Thriving in the Crosscurrent:

Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change




Why This Book, Why Now?

Chapter 1

Rhyming Hope and History

Chapter 2

Just Changing . . . or Evolving?

Chapter 3

Four Strong Winds

Chapter 4

Three Crossings

Chapter 5

Modernity: How Can a
Sea Change Go Wrong?

Chapter 6

Who Says It’s
Getting Better?

Chapter 7


Chapter 8

Life in the Renaissance

Chapter 9

The Second Axial Age

Chapter 10

Thriving in the Crosscurrent


History says, Don’t hope

on this side of the grave,

But then once in a lifetime

the longed for tidal wave

of justice can rise up

and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

on the far side of revenge.

Believe that a farther shore

is reachable from here

Believe in miracles

and cures and healing wells.

                          —Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy


Thriving in the Crosscurrent has been a labor of several years of researchand writing. But as I reflect on the project now, it’s clearer than ever that the central concept—cultural evolutionary sea change—rests on four intellectual pillars.

I’d like to offer a personal introduction to these structures. That is, I’d like to share my discovery of them and the intellectual excitement that drove me to write this book. As you’ll learn, the experience convinced me that, despite appearances to the contrary, things are getting better rather than worse in our era; that this is one of those rare times in world history where old values and beliefs give way to new values and beliefs; that we are in the midst of what I call a sea change. To understand this premise, let’s examine its four foundations: interdependence, paradigm shift, cultural evolution, and the emerging global consensus of values.

The first critical idea is that all existence is woven together in an interdependent web. Interdependence has been a central organizing principle for me since I first encountered the exquisite Mahayana Buddhist version of the concept in the work of my graduate advisor, Professor Isshi Yamada, and his own teacher and mentor, Dr. Hajime Nakamura.

The Buddhist teaching of interdependence has often been misunderstood as representing a complex causal system of countless elements. Actually, it lies at the heart of the famous (and equally misunderstood) Buddhist notion of no-self. If everything exists in interdependent relationship to everything else, no thing is a “thing in itself.” This seemingly puzzling idea can be grasped easily if you recognize this truth: no person, no thing, no act is an island. The Buddha is simply reminding us that no thing exists outside the context of infinite relationship to all other interdependent things. The Vietnamese Buddhist spiritual teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh puts it beautifully: “The simple fact is, we inter-are.”1

When I became hooked on interdependence as a philosophical insight of tremendous explanatory power, I began to seek it out in traditions closer to home—in Western philosophy, Christianity, and Western science. It was there, of course, but surprisingly rare in philosophical and theological thought. Intriguingly, the richest yield came from the depths of Western mystical expression and the far reaches of science. Mystics like Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich were no strangers to the concept. Later thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Jean Gebser plumbed its depths. And in twentieth-century science it appeared frequently in discussions of the nature of systems. From subatomics to ecology to the rediscovery of the mind-body link, holism seemed to be making its mark.

In time, this fascination took form in my graduate dissertation, “The Eye of the Triangle,” a comparative study of Buddhist philosophy and twentieth-century Western physics, with an addendum on Christian theology. In it I argued that interdependence is a key factor in all three systems. I still believe that exploring the ways in which systems— including the universe itself—interdepend is the most central, productive inquiry of our time.

The second source of inspiration came from my discovery of Thomas Kuhn, the historian and philosopher of science. His controversial The Structure of scientific Revolutions has long been one of the two or three most often cited books in modern scholarly literature. Kuhn’s famous idea—also routinely misrepresented—is that changes in prevailing scientific theory often come about catastrophically. That is, they win acceptance only after the collapse of an earlier dominant paradigm—a set of assumptions, ways of thinking, and “things known to be true” in a particular field. Paradigm shifts always result from a swarm of anomalies, scientific results that fly in the face of well-supported expectations.

I encountered Kuhn’s ideas while researching my dissertation. I confess that my first infatuation suffered from a much broader interpretation of “paradigm shift” than the philosopher would have allowed; paradigm shifts of every sort seemed to be underway in nearly every field of inquiry. I still believe that to be the case, but realize that his remarkable work bore only indirectly on my interest in broader cultural patterns outside the fields of science.

Still, Kuhn’s greatest contribution to my own understanding of cultural value change was his pairing of the terms paradigm shift and anomaly. In order for an established set of values (in science, morals, or culture at large) to decline in influence, some of its principle dogmatic concepts must begin to lose their persuasive power. While Kuhn and his followers might find this statement a gross oversimplification, it is quite useful in analyzing cultural change. Without Kuhn and his anomalies, I’m not sure I would have been convinced that ours is a time of significant—interdependent—paradigm shifts.

