Why has there been so little attention in our public schools to the 'spiritual imagination'?

- Norman Lear
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
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Life of the Spirit

• Overview
• Packing for the 'Spiritual Journey'
• Education for the Human Spirit
• The Search for E Pluribus Unum
• Power and Principles
Nurturing Spirituality and Religion
• More Reflections on the Meaning of Life
• Declaration of Conscience
• Why I Am a Born Again American
• A Profile of Norman Lear



Nurturing Spirituality and Religion
in an Age of Science & Technology

Remarks by Norman Lear to the American Academy of Religion, Anaheim, California, November 20, 1989.
Reprinted in New Oxford Review, April, 1990

There is a spectacular improbability — not to mention great chutzpah — in my appearance here today.  I come before you as a writer/producer of prime time television entertainment — that's the stuff between the ads for panty hose and Drano — and I come before you as a much-castigated secular humanist and fat cat businessman — to share my insights into spirituality and religious education.  Ain't that a riot?  But before you laugh me off this podium, how about the idea of some obscure ministers from Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, and Baton Rouge becoming major television stars and political crusaders?

When my good friend Martin Marty first suggested that I might have something to say to this gathering, I became more than a little anxious.  Clearly, I am not a student of church history, theology, comparative religion, and the many other subjects which engage your professional talents.  I have, however, enjoyed a life-long love of America and the American people — and I believe I've developed a keen sense of the American culture.  As a consequence, I've spent much of my career in television observing our national quirks and quiddities — and then amplifying them to TV shows.

So with all due respect for the vast storehouse of learning represented in this room, I want to talk today about our nation's moral and spiritual life based on how I feel it — my intuitions, the vibrations that I feel in the air.  All of these, I'd like to state up front, lead me to a deep concern about the unhealthy reticence that exists today to the general discussion of ultimate meanings and the spiritual life — in the media, in the social arena, and especially in our schools.

And yet, as we approach the millennium, I sense in most Americans a deepening thirst for spiritual authenticity, connection, and a sense of shared moral values.  Most people are aware that society has lost its way and, whether or not they think of it in exactly these terms, there is a sense out there that, as a culture, it's imperative we recover a sense of the sacred in our daily lives.  By “sacred,” I am not talking about your sacred symbols or mine.  If we can't find what is sacred in that tree, in that butterfly, in each other, then the sacred symbols of our several religions will never satisfy that yearning for connection of which I speak.

My feeling that something was dangerously amiss in our nation's spiritual life came to a head in the late 1970s, when I was doing research for a film to be called Religion.  I had hoped it would be a humorous look at TV evangelism.  The closer I got to my subjects, however, the more I sobered up.  I was mesmerized and disturbed as I watched hour after hour of the Reverends Jerry Falwell, James Robison, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, et. al. — railing against secular humanism, the public school system, and the Supreme Court — some of them spouting thinly-veiled anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-other intolerances — and blaming their enemies for the nation's moral decline.

It was riveting TV, but the message was shocking — for its content, for what it said about the unmet spiritual needs of millions of people, and for the threats it posed to our constitutional rights and liberties, not to mention to our cultural traditions of pluralism and tolerance.  It was with these concerns in mind that, with the help of many religious and civic leaders, we founded People for the American Way in 1980 — to act as a public witness to our traditional values, and to lobby and litigate to protect them as necessary.

Over the past 10 years, leaders of the Religious Right have called me an atheist, a secular humanist, a Christian-hater, and “the number one enemy of the American family in our generation.”  With the help of my wife, Lyn, I responded to the last accusation by becoming a father for the fourth time, 16 months ago, in my 66th year.

In any event, however much I oppose the Religious Right's moralistic political agenda, I have tried strenuously to understand the subterranean currents of the American psyche which makes it so vulnerable to the blandishments of the Religious Right.  And, truth to tell, I can empathize.

Our values are in disarray.  Our popular culture celebrates the material and largely ignores the spiritual — and it is not unrelated that many, many decent people feel the moral and cultural ground crumbling beneath their feet.

