There is a scene in the movie Dances with Wolves where the Lakota elders are discussing the invasion of white people into their country. The Lakota were concerned because the whites had a reputation for being dishonest, wantonly violent, with a casual disregard for nature. The tribe’s holy man, Kicking Bird, captures the mood of the meeting when he says: “The whites are a poor race. But make no mistake: the whites are coming.” When he says “poor”, he does not mean they lack money or material things. He means they are spiritually poor. Although Kicking Bird knew that the Lakotas were skilful warriors, he recognised that the whites often used devious means, modern weapons and superior numbers to win battles.
Of course, that was just a movie. Yet the fact is that devious means, modern weapons and superior numbers were used to overcome the indigenous people of North America and take their lands from them. That defeat brought disaster to the tribes. Out went health, dignity and ecological living. In their place came poor health, loss of dignity and loss of ecology. It is surely no accident that, once they had been overcome by the “white” culture, alcoholism, obesity, addiction, depression, crime and suicide became common among the tribes.
The experience of the North American tribes has a lot to teach us. If Kicking Bird were alive today, he would note that poor health, unhappiness and the absence of dignity and ecology are widespread in the world, and he would not be surprised to learn that alcoholism, obesity, drugs, depression, crime and addiction are common in “white” society. However, unlike many of us, he would probably attribute this to spiritual poverty. And he would probably wonder how the modern world has managed to survive so long without destroying itself and everything it touches.
It is not without significance that the problems of the world today are uncannily similar to those experienced by the tribes after they were overwhelmed by “white” culture. The people of the so-called “developed world” today are no different from the North American tribes. When there is spiritual poverty, they, too, suffer a range of problems. However, since the modern world seems to value the material higher than the spiritual, it is quick to assume that the big problems of our time have their roots in material poverty, rather than spiritual poverty. While it is, of course, true that material deprivation may be the cause of some problems in some communities, it is worth noting that the tribes were at their happiest, healthiest and most ecological when they were materially poorer than nearly everyone in the world today. Their problems began only when they were overcome by a culture with very different beliefs and values.
The implications of this are immense, for it suggests that money and material things alone are unlikely to solve the world’s problems. Indeed, there are many today who believe that the relentless pursuit of money and things may be the major cause of our problems, and that the solutions lie instead in replacing spiritual poverty with spiritual wealth. This is a complex issue, and it is by no means easy to prescribe a “cure”, but a useful point of departure is to examine the nature of modernity, because it was modernity, in practice, that defeated the tribes and ushered in their problems. Understanding the nature and effects of modernity may help us to understand the way to spiritual wealth and the way to deeper, sustainable solutions to our problems.
The Nature and Effects of Modernity
Modernity is the set of values, beliefs and practices that have shaped the modern world. It has its roots in the worldview of modern science. It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that at the heart of this worldview are some apparently harmless beliefs:
The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical
The universe and everything in it is essentially a machine…a very sophisticated machine, but a machine nonetheless. For science, there can be nothing beyond this, such as “God”.
The universe has no intrinsic meaning or purpose
In this article I shall argue that, to a significant extent, most of the big problems of the modern world can be traced back to these beliefs.
Science has become very powerful and influential. So much so, that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict science tend to be rejected. Yet if, as science insists, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the so called “Big Bang”), and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must be totally meaningless. The fact that this statement, as part of that world, must also be meaningless is little consolation! A life without meaning is a bleak life indeed. For many people today, the search for meaning has become a desperate attempt to find gratification and an endless quest to solve the seemingly endless problems that we are constantly creating. That is probably why there is nothing like a good crisis or tragedy to give people a much needed sense of meaning and purpose, and it is interesting to reflect on the growing status of the emergency and security services over the last 20 years. There is little doubt in my mind that one of the characteristics of modernity and modern society is loss of deeper meaning. As we shall see shortly, this is having profound effects throughout the world.
