I live in sight of the little mountain of Monticello, home of the world-historical genius, Thomas Jefferson. Today the hills are green from all the rain, but the sun has heated the air to a hundred degrees -- harbinger of climate change?
I have just returned from an unusual meeting of scholars, entrepreneurs, and -- overused word -- visionaries. A meeting of like minds.
This meeting of folks from various professions and academic disciplines was called by Ed Kelly, a neuroscientist from the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies. Joining the meeting from the West Coast was Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen, home of the human potential movement in America. I was invited to join the group of about twenty souls who came from all parts of the world.
The aim of the meeting was extraordinary and some might say quixotic. The big concern was nothing less than to plan a metaphysical revolution -- to convert the world to a new vision of reality.
Everybody in this group rejected an idea that dominates academic culture today. Variously named materialism, physicalism, reductionism -- the belief that only physical things are real, from which it follows that we have no minds, no real mental powers, no inner life, and of course -- no soul.
The objection to materialism is concrete and personal. For as a creed it entails the destruction of certain officially disapproved kinds of experience, indeed, anything extrasensory, psychokinetic, imaginal, ecstatic, mystical, inspired, prophetic, and so on and so forth. Like racism, genderism, and fanaticism of all stripes – materialism is a subtle form of violence inflicted on human subjectivity.
Militarism, capitalism, and consumerism, for example, are the intensely practical children of materialism. Militarism chooses force over diplomacy, capitalism idolizes profit above humanity; and consumerism is a kind of slavery we’re taught to love.
Item for worldview fashioners: America has built the mightiest military machine in all of human history, yet Americans are, as Mark Edmundson writes in his great 2014 essay, “One Nation Under Fear.” To calm that fear the current American military budget is about 600 billion dollars.
Something ironical is brewing here. While we’re ready to shell out mountains of cash so we can kill our supposed enemies with aplomb, not a dime is allocated for research on what happens to people after they die. Such research is possible and some of the people at our meeting do such research. The problem is that funds for it are almost impossible to come by.
Driven by a culture of fear, all we can think of is defense. Scared into submission by a government apparatus wed to weapon-making lobbies, all we can imagine is safety. Meanwhile we have evolved into a nation where mass murder of citizens by fellow citizens is part of daily life. And we are told by a politically omnipotent gun lobby that the answer to our gun-killing epidemic is this: from babyhood on, arm every citizen to the hilt!
This ‘answer’ brings us into new territory -- call it the psychotic fringe of physicalism. The collapse of thinking capacity is evident here. America has a problem with gun violence, but gun lobby spokesman, Wayne LaPierre, cannot think beyond gun logic. So all he can say is, if there’s a problem with guns, it must be because there aren’t enough guns. Here we have the killing logic of gross materialism laid bare.
To come back to our meeting of like minds in Charlottesville. Is it any wonder that all sorts of people are looking for new ways of making sense of their lives? Of what it means to be human? Of what may lie behind the too-often grim spectacle of suffering existence on earth?
So, feeling a touch of worldview-blues, we told stories of how we got to the present impasse, how beautiful science can devolve into scientism and whole cultures drift into disenchantment and nihilism.
But now: A key aim of the meeting was to articulate a vision of the future that we were aiming for, if I understood our wise guide, Alex Smith. This is a slow and thoughtful process, and an individual one. There may be one great vision, but each of us needs and should inflect, and give form to, that vision, each in our own way.
Speaking for myself, the vision is based on a creative synthesis of the best elements of our culture: philosophy, science, religion, and all the arts. From my point of view, especially the arts. Unlike science and religion, the arts are by nature enhancers of the life of imagination. Science can and has become the slave of capitalism, militarism and empire-building; religion regularly becomes an instrument of lunatic lies, oppression, and not infrequently annihilating cruelty.
One thing seems clear. The new vision is based on the primacy of mind and consciousness, and celebrates the ‘material’ world as the medium we need to fully realize our creative potential.
We need a vision to put us in touch with the universal core of reality that transcends but also preserves cultural differences. Neither a unity that oppresses or a plurality of warring factions are helpful. What would help is a vision of the oneness of spirit that respects the plurality of traditions, methods, and human temperaments. The important thing would be the way we act out the vision.
Assume then there’s a new enchanting vision that speaks to our better angels. How do we gain for it a fair hearing today? How do we break through the vast wall of 21st century global info-noise?
Perhaps one day an enlightened alien will land on the White House lawn. Or -- who knows? -- it may happen that some love-intoxicated mystic dies and is raised in broad daylight from the dead. The question is: Would people take their eyes off their smart phones long enough to notice the miracle or listen to the extraterrestrial prophet?
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