Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening The Spirit In Everyday Life
By Sam Keen, Ph.D.
At dusk on a bleak November day in 1957,I sat in a classic old lecture hall at Harvard and listened to Paul Tillich, possibly the greatest Protestant theologian of our century. It was a time of cultural optimism, of growing religious and political liberalism. I was newly married and well on my way to fulfilling my version of the American dream - being a professor in a small college, living with my family on a quiet, elm-lined street. The future seemed bright. Sweet reason and its technological consort were to be the gods of the brave new age. Multinational corporations were erasing the boundaries between nations. Although the unofficial religion of America was anti-Communism, the cold war was only medium cool. The great theologians of the era - Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth -all warned against nationalism and fundamentalism. Christians were beginning to enter into dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists. On this particular day, Tillich was lecturing to us about the importance of understanding that all religious statements were symbolic. They are linguistic lace, allowing only a hint of the fabric of the mystery of being. No religion possesses any literal truth, he said, and warned us against the idolatry of religion. He advised us to look for the presence of the sacred in the everyday secular world.
As darkness fell, someone stood up in class and said, "Dr. Tillich, in three minutes the Russian sputnik satellite will come into view in the skies over Cambridge." We all filed out onto the steps, craned our necks upward, and waited for the appearance of the new star. In awe, we watched this new angel of light come into view and silently traverse the dome of heaven, announcing the coming of the Space Age. When we returned to the lecture hall, Tillich spoke about the "greatness of man" in whose hands had been placed the charge and the capacity to have dominion over the earth. That evening, we all felt the potential grandeur of the future. In retrospect, in the middle of this seeming epiphany of coming glory I recognize that there was a minor omen we failed to heed. No sooner had Tillich uttered the phrase "the grandeur of man" than a baby who had been sleeping in a bassinet beside his mother began to cry. Our attention switched immediately from the star to the child, and Tillich finished his sentence with the phrase "and the smallness of man."
Yesterday's tomorrows have turned out differently from what we imagined. Medieval forms of fundamentalism, theocracy, holy wars, and the politics of fanaticism are back in fashion, tearing nations into warring tribes and filling the byways with hordes of refugees. We are bombarded with stories of violence, division, fracture, betrayal, and scandal. Our cities are filled with huddled masses of the homeless and wandering gangs of hopeless young barbarians. The economy stagnates while the stock market soars. World population expands faster than it can be thinned by famine, plague, or war. Unnumbered species disappear before the relentless assault of humankind. Holes in the ozone and AIDS suggest that nature is reacting against us. Everywhere governments and civic institutions are impotent to manage runaway change. Meanwhile, multitudes of the affluent spend their leisure time in malls trying to find stylish luxuries to consume that will ultimately be banished to already overflowing landfills.
Once we expected that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Man had come of age," but we appear to have regressed into childishness. Where we once imagined a new world order, there now is chaos; where we once imagined tolerance, there is now fanaticism; where we once imagined a hopeful application of technology, there is now pollution; where we once imagined a leisure revolution, there is now a frenzy of stressed-out workers. Our predictions were no more accurate than the psychics who forecast the future in the pages of The National Enquirer.
And my own personal tomorrows? They also turned out differently from what I had imagined. No quiet streets, secure job, or unbroken covenants of faith lay in my future. Instead were divorce and remarriage, a thermonuclear family, a career as an intellectual gypsy, the loss of many beliefs, and a long journey into the unknown country that lies to the east of Eden.
Ever since the 1950s, many of us in the Western world seem to have been in an extended spiritual crisis. The great religious myths of the past are losing their power to inform our lives with meaning, purpose, and hope. We are privileged and condemned to live on the cusp between epochs reminiscent of the time when humankind switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture or passed from agriculture to industrial economy. Old values, visions, worldviews, and ways of organizing social, economic, and political life are transmuting.
In the twilight between the death of the old gods and the arrival of the new, there will be much chaos and the temptation to despair. Ours will not be a calm or gentle time, and change is permanent, here to stay. It is to be expected that at the great turning points in history, different parts of the body-politic move in opposite directions. The majority tries to hold on to the old ways, while a minority sets out to explore the new. You and I are destined to live out our years in the middle of the Great Paradigm War, a worldwide conflict between three mythic systems -the technological-economic myth of progress, authoritarian religion, and the emerging spiritual worldview.
Our situation is critical but not terminal. Neither apocalypse nor utopia is likely to appear in the near future. I see the first signs of dawn, a new unifying vision emerging from the quests of disparate men and women. In the long run the spiritual renaissance now in the bud will probably gradually change the way we conceptualize and experience the sacred, the way we organize our economic, political, and personal lives. I believe a new myth - with a new politics, new economics, and new forms of the social organization of cities, farms, and wilderness - is being born out of the twilight.
There is no way of knowing whether the emerging myth will thrive or perish, whether technocentric, urban modern nations have the will to survive and the capacity to move beyond the old ecocidal myth of progress, whether we have the resilience to re-form our uncivilization. It is sobering to remind ourselves that history is littered with the remains of great civilizations that chose to die rather than to change their organizing myth.
Hymns to an Unknown God is based on a hunch and a working philosophy I gleaned from a cartoon that showed a bearded prophet carrying a sign that said: "The world is not coming to an end. We will have to learn to cope."
I think that if we listen closely, the voice in the whirlwind will certainly tell us about the death of our old gods and may whisper something about new gods now being born.