Modernity is also characterised by loss of wisdom. If science rejects the accumulated wisdom of the ages in favour of its own empirically derived body of knowledge, then, since science is the dominant form of knowledge today, wisdom is devalued and will no longer inform our lives in the ways that it used to inform the lives of the Lakota. In non-modern societies, people are content simply to know things without feeling that they have to prove them. The obsession in modern societies with evidence and empiricism means that we end up having to prove everything, even the blindingly obvious. We should not be surprised that, with wisdom and meaning pushed to the margins of our lives, we have become the most dangerous and destructive form of life on the planet. Nor should we be surprised that older people, who in non-modern societies are the respected wise elders, have also been pushed to the margins, many of them right out of sight into care homes. A wise society values its elders and the group. A modern society produces the cult of the young and the individual. In a wise society, the stock of wisdom increases because wisdom is valued. People wise up. It seems that modern societies have a tendency to dumb down.
Modernity is also characterised by materialism. This is not surprising, given that much of the modern world believes that the universe and human beings are little more than sophisticated physical machines. We live in an era of unprecedented materialism. Too many of us give high priority to money and material things and low priority to spiritual things, if indeed we ever think about these things. Our economics, our politics, our education, our healthcare and our culture are steeped in material values and beliefs and the behaviours that flow from these. We are paying a high price for this, as we exploit and damage each other and the world. It seems that we do not care for things we do not value. It is a short step from materialism and loss of wisdom to economism and consumerism.
Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than as a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values rank higher than other ones. Economism is clearly evident throughout society and is a strong influence in business and political circles. It is significant that in non-modern societies economics is a means to an end, whereas modern societies have made economics the end itself, in the sense that perpetual economic growth seems to be the central purpose of most countries today. This is reflected in the growth ethic of the business world and in the widespread belief that happiness is to be found through money and possessions. When we add materialism to economism, we get consumerism.
Consumerism is the attempt to acquire happiness, fulfilment and identity through the acquisition and the possession of material things. The new world religion seems to be shopping and the new cathedrals are the sprawling shopping centres, where the modern world spends more and more of its time. Although people report that they get temporary satisfaction from shopping, they say it does not bring lasting happiness, and they need to do even more shopping to try to compensate for that. Consumerism is a dangerous downward spiral.
Now, if it is true that wisdom has been devalued and that our fundamental beliefs are basically materialist, then our idea of what constitutes “progress” is bound to reflect this. Arguably, the main indicator of “progress” in the modern world is economic growth. Whether we are talking about an individual, a business or a nation, progress tends to be seen as having more money and more possessions. Not only is this seen as desirable in itself, it is seen by many as a universal panacea that will eventually cure poverty, disease, unhappiness and the many other ills of our time. The reality is that there is nothing intrinsically desirable about economic growth. Economic growth simply means that we spent more money this year on goods and services than we spent last year. It does not tell us anything about the desirability or quality of these additional goods and services. It does not tell us anything about the human, social and environmental costs of providing them. It does not tell us anything about income distribution and social justice. Most important of all, it does not tell whether we are getting happier, wiser, and healthier and more fulfilled, which is surely the point of it all. The principal measure of economic growth - GDP - treats the good, the bad and the ugly as if they were all good. So long as money legally changes hands, it counts towards GDP. If there is more crime to be dealt with, more divorces, more pollution to be cleaned up, more illness to be treated, and more debt being incurred, then all of this counts towards economic growth. In fact, nothing boosts growth more than a war or a natural disaster. GDP gives us the impression that things are going well when they may be going badly.
But there is more to it this. Far from being the universal panacea, the relentless drive for economic growth on the part of nations, businesses and individuals may turn out to be the universal problem, because it brings with it pressures, values and behaviours that damage people, communities and the planet. None of this is to suggest that the modern world is all bad. Kicking Bird would no doubt agree that it has given us many good things. He liked Kevin Costner’s telescope, for example. However, he would be seriously concerned at the implications of the following comparison:
A Spiritual Vacuum
By marginalising wisdom and deeper meaning, modern societies have unwittingly created a spiritual vacuum. As a consequence, many people feel that something big is missing from their lives. They may not be able to put this into words, but they feel an emptiness inside them that cries out to be filled. They experience this as anxiety, discomfort, fear, insecurity, despair, or a sense of pointlessness. Understandably, they try to fill the emptiness to make themselves feel better, and they do this in a huge variety of ways. They overeat, they overshop, they overindulge, they watch a lot of television, they engage in a lot of activity (no surprise that being busy is regarded as a virtue today), or they use sex, drugs and alcohol as pain-killers. These behaviours, unhealthy in themselves, often lead to other forms of ill health, such as alcoholism, obesity, addiction, depression and suicide, as well as the health problems that follow from these, such as diabetes and heart disease. So long as there is a spiritual vacuum, people will continue to behave in these ways.
