One of the most challenging virtues for any smart, progressive, sophisticated person to cultivate today may be the quality of inspired conviction, or the utopian belief that something radically new and different is possible. In fact, we live at a time when the ideal of living passionately for anything beyond our own personal happiness or maybe that of your family and friends often seems naive, traditional, or even dangerous.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research for EnlightenNext magazine into the philosophical and spiritual history of evolutionary spirituality. I’m reading a lot of writings by some serious cats like Henri Bergson, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Sanders Peirce, and even Friedrich Nietzsche, all of who lived during the several-decades-long period between Darwin and the first World War. These guys were completely on fire (check out some quotes from my previous posts). They were all expressing a passion for the powerful new insight that the world is changing and evolving—spiritually, biologically, and culturally. And they were trying to create a new worldview based on this vision to replace the old, traditional, mythic worldviews that the western Enlightenment had dissected.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like some kind of retro-romantic, going on about how things used to be oh so much better in the good ol’ days. Granted there are definitely a lot of passionate, sophisticated people on the planet today (just look at those of us who elected Obama to office :)). But the palpable conviction that the aforementioned thinkers had in development, progress, and human evolution that so pungently filled the air during their time was of a different order than today’s. And it has me thinking about just why this sense of pure idealism seems to have faded over the past 100 years, even with all of our incredible advancements in technology, culture, and the arts.
What happened between then and now? The answer, I think, is actually quite simple, but it gets me every time. The evolutionary momentum building up during the late nineteenth century ran smack dab into two world wars and all of the chaos, destruction, and downright evil that surrounded them. These horrific events in our human history revealed the dark underbelly of the same modern mind that had previously produced such glorious visions and, to a large extent, they destroyed our ability to believe in utopia and “progress.” They destroyed our ability to get behind the belief that humanity can be a gift to the world and not a plague. I ran into the following quote from Terry Eagleton, a British literary critic who wrote a recent book called Reason, Faith, and Revolution, which made a lot of things clear to me about the general postmodern skepticism that was born out of the tumult of the first 50 years of the twentieth century:
“Postmodernism is allergic to the idea of certainty, and makes a great deal of theoretical fuss over this rather modest everyday notion. As such, it is in some ways the flip side of fundamentalism . . . Some postmodern thought suspects that all certainty is authoritarian. It is nervous of people who sound passionately committed to what they say. In this, it represents among other things an excessive reaction to fascism and Stalinism. The totalitarian politics of the twentieth century did not only launch an assault on truth in their own time; they also helped to undermine the idea of truth for future generations. The line between holding certain noxious kinds of belief, and holding strong beliefs at all, then becomes dangerously unclear. Conviction itself is condemned as dogmatic.”
It’s striking to see how much our deeply held ideas about life have been shaped by historical events over half a century ago. As Bergson said, we can feel “the presence of the past” in every moment. But the best part of all of this is the fact that these anti-progress, anti-evolutionary, anti-conviction structures in ourselves and in culture are JUST that—cultural habits that can be transformed. We don’t have to live in the shadow of the World Wars forever and we can still take up the mantle of evolution with the same passion as our evolutionary forebears did. Of course, thanks to the incredible lessons we’ve learned from the failed utopian experiments and blind belief in human progress of the past century, we can now approach cultural evolution with a newfound appreciation for the difficulty and complexity that creating heaven on earth brings to the table! And that’s the challenging and beautiful task we have before us.