I deplore the way the leaders of the Religious Right have shamelessly exploited people's personal desolation for their own ends — but we are all in debt to the rank and file of the Religious Right for helping to focus a spotlight on the spiritual yearnings of our people.  This happened while, in the legitimate interest of not turning schools into churches, or trampling on minorities, the rest of us failed to read our own hearts or the signs of the times.

It is also unfortunate that too many of us sophisticated, better-educated people in this secular, science-oriented culture regard those who try to “live deliberately” — in Henry David Thoreau's lovely phrase — as somewhat odd.  As a result, moral and spiritual values seem to be expressed publicly by those on the fringes of mainstream culture — the revivalists, the Falwells and Bakkers and Robertsons — the New Age swamis, the “I'm OK, you're OK” ego-boosters.  This, despite the fact that the desire to lead a more purposeful spiritual existence, to search for ultimate meanings, is nothing less than a central theme in the human experience.  This response to life, to Being, the impulse to believe in something larger than oneself, is so strong and irresistible as to seem part and parcel of the way we are genetically coded.

Why is it, then, that both our popular and elite cultures are so skittish in dealing with our spiritual needs in relationship to the Divine?  Why do they resist talking about the sacred?  Why, in our schools, are we so reluctant to grapple with these central questions?

The answers, I believe, can be traced to one of the most powerful unifying myths of our culture — the idea of “progress,” commonly understood as the material betterment of human life through science, technology, and commerce in the marketplace.  Through our mighty industrial empire, American culture pursues a vision of human salvation through technology.  It finds its embodiment in everything from turbo-charged automobiles to hard disk computers; from the fax machine to new, improved caffeine-free cola — things that are wondrous, useful, ingenious, and economically profitable, but which do nothing to satisfy the needs that relate to the inner life, where the capacities for awe and wonder and mystery abide and seek nourishment.

In a culture dedicated to consumerism and obsessed with material well-being, it should not be surprising that the life of the spirit atrophies.  It runs counter to the skeptical, empirical, quantifiable norms of the dominant culture.  So it was no accident that the spiritual hucksters of the Religious Right found such fertile soil to till.  However discredited its means, the Religious Right did find an apt target in the soft underbelly of our scientific, secular society — mainly its indifference and occasional hostility to religion per se and to religious leanings.

This profound and disturbing insight has inspired much of the Religious Right's fanaticism to build an exemplary city on a hill.  In its own way, I find this quite admirable.  But the crusade goes awry when it insists that the only valid spiritual or moral values are fundamentalist Christian ones, and that the secular laws of government ought to embody such sectarian beliefs.  This is, of course, why so many of us spent so much time over the past decade fighting the Religious Right.  It has been a very healthy, educational debate, punctuated by a few nasty episodes — but, in the conflict, the American people have learned a great deal about church/state separation, American pluralism, and the value of an ongoing public discourse concerning our democratic processes.

While we civil libertarians have been triumphant in most of our legal and constitutional battles, I am troubled that so many of us remain blocked or blind to the spiritual emptiness in our culture which the televangelists exploited so successfully.  And I want to suggest that exploring the paradox of a gnawing spiritual hunger in a nation of such past material wealth is more than just an interesting academic concern.  It is an urgent practical one for the human race — because as our appetite for material wealth continues, as it spreads to impoverished Third World countries which understandably want to improve their lives, the pilgrimage toward “progress” is destroying the earth.

Robert Frost captured this sense of spiritual myopia when he wrote, “Back out of all this now too much for us,/ Back in a time made simple by the loss/ Of detail…,” and suggested a return to the headwaters of one's life in nature.  I do not counsel a nostalgia for some romantic, pastoral idyll.  I do urge that we, as a species, begin to assess our role on this fragile little planet.  Because at present, we do not know who we are in the universe and have no sense of our place in cosmic history.

