Between Two Ages: The 21St Century and the Crisis of Meaning [NOOK Book]


"In Between Two Ages, Van Wishard has provided us with a masterful synthesis of the main currents of history, ranging over the centuries with an expert?s eye to identify the key trends in economics, technology and culture that have led us to this place in time.

By itself, this would be an important contribution to our understanding. But the true significance of Between Two Ages lies in his placing this analysis within a profoundly moral and ethical framework. Van Wishard has not simply diagnosed the reasons ...

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Between Two Ages: The 21St Century and the Crisis of Meaning

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"In Between Two Ages, Van Wishard has provided us with a masterful synthesis of the main currents of history, ranging over the centuries with an expert?s eye to identify the key trends in economics, technology and culture that have led us to this place in time.

By itself, this would be an important contribution to our understanding. But the true significance of Between Two Ages lies in his placing this analysis within a profoundly moral and ethical framework. Van Wishard has not simply diagnosed the reasons for our spiritual malaise. He has also suggested how each of us can overcome this malaise and find a larger purpose or meaning to our lives.

From the foreword by Dr. Mitchell B. Reiss

Dean of International Affairs

College of William & Mary


Despite the stratospheric heights of the Dow in recent years, the allure of prosperity and the astounding possibilities opening up for human fulfillment, the next three decades could be the most decisive 30-year period in the history of mankind. Thus you and I are living in the midst of perhaps the most uncertain period America has ever known -- more difficult than World War II, the Depression or even the Civil War. With these earlier crises, an immediately identifiable, focused emergency existed, an emergency people could see and mobilize to combat.

But the crisis today is of a different character and order. For America is at the vortex of a global cyclone of change so vast and deep that it is uprooting established institutions, altering centuries-old relationships, changing underlying mores and attitudes, and now, so the experts tell us, even threatening the continued existence of the human species. It is not simply change at the margins; it is change at the very core of life. Culture-smashing change. Identity-shattering change. Soul-crushing change.
Prior generations faced change within a context of stable institutions that functioned more or less effectively. Earlier generations had a more stable-if less comfortable-framework, as well as more clearly defined reference points. Our era doesn?t have such guides, for all of America?s institutions, from government to family, from business to religion, are in upheaval. The past century has seen civilized life increasingly ripped from its moorings. The immutable certainties that anchored our ancestors no longer seem to hold in a world where the tectonic plates of life are clashing, where human antagonisms obliterate tens of thousands of people in Africa, Bosnia or Chechnya in a
matter of a few days or weeks, where a stray bullet ends the life of an elderly lady quietly walking home from church in Washington, D.C. In so many ways, a life that has lost its essential meaning has cut giant swaths across humanity.
Clearly, we have been standing at a unique historical dividing line -- the end of the modern era, as well as the Industrial Age, the end of the colonial period, the end of the Atlantic-based economic, political and military global hegemony, the end of America?s culture being drawn primarily from European sources, the end of the masculine patriarchal/hierarchical epoch, and as Joseph Campbell suggests, the end of the Christian eon. Obviously, one era doesn?t stop and a new one start in a week. Years-even decades or generations-of overlap take place.
The sense of an age ending and something new emerging was evident during the earliest years of the 20th century. In 1913, Harvard philosopher George Santayana noted: "The civilization characteristic of Christendom has not yet disappeared, yet another civilization has begun to take its place." In 1928, at the height of the "Roaring Twenties," historian Will Durant wrote, "Human conduct and belief are now undergoing transformations profounder and more disturbing than any since the appearance of wealth and philosophy put an end to the traditional religion of the Greeks. The rate, complexity and variety of change in our time are without precedent . . . all forms about us are altered . . . All things flow, and we are at a loss to find some mooring and stability in the flux." Five decades later, Durant?s concerns were echoed by The Wall Street Journal, noting, "Our century is a time of flux, an interstice between eras. Old beliefs have decayed and the new beliefs have not sprung forward to replace them."

The truth is that all the vast changes we are bringing-instant global communication, control of plant, animal and human characteristics through genetic engineering, our ability to build new structures atom by atom, the doubling and even tripling of the human life span, thus creating social pressures never before experienced-these and countless more developments point to one underlying reality: We are asking ourselves questions no generation before has had to consider: As technology takes over ever more of our work, what are humans for? What does it mean to be a human being in a world of total technical possibility? Indeed, are the warnings of technological extinction credible, and if so, what do we do about them? Is this the end? Or, in some unknown way, could it be the opening of an era of even greater human awareness and possibility?

