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The Personal Story Behind the Essay, “Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time”

Twenty years ago, David Korten began wrestling with the question, had we become too individualistic and shortsighted to save our species? Here's what he discovered about the power of foundational stories to keep us trapped in a suicidal economy—or awaken us to our spiritual nature.

Trees photo by Code Poet

Photo by Code Poet.

Nearly 20 years ago, while writing the epilogue to When Corporations Rule the World, I struggled with a troubling experience. When I made the case in public presentations that we humans are on a path of our own creation to potential species extinction, I would often get a response like this: “Yes, it is true. We seem to be on a suicidal course, but it would be so terribly expensive and inconvenient to change. And if the dismal projections turn out to be wrong, we might give up a great party for nothing.”

It seemed that even otherwise thoughtful people were saying, “Party while we can. Last one to leave, turn out the lights."

Had we become so individualistic and shortsighted that we gave no particular priority to the survival of the species, not even for the sake of our own children?

While wrestling with this question, I came across Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth and sensed a profound truth in his argument that our survival as a species may depend on discovering a new story that gives us a reason to live—a story that provides a meaningful answer to the most basic of questions: Why?

Read the Essay "Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time."

Soon after reading Berry, I received from Duane Elgin a copy of his book Awakening Earth, which offered an elegant suggestion regarding human purpose:

“As humanity develops its capacity for reflective consciousness, it enables the universe to achieve self-referencing knowing of itself. Through humanity’s awakening, the universe acquires the ability to look back and reflect upon itself—in wonder, awe, and appreciation.” Duane Elgin, Awakening Earth, p. 18.

I shared these insights in the epilogue to When Corporations Rule the World, first published in 1995, and have since made periodic reference in my writing and presentations to my belief that the essential transformation of human culture and institutions depends on a global human awakening to our spiritual nature.

The spiritual dimension of the transformation remained at the periphery of my thinking, however, until March 2012, when a sequence of events suggested that a moment of public readiness for this inquiry had arrived. Three months later, I turned my attention to writing “Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time.” For those interested in the story behind the essay, these are a few highlights.

Growing Up

In my youth, I participated actively in our local nondenominational Protestant Community Church with little thought about or interest in the variety of the world's religions. This began to change when, as a college undergraduate, I took a course in comparative religion. The course opened my mind to the commonalities of the world’s religions and the parochialism characteristic of competing religious traditions.

“Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your politics.”

A few years later, in 1961, while traveling by train through Indonesia's spectacular terraced rice fields, I experienced a deep mind-meld with the traditional Asian consciousness of the circular flow of time and the interconnection and continuity of life. This was the beginning of my awakening to how profoundly our distinctive cultural experiences and stories can affect our human perceptions of reality.

On my return from Indonesia, I gave a slideshow presentation on my Indonesian experience to a group of my parents' friends. It included the pastor of our local Episcopal Church, who asked me, “What religion do the Indonesians practice?”

“Islam,” I said.

“That’s too bad,” he responded.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “Islam is an ethical monotheistic religion, which makes Muslims difficult to convert to Christianity.”

I later asked myself, “If Islam is an ethical monotheistic religion, why should we want to convert them to Christianity? Is it only about market share?” I have never since been inclined to affiliate with any particular religious denomination.

Beyond Machine World Myopia

My deeper engagement with the questions addressed in “Religion, Science, and Spirit” began in October 1962, as a doctoral student at the Stanford Business School. I signed up for a university-wide graduate seminar on the human consciousness offered by Willis Harman. Harman was at the time a tenured professor of Electrical Engineering and one of a number of leading Stanford scientists who concluded that the beliefs and methods of normal science had become self-limiting, and who developed a particular interest in the nature and role of consciousness. This encounter with a brilliant mind possessed of impeccable science credentials, who dared to challenge prevailing intellectual orthodoxy of his discipline was a life-changing experience.

Story Politics

The image of God as an integral spirit supports a politics of cooperation, compassion, and sharing.

