by Jeremy Johnson
One must honor beauty, idealism, and the hunger for progress, while confessing in Marxist or Nietzschean style how much blood and wretchedness lie at their root. Only by bowing to our mortality can we live fulfilled.” – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution
In my entry I’m going to offer a critical reading of Jeff Salzman’s video ‘The Case for Progress’ by viewing it through the lens of the Hebrew prophetic tradition.
Let me first begin by making a couple of important general statements. The first is that I’m well aware of the type of cultural pessimism that Salzman refers to in the video, in fact, I hear it all the time. I’m currently in seminary at the moment and even there, even right within this spiritual tradition where themes of hope, promise, and a future kingdom of God on earth are central, deep pessimism about humanity and our current situation abounds. Many of my classmates are wearily waving the white flag, and I find myself running around with the defibrillator of hope, trying to resuscitate my fellows who are drowning in their anguish.
And this relates to my second point- I’m an unabashed optimist. I have been since as long as I can remember. Since I was twenty I’ve been making impassioned speeches to people about a better future. I didn’t even really know why at the time, I could just feel it in my bones that something was wrong with the way things were, and that something else was possible. Bruce Springsteen, no stranger to the promise, became my favorite musician, and I clung hard to the passion and dynamism I found in poets like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. “Allons! the road is before us!”
Fast-forward to two years ago and I had a sort of watershed moment with all this when I saw Charles Eisenstein speak for the first time. Standing in front of about a hundred or so people, Eisenstein just sort of casually said that, “something wants to be born on this earth”. And he called this “the better world our hearts know is possible”. I just kind of sat there stunned, relieved and grateful. Others were feeling this too. Excellent.
So I actually share Salzman’s general view that the universe is going somewhere, that this telos or directionality is a good one, and that this unfolding also wants to happen (and to some extent is already happening) on this earth. In my writings at Beams and Struts I voiced this view in multiple entries, often surfacing with this vision after first diving into darker territory. So I could not be more in agreement with Salzman on this important front.
Now let me turn to the prophetic tradition and highlight three major aspects of the prophetic voice and its unique role in human transformation, and through this lens suggest ways in which Salzman’s talk falls short.
The first characteristic is one we’ve actually already touched upon- the prophet as energizer. As Walter Brueggemann writes in his 1978 classic The Prophetic Imagination, “It is the task of the prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the newness that is at work in our history with God” (1). The prophet is a bearer of hope and vitality for the weary. Through the use of poetic and impassioned language (s)he enables what Teilhard de Chardin called the “activation of energy”, and gives voice to a people’s repressed yearnings for a different future. It’s this impulse that I suspect animates Jeff Salzman’s video, or at least it’s this role that I see him enacting in the talk.
But there’s an important correlate to this role of vital energizer, which is that the hopelessness found in a given historical context is usually brought on by a system of political and economic domination. The despair and anguish the prophet seeks to dispel through their energization is often produced by a situation of profound oppression and a ruling power that the majority cannot imagine changing. We live in one of those times. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously quipped recently that the reason there’s so much apocalyptic literature in our culture today is that ‘people can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. According to Brueggemann the dominant powers always seek “to overcome history and therefore by design the future loses its vitality and authority” (2). It’s in the interest of a ruling elite to have the general population believe that there’s no possible alternative future (Margaret Thatcher’s TINA in our day), as this saps people of their spirit and hope and thus power. We can also see this move in our time with the “end of history” ideology that was triumphantly pronounced after the fall of communism.
This situation leads to the second role of prophet, which is to express the grief, anguish and despair that people are feeling in these periods, as it often gets repressed or pushed away because it’s too hard to face and bear. The prophet acts as a courageous vehicle through which this collective grief can be released of its disabling power; the prophet “brings to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there” (3).
One person who is profoundly playing this role in our time is Stephen Jenkinson, who calls himself ‘the Griefwalker’. Jenkinson argues that “we are living in a dying culture” and that there’s a lot of “unspoken dread” about this disturbing fact (4). I think that this is much of what animates the strong current of pessimism that pervades our culture. We can add to this something that Charles Eisenstein said recently, which is that behind the veil of cynicism often lies a broken heart. It’s actually out of a deep caring that this gloomy negativity is arising, and this needs to be better understood and attended to in my view. I think Jeff Salzman too quickly and easily (and uncaringly) dismisses this dimension in his talk. But Salzman is not alone, for too long now in the integral-evolutionary community people have been pushing against this cynicism by minimizing this pain and relentlessly promoting anything at all (whether a book or article or video) that’s a possible counter to it. But Brueggemann points out that it’s precisely by entering into and genuinely holding the despair that we can truly allow the space for a different future to emerge. He writes:
Jesus’ concern was for the joy of the kingdom [of God]. That is what he promised, and to that he invited people. But he was clear that rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order…There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come. There is mourning to be done for those who do not know the deathliness of their situation. There is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power and the freedom to bring it to speech. This grief work is a precondition of joy…Only the public embrace of deathliness allows newness to come. (5)
So although this impulse to resist the prevalent cynicism and promote what’s positive is understandable enough, I think this one sidedness needs to be transcended and augmented with a full-hearted embrace of this despairing dimension. As Chris Dierkes wrote in an article at Beams and Struts, it’s time for the (over) emphasis on Eros to be combined with a thorough going Agape, and I don’t think we’ve really yet to explore in a general way how the latter might open up and enable the former.
