The obstacles on the way

OBSTACLES on the way to what? Let me briefly summarise what we have been discussing in the earlier chapters. What would be a planetary civilisation worthy of the title “paradise on earth”? Teilhard de Chardin, as we saw, envisaged it as so integrated that it could be regarded as some form of social organism.

Warren Wagar recognised its organic nature when he said: “Our goal must be a new organic world civilisation, a new sociocultural, economic and political environment for the species homo sapiens, with a new organic relationship to the larger environment of earth and cosmos.” He further described it as a world society, unified and enlivened by a global culture of values, institutions, philosophies, sciences, arts, and technology. It would be a global commonwealth with its own superstructure of political and economic institutions.

Why can we not set about building such a world society? Indeed all through the 20th century there were many far-seeing people advocating the promotion of such a society – people like Julian Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, W.E. Hocking in the West, and Baha’u’llah, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan in the East. Why have their efforts not been more successful? What are the obstacles preventing us from reaching this future paradise on earth?

Lessons from Adam and Eve

At the beginning of the Bible there is a well-known story which describes a parallel, if not identical, problem. It tells how and why humans were cast out from an original paradise. At face value this biblical myth is the history of human origins, and until less than 200 years ago it was commonly taken to be just that. We now know pretty conclusively that, regarded as ancient history, it is false. That fact has led most moderns to ignore it.

But even from the time this myth was first told, it possessed a deeper level of meaning. It expressed some of the wisdom that the ancients were already learning about themselves. This myth described in symbolic terms something extremely important about the human race. It is a parable about the human condition.

The word Adam, after all, should never have been translated as a proper name, as if it referred to one person. The Hebrew language always uses other words when it wishes to speak of an individual man or woman. The word Adam is simply the Hebrew term for humankind, and it even has the definite article attached to it to make that clear. The story of Adam is the story of human existence. It describes our human plight as the ancients had come to understand it.

Just as there never was an historical Adam and Eve, so there never was an original Garden of Eden in the past, which has now been lost. The permanent truth about the story of Eden does not lie in a mythical past but in the earth’s potential. The story of the idyllic life in the Garden is a simple description of what human existence on this planet can yet become.

Moreover, the reason given in the story for the mythical exile from the Garden also explains why we are finding it difficult to reach it now. When we ask what is preventing us from forming a global civilisation here on earth, the story gives us the answer. It is not because there are superhuman principalities and powers holding us back. It is because, to use words familiar to many, “we have left undone things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. It is as simple as that. As the mythical Adam and Eve ate from the Garden the fruit which they should not have eaten, so we exploit the earth. We wastefully squander its resources. We fight each other over them. We carelessly kill other forms of life. These are a few of the modern equivalents of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Why should we not use the world’s resources as we are doing? What we do with them makes life more pleasurable and exciting. They are there to be used. They are going to waste until our human knowledge and technology puts them to some positive use. That is just what Eve thought as she looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Its fruit was good for food. It was a delight to the eyes. It was desirable to be made wise.

What good reason could there be for placing a ban on fruit so obviously good? And then it came to her. In the myth, of course, it was a secret whispered by the wily serpent. The prohibition had been decreed by someone who had an ulterior motive. It was to keep humans in subjection by their ignorance and prevent them from becoming like gods. Those who ate of this tree would receive divine wisdom.

Destructive force of hubris

And why should humans not share the divine wisdom, we may all ask along with Eve. Attempting to do what only the gods could do is what the ancient Greeks called hubris. The biblical myths show what is wrong with hubris. Hubris leads on to human megalomania and the macho attitude of brute domination. It leads to acts of human violence, murder and rape. It led Cain to kill his brother Abel. Finally it led humanity to become deeply divided into diverse languages and warring races. Because of hubris, human history has become the record of man’s inhumanity to man in violent conquest, wholesale slaughter, mass rape and genocide. So there is no place for hubris in paradise. Of necessity, then, the myth described how it entailed expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Further, as the myth makes clear, hubris blinds us to what we have done and prevents us from acknowledging our own responsibility. It leads us to put the blame on others. So Adam put the blame on Eve and Eve passed the blame over to the serpent. We are still doing it. If we ask why we are not more successful in building a peaceful, harmonious world we quickly find scapegoats. It is all due to the socialists, or to the capitalists (depending on where we stand). It is due to the foreigners, to the black people or to the whites (as the case may be), to the dole-bludgers, to the arrogant rich, to the multinationals, and so it goes on.