Thomas Berry, in his remarkable book, The Dream of the Earth, suggests that "if we lived on the moon, our minds and emotions, our speech, our imagination, our sense of the Divine, would all reflect the desolation of the lunar landscape.”  But we are on the earth and of the earth, and our powers of imagination are activated by the magic display of color and sound, of form and movement, such as we observe in the clouds in the sky, the trees, bushes and flowers, the waters and the winds, the singing birds, and the movement of the great blue whale through the sea.  And yet, today, in the name of progress, Berry suggests, “We are changing the earth on a scale comparable only to the changes in the structure of the earth and of life that took place during some hundreds of millions of years of earth development.”

There is no doubt that we must address the question of humankind's relationship to the planet — and all of its life forms — and that implies a spiritual reorientation, a fresh examination of what we regard as sacred in the universe, on earth, and in our daily lives.  The glory of the human cannot continue to mean the desolation of the earth.  So, there is reason to strip away our cultural conditioning and give free rein to our instinctual genetic impulses about things sacred and cosmic.  In short, we need to nurture more robust and aware spiritual imaginations.

I wanted to be with you today because I think the people in this room have a vital role to play in meeting this challenge.  You are religious educators.  Your professional lives are dedicated to teaching today's young people and tomorrow's teachers about the life, history, and tradition of human spirituality.  What better forum is there than the schools for allowing students of many faiths — and no faith at all — to talk candidly and respectfully about the common — and I would say genetic — ground they share.

Now, I realize that the public schools are embattled institutions these days, but if they are to stay relevant to the times and truly prepare the next generations for the future, they must play a better role in instilling the values that unite us as a nation.  They must teach about the role religion has played in our history.  And they must inspire students to nurture that inner world, where humans from the very beginning of the species have shared the same sense of awe and wonder as they groped for meaning.  All this without preaching a sectarian creed or degenerating into a moral nihilism.

The controversy over how to treat religion and values in public education is, of course, a persistent one which generates much confusion.  Like most of you, I find myself right there in the middle of the road, where, as Texans are wont to put it, you usually find nothing but a yellow streak and a dead armadillo.  I reject the extremes of moral absolutism on the one hand, and moral abdication on the other.  If it is unacceptable for the schools to adopt a narrow sectarianism, so also is it unacceptable for them to embrace an absolute secularism.  Yes, we must promote cultural literacy and mathematical literacy and good old-fashioned literacy.  But education also demands ethical literacy — and that requires a full discussion of the moral and spiritual values which tend to bind a culture together.

As a civil libertarian and a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I reject the views of those on the Religious Right who want to turn the public schools into sectarian academies — teaching creationist theology as scientific fact, rewriting textbooks to conform with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, making legal provisions for starting each school day with prayer or meditation of a sort, which violates the rights of those whose faith is not represented or those who see themselves as nonreligious.

But I also part with those who are so fastidious in maintaining the separation of church and state that they would purge any reference to God or religion from the public schools.  Among secularists, the aversion to discussing moral values — let alone religion — can reach absurd extremes.  You may have heard about the guidance counselor in New Jersey who refused to tell his high school students whether they would be morally obligated to return a wallet with $1,000 in cash to its rightful owner.  That guidance counselor reportedly said he didn't want to impose his values on his students, thus abdicating his responsibility as an educator, as an adult, and as a human being endowed with the ability to make moral distinctions.

But by far, the most pervasive bias in the schools against things spiritual can be found in the typical textbook.  Nearly three years ago People for the American Way joined a short list of organizations interested in the content of textbooks — and gave great visibility to that effort when it conducted an extensive review of textbooks and discovered an appalling neglect of, and misinformation about, religion.

For fear of offending militant fundamentalists, biology textbooks gave the theory of evolution short shrift.   For fear of offending militant atheists — or fearful of denominations fighting each other — many textbooks barely mentioned the role of religion in American history.  One leading textbook defined pilgrims as people who went on long journeys.  Another leading textbook neglected to mention that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister.  Too many other textbooks completely lost track of religion after the colonial period.