Much later, in the Fall of 1999, at a conference on “Global Economic Justice” organized by the Washington State and Greater Seattle Area Church Councils in the lead-up to the historic 1999 Seattle confrontation with the World Trade Organization, I shared the podium with Marcus Borg, a respected academic theologian and Jesus scholar. Borg’s defining statement reached deep into my consciousness: “Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your politics.”

Borg explained that the image of God as distant patriarch supports a politics of domination. The image of God as an integral spirit supports a politics of cooperation, compassion, and sharing. He noted that both images find strong support in the Christian Bible. It was a reminder of the powerful influence the stories by which we understand the nature of reality have on our individual and collective values and behavior. It was the beginning of my recognition of how the story of God the patriarch supports and affirms, in ways not immediately obvious, a concentration of power in imperial governments and corporations deeply at odds with the teachings of Jesus and other religious mystics.

Once we recognize that culture is a choice that comes with consequences, we can accept adult responsibility for our choice of stories and thereby our common future.

In The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, I explored the power of society's framing cultural stories in relation to the developmental stages of the individual and collective human consciousness. It is key that immature human consciousness has no awareness that the stories of the shared culture in which it lives represent a collective attempt to make sense of complex realities beyond our immediate understanding. It simply accepts the prevailing cultural story frame as reality, and thus easily falls captive to manipulation by advertisers, propagandists, and others adept at manipulating a society’s cultural stories and symbols for their own purposes.

We take an important step to a more mature individual consciousness if and when we acquire the ability to step back and see our cultural beliefs as constructs of our collective making. Only once we recognize that culture is a choice that comes with consequences, can we accept adult responsibility for our choice of stories and thereby our common future.

The Essay: Why Now?

In March 2012, I participated in a small international gathering comprised primarily of indigenous environmental leaders to discuss the creation of green economies based on the principles of indigenous wisdom. They spoke of Sacred Earth, the Rights of Nature, and the centrality of these themes to the then-upcoming debates of the Rio+20 UN summit on the environment.

I recalled the Hindu story of six blind men groping an elephant and considered the possibility that each of the three cosmologies describes one element of a larger and more complex reality.

Three months later, in June, I participated in a small meeting convened by the Club of Rome in Bristol, England to plan a global initiative to raise public consciousness of how society's framing cultural stories shape its values, behavior, and the human course. There I shared a simple version of the three cosmologies framework. Martin Palmer, who hosted our gathering, asked me whether the three cosmologies I outlined are mutually exclusive. My instant response was, “Yes, of course.” As I reflected on his question, however, I came to question my response.

As I began to write up my reflection as a contribution to the proceedings of our meeting, my thoughts kept coming back to Martin’s question. Might there be a deeper answer?

Then I recalled the Hindu story of six blind men groping an elephant and considered the possibility that each of the three cosmologies describes one element of a larger and more complex reality.

I circulated my reflection to participants in the Bristol meeting and to a few other friends and colleagues. The enthusiastic and insightful responses it evoked motivated me to develop it further, sharing drafts and receiving further insightful suggestions and reflections. It was through this conversation that the insight into the nature and purpose of the differentiated consciousness emerged, which proved to provide a critical conceptual link between the "Integral Spirit Cosmology" narrative, the Sacred Living Earth narrative, and the Living Earth Economies narrative.

The final version of Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time" is very much a collective product. We have posted excerpts from several of the commentaries that contributed particularly valuable insights.

A New Story and the Step to Adult Responsibility

To navigate the transition to a New Economy requires that we take the step to species maturity and accept adult responsibility for the consequences of our individual and collective choices.

The issue of adult responsibility is central and has many dimensions. For example, if we perceive ourselves to be children of a distant parent God in heaven, we are inclined to act like children and assume our watchful parent will restrain our missteps and protect us from their consequences.

If, at the deepest level of understanding, we are manifestations of the undifferentiated meta-consciousness, then we are as well its agents.