In a recent article entitled Progress or Pessimism- How Should We Think About the Future?, Carter Phipps makes some further cautionary points when it comes to this partial orientation towards progress. He writes:
Optimism can carry with it a concurrent blindness, especially when it’s driven by the need to prove wrong all of those counter-cultural thinkers who are telling us that capitalism has failed and modernity’s promise is a mirage…
And here is the delicate part: If we’re more concerned about defending modernity than actually embracing the world as it is and the evidence as we find it, we may downplay and dismiss critical issues that need our attention.
This last point brings me the third and final characteristic of the prophetic voice that I want to highlight, which is a deep passion for justice. At 14:27 of his talk Jeff Salzman utters a sentence that I find truly astonishing and morally reckless. He says that with his evolutionary worldview he now realizes he “can actually just trust the system, because I see that it’s reliable. And isn’t that a relief”. Wow.
Forget about the more fundamental possibility that capitalism itself is the crisis, or that structural violence is endemic to its operations (as Marx understood early), or that some outcomes of this are that medicine is kept from people who need it by patent laws and profit motives or that even Bill Gates admits that “capitalism will spend more on men’s hair loss than malaria”. What’s worse then these basic points is that a turbo-powered market-fundamentalist version of capitalism has been dominant on this planet for the last forty years and has resulted in by now undeniable amounts of inequality, environmental devastation and widespread suffering, which cannot just be glossed over any longer as Salzman does.
Just listen to this (tiny) litany of the signs of our times. After the financial crash that was brought on by corrupt financial systems ‘too big to jail’, corporate profits are soaring as worker income limps. We have price fixing and bank scandals at the highest levels, and governments that have been totally corrupted by money, leading some to speak of a “coup d’etat in slow motion”. There are new elite classes of super wealthy who are not beholden or responsible to any nation, and they’re building fortresses to protect themselves. Corporations routinely avoid paying taxes to nation states by keeping money in tax havens, while austerity is systematically pushed on general populations and the working class is demonized. Slavery has reentered the United States, a place where whole communities are being left behind, for-profit jails are being expanded to house the growing and potentially dangerous impoverished populations, and police forces have become increasingly militarized. As George Carlin summed it up in one of his last performances- “there’s a big club and we ain’t in it”.
This is not a reliable system, nor is it one we should just sit back and trust.
For the prophets and for the Judeo-Christian tradition in general justice isn’t just something that we hope for, something that would be a nice add on to the inevitable wreckage of history, it’s something much deeper and more fundamental and than that. Abraham Heschel describes this key point in his 1962 ground breaking text The Prophets:
[For the prophets] justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern. It is not only a relationship between man and man, it is an act involving God, a divine need. Justice is His line, righteousness His plummet (Isa. 28:17). It is not one of his ways, but in all His ways. Its validity is not only universal, but also eternal, independent of will and experience. (6)
The integral political writer Joe Corbett has questioned the absence of a justice dimension in integral discourse, asking, “Is justice a part of the shadow of Integral Theory, a kind of repressed aspect of its existence?” Salzman’s statement would seem to answer this question in the overwhelmingly affirmative.
Let’s hold this point around justice for a moment and pull back out to the broader story mentioned at the beginning, of a cosmos that’s evolving and going somewhere and which displays tendencies and directionalities (ie. progress) that can inspire great hope. Sri Aurobindo- one of the towering founders of this modern evolutionary worldview- had something important to say on this topic that’s always stuck with me. Aurobindo said that, in his view, ‘Nature’ and the cosmos are indeed going somewhere and are animated by a divinely infused telos. However, there’s nothing to say that humankind will inevitably be going along with this current. In fact, says Aurobindo, if we don’t align ourselves with the greater and wider wholes of which we are only a part (ie. Spirit, earth and cosmos), then we’ll be discarded along the way as just another of nature’s many failed experiments.