If I am right and modernity is indeed the main root cause of the spiritual poverty that is widespread across the world, what can we do about it? What can we do to reverse the downward drift into even more materialism and further loss of wisdom and meaning? There is no easy answer to this. However, I do think that it is possible to outline a few of the general conditions that will favour the emergence of spiritual wealth.
Encourage Wise Eldership
Older people have been pushed to the margins of modern society, while the young occupy centre stage. Many TV programmes, for example, give us the impression that older people have been airbrushed out of existence. Far from being seen as our main source of wisdom, older people are often portrayed as a burden on society or merely as a market for retirement services. Is it any wonder that so many older people feel unvalued and isolated? In too many instances, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that as one gets older, one gets less healthy, more dependent, and less valuable. Indeed, in some countries (e.g. the USA) people over 55 are considered to be “old” and actually expect to be on regular medication. The fact that so much potential wisdom is being lost as older people are marginalised is one of the tragedies of our times. We could, if we wished, enable the re-emergence of a vast amount of wisdom simply by raising the status and value of older people. That alone would have a profound effect on all of us.
Bring Back Genuine Education
Although we continue to use the word “education” to describe what happens in schools, colleges and universities, there is not much true education around these days. True education is about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, even if that means they end up questioning and opposing prevailing beliefs, values and behaviours. To a large extent, education has been replaced by its opposite, schooling – which is the process of shaping people to believe and follow prevailing beliefs, values and behaviours. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. When schooling is combined with economism, “education” today ends up being little more than a training in how to perform well in the economy. In some places it has gone even further than this - young children are being encouraged to become “entrepreneurs”! It is time we allowed children to have a childhood, and it is time we replaced schooling with education.
One of the hallmarks of modern societies is their increasing dependency on business, government and experts for goods, services and knowledge that, in many cases, individuals and communities would be better providing for themselves. As a rule of thumb, dependency is unhealthy and self-reliance is healthy. The Lakota and other tribes were self-reliant, empowered communities. They were living cultures, rather than vicarious cultures. They recognised the central importance of basic human capacities, such as caring, growing their own food, cooking, healing, educating, creating, and entertaining, and would not dream of having these things provided as commodities and services by government and big business. Wisdom and meaning arise naturally out of self-reliance. Insofar as modern society is -a society dependent on business, government and experts for the basics of living, it inhibits the emergence of wisdom and meaning. One of the ways of enabling wisdom and meaning is to encourage as much self-reliance as possible. In practice, this would require a new economics, based on new values and behaviours.
Adopt a New Economics
The world’s dominant socio-economic philosophy, neoliberalism, values money and property higher than people and nature. That is in complete contrast to the value-systems of the Lakota and other non-modern societies. Most of them lived healthy, dignified lives, in harmony with nature and each other, whereas we live largely unhealthy, undignified lives, often in conflict with nature and each other. So, why on earth are we so attached to a philosophy that causes so much disharmony and conflict? We are attached to it because, at a superficial level, it seems to give us what we want, but also because its myths are so powerful, and because these myths are skilfully advocated by government, business, academia and the media. The myths are:
These are the principal myths that keep neoliberalism in place. They are supported by a range of misleading indicators - such as GDP, corporate accounts, and stock prices - that give us the impression that we are doing well, when the opposite may be true.
The reality is very different from the myths. In reality:
Neoliberalism is disempowering and dehumanising. We urgently need to replace it with an economics that values people and nature much higher than money and property, and that is empowering and humanising
I am acutely aware that I have covered a lot of ground at some speed. Inevitably, I have been unable to go into much detail. My intention at this stage is simply to draw attention to the fact that modernity is not a health-producing or happiness-producing culture. It marginalises wisdom and meaning, and it leads to spiritual poverty. If we are ever to solve the many problems of the modern world, then one of the things we have to do is replace spiritual poverty with spiritual wealth. This means many things, but ultimately it means allowing wisdom and meaning to re-emerge into our private and public lives.