At a deeper level, I argued in an early draft of the essay that the meta-consciousness we call God likely has no awareness of, or interest in, the circumstances and behavior of individual humans. This drew a sharp rebuke from several colleagues who pointed to the experience and teachings of the mystics who have experienced union with the undifferentiated meta-consciousness. At first, I resisted addressing this apparent contradiction, because the idea that we are not individually under the protection of a transcendent God seemed foundational to the idea that we must assume adult responsibility for the consequences of our own behavior.

In the course of struggling with how to reconcile the seeming contradiction, I had a conversation with Lama Tsomo, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist lama. She noted that in Buddhist teaching our apparent separation from the undifferentiated divine awareness is an illusion and the source of human suffering; connecting to the reality behind the curtain of illusion through disciplined meditation is the path to enlightenment and the elimination of suffering.

As I reflected on this teaching, I realized that if, at the deepest level of understanding, we are manifestations of the undifferentiated meta-consciousness, then we are as well its agents and thereby instruments of its intervention in our current plane of experience. In the words of the Hopi elders, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” The responsibility and ability to act in ways consonant with the perpetual well-being of the whole therefore lie with us. By accepting that responsibility, we take the step to species maturity.

A Dialogue of the Whole

We need an open and respectful public dialogue involving people everywhere in an exploration of the philosophical and empirical foundations of our respective creation stories and their implications for our behavior and common future. In many respects the inquiry itself, so long as it remains a respectful exploration rather than a contest of ideologies, may be more important than any particular conclusion.

Only through respectful dialogue are we likely to bring into focus in our individual and collective consciousness the nuanced understanding we now so desperately need of the relationship between:

  • Individual and community
  • Competition and cooperation
  • Material mechanism and conscious agency
  • Our momentary individual existence and creation’s continued unfolding
  • Freedom and responsibility
  • Unitary and distributed intelligence
  • Faith and inquiry

Signs of Awakening

The thought we might engage a respectful global dialogue of the whole on the stories that shape our common future may at first seem a hopelessly grand ambition. Recent expressions of interest in the "Religion, Science, and Spirit" essay among leaders of influential groups committed to advancing such a dialogue suggest that, to the contrary, it is a realistic and timely ambition. Indeed, the conversation is already underway with a depth and growing momentum of which I was previously unaware.

I have long been acquainted with various groups engaged in spiritual inquiry unconnected to any organized religious denomination and with interfaith initiatives that bring people of various religious denominations together in search of mutual respect and common understanding.

It is only within the past few months, however, that  I have connected with small but influential groups like the Contemplative Alliance and the Temple of Understanding that are advancing an interfaith/interspirit dialogue that goes far beyond more familiar spiritual and interfaith initiatives. The Pachamama Alliance has more than 3,500 facilitators engaging tens of thousands of people in more than 72 countries and 13 languages in Awaken the Dreamer; Change the Dream symposiums. These are informal convening networks of extraordinary thinkers and activists with an impressive capacity to expand a global dialogue with light speed, unburdened by institutional baggage.

There is an emerging field of spiritual ecology with deep intellectual roots grounded in the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. Prominent contributors include Brian Swimme, Steven C. Rockefeller, Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Bron Taylor, and Roger S. Gottlieb. The conversation is carried forward in the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. An extraordinary documentary, Journey of the Universe, produced by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker and narrated by Swimme, brilliantly portrays the new story of a magnificent unfolding cosmos and the distinctive beauty and wonder of sacred living Earth.

The intellectual foundations and  strands of the interfaith/interspirit dialogue are identified and explored in books such as Carter Phipps' Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Ideas (2012) and Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord's The Coming Interspiritual Age (forthcoming in 2013).

These conversations are serious, grounded, and transcend established institutional and intellectual boundaries. The speed with which they are expanding the circle of engagement suggests they respond to a deep hunger in the human soul.

It appears we are on the verge of recognizing and celebrating, as a species, the reality of the oneness of being and its implications for our relationships with one another, Earth, and the cosmos. The moment has never been more right and given the accelerating rate of economic, social and environmental collapse, this moment may be a one-time opportunity.

Click here to read the essay.


Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member emeritus of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and a member of the Club of Rome. He earned MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He blogs for YES! Magazine.

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