Now it is true that we have the increasing scale of society all the way to the mega societies of today, but the idea that this was going to result in a single global brain, and especially that there is some inevitability about this, is what’s not quite right. It could happen. It’s within the realm of possibility, but it is by no means certain. There is such a thing as collapse…I think the real situation is that, yes, there’s an Omega Point, but we have to work real hard to get there. And if we don’t get there, then woe is us. (7)
I think these views are much more sober, realistic and humble then the quasi-deterministic view that Salzman so confidently promotes. And what would it look like for us to move beyond the current global world-system that’s running roughshod over the planet and its inhabitants, and to align with the wider currents of reality? Well one thing might be to take the prophetic teaching on justice seriously, to recognize it as fundamental to God’s dream for this earth, and thus to put the work of justice front and center in an evolutionary worldview and praxis.
The other would be to continue creating systems and modes of being-in-the-world that are life enhancing, that are in accord with earth and cosmos, and no longer so separated, extractive and wasteful as our modern civilization has been (8). This difficult transition appears to be humanity’s planetary initiation, and there’s already much movement in this direction that inspires hope. It’s through this ongoing prefiguration of a new society within the shell of the old that we can glimpse the New Jerusalem slowly forming amidst the hard rains of our time.
But this tomorrow will not come inevitably and of its own accord. To shepherd it into being we must acknowledge the cultural death swoon that’s begun, and exorcise our collective grief through a love and broken-hearted solidarity that embraces the deep pain felt by so many. As Brueggemann says when speaking of the prophet Jeremiah, “He cannot cry enough. More tears need to be cried that his eyes will permit” (9). And as Jesus will say later, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).
And finally, let’s always remember the possibility of collapse, or that we humans will not prove fit for the cosmic plan. In a recent podcast interview John Cobb Jr.- the process theologian and great purveyor of the thought of Alfred North Whitehead- said something in this regard that I found quite startling:
If I tried to be very philosophical, and look at things very broadly, I think that the divine experiment on this planet is not going to continue much longer. But I think whatever we have done, whatever we have accomplished, has enriched the life of God and it has not been a waste, so the experiment has not been a total failure. And I hope somewhere else in the universe, maybe many other places in the universe, there are other experiments and some of them will be more successful then this one.
Well I don’t know about you, but I ain’t going out like that. I appreciate the humility and graciousness with which Cobb spoke those words, and I admire his ability to really own up to the possibility of a termination to the whole human experiment. But I’m also still convinced that something wants to be born on this earth, this better world our hearts tell us is possible, or what Jesus called the coming ‘kingdom of God’ (10). And with any luck some of the points made in this article will act as one of countless trim-tabs that’ll direct us past the multiple dangers we face, and towards this awaiting future.
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God”. –Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution’
(1) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination.
(2) Ibid, p.
(3) Ibid, p.
(17:30) “The inability to be sad is a culture wide dilemma”.
(18:30) “It’s not pessimism…Let’s be frank and say, that our corner of the world has turned into a low grade hell, certainly during the course of my lifetime. But I would prefer to say that the deeper understanding of what’s happening is, the culture that gave me my education, my livelihood, and so on, that culture’s dying. There’s no question in my mind, I know what dying things look like, I’ve been at enough deathbeds to know the signs and the symptoms, and the culture itself is beginning to die. I’m not talking about the rivers being fouled, although that’s certainly a piece of it, or the air, I’m not talking about the wretched economic spirals and the extravagant greed that has become part of doing business. All those things are the signs, they’re not the causes, but the culture itself is dying”.
(23:20) “Those among us who plan to be human while the culture’s dying, our job is to be as close to the death as possible, so someday we can bear faithful witness to it”.
(5) Walter Brueggemann
(6) Abraham Heschel. The Prophets.
(8) “We are on the cusp of realizing ourselves as one species organism, in symbiotic relationship with the planetary ecology as a whole. Once we make this leap, we will share resources equitably, adopt cradle to cradle and no waste manufacturing practices, and shift from competition to cooperation as our basic paradigm. We will go from acting like a parasite or a virus on the earth to becoming the earth’s immune system”. Daniel Pinchbeck. ‘Planetary Initiation. http://www.realitysandwich.com/planetary_initiation
“Earth is primary and humans are derivative….The Earth economy can survive the loss of its human component, but there is no way the human economy can survive and prosper apart from the Earth economy….There is no such thing as a human community in any manner separate from the Earth community. The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single integral community or we will both experience disaster on the way. However differentiated in its modes of expression, there is only one Earth community—one economic order, one health system, one moral order, one world of the sacred.” Thomas Berry. The Ecozoic Era. Eleventh Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, 1991. http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/publications/lectures/berry/thomas/the-ecozoic-era
(9) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. p.51.
(10) For a good nuanced discussion of Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God, cf. this sermon/post by Father Chris Dierkes. http://beamsandstruts.com/bits-a-pieces/item/778-sermon-the-real-meaning-and-practice-of-the-apocalypse