Certainly new human capacities, scientific insights, forms of wealth, modes of production and organization, and patterns of social relationship, as well as expressions of individual and collective belief, have been taking the place of an earlier America. But just what kind of "civilization" is emerging is open to question.

The cultural concept of civilization has always been based on more than just progress beyond "primitive" ways and attitudes, more than just economic and technical betterment. Civilization implies stable and effective institutions -- above all, a cohesive family unit that train the young for adult social responsibility. Civilization represents a people?s view of the meaning of their collective association. Civilization manifests those attitudes, beliefs, ethical standards and restraints a people hold in common. At the core of every great civilization has been some cohesive spiritual conviction. What was once known as "Christendom" was just such a spiritual impulse for America and the West.
But the Judeo-Christian impulse has been losing its power as the inner dynamic of Western culture or social life; it no longer interprets our collective spiritual belief-especially among "the creative minority." While Americans still pay lip service to the convictions underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the reality of our daily functional belief is more apt to be expressed in the secular faith of materialism as defined by science and technology, as well as in the civic religion of "freedom" as characterized by absence of all restraint.

In sum, despite the mind-boggling technology developed over the past ten decades, despite the expansion of human awareness and capability, despite the thousand-fold increase of wealth, the new epoch aborning has yet to achieve the central hallmark of a civilized society-a core conviction about the meaning of the human journey, a set of common purposes and meanings fused into one framework of value and perception-a framework with its own distinct character and worldview, with its unique spiritual underpinning.
Broadly speaking, we are in the midst of what could be termed a "crisis of meaning." Even as these words are being written, The Washington Post carries an article that starts, "Everywhere you look, people are searching for meaning in life." Nor is this crisis limited to America. John Pomfret writes in the International Herald Tribune from China, "Across China people are struggling to redefine notions of success and failure, right and wrong. The quest for something to believe in is one of the unifying characteristics of China today." The crisis of meaning is universal.]

Until a new order of perception, value and meaning is achieved, we shall be between two expressions of social organization, cultural definition and spiritual experience-between two ages. We shall be in what I choose to term an "Interregnum," which Webster defines as "an interval; a break in a series or in a continuity." How long this Interregnum will last is anyone?s guess. But it is the exploration of the Interregnum, this "in between" period, that is the subject of this book.

Between Two Ages offers perspective on the meaning of our times. Even more, it offers a few core thoughts on how one can make sense out of the senseless, find stability in the midst of upheaval, and find direction in the midst of uncertainty.

In sketching this Interregnum, it should be noted that Between Two Ages is not intended to be a history of our times; rather, it is an assessment of some of the highlights, trends and events that have been and are shaping the Interregnum. Nor is this book intended as a forecast of tomorrow. Instead, meaning has been sought in what has already happened-to understand how science, psychology, technology and culture are reshaping our daily activity, the content of our inner being, as well as the global context in which all nations live.

If we are in an Interregnum, how is it expressing itself?

The changing roles of religion and psychology. One of the arresting facts of the last century is the rise of psychology and the corresponding demise of the Judeo-Christian tradition as the inner dynamic of Western culture. There seems to be a correlation between these two developments. It was especially noticeable in the first half of the century when people with personal problems stopped seeking counsel from the priest, and instead started going to the psychotherapist. Between 1918 and 1981, the population of the U.S. increased by 122 percent while the membership of the American Psychological Association grew over 14,000 percent. This shift in the relative roles of the priest and psychotherapist tells us much about twentieth-century America.

At the same time, as the initial dynamic of the Judeo-Christian tradition has lost its resonance for many people, religion has been "privatized" or "decentralized." There are now some 1,600 religions and denominations in America, 800 of which were founded in the past thirty years. In Los Angeles alone, 600 distinct religious traditions have been identified, including hybrid contradictions such as Catholic-Buddhists.
Another indication of this reorientation is the breakup of our collective inner images of wholeness. For example, we used to talk of Mother Earth with all its vital emotional connotation. Now we speak of "matter," which is totally devoid of emotional meaning. We once talked of "Heaven," which denoted the transcendent realm, eternity, the dwelling place of the gods. Now we just speak of "space." In this sense, the symbols and vocabulary that our culture was based on and that give it a structure of meaning, which in turn yielded values by which people could live, have disintegrated. The function of symbolic language is to link consciousness to the roots of our being, and when that link is devalued or snapped, there is little left to unconsciously sustain the inner life of the individual.