When we cannot find other humans to blame then, like Eve, we blame non-human forces. In olden times they were called “principalities and powers”. In modern times we call them market forces, or just bad luck. In many of these cases, of course, there is a certain amount of truth in the charge being laid. We shall refer to some of them later. But these specific objects of blame are only the manifestation of something which is much deeper and which is universal to the human condition. It is the potential in all of us for displaying hubris. When it comes to the question of building a better world, we humans are our own worst enemies.

Hubris displays itself in a variety of ways. It prevents us from developing the necessary collective will to build a global civilisation. The earth is a very big place and there are a great many of us scattered over it. We prefer to be big fish in little ponds. We feel secure in our own more limited world and fear we would become faceless nonentities in a global world. So we are happy to give our full attention to the protection of our own little world and brush aside or ignore all this talk of a global civilisation.

Good and bad in self-assertiveness

Over many millennia we humans have developed a certain amount of homely wisdom and practical know-how about how to live within our own little world. We would like to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the globalising process is breaking into our comfortable little worlds whether we like it or not. All of a sudden, in evolutionary time, we find ourselves being challenged to become global citizens. The kairos of the world civilisation has arrived, and it finds us very parochial. We have to change our ways of thinking. We are not ready for it. We have to think globally, and we have so far learned only how to think locally.

If there is any truth in my suggestion that parochialism and small-mindedness have something to do with our human potential for hubris, then it will be useful to look more carefully at the nature of hubris. There was nothing illogical about Eve’s reasoning in the biblical myth. Behind hubris there is something even more basic, which I shall call self-assertiveness. Today’s personal counsellors are rediscovering its importance. It is very like what the German philosopher Schopenhauer, trying to discern the dynamic character of reality, called “will”. It is something basic to the nature of the universe itself. Self-assertiveness manifested itself at the very beginning in the “big bang”. It manifested itself in originating life on this planet.

There is something very assertive about the life process. We observe it dramatically in the wonderful way in which the spring bulb pushes its new growth through the surface of the ground to reach out to the sun. We see it in the capacity of the human body to grow fresh skin to heal a wound. We see it in the capacity of the human body to bounce back into health after illness. We see it in the way a little child asserts itself against the will of its superiors. It is much prized in the business world today, where it is referred to in terms of free enterprise and entrepreneurial skills. Life everywhere manifests self-assertiveness, and it is something to rejoice in.

But what happens when self-assertiveness keeps on going without limit? The human organism has built into it a mechanism which tells it to stop growing on reaching a mature size. The blood cells keep reproducing themselves only until the required limit is reached. But what if this self-assertiveness in the body does not stop? Then we have a cancerous growth. When the self-assertiveness within the living cell accepts no limit we have hubris. It is a recipe for disaster and death.

Parents rejoice in the natural self-assertiveness of their growing children. It shows commendable spirit, vitality and a burgeoning personality. “Little Mary is now showing such a will of her own,” parents delightedly say. Yet we all know that clear limits need to be established for the expression of that self-assertiveness for the child’s own good, to say nothing of the parents’ peace of mind. This is normally done in the family setting, and later in the larger social context.

We cannot become human individuals except within a social context. The extended family, which later became the tribe, was the original social context for the evolution of the human condition. The tribe provided the necessary security and nurture for the growth of the individual. But the tribe also set the desirable limits to the natural self-assertiveness of the individual. It set a tapu on the no-go areas. If those limits were not adhered to, the individual had to be brought into line by force or, in extreme cases, eliminated from the tribe by expulsion or execution. This was the way in which the natural self-assertiveness was prevented from developing into hubris within the tribal context, where it would have destroyed the tribe in the same way as cancer destroys the body.

