Some of us who became young adults in 1960s America watched the Viet Nam war and the cultural upheaval in American society through the wrong end of the telescope. What was happening right in front of our noses appeared to be far, far away. In truth, what was so small was our acquaintance with our own hearts. If I didn’t agonize over the misadventures of America in Southeast Asia, it was at least because I shut myself off from the brutalization of the Vietnam-era soldiers who are today asking for handouts on street corners and the men and women without arms or legs who survive all over Vietnam.
I mention the challenge of seeing life clearly by way of introducing a short bit of history and setting a brief context for a critical question about whether or not it’s possible any more to “stand on the shoulders of those who came before.”
In 1968, a weekend seminar called “The 20th Century Theological Revolution” cracked open a great many minds and hearts that had previously been guarding the territory of emotion, introspection, self awarness and selfless service. Suddenly our view of the world came into focus. The landscape of human need and community care got a whole lot closer. It became screamingly clear that the injustice, suffering and misery in the world lay at the feet of anyone who had his or her eyes and heart closed. It was an eye-opening experience.
The refocusing came about, not by rubbing our noses in statistics about infant deaths or war or global poverty, but by pointing out that what we call G-o-d is a handle we give to our own, most personal experience of the way life is. We talked about how our illusions protect us from the full reality of life and how we are, nevertheless, always free to choose whether and how we will relate to the whole of things. We ended up talking about how there are always some people—in every crowd, every community, every organization—who take it all in and consciously choose to devote their lives to being of creative, self-giving service, for the good of everyone.
A number of remarkable things happened. A lot of people were fascinated with the notion that G-o-d has to do with the way life is. A lot of people were caught off guard by the image that we build illusions to fool ourselves and can empower ourselves by allowing our illusions to be broken. A lot of people were stunned by the assertion that every human being has the ability to choose life and necessity in every situation. A lot of people were so addressed that they wanted to sign up on the spot and join others who were giving their lives to creative, self-giving service for the good of the whole world. A lot of people were also scared out of their wits and went home mid-seminar in an ill humor.
But enough people did sign on that an international movement was born mid-20th century. In time it spread to several dozen countries and to this day comprises a wide range of strategies for service: grassroots, non-formal education and training; participatory decision making for organizational and community transformation; and spiritual development and vocational empowerment. It began as the Ecumenical Institute in the mid-’50s. By the early ’70s, it had given birth to the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Along the way, an intentional community blossomed that energized thousands of colleagues and mobilized untold resources. All over the world, villages and towns held community meetings, launched local human development projects, created preschools and founded micro-enterprises, and experienced the empowerment of being acknowledged as capable, significant global citizens.
Hundreds of communities in many nations came to be better places to live because a lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into being useful to people who were suffering. The really remarkable thing though, is that this movement was from the beginning and remains to day, a very diverse, grassroots movement. Originally, in the US, it was a movement of Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, college students of unknown affiliation, and a dozen interesting et ceteras. Overseas, it involved teams of nominally Christians and local Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or animists or whatever local melange of beliefs and practices held peoples’ lives together in any given place.
People made lots of notes about what works and what does not work when it comes to caring for human beings and mobilizing people to look after one another. A lot of files got filled up with all of the planning documents, reports to donors, concept papers, training constructs and the odd keepsakes that someone thought might be interesting some day and tucked away in storage boxes. The experience contained in all the file cabinets happened a long time ago—before the PC, before the Internet, before the World Wide Web, before global terrorism and before the articulation of String Theory.
Now come the questions. How can the experiences and insights of a former century—no matter how valuable they seemed at the time—be relevant to life at light speed in the 21st century? So what if we learned how to mobilize hundreds of community meetings on a single day—that was 1978. So what if we helped our neighbors in thousands of villages dig wells for safe drinking water? That was then; this is now.
But wait; there’s more. The questions get harder. The idea that the key to life is loving our neighbors predates Jesus and Mohammed by many centuries. How can we make sense out of these experiences recorded centuries before the invention of the telescope, when we live in the age of Hubble, mobile devices and triple bypass surgery? The question is something like how can we make good use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics without blinding ourselves to the particles splashed about by the Large Hadron Collider.
It may boil down to this. When life and culture and history accelerate closer and closer to the “speed of light,” is it possible for the wisdom of the past to keep up with us? How do we keep what we learned in Sunday School, Sabbath School or the Madrasa from blinding us in one eye and leaving us with just enough sight to get a driver’s license but not enough to have any depth perception? How do we live with a wide-angle lens without losing depth of field?
I don’t have a ready answer, but I’d like to know what you think and I’m going to spend a lot of time thinking out loud about the answers.