I'm going to demand access." You know, that's what the handicaped slogan is: "Access." "I want to be able to get on buses and streetcars and elevators: I have a right to be a person without any apologies. I've lived for generations feeling guilty for not being 'normal.' And have been made to feel ashamed." This is a revolutionary development in human ethics. This sense of innocence is deeply disturbing to a lot of people. We're struggling with new moral horizons. Two or three hundred years ago, plenty of people said equality was shameful. You had to stay in your place. But people went on demanding equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and in the eyes of a lot of conservative spirits of the time, that was simply immoral -- "terribly selfish to assert your equality." Yet it's everybody's liberation. Nobody becomes a person at somebody else's expense. Uniqueness is noncompetitive by its very nature. It doesn't cost anybody anything except the stereotypes and the prejudices. This is what you have to understand about the women's movement, for example. The women are not demanding supremacy in the world, a position of domination in the world. What they are demanding is the right to be themselves, free of feminine stereotype.
Which also frees men.
Right. Men have the male stereotype. This is not something that it selfish in the sense of self-interest. It's very difficult in our culture to use the word "self" -- self-interest, self-importance, self-indulgence, selfish. But beyond that, there is a positive meaning to "self" -- when I want to see you become all that you can be and you want to see me become all that I can be. We all profit from that.
What about what you called the "new monasticism"?
Invoking the example of monasticism has a very specific reason. It's one of our very important historical precedents for believing that the personal, the convivial, is ecological -- can be brought together into a harmonious whole. It seemed to me that the monastic communities in the past achieved something of that harmony. They started with a deep personal need for salvation, for a place of solitary contemplation and meditation. For inviolate respect for the right of the person. At the same time, it was a community of equals. It was a deeply convivial and very durable social form. This remarkable balance between the personal and the convivial unified in a way that did not seem the least bit impossible or contradictory.
It was also a surrendering of success and wealth.
That's right. It was an assertion of spiritual health of a noncompetitive kind. And the community was rigorously egalitarian. All of these communities turned out to be so practical that they often endured for generations, offering a very stable and wholesome way of life in a chaotic world. They didn't starve or tear up the environment. It was a remarkable example of an inventive way of life that was simple and modest. The monastic precedent suggests the very real possibility that spiritual growth can be integrated with practical necessities. Those people in the Middle Ages laid some of the foundations of industrialism, they also laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. They built hospitals, they took in elderly and poor and social misfits, they performed all the things we think of as the social services; they made a profound contribution simply because they were free of material values.
To what extent do you feel we are in a desert experience? To what extent is what you describe as the wasteland of modern society just a place and a time for rebirth?
You must recognize that it's in the deserts and the wastes that Western culture was born. Christian renewal came out of the deserts; people searching for salvation; because need was authentic, we got a new culture. I think a lot of people today go through something like the wasteland experience of our desert fathers, but they do it in the wilderness of the cities. They're thrown back on themselves, they achieve solitude in spite of their longing for company. Then maybe out of that can come breakthroughs into fellowship.
Would you say the same thing for the growth of a new religious sense?
Yes. A lot of the new religious movements are a sign of the times. It's a mixed phenomenon -- inane and sleazy stuff going on, as well as good, honest, solid, sensitive work. So you have to have patience. Many of these things fail and some succeed. I certainly don't believe that the way forward -- as many people do -- is centralism, or the working class, or nationalistic movements. These are too big, faceless, and without character.
Will the new institutions be biodegradable?
Well, one thing about utopian experiments is that they're certainly biodegradable. When they stop satisfying all the members they decay and vanish. But the said thing about the big institutions we've created that they don't decay. They go on like zombies.
What is to ensure that the disintegration of industrial society will be creative? That it will not lead to large-scale calamity?
Nothing guarantees that. It seems to me that the latter '70s were a peculiarly cynical and wounding period. Especially on the intellectual level. Most people have terrible stories of corruption and decline. Cynicism becomes a style. I don't think there's any point in that. The intention in all my books, which often have their dark, negative sides, is to stress creative and hopeful possibilities that are already at work -- though you'd have to be a fool to say that just because those possibilities are around, they're going to live. But you can help educate, you can help clarify values and hope that something good will emerge. We don't need any more negativity. We just don't need one more ounce of it. It's a distortion to say that what underlies all this search is nothing but a commercial operation. It simply makes no sense to criticize hungry people for being hungry just because somebody's serving them adulterated food. The hunger is necessary. You criticize the people who serve up the adulterated food, but you respect the appetite that reaches out for it. That's what I'm trying to do -- respect the appetite of the times, for new values, new beginnings.