Viewing Paradise from afar

If you go to Jordan, and drive west from the city of Amman, you come to the edge of the Jordan Valley. It is part of the great rift in the earth’s surface which stretches from Turkey to Tanzania. Some 4000 feet below is the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. Because of what took place there more than 3000 years ago, the Jordan Valley has become a symbol of what divides us from the paradise we are trying to reach.

The ancient Israelites had to cross the Jordan River to reach the Promised Land, which they described as a land “flowing with milk and honey”. Later in Christian belief Jerusalem became a symbol of the heavenly city, and “crossing the Jordan” became a metaphor for the death by which one entered the paradise of heaven. Christina Rossetti wrote in her hymn:

Sooner or later: yet at last
The Jordan must be past.

Equally symbolic, along with Jerusalem and the Jordan River, is the little mound on the Jordanian side of the valley known as Mt Nebo. In the biblical tradition this marks the last point reached by Moses in his 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. From Mt Nebo Moses is said to have looked out over the Jordan Valley to view from afar the goal to which he had led his people, but which he himself was destined never to reach.

I have been to Mt Nebo half a dozen times. In summer the distant view is usually obscured by haze and in winter it can be hidden in mist. If one is fortunate, however, one can actually discern from Mt Nebo the towers of Jerusalem some 30 miles away, and at night one can see its lights.

The legend of Moses on Mt Nebo has long become symbolic of where we humans stand with regard to the future world we are hoping for. Only very dimly can we perceive its outlines, as through a haze. Even more importantly, like Moses we shall not reach it ourselves. Yet we continue to hope for it and to strive for it. This is partly on account of our children, our grandchildren and the generations of our descendants as yet unborn. This hope has become deeply ingrained in us by the culture we have inherited.

To reach Mt Nebo Moses had made a long, wearisome and troublesome journey through the wilderness. Yet no doubt he thought it had all been worth it, as he now viewed the Promised Land from afar. The Judeo-Christian cultural journey has taken nearly 4000 years. During that time our forebears, as we have seen, thought several times they were on the verge of reaching the paradise of their dreams. Yet on each occasion it proved elusive.

Science fiction, futurology

As we stand on our symbolic Mt Nebo in this year 2000, what do we think we can see? During the 20th century there were many attempts to look into the future. The earliest occurred in the science fiction that developed at the end of the previous century. Rapid advances in technology seemed to be opening so many new doors that the sky was the limit. So during the 20th century science fiction flourished and is now found in every bookstore and library. In part, of course, it is just a form of pleasurable entertainment. Yet it is more than that. Like the apocalyptic writings of New Testament times, it not only stretches the human imagination but also, like those writings, it usually inspires great confidence in the future. Only occasionally, as with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, does it raise a cautionary note.

Whereas in ancient times the apocalyptic writers expected God to usher in the new world, the first science fiction authors replaced God with science. Readers were encouraged to believe that this new tool of science, which human ingenuity has devised, has put into human hands such power that it will solve and overcome all future problems. Some of the best examples of science fiction, such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898), became classics. This genre continued into cinema and video with such popular epics as Star Wars.

In the second half of the 20th century the attempt to look into the future took a more serious form and became such an important new enterprise that it earned a title of its own: futurology. With the aid of statistics and computer modelling, futurology has become an essential part of social and economic planning. Yet the attempt to forecast the shape of the future remains fraught with difficulty, simply because future trends remain dependent on a host of chance events and countless billions of personal choices.

This is why futurologists make such widely diverse forecasts about the human future. It is particularly noticeable that predictions made on the basis of science and technology tend to be optimistic, while those made on the basis of history and the study of human nature tend to be pessimistic. In the 1960s C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures drew our attention to the unfortunate divorce that was occurring between the cultures of science and the arts; nowhere does this show up more clearly than in the way they look into the future.

The vision of Teilhard de Chardin

Let us look at a serious futurologist who preceded this divorce. The great visionary Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was equally committed both to science and to the religious faith on which western culture is based. He is mostly known for the unique way in which he unfolded the story of our past, as he did in The Phenomenon of Man, but he also wrote quite a lot about the future. His creative imagination projected into the far distant future the long-standing trends which he observed in both our biological and cultural evolution.

Teilhard’s writings are neither theology nor science, as we know these enterprises. Together they form a total vision of the human past and future. This vision needs to be looked at critically. Some of what he wrote is already dated. Yet elements of his vision have proved full of insight. For example, most of us became aware of the phenomenon of globalisation only in the past two decades, yet Teilhard was talking about it more than 60 years ago. He usually called it planetisation but sometimes he referred to it as the “hominisation of the planet” and sometimes as “complete socialisation”. “No evolutionary future awaits human beings,” he said, “except in association with all other human beings.” Note that last phrase.

