People everywhere, young, middle-aged, and old, are sensing that the culture has gone haywire. It might be that we need a new story to live by. As part of our local Sacred Earth Learning Community, I recently communed with a brief writing by Theodore Richards titled “A New Story” in the book, Order of the Sacred Earth. It brought to light the essence of our need for a new story.
Richards frames our time as one of apocalypse. If you are like me when you hear the word apocalypse you may have a vision of total destruction of the world that you know. Kaplooey. The End. Consider, however, that the word apocalypse comes from Greek with a literal meaning of “an uncovering”. As steeped in the early Christian tradition the word meant a revelation of knowledge.
Apocalypse is the culmination of an unraveling, of an ending where the current paradigm is destroyed while unveiling something new. The destruction contains within it the seeds of rebirth.
With this understanding of apocalypse, I get a sense of the kind of pain of childbirth. Where labor pains begin and pregnancy comes to an end. Where the subsequent joy of a new life is birthed into the world. And, so often in natural childbirth how this occurs in the deep darkness just before the dawn of a new day.
We humans understand who we are through our cultural myths – our story. In the U.S., the “American Dream” is an overarching cultural story we tell ourselves over and over again. This is a story that greatly influences our behaviors and beliefs. At its best, “The Dream” is full of ideals. Yet, the reason we are experiencing an unraveling of so many aspects of our culture is that our myths – the stories we live by – no longer work for most of us. We see this unraveling happening all around us and within us. I think I’ve been witnessing this most of my life.
The “American Dream” has been our overarching ethos. It is a dream that is out of reach for more and more people living here in the dominant culture. Despite the ideals of democracy and equality, “The Dream” has never been attainable by most people who are living in minority cultures in our country. A child born poor here is more likely to remain poor than in any other comparable country. “The Dream” is embedded so deeply within our individual and collective psyches that we don’t call into question our own behaviors that attempt to achieve the American Dream even though these behaviors have slowly gutted communities all across our country, polluted the planet, and sapped our individual happiness and wellbeing. While we Americans are good at imagining big dreams that carry well-known extremely low probability of coming true (You can be President!/I can win the Mega Millions Lottery Jackpot!), we are notoriously bad at basic moderate dreams that really count for our lives (like, you can have affordable health care, a fair wage, and go on a paid vacation).
In addition to the overarching “American Dream” myth, our religious symbols and myths of our culture and the institutions built on them largely no longer work well for a growing number of people. Especially younger generations within the context of unfettered capitalism and hyper-individualism that have seemingly served the older generations. Religious institutions continue to cling to the old, tired, tribal and judgmental discriminations that prevent us from living into a new story.
Just one of many present religious examples is the tragedy of the United Methodist Church and it’s new’ motto the church ratified in 2001 as “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”. Although the UM church body seemed to want to live into this new story of what they wanted to become, officially the church on a global level voted this week to continue excluding LGBTQ+ people and clergy and to put in place punishments for violating these exclusions. The hearts, minds, and doors might be open for you if you meet a variety of cultural expectations, but otherwise could be closed to you. To be fair, individual UM churches now have the choice in front of them to abandon this old order and start a new one, a new story, that fully embraces their motto.
We also cling to cultural myths about technology and energy use. Mainly, that with enough technology we can continue to create wealth and grow the economy indefinitely, and with that wealth continue to “create” more energy. This is akin to a perpetual motion machine and underscores our denial of an ecological literacy about how the world actually works. This specific cultural story is blinding us to the incoming tide of impacts from the escalating conversion of carbon-based fuels including runaway climate change, peak oil, and a looming crash of civilization from a lack of imagination and lack of understanding about energy and earth systems.
Because our cultural stories both past and present are no longer working for most of us, we are dangling over an abyss while frantically hanging on to the frayed rope of these myths. Or, some have started adopting older myths belonging to other cultures that may or may not fit well. Some of us might have let go altogether and are in an anxiety inducing free fall, not sure of what comes next.
Imagining a new story and living into that story is perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do as human beings. Our current cultural myths are hard to shake, yet are not serving us as a people who desperately need a new story that honors everyone, and holds the Earth our home as sacred.
If you grant that we’re in the midst of apocalyptic times, then Richards asks a big question: What New Story is revealing itself today?
Richards emphasizes that in order for a story to anchor us in understanding who we are and our place in the cosmos it must be able to answer the central question: What is Sacred?
This may well be the first question we must answer for ourselves in order for us to imagine a new story to live by. If guns, military might, individual monetary wealth, white privilege, and male dominance continue to be held up as sacred, then nothing will change in our country.
A new story doesn’t actually mean completely new. It will borrow from the best tenets of the wisdom traditions we already know, and integrate them into a new way of thinking. It will draw from the scientific understandings that we’ve gained. It will no longer deny ecological wisdom or climate change realities.
A new story that works from most of us will take most of us re-imagining our culture and choosing actions that live into the kind of people and culture to which we aspire. We can re-imagine education, community, livelihood, success, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a wholehearted human being, and our relationships to one another and the Earth. In light of a new story, we are capable of re-imagining all of these aspects of our culture and who we are as people.
A local Order of the Sacred Earth learning community is currently working together on this very idea, with a personal vow of “being the best lover and defender of Earth that I can be”. We are imagining and working toward a new story to live by. One that honors what it means to be wholeheartedly human while answering the central question of what is sacred. It may take generations to evolve, yet this journey can start today.
If you are in the Lafayette, Indiana area you are welcome to join the discussion and activities. We also have a Facebook group page.
[Photo: Resurrection Lilies near Wildcat Creek, Tippecanoe County by Brent T. Ladd]