Fortunately, the People for the American Way study triggered new attention to the deficiencies of textbooks.  As a result, a chorus of diverse voices has grown into a consensus that, yes, we do need to do a better job of teaching about religion in the schools.  This sentiment is now shared by the National Council of Churches, the U.S.  Catholic Conference, and the American Jewish Congress.  And there are five school systems in at least five states, including California and New York, which are crafting new curricula to teach about America's rich heritage of religious traditions.

Why, we have to wonder, have we allowed textbook publishers and our educators to give such short shrift to the historic role of religion in American life?  How well have we been teaching American history if we have not been discussing the influence of religion upon our nation's Fathers, or what motivated the abolitionists during the Civil War, or how religiously-motivated activists inspired Prohibition, the civil rights movement, the Anti-War movement, and the prolife and prochoice movements?  And how well can our educators have been preparing youngsters to be fully-rounded human beings — fully able to appreciate Emerson and Thoreau, the Pilgrims, and John Winthrop?

In short, why has there been so little attention paid in our public schools to the “spiritual imagination?”  One reason, I believe, is that the ethos of our times is the captive of another mode of thinking and belief — something I will call the “binary imagination.”

A society obsessively dedicated to the ideals of technological progress is a society addicted to cold, hard numbers as a primary source of values.  That's what makes the very idea of the “bottom line” so irresistible in our culture.  It offers a universal, scientific “hard” currency of judgment, no matter how complex or humanistic the realities.  As if to tame every nook and cranny of our social existence and make them subject to control, our society has created a zillion artificial yardsticks that purport to measure life's many mysteries: human intelligence, scholastic aptitude, the public mood, consumer behavior, the “likability” of TV stars, the quality of sexual response.

This deeply-rooted instinct in our culture is the “binary imagination” — because it mimics the behavior of computers, which distill all data into long strings of binary codes consisting entirely of zeros and ones.  Think about it: For the purposes of manipulating data and controlling some slice of the world, the vast, throbbing richness of the cosmos is reduced to monochromatic strings of zeros and ones.  This is both a crowning achievement of our scientific age and an appalling, presumptuous diminution of the role of moral and spiritual values.

The rise of the binary imagination — and the neglect of the spiritual imagination — is related to the rise of business as a pre-eminent source of values in our culture.  Over the past 40 years, the towers of commerce have grown steadily taller while the old ancestral order —the church, the family, and civil authority —has slowly lost its moral authority in the culture.  Where we drift as a society is determined today more by the decisions of corporate managers — and the values that dictate their decisions — than by any other single influence.  Exactly how this came about, I don't know, but certainly four decades of television's escalating impact has been a factor in transmitting the values of corporate America to society.  As Stuart Ewen has written, “Advertising today has become the primary mode of public address; the term consumer has become a substitute for the word citizen — and the truth is that which sells.  If people buy it, it's right.”

You can follow the impact of these values by simply tracing the recent history of American business — a history marked by an obsession with short-term expediency over long-term vitality, a celebration of material success over other values, and an addiction to the bottom line, no matter the real life consequences.  Over the past two decades, one industry after another — automobiles, steel, consumer electronics, textiles — has failed to anticipate and invest in the future.  They have cut back on basic research and refused to innovate, and, as a consequence, have lost their dominance in the world marketplace.

Even the President's Budget Director, Richard Darman, complains that our nation is suffering from a cultural "now, now-ism" — a shorthand label for our obsession with the here and now, our reluctance to address the future.  Daniel Bell has argued that in promoting an ethic of "materialistic hedonism," the free enterprise system has subverted the very values that once sustained it.

The short-term ethic has become so pervasive — and its influence on the culture so profound — that when we speak of the decline of public morality and personal values, of the “Me generation” and the “culture of narcissism,” of high schools and colleges which, in the pursuit of funding, are willing to graduate young people unable to read and write; when we speak of the increasing use of drugs in sports, of unmarried teen-age mothers who have babies in order to feel loved, and of families with no savings continuing to consume their way into deeper debt; when we speak of a hundred social ills, I think we may be talking about a trickle-down value system that, with the help of television, has come to subvert the entire culture.