A new geopolitical pattern. We are at the end of a 450-year period when the nations bordering the Atlantic Ocean dominated world political, economic and military affairs. Non-Western nations are now major players. For the first time in modern history, China and Japan have larger economies than any European nation.
In fact, for the first time in 500 years, Europe is no longer a formative force in shaping global affairs. Europe has assumed an inward posture trying to define its own 21st century.
The nature of change itself is being altered. For the past 500 years, the West has been the primary agent of change in the world. Now, the ability to create change-as well as the attitude that change is desirable-is a global possession. So today we have economic, technological, social, political and cultural change taking place simultaneously from India to Mexico, from Egypt to Kajikistan. Planetary change, potentially affecting the physical balance of all life on the planet, now reaches into every aspect of individual human activity, and has become a social and psychological dynamic with a force and magnitude never before experienced.
This is a reversal of history. Throughout history, in all civilizations, continuity rather than change has been the desired state of affairs. No society on the planet knows how to live with constant, radical change. It has never been done before.

What we?ve created with our emphasis on constant change is a clash of different time scales. The time scale created by technology clashes with the time scale required by natural life. Unhurried time is essential for growth. Yet speed, which is the obliteration of time, is increasingly necessary for the modern economy. Some people suggest that we?ve moved out of the age of speed and have entered the era of "real time." They say we now have a single "world time."
The information environment in which the individual lives is being radically altered.

Throughout history, the transmission of information, ideas and images took place slowly, taking generations, even centuries, to move around the world. Such a slow pace of information travel gave people time to adjust psychologically to a new information environment.
Today we zap information, ideas and images across the globe in nanoseconds. People have no time to adjust, no time to shape the new information into any coherent meaning. If one were to read the entire edition of the Sunday New York Times, one would absorb-or be exposed to-more information in that one reading than was absorbed in a lifetime by the average American living in Thomas Jefferson?s day.

The character of twentieth century culture is a dramatic manifestation of the Interregnum. In fact, during the past century, the very concept of culture has been changed. No longer does culture have its historic connotation of cultivating the realm of the mind and spirit in order to elevate oneself to a higher plane of understanding and sensitivity, or to encourage wholeness of personality, or to link the individual with some transcendent vitality. Culture has now come to mean whatever one wants it to mean, whether talking about "Levis," "Bevis and Butthead," "Coke," "Baywatch" or "corporate culture."

From a psychological standpoint, culture is the continuity and conservation of what is highest and most sublime about human experience. Cultural artifacts are psychic products that preserve the past and show the maturation of the psyche over long stretches of time. Civilized life does not consist of mindless destruction of old cultural-and, ultimately, psychic-values, but in developing and refining the good that has been won over millennia of human struggle. A living culture is a unity; its technical, political, cultural and spiritual parts are united with one another. But when a society is in a state of psychological reorientation, as today, this unity is dissolved, and novelty becomes all the rage.
It?s within this context we can evaluate the two primary cultural expressions of the last one hundred years-Modernism and Postmodernism, which have illustrated a clear-and indeed, intended-break with the historic roots of Western civilization. This is not to comment on the aesthetic quality of contemporary Western culture, only on its psychological implications.
The English cultural historian, Christopher Dawson, in his 1947 prestigious Gifford Lectures, noted: "Throughout the greater part of mankind?s history, in all ages and states of society, religion has been the great central unifying force in culture." According to T.S. Eliot, "No culture can appear except in relation to a religion."

If we go back to the creative giants of Western culture, Goethe went so far as to say that "man is only creative when he is truly religious; without religion he merely becomes repetitive and imitative." Bach said his purpose in life was, "to write well-ordered music to the glory of God." In The Divine Comedy, Dante specifically invoked divine assistance: "Make strong my tongue / that in its words may burn / one spark of all Thy glory?s light / for future generations to discern."

This is a different psychological mind-set than that of 19th-20th century modernism, which told us that life had lost its mystery; that rational mind, not gods, can rule the world; that custom and tradition must yield to experimentation in every area of life; and that at the core of existence there is only the void of nihilism. The thrust of modernism was to substitute the aesthetic taste for the prevailing moral and spiritual order. Accordingly, modernism demanded liberation from all inner restraint and the destruction of all prevailing forms. The aesthetic expression of this view required the attempt to eclipse distances, whether aesthetic, social or psychological. Modernism, wrote the literary critic Irving Howe, is "an unyielding rage against the existing order."

The inevitable extension of modernism is postmodernism. The word "postmodern" was first used in 1917 in Germany to describe the nihilism of twentieth century culture. This feeling of a void at the core of existence has characterized postmodernism ever since. A distinctive feature of postmodernism is its acceptance of reality as unordered in any objective way the human mind can discern. As author Houston Smith notes, this acceptance "separates the Postmodern mind from the Modern Mind, which assumed that reality is objectively ordered, and the