Here’s one more key thing I learned from Kuhn: belief in shifting paradigms differs sharply from belief in progress. Faith in the steady advance of progress assumes that today’s guiding principles, values, and premises will remain sound tomorrow. In fact, the advance through anomalies and paradigm shifts proceeds very differently. It operates in the certainty that sooner or later today’s assumptions will no longer be fully attuned to our deepening understanding of reality.

This brings us to the third foundational idea: cultures evolve to facilitate a better fi t between their guiding values and the real world. It’s a concept I learned to articulate fairly easily but could defend only with great difficulty.

After graduate school, I taught at the college and graduate levels in religious studies and directed an adult study center, Common Ground, cofounded with Ron Miller, a former teacher and now a close colleague. Soon my research and teaching began to reflect the realization that something more comprehensive than scientific paradigm shifts was underway. The importance of the concept of interdependence began to be cited in discipline after discipline. It began to shape the discourse in health care, education, science, social science, geopolitics, ecology, and many more fields. In an interdependent universe, after all, shouldn’t systems of thought, values, and ways of seeing be as interpenetrating as physical systems were proving to be?

I came to see the growing recognition of interconnectedness as an indicator of a major cultural evolutionary shift. Some fifteen years ago, I contributed the introduction to a book on the meeting of science and religion. It contained this passage: “We live in a time of transition from mechanistic and reductionistic models of experience to models that may be characterized as holistic, or even ‘organic.’ The most central fact of the modern shift is the rediscovery of the interdependence of all existence. Its characteristic theme is the convergence of what had seemed impossibly disparate and unrelated dimensions of reality and modes of human experience.”2

The freedom afforded me by my involvement in Common Ground led to the exploration of a wide range of topics—in history, philosophy, culture, religion, spirituality, psychology, and science. Each seemed increasingly inclined toward holistic approaches. And as new models developed, new insights into the nature of reality disclosed anomalies, new understandings not predicted by older ways of thinking. In health care, for example, the centuries-old separation of mind from body suddenly seemed quite inadequate.

In countless fields, the buildup of anomalies weakened the dominance of the older architecture of values. Descriptions of interdependent systems were taking shape and altering some of our most basic paradigmatic assumptions about reality. With those new understandings came the gradual emergence of newer values of every sort. Culture was evolving, and that process was something I wanted to know a great deal more about.

The fourth major insight—into an emerging global consensus of new values and commitments—developed more slowly, as a result of a fortuitous opportunity that came my way. In 1988, I became a founding trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. Originally the group came together to create a centennial commemoration of the first international gathering of the great religious traditions as part of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893. As it happened, the 1993 gathering of eight thousand people from all over the world turned out to be much more than a commemoration. It was a parliament in its own right, a celebration of dialogue among the world’s religions and cultures. Happily, it focused most of its energy on how religious communities, singly and in interreligious collaboration, could address the most critical issues facing the world at the close of the twentieth century.

While there was a great deal of profound theological and dialogical exchange, the real action for me, as program director, lay in focusing on crises facing the planetary community and asking what could be done. We determined that the great challenges lay in three profoundly interdependent areas: peace and nonviolent conflictresolution, socialeconomic justice and human rights, and ecological sustainability. Our inquiries into these areas also revealed that much was already being done, with increasing effectiveness. It was my first glimpse of the emerging global consensus of values and strategies. The experience of a new wave of emerging values was confirmed and deepened when I served as global director of the parliament and helped to create the 1999 parliament in Cape Town, South Africa.

That new global consensus is exemplified by inspiring realities I have been privileged to observe firsthand. They are the major themes of this book and include:

  • the centrality of peace, justice, and sustainability;
  • the growth of the global interreligious movement toward pluralistic dialogue and compassionate service; and

  • the new phenomenon of globalization from the bottom up—the ever-growing network of groups, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental agencies, and committed individuals who are striving every day to build a better world.

But none of this would be happening if humankind’s dominant cultural values and assumptions were not undergoing a rare cultural evolutionary transformation—a sea change. It is a phenomenal occurrence, one that offers not only hope at a time of major global challenges but clarity at a time of increasing uncertainty and confusion.

Thriving in the Crosscurrent sets out a rich array of possibilities. While the focus is primarily on life and culture in the United States, the animating concern is global. The text touches on issues of psychology and sociology but is hardly a social scientific study as such. It has a deep interest in historical (and historic) matters but is not a history. Nor is this a spiritual or philosophical primer, though it is fi lled with interesting spiritual questions.

It is, I hope, a persuasive essay about one of the most important passages in the course of our human journey. You be the judge. Perhaps the greatest and most humbling stage of the entire adventure was the realization that I was far from alone. I was barely in the parade, much less near the front. So many others had led the way, each with her or his uniquely valuable point of view. I hope the one presented here is as helpful.

Order Thriving in
the Crosscurrent

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