"Forfeit your sense of awe and the world becomes a market place." -- Rabbi Abraham Heschel
"A culture is a people enacting a story," wrote Daniel Quinn in Ishmael. So Americans, what's our collective story? Pose this question to virtually anyone and you're likely to get a blank stare in response.
Most of us pay no heed to our mythology. It's the water we swim in, and we take it completely for granted. Or worse, we discount whatever smells of mythology. "That's just a myth," the saying goes, meaning an untruth, something believed without a shred of evidence.
On the contrary, in The Power of Myth (1988), the late Joseph Campbell explored the vital ways in which mythology -- the overarching story of our relationship to the creator, to one another, and to the earth -- anchors the human soul to the cosmos. Without that anchor, or with an inadequate one, we lose our moorings. Which brings us to the present: "We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story," wrote the eco-theologian Thomas Berry. "We are between stories."
Berry refers to humanity's modern dilemma which, particularly acute for Americans, lies at the root of the culture wars. From time immemorial we humans have derived our meaning largely from religion's claims of our divine origins and exalted status. But the modern age is an age of science, and the scientific story has largely discounted the religious one. It is like having two parents, one who underscores our uniqueness and the other our commonness. Which are we to believe?
Berry, who died in 2009, spent his lifetime articulating an integrative new story that is faithful both to ancient wisdom and to modern scientific insights. He teamed with cosmologist Brian Swimme to produce The Universe Story (1992), which seeks to balance religion's exaggeration of the human place in the cosmos and science's diminishment of it. Berry is appreciated by many as the heir apparent of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French paleontologist-priest who first awakened us to cosmogenesis: the story of the universe as dynamic, unfolding, participatory, and spiritual. Teilhard also coined the term noosphere -- a generalization of "biosphere" -- as the realm of collective consciousness encompassing the earth and her inhabitants.
Quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli believed the quest to synthesize "rational understanding and ... mystical experience ... to be the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present age." Why? Scratch the surface and one finds flawed mythology at the root of so many present ills: environmental crises, dysfunctional politics, and an economy that preys upon people rather than serving them, to mention just three. In each case, the myopia of parochial worldviews stymies creative problem solving and jeopardizes the future. America, in particular, is headed over a waterfall, but we don't see it because of our myopia. And we are dragging much of the world along with us.
Consider the addict whose addiction is destroying not only his own life but the lives of all those engulfed in his personal chaos. The first step in kicking addiction is ending denial. Culturally, this requires that we unmask our dominant mythology and see it for what it truly is. I call the operative American myth -- an unhealthy conflation of capitalism and Christianity -- "Consuming our way into Heaven."
A New York Times article from 2007 revealed a stunning statistic: On average, city dwellers are exposed to some 5,000 ads a day. It seems a preposterous number until one considers all the sources of advertisements: TV, junk mail, newspapers, magazines, billboards, subway walls, radio, and the pop-ups on your laptop. We're blitzed 24/7 by blatant, subtle, or subliminal messages to consume ever more. On the surface it seems relatively harmless. Can't we just ignore the unwanted stimuli?
An honest look reveals the milieu of advertising as a kind of incessant, low-level bullying. Over time it damages the human spirit. And when it permeates the culture, it injures the soul of a nation.
The bully is insecure. Rather than to face those insecurities, he compensates by seeking to diminish those around him in a misguided attempt to raise himself in his own estimation. The bully fixates on his victim's weaknesses and inadequacies, and God knows we all have them. Ultimately, the one who is bullied loses faith in self.
The message of every ad is a subtle version of the bully's taunts: You and I are incomplete or inadequate as we now are. Own this luxury car, sport these sneakers, slink like this supermodel, imbibe this drink, lounge on this cruise liner, savor this burger, shed these pounds, wield this credit card, fly these skies, fill in the blank, and you'll be less inadequate. Keep spending, loser, and you might eventually command the respect of others.
It's futile, of course, for self-esteem comes not from having things but from mastering life's situations, both the ordinary and the extraordinary. But expressly because materialism can't satisfy the soul, it's magic for Madison Avenue, which has created a nation of insatiable appetite. We always want more. Consummate consumers, Americans gobble up the earth's resources at a rate four times what is sustainable, according to the Global Footprint Network. And by packaging our economic model of compulsive consumption, re-branding it as "free" enterprise (no compulsion is "free"), and exporting it, we contribute to the destruction of the planet.
The nation that created the iPod has given us also the iMythology: the mythology of narcissism. But the same America has given the world stirring images of "spaceship Earth" and the Internet, the latter a web-like embodiment of Teilhard's noosphere. And America has also nurtured visionaries like Thomas Berry who teach interdependence and interconnectedness rather than independence and materialsim: "The world is a communion of subjects," observed Berry, "not a collection of objects."
In the wisdom of Chief Seattle from 1854, "Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it." Which story we embrace -- the iMythology or the webMythology -- may well seal our fate, and that of humanity as well.
(The author's book Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning.)