Tribalism has had its day

After the agricultural revolution tribal society took the form of village life. Villages in turn developed into cities, nations and civilisations. Much of the original tribalism remained in the later forms simply because it has been essential to human survival – at least until the present. The strength of tribalism lies in the personal bonds of mutual loyalty which hold the tribe together, give it an identity, endow it with strength and courage to overcome threats, and enable it to survive from generation to generation. The tribal formation has been able to set adequate limits to the self-assertiveness of the individual.

But there is a negative side to tribalism. The natural self-assertiveness which has set limits within the tribe is free to be redirected towards those outside of the tribe. Tribalism permits and sometimes even fosters xenophobia. In tribalism the self-assertiveness of the individual is transformed into corporate assertiveness, leading to the struggle for power and domination. Because there is no external force to limit tribal assertiveness it turns into corporate hubris, where tribes can be quite merciless and inhuman to one another.

We have an interesting but sad example of such intertribal conflict among the Maori up until the time of European arrival. The traditional fear of it, and the need to take cautionary measures to counter it, are still clearly reflected in the cultural customs on the marae for greeting visitors. Non-violent remnants of Maori tribalism remain to this day. In Eurasia, by contrast, the equivalent of the Maori tribe had developed into the larger social unit of the nation. But the same negative aspects of tribalism continued and resulted in international conflict and imperialistic domination. Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin became personal embodiments of corporate hubris.

In 1840 European nationalism encountered Maori tribalism and entered into the Treaty of Waitangi. Because of the justifiable disquiet today as to whether the Treaty has been adequately honoured, it has been easy to overlook one reason why the Europeans became so dominant. Maori tribalism prevented the Maori from uniting to become a Maori nation. Maori tribes were even found on opposite sides of the Maori-European conflict in the land wars. As someone has pointed out, it was in part a civil war. Maori tribalism proved to be an unequal match for European nationalism.

Nation states a liability

I draw attention to this phenomenon from our own history not to take sides with either body in the past, but rather to show how it is a parable for our time. Just as tribalism became a liability for the Maori in their encounter with the European type of nation state, so on the global scene the nation state is now becoming a liability at a time when we must build a planetary civilisation. Tribalism was an asset for human societies before globalisation, but its persistence now constitutes a threat to the future of the race, preventing the evolution of one global society. The entity of the nation state claiming, and jealously preserving, its own absolute sovereignty now endangers the human future. Absolute national sovereignty leads to national hubris. The distinctive strengths of tribalism need to be transferred to the whole human race; tribalism needs to be transformed into globalism.

In some respects the nation state is a modern phenomenon so far as Europe is concerned. It came about as a result of the disintegration of Christendom during the past four centuries. As Christian conviction lost its power to unite Europeans into one international society, Europeans reverted to an ethnic form of tribalism. This resurgence of ethnic tribalism still continues in Yugoslavia and in the various independence movements espoused by ethnic minorities around the world.

Yet that needs to be balanced by the good news that blind commitment to one’s nation is coming to be questioned. During the 20th century for example, there was a big change from the bigoted jingoism which marked the early decades up until and during World War I, where there was a widespread attitude of “my country right or wrong”. Today it is more common to acknowledge that “patriotism is not enough”, to use the words of Nurse Edith Cavell. There are limits to patriotism. Allegiance to one’s nation must be accompanied by self-criticism. There are wider global and ecological concerns which must be taken into account.

Arrogance of civilisations

As well as in the nation state, we need to observe that tribalism can operate in whole civilisations. From the Axial Period onwards, Christianity and Islam each made attempts to overcome ethnic tribalism by incorporating all of humankind into a multi-ethnic society of a religious kind. For Christians this manifested itself as Christendom. Muhammad succeeded in overcoming the continual intertribal strife among his fellow Arabs by incorporating them into the Umma Muslima. On his death this newly formed Islamic world swept out of Arabia intent on spreading over the known world.

