says I have to be willing to let them all go.