Teilhard had been led to this by his study of evolution, both biological and cultural. Teilhard maintained that evolution proceeds by what he called the Law of Complexity-Consciousness. In simple terms this means that, as the basic energy or stuff of the universe organises itself into ever more complex patterns, it manifests an increasingly higher level of consciousness. For example, if we trace the process backwards, we can concede that humans have a higher level of consciousness than the other vertebrates; the vertebrates have a higher level of consciousness than insects; insects have a higher level of consciousness than the amoeba.

Evolution of cultures

Then Teilhard observed that evolution kept producing new species by diversifying. This applies to the evolution of culture just as it does to species. It is the reason why the human species has diverged into many races and cultures over some two million years. But because of the finiteness of planet earth, there would come a time, he said, when humans would completely envelope the globe, and then human divergence would give way to convergence. Teilhard sometimes uses quaint terms to express his thoughts. To describe human convergence he said the human race would fold back upon itself.

To help us understand what the result of this folding back would be, he then linked the phenomenon of convergence with his Law of Complexity-Consciousness. He saw it resulting in the formation of a new and even more complex entity – a new level of human society. He called it a supersociety: it would experience an even higher level of consciousness, a kind of corporate consciousness that we could call global consciousness.

“Humans are now discovering,” said Teilhard, “that they are nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” These words, incidentally, originated with the scientist Julian Huxley, and were eagerly adopted by Teilhard. Teilhard believed that our emerging collective consciousness constitutes something like the mind of God in the making. “The consciousness of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself."

We should further note that Teilhard discerned two great thresholds of change in the evolutionary process. The first was the transition from non-life to life; the second was the coming into being of what he called the noosphere. This is the presence within the human species of self-conscious, self-critical thought. It was the advent of the noosphere, rather than anything physical, that has brought about the great gulf between the human species and all the other higher animals. The noosphere constitutes not only a thin envelope of human consciousness around the globe but it produces language, culture, knowledge, science and religion. These products of the noosphere serve to stimulate even further the level of human consciousness, perhaps to reach a level higher than we have as yet experienced.

People other than Teilhard have hinted at something similar. They point out that it needs some 10 billion atoms to form a megamolecule. It needs some 10 billion megamolecules to form a living cell. It needs some 10 billion cells to form an organism, such as the human being. The projection of this into the future suggests that it may take about 10 billion people to form the supersociety.

The global population quadrupled to six billion during the 20th century and will probably become 10 billion within a few decades. This recent and sudden population explosion has understandably alarmed us. Yet it is not impossible that it may be the forerunner of the next stage in the evolutionary process.

Towards a supersociety

That is exactly what Teilhard predicted as the human species folds in upon itself to develop an ever more complex, interdependent and ultimately unified society. We human individuals shall not ourselves become more highly evolved, but we shall become wise enough voluntarily to become parts of a higher social entity, just as the living cells in our body constitute a more complex living whole than themselves. The ever-increasing products of the noosphere, such as knowledge, science and religion, will enable the human species to evolve into a global super-society. We shall become, Teilhard said, “a harmonised collectivity of consciousnesses equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness”.

All this sounds so much like the product of wild imagination that the Jewish anthropologist Raphael Patai seemed perfectly justified in his judgment that “Teilhard embarks on a mythical-eschatological fantasy voyage that easily dwarfs every previous vision of the ultimate end of humanity”.

Yet 60 years later, as we observe the rapid expansion of population, the spread of general education, the modern knowledge explosion, genetic modification, the intensification of communication media, the advent of the internet and all the other aspects of current globalisation, Teilhard’s vision of a supersociety with its own superconsciousness does not seem quite so outlandish as it did when he sketched it.

Teilhard firmly believed that the 20th century marked the dividing line between human divergence and convergence. It was the threshold of change to the next state of planetary evolution. “Everything suggests that at the present time we are entering a peculiarly critical phase of super-humanisation.”

We should note his term “critical”. Even Teilhard was careful to guard against any easy optimism. He certainly insisted that when one looks back over the whole process, one sees evidence of what he called a “cosmic drift” towards greater complexity, and this has been accompanied at higher levels by increased consciousness. Yet he fully conceded that there was a great element of chance in the way life has evolved, and there is no guarantee that it will evolve further. He noted there have been many blind roads, as witnessed to by the end of the dinosaurs after dominating the earth for 200 million years. That is why he used the word “critical” with regard to our time.

At a crossroads

The belief that we have reached a critical phase in human history and possibly in human culture has been the subject of a number of books during the past decade. Here are a few: The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, 1993; Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1993; Pandaemonium, by Daniel Moynihan, 1993; The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, 1996; The End of Science, by John Horgan 1996; One World, Ready or Not, by William Greider, 1997; Visions, by Michio Kaku, 1998. All of these maintain that the human race has reached a crossroads where critical decisions have to be made. Some are hopeful about the future and some are pessimistic.

Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist in New York, has written several best-selling books on science and hosts a weekly hour-long science programme syndicated through the United States. He contends that science has just reached the end of its epic phase – the age of discovery – and has now entered a new and dynamic era – the age of mastery.

This has occurred because of three scientific revolutions in the 20th century. The quantum revolution unlocked the secrets of the atom. The DNA revolution unravelled the molecules of life. And the electronic computer has revolutionised the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge.

Kaku believes that, whereas in the past the various sciences tended to proceed in independence of one another, this 21st century will be typified by the cross-fertilisation of these three revolutions. This signals the birthpangs of a new era in which we humans make the transition from being “passive observers of nature to being active choreographers of nature”. That would parallel the transition which took place at the agricultural revolution, when humans changed from being the passive recipients of the fruits of the earth to become the active developers of food production, gaining mastery over the growth of vegetation.

Kaku believes that “by the close of the 21st century, the sheer power of the three scientific revolutions will force the nations of the earth to cooperate on a scale never seen before in history”. If so, it would mark the arrival of Teilhard’s supersociety. Kaku refers to it as a planetary civilisation. But he also warns that though the progress of science has the potential to lead the human race to a planetary civilisation, there always lurks in the background “the possibility of a nuclear war, the outbreak of a deadly pandemic, or the collapse of the environment”.

Cracks in the global economy

Others are far less confident about a favourable future being opened up by science. To Kaku’s list of possible disasters which would seriously jeopardise the realisation of a planetary civilisation they add the collapse of the global economy. Just as we are becoming only too aware that all our efforts to promote education and provide health facilities are dependent on the buoyancy of the economy, so science also will advance only if we can pay for it. Some areas of scientific research can now proceed only if they have access to billions of dollars.

Some suggest that the international monetary system of global capitalism may suffer the same sudden collapse as state socialism did in Russia and its satellite countries. In 1998 international financier George Soros startled some people with his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism. He argued that we are already in the early stages of a global bear market, which will lead to a global recession, a worldwide depression, and the disintegration of the capitalist system. Some economists and commentators are warning that it is no longer a case of “if” the global economy crashes, but “when”.

In One World, Ready or Not, William Greider examines the nature and prognosis of global capitalism. While conceding there is much to be said in its favour, particularly if it undergoes some necessary reforms, he observes that the utopian expectations which many intelligent people have with regard to the marketplace mean that they have come to worship market principles as if they were a spiritual code that will resolve all the larger social and moral issues also, so long as no one interferes with its authority. “In this modern secular age,” he said, “many who think of themselves as rational and urbane put their faith in this idea of the self-regulating market as piously as others put their trust in God.”

In other words, there is not all that much difference between modern capitalists and the ancient apocalypticists. They just happen to worship different gods. Greider prophesies that the capitalist God will fail and that the global system will “probably experience a series of terrible events – wrenching calamities that are economic or social or environmental in nature – before common sense can prevail”.

A similar view was expressed by the historian Warren Wagar as far back as 1971 in his book Building the City of Man. He too refers to the calamities we shall probably soon face, naming them as war, mass poverty, dehumanisation, nihilism and ecocide (by which he means the destruction of the planetary house we live in). He ascribes these coming calamities to the accelerating material progress of western civilisation, which is making everything happen too fast, too soon.

“Who can deny,” he said, “that social conflict has steadily deepened, that every traditional culture has entered a period of rapid internal disintegration, that social institutions and class structures are crumbling, that the planet is simultaneously flying to pieces and shrinking into a sphere of fantastic density?” These revolutionary changes, not only in technology but also in the life of the mind and of the spirit, are bringing human civilisation to the critical point where it must soon burst.

Interesting confirmation of his reference to the speed of change unexpectedly came some 18 years later when he turned his attention to writing a book of historical fiction, A Short History of the Future. It is a somewhat light-hearted attempt to describe the period 1990 to 2100 from the viewpoint of someone living in 2200. The very year 1989 in which his book was published saw the fall of the Berlin wall with the consequent collapse of Russian communism. This revolution, along with the Gulf War, which Wagar had placed in the 21st century, arrived decades ahead of schedule, and he had to rewrite some chapters for the second edition.

Thus among today’s futurologists there are wildly different expectations of where the world is heading, from enthusiastic optimism to deep pessimism. The one thing the prophets have in common is that the world will not stay the same but is going to change ever faster, for better or for worse.

This may possibly be good news for those who are suffering – the hungry, the dispossessed. Perhaps there is a paradise on earth yet to come. That is what some prophets would have us believe – prophets who put their faith in science, in the global economy, in human wisdom, or in a combination of these.

