We are all so tempted to try immediate, obvious, fixes to problems: Slobodan Milosevic kills people-bomb him into submission. Students shoot other students at school-control weapons, beef up security. Someone is caught dealing drugs-throw the book at him. But this is treating symptoms, not root causes. We should be asking why we continue to have these problems, and why they seem to be increasing.
Cultural anthropologists tell us that the outer manifestations of a culture-how we dress and eat, how we relate to one another, the problems we have-are the result of a set of values, beliefs, and ideas held by its members. And even deeper, these values spring from a story (often an origin story) of who we are, why we are here, and how we are to relate to other humans and the natural world.
This is the root cause of our problem. For as cultural historian Thomas Berry says, we are between stories. The old stories, often forming the basis of religions, have lost their power to affect us. Why? Limited in time and place, they are exclusive, giving permission to have enemies: How many wars have been fought on religious grounds? They are often scientifically inaccurate, causing some to dismiss them out of hand. They have been dogmatized, losing their deeper meanings and suffering by association with the failings of related institutions.
These stories embodied important values-love your neighbor and do unto others as you would have them do unto you; the love of money is the root of all evil; honor your father and mother; thour shalt not kill. It is from such stories that our lives gain meaning and give us a purpose transcending our own narrow wants and desires. They put us into a larger context of time and space and are essential if we are to have societies in which the members feel sufficient kinship to behave in conscious, loving ways.
Where do we find a new story, one that is adequate to today's global civilization? As mythologist Joseph Campbell said, the new myth (or story) cannot be about this people and this place, but must be about everyone and the whole of Earth. Fortunately, scientific discoveries of the last few decades, coming from sources as diverse as the Hubble Telescope, archeologists digging in Africa, and microbiologists peering through their microscopes, are bringing into focus a picture of an unfolding, emergent Universe in which we are embedded. The incredible string of events over the past 15 billion years has brought forth a creature, us, that can look back to contemplate and appreciate the journey, with all its awe, wonder, and mystery.
We can now see that we are a child of the evolutionary process (as one teacher put it: we are the result of the Earth's attempt to become conscious).
The question is whether we will look deeply enough to find what it is we must do to enable this wondrous process to continue. My guess is that the principles we discover from looking at this story will be the same as those intuited by the great spiritual geniuses around whom we formed the world's great religions-who can doubt that it is our task to learn how to love in every situation? But now we can verify these principles by scientific observation in addition to intuition. And these principles apply to all of us-in fact, not only to all of humanity, but to every other aspect, material and non-material, of our Universe. And they apply to our attitudes and actions toward all these aspects as well, not just toward other humans.
This new knowledge is just beginning to enable us to bring forth a contemporary, inspiring, universal origin story that once again will give meaning to our existence, both individually and as a species, and from which we will be pulled to act out of the highest and best part of our nature. As this occurs, we will see a decline in the kind of problems we keep trying, unsuccessfully, to "fix."