Both Christendom and the Islamic world were quite impressive at their best. But because they reached their geographical limits before becoming wholly global, they tended to assume the character of a religious tribe. As Samuel Huntington has said, “civilisations are the ultimate human tribes and the clash of civilisations is tribal conflict on a global scale”.

In some respects it may be said that civilisations are the last form of tribalism before the unification of humankind into a planetary civilisation. If that is so, it is only to be expected that the great civilisations, such as Christendom and the Islamic world, should undergo internal disintegration and change before that happens. That is what has been occurring since the advent of the modern world. The negative side of that disintegration is that it opened the way for a resurgence of more primitive tribalism.

This has happened particularly in Christendom. The modern world began with the disintegration of Christian Europe. The one great church which had held the ethnic groups of Europe in the unity of Christendom itself fragmented into denominations. These assumed a new form of tribalism – religious tribalism. Thus Christian tribes emerged at much the same time as nation states did. In England the Christian tribe and the nation state were virtually one and the same. It was the Anglican Church.

Fundamentalist tribalism

The most serious features of religious tribalism have appeared in the recent rise of fundamentalism. Although the name arose in a Christian setting and referred to those committed to the defence of what were called the Christian fundamentals, the word is used today to refer to a much wider phenomenon.

What all fundamentalists have in common is not one specific set of beliefs but an attitude of mind. It is the conviction that they have in their possession a knowledge of absolute truth, of which they have become the divinely ordained guardians. This conviction then gives them a feeling of extreme confidence and of inner power in relation to all who differ from them. They become crusaders, bent on spreading the Truth as they see it. Fundamentalism readily leads to fanaticism, for at the heart of it is a distrust of human reasoning. Fundamentalists are not open to calm and rational dialogue, for their minds are already firmly made up. They cannot be told anything and often refuse to listen. Here is hubris at its most blatant.

Fundamentalism, in its various manifestations, is a force that can no longer be ignored, for it constitutes one of the most serious obstacles to the evolution of a harmonious global society, both within national societies and between national societies. The fundamentalist cast of mind is the polar opposite of that required for the planetary civilisation. This is no doubt the reason why they are often hostile to the very idea of a world society, just as they have been opposed to the ecumenical movement.

Global society calls for flexibility of thought and practice, for empathy with those who differ, for compromise in a spirit of good will. It requires mutual co-operation for the common good. Fundamentalism, by contrast, is socially divisive, calling for absolute and even blind loyalty to a holy book or a set of fixed principles. Fundamentalists insist on remaining loyal to the fundamentals, even if this leads to their own death or the death of others. Indeed, Muslim fundamentalists sometimes see martyrdom as the fast road to eternal bliss. This is why fanaticism soon leads to terrorism and suicide bombings. Fundamentalism is an intense form of religious tribalism, and has become the enemy of humankind. It is one of the obstacles in the way of forming a unified planetary civilisation, which must be able to draw freely from all the cultures of the past.

While the mainline churches usually hold themselves aloof from fundamentalism, they are now in the process of being drawn into the fundamentalist mindset. This is reflected in the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century they were forward-looking; at the end of the century they had become backward-looking. Because all the great cultures and civilisations of the past are now in a state of erosion, church authorities are strongly tempted to focus their attention on these signs of growing disorder, blame this phenomenon on the decline of the past cultures, and then try to restore the past. Any attempt to restore the past may serve only to exacerbate the situation, for there can never be any turning back of the clock. With rare exceptions, today’s ecclesiastical leaders lack the vision, foresight and wisdom of the Christian pioneers of the past. That is why they find themselves being sidelined. It has been left to secular thinkers to be the pioneers and heralds of the new civilisation.

Rise of global consciousness

If there is any good news to be proclaimed regarding our hope for the realisation of paradise on earth, it is mainly to be found in individuals and groups outside of the traditional religious communities and political authorities. They are not tied to any one nationality, race or religious persuasion. They are above tribalism, and find their chief loyalty to be to the earth and to all of its forms of life.