On the other hand, the affluent people in the world, who are finding life very comfortable at the moment, may soon find that this is the only paradise they will ever experience, and that even this will be relatively short-lived. That is what the prophets of doom would have us believe.

Who are we to believe, the prophets of doom or the optimists? We have to make that decision for ourselves.

A paradise to aspire to

Fortunately, no one can accurately look into the future, even though that does not stop us from trying. So let us now turn to the question: What would we like to be able to see from our Mt Nebo? What sort of world do we want in the future? What kind of goal would we regard as paradise on earth?

But who are the “we” we are talking about? The whole six billion human beings here on earth at the moment? The people of New Zealand? Or can we do no more than offer a personal view? The way we answer the question about a future paradise is surely going to vary, not only from nation to nation, from race to race, from culture to culture, but even from person to person. Every answer will reflect a particular standpoint. There are no neutral answers. Even the way the question is phrased betrays a cultural standpoint, as the use of the word paradise makes clear.

With that caveat, we can nevertheless acknowledge that in the past century or so we humans have begun to recognise our common humanity. Already we have expressed our mutual duties to one another in a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Are there some aspects of a desirable future world, therefore, which will be reasonably common for most people just by virtue of the humanity we share? Let us see what they may be.

First, the paradise we seek will provide the bare necessities of life for all human beings: clean air, clean water and adequate food. To many that may appear little indeed. Yet there are many millions of people who lack these very things. While the underfed millions lack adequate food, even the more affluent already find the air in their cities polluted. In some countries the increased use of water is outstripping the natural supply.

In paradise air, water and the fruits of the earth will be freely available for all, not only for those who can pay for them. They will constitute a common-wealth to be shared by all according to their need, and irrespective of their personal wealth or their moral condition.

This common-wealth, incidentally, is about all that was referred to in the biblical description of the original paradise. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden … and out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed into it out of Eden to water the garden.”

Or as Jesus later observed: “Your father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Today, by contrast, the fruits and other resources of the earth are very unequally shared. It has been claimed that the most affluent countries make up 25 per cent of the world’s population but control 75 per cent of the world’s resources. No future world could be described as paradise unless the earth’s resources are reasonably shared.

During World War II H.G. Wells helped to draw up the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man which said: “Every man is a joint inheritor of all the natural resources and of the powers, inventions and possibilities accumulated by our forerunners. He is entitled, within the measure of these resources, to the nourishment and medical care needed to realise his full possibilities of physical and mental development from birth to death.”

Secure in the land

Secondly, the paradise we desire will provide security of land tenure for all human beings. No more would there be any fear of enemy invasion, of being thrown out of one’s home or of being dispossessed of one’s land. As we have seen, from Abraham onwards, and because of the agricultural revolution, land possession has become increasingly important. This has led, however, to forceful dispossession by violent conquest, by imperialistic colonisation, or more recently by economic imperialism.

The invasions and land-grabbing of the past have bequeathed to us a situation in which the territory of the earth is very unequally shared. In the paradise to come there will be a more equitable distribution of land. That is where most modern social revolutions usually start. The just distribution of land worldwide could involve us in revolution on a global scale. We may need to treat land as a form of common-wealth, just like air and water.

A straw in the wind is the current news (September 2000) about the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian over possession of the holy city of Jerusalem. The suggestion has been made that both sides should jointly declare that this city belongs to God. This of course is an ancient view frequently expressed in the Bible: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Thirdly, in paradise there will be clothing and housing for all. Here the particular needs vary considerably from one locality to another, simply because of climatic conditions. But all need to be shown equal consideration.

Fourthly, there needs to be equality of opportunity for education and health needs. In 1963 Pope John XXIII said it all in his encyclical Pacem in Terris :

Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life. These are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and, finally, the necessary social services. Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or in any case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own.

Sharing, justice, peace

The equitable sharing of the basic necessities for life does not imply that paradise will be marked by a dull uniformity. On the contrary, paradise will be all the richer if it allows for human diversity of temperament, motivation, likes and dislikes. Paradise can still reward the industrious and penalise the irresponsible. But there can be no paradise where people go hungry, poorly clad or homeless through no fault of their own.

Thus a paradise to which we could all give our assent would be a global society where the necessities of life can be shared by all, where justice reigns, and where personal violence and war have been banished for ever. Such a harmonious and peaceful society would be knit together by strong personal bonds of mutual love and loyalty.

But is such a paradise anything more than a pious hope – a utopia that exists nowhere and, in view of human nature, never will?

Whether there ever will be a paradise on earth now depends on us humans as never before in the history of this planet. Teilhard de Chardin once wrote to a friend: “The whole future of the earth seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future.” If that faith is awakened, and we do have the motivation and energy to make this vision of paradise a reality, how do we go about it? What road should we take?