In this culture, our children are being raised to believe that there is nothing between winning or losing.  The notion that life has anything to do with succeeding at the level of doing one's best is lost to kids in a bottom-line climate where leadership everywhere lives for the moment and refuses to make provisions for the future.

There is perhaps no better metaphor for this profoundly destructive ethic than our daily consumption of the earth's renewable resources in the pursuit of product and progress.  Each year, every member of an advanced industrial society requires the excavation of 20 tons of minerals.  A billion people require 20 billion tons of minerals a year for the kind of displacement of earth associated with building mountain ranges and forming ocean crusts over millions of years!

Each year, our country's 150 million automobiles burn more oil than the Alaskan oil fields accumulated over the course of 100,000 years — and that only includes cars in the United States.  Each year the earth is losing more than 10,000 species through extinction, and this rate of loss is increasing.  A leading specialist calls this mass extinction the “greatest single setback to life's abundance and diversity since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago.”

The human race is intervening in so many naturally-occurring processes of our biosphere — deciding which species of plants and animals will live and die; how pristine or polluted our air, water, and soil will be; what regions of wilderness or wetlands or forests will be developed for human use or left alone; and in hundreds of similar decisions — that we are taking control of the very life systems of the earth — all life systems, including our own — and beginning the precarious exploration of human genetic engineering.

Now, no one can tell me that these awesome powers we have assumed can be fully discussed in a nonspiritual context.  Not if we agree, as I have suggested, that humankind's impulse to believe in something larger than itself comes spontaneously, genetically, with Being.  The Thomas Berry I referred to earlier is a Passionist father — a priest, 74 years old.  I asked him how Christians and Jews and Muslims and others could handle such a discussion without trampling on each other's sacred symbols.  It was he who suggested that we may have to put the Bible and the Torah and the Koran aside from time to time and “concentrate instead on what we find equally sacred in a butterfly, in a tree, and in each other.”

In that response lies our challenge.  In order to get our moral and spiritual development more in sync with the powers of science and technology which we now command, we may have to do more than the religious structures we have inherited or conceived can do by themselves, and concentrate on what they profess to be about, namely, the spiritual undergirding of everything, that sense of the sacred that is common to us all.

And isn't that fortuitous?  Violating the religious sensibilities of students from diverse backgrounds is what you in this room seek to avoid anyway; so, in the process of teaching, perhaps we can invent a new, more spiritually satisfying notion of “progress” — turn away from the millennial faith in technology — and rediscover the center of our Being.

There are signs everywhere in the culture that point to it.  Albert Einstein is being quoted more these days vis-a-vis his attitude to religion.  He said that “the whole purpose of art and science is to awaken the cosmic religious feeling.”  Scientists, generally, are beginning to recognize that some form of intelligent reflection on itself was implicit in the universe from the beginning.  As St. Augustine put it so sublimely many centuries earlier:

“…the frail and mortal objects of earth here below, the blossoms and the leaves, could not be endowed with a beauty so immaculate and so exquisitely wrought, did they not issue from the Divinity which endlessly
pervades...all things.”

Where has that sense of beauty and sacred mystery been hiding in this, our age of progress?  And, as Yehudi Menuhin recently asked, “Hasn't this separation of man from his roots in a sense orphaned him?”  Has it?  I often look at our culture and its effect on the family and on individuals by trying to imagine what is going on in the mind and heart of an average American worker.  So let's ask one of them how he's feeling about life in these times and some of the things we've been discussing.

Hi.  You can call me Bill.  I'm what you call a working-class American.  I've got a wife who works (I wish she didn't have to) — and three grown kids, all of 'em outta the house — a couple of cars I try to keep up myself — a small boat on a trailer hitch in my driveway which I can't use since they closed the lake 'cause it ain't fit to swim or fish in — I got a house, a mortgage, and bills that could choke a horse!