The almost spontaneous rise of the conservation movement and of green consciousness in the past two decades is an encouraging sign. These are alerting us to our dependence on the natural forces of the earth. They are being instrumental in the spread of what we may call green consciousness or global consciousness. There can be no future paradise in which we do not come to terms with the limits set by the natural forces of the earth. To ignore nature is the most serious form of hubris.

The spread of global consciousness is being aided, incidentally, by our new technology in the mass media and the internet – the very technology which is speeding up the globalising process. But will this new form of human consciousness spread around the globe in time? That is what we do not know, and time is not on our side. The time for creating a planetary civilisation, which is at the same time ecologically responsible, is now. Thirty years have already passed since Warren Wagar wrote: “Failure to institute world ecological planning and a system of world redistribution and rationing of vital raw materials will lead infallibly to the end of all civilised life on earth, through war, famine, disease, and the total eclipse of every economic system more advanced than the neolothic.”

In the light of what we have covered in this booklet regarding the hope of paradise on earth, what are the prospects that humankind will ever see it? There is no place for any easy optimism. Even if it does ever arrive, it may well be, as we have seen, that events of an apocalyptic order are unavoidable on the road to achieving it. By whatever route it comes, if it does come, it will involve a new form of human consciousness – global consciousness. This entails a radical change in the way we think: our present potential for hubris must be replaced by the ability voluntarily to set our own limits to the self-assertiveness we share with the universe. To live is to be self-assertive, but self-assertiveness without limits is the hubris which brings death.

Nietzsche’s “master morality”

Something like this was being said more than a century ago, and at a time when the western world was self-confidently making rapid progress. It came from that much misunderstood prophet Friedrich Nietzsche, who once complained he was born 200 years ahead of his time. Beneath the apparent prosperity of his time Nietzsche saw the crumbling of the whole fabric of the traditional cultures. He believed that humankind was entering on an entirely new era, one which required “the revaluation of all values”.

In the new age, Nietzsche said, we shall have to abandon the “eternal values” of the past. They induced what he called a “slave morality”: instead of making people morally responsible, they stunted moral growth, smothered self-assertiveness, and crushed the freedom of the human spirit. The revaluation of all values would introduce what he called “the master morality”.

It is a grave travesty of Nietzsche's intentions to interpret this as the morality of mastering it over others, like the Nazi stormtroopers of Hitler’s master race. It was in fact the opposite. It is the morality of mastering oneself, of voluntarily limiting one’s assertiveness to what is appropriate to the circumstances. That is how one becomes the creator of values. Instead of becoming the slave of other people’s values, one has become the master of one’s own moral condition. The attainment of the master morality makes much greater demands on us than the traditional moralities have ever done. There must emerge a new type of human, whom Nietzsche called the Ubermensch (or overman). He is the one who has overcome the animal nature in himself, who has ordered the chaos of his warring passions, and who has set limits to his assertiveness not out of weakness, but from strength.

Nietzsche chose to express this teaching through the mouth of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra. Not only did that ancient prophet pioneer a path which greatly influenced the cultural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but he spoke the language which gave us the word paradise.

Because the modern globalising world came out of the West, and one of its cultural roots can be traced to Iran, there is thus a thin thread linking us still to the ancient Zarathustra. There was a man, if ever there was one, who was keenly aware of the moral struggle which takes place in the human heart. He further believed this struggle was the key to the nature of the universe and to the human future.

There is no room for any easy optimism about a future planetary civilisation. It will be a great struggle in which it will be all too easy to give up in despair. Yet the cultural tradition which brought the modern world into being also includes this encouraging hope that the new future will be realised, and against all the odds. This hope associated with the concept of paradise may be the very thing we need to motivate us to continue in the struggle to create the new planetary civilisation. The coming of paradise on earth may yet be the last great manifestation of that self-assertiveness which permeates the universe and gives us life.