I guess my father woulda sounded the same 40 years ago.  Life was a struggle for him, too.  But things were different then.  We were a big family — you know, grandparents, uncles, aunts, lotsa cousins — and we all lived up the street and down the street and across the street from each other.  Everybody's family was like that.  There was a word then you don't hear much now — neighborhood.  We were all so proud of our neighborhood.

I live in a tract now — single homes and condominiums, surrounded by shoppin' malls.  We don't have a park, and no empty lots for kids to play in, but we got parking lots alright, acres of them.  Asphalt up the whazoo!  And for what?  For our Toyotas and Hondas and Subarus.  Remember when they called the American motor car the Standard of the World?

Something's wrong, fellas.  The country's full of them stand-up comics — you see 'em all over TV — but somethin's still wrong!  Nobody I know is doin' a lot of enjoyin'.  Everybody I know drinks the right beer when they ain't sippin' the right soft drink; they're using the right deodorant and rinsin' with the right conditioner — but none of them are running along the beach laughin' with a gorgeous gal — or dancin' in the moonlight in a $500 tuxedo — or even sittin' in bars with a bunch of the boys, whoopin' and hollerin' and hoistin' their beers, as if they didn't have a care in the world — like them people you see in the TV ads.  No, most of the people I know are strugglin' to get it right and feelin' a little guilty 'cause it just ain't addin' up like it's supposed to.

I hate readin' the papers everyday.  Most of it's about people and things you used to believe in turnin' into crooks and scandals right before your eyes.  There's almost nothin' upliftin' in there — you know, someone or something in the news that makes you feel better about yourself, or helps you see you could feel better if you only took the trouble to — what?  I don't know.

I didn't feel like votin' in the last election, but I did — and 50 percent of everybody else didn't.  Who wanted to vote for a couple of guys you could never get to know?  All you could learn about them was from a few seconds on the news and hundreds of them 60-second TV spots made by the same guys that make commercials for detergents and breakfast cereals.  The only difference is — with a breakfast cereal, you can always pick up the box the next day and read the ingredients on the package.

Like I said before, something's really wrong.  Inside I feel like an empty room — and here's the part that's tough to talk about: I'm thinkin' a lot lately about the G-word.  You know, God.  Damn, why is that so hard to say?  It's just that we never talked much about that kind of thing.  I mean, I was born Christian — my parents were God-fearin' and churchgoin' — and I started out that way.  But I dunno — by the time I got married, that wasn't what people was doin'.  So my wife and me, we didn't bring up our kids religious on purpose.  Not that we didn't believe in God — we did, and our kids knew it — but we figured the modern way was to let your kids find God and religion for themselves.

So we didn't talk about it.  And our kids didn't either.  The subject didn't come up — not even in school. 

Now I wonder what family dinners mighta been like if my Billy and Sarah and John had been askin' us about God and faith and that kind of thing.  I think now how much better we'd all know each other if we'd shared our insides that way.  Like —there's some things about me I wish my kids knew.  For instance, when they was little, how often just lookin' at the miracle of them made me cry.  I wish they knew that.  I wish they knew that to this day sometimes when I bite into a fresh peach or pear, the taste of it fills my head and I get this feelin' like my whole body's screamin' “thank you” — I wish my kids knew that about their Dad.  Now, I know that's not straight God-talk, but you better believe it's connected.  I hate to think about the things like that that I didn't know about my own kids…

Today, my kids live in the suburbs, in cookie cutter homes, spendin' 90 minutes alone in the car goin' to work, payin' everything by credit card, which they got a dozen of them — no matter how much they get in hock, the credit card companies keep beggin' them to up their credit.

My kids turn off when I mention the G-word.  They think I'm talking God 'cause I'm gettin' on in years, and I'm thinkin' about dyin'.  Well, I ain't thinkin' that at all.  What I'm thinkin' is, our family's missin' somethin' today.  And what we're missin' ain't just better cars or second homes.  No, this is somethin' that's missin' inside, and it has to do with that question that they made into a movie: “What's It All About, Alfie?”

I wish I had it to do all over again.  We'd have talked about that 'round the dinner table.  I wish my kids talked about these things in school so it was on their mind and then they couda brought it up at the dinner table.  I wish the 7 o'clock news had a religion reporter like they got a Wall Street reporter and a Supreme Court reporter and an entertainment reporter and a sports reporter.  That woulda got us talkin' at the dinner table.

Understand.  I ain't talking about running God up the flagpole to see who salutes.  Some people won't want that at all, and that's just fine.  I'm talkin' about just puttin' the subject out there, like it was as important as sports.  We don't all agree on sports, but we talk about it a lot.  That's all I mean.

I read in one of them little squibs at the bottom of the page in the Reader's Digest — this writer said that the opposite of depression isn't joy; it's vitality.  Well, this must be one hell of a depressed society, 'cause I don't see much vitality around.  I see action — people tannin' and hustlin' and makin' it.  Or tryin' to.  But they got dead eyes.  No vitality.  I think because vitality has two parts.  One is energy, sure — but the other is the answer to — “What's it all about, Alfie?”  You wanna give me an' my family somethin' for Christmas?  Help us with that question.

There's no doubt we have to help Bill and his family find an answer.  Those of us in positions that help shape the culture — we, in media, and you, as educators — bear a special responsibility.  Whatever habits our culture has conditioned us to accept, we know deep in our genes that there is a greater force and mystery framing our lives to which attention must be paid.  For the Bills of our society, and they are legion, we must reinvent or rediscover the moral and spiritual center which has been absent in industrial man and woman for too long.  There must be a screw in our brains that can be turned a quarter of an inch one way or the other until we realize that the discoveries of science need not be tools to create new products only — but ways to appreciate how precious and beautiful and fragile our planet is — and then we will strive to work with nature, not against it.

The Thomas Berry I have referred to, in addition to writing The Dream of the Earth, is a historian of cultures, and he points out that modern man in the age of science and technology is almost singular in not having a culturally plausible myth to explain the creation of the universe.  Berry writes:

The historians, even when articulating World History, deal not with the whole world, but with just the human, as if the human was something separate from or an addendum to the story of the earth and the universe.  The scientists have derived a detailed account of the cosmos, but have focused exclusively on the physical dimensions and have ignored the human dimensions of the universe.  In this context, we have fractured our educational system into scientific and…humanistic aspects, as though these were somehow independent of each other.

Locating our human history in the scientific history of the universe can be an important inspiration to our spiritual imaginations.  When we know something of where we've come from and where we're headed, we can develop a reverence for past and future generations, and learn to preserve our precious life-sustaining environment.  We can question the myth that we are atomistic individuals in an existential world, now competing in an amoral marketplace for economic advantage.

I told you earlier that my appearance here today is a stroke of great chutzpah.  Now let me go myself one better, by issuing a challenge.  The challenge I make to the American Academy of Religion is to help us human beings of the late 20th century reintegrate our spirituality with our rationality.  Help us rediscover and nurture our spiritual imaginations — the ones that lie beyond the happenstance of theological and ecclesiastical differences that may divide us.

The more that scientists learn from the natural environment — from the universe to our planet to our genes — the more they bump up against the ineffable religious mystery and beauty I mentioned earlier.  We need to popularize this sensibility — trumpet it in the media and in our schools — and demonstrate that respecting the natural dynamics of our planet is not just good science, it's a spiritual responsibility and pleasure.  An ecological morality and spirituality to fill the gap between science and our religions may be what we are seeking.

Few people in our culture are better situated to explore these issues than you, the nation's religious educators.  You are catalysts for new thinking; you incubate and inspire new research.  Your scholarship, your journals, your presence at diverse educational institutions, your influence with many students —you are a network of people who make a significant contribution.

And so are we, in the media.  Let us set off on this new pilgrimage as soon as possible.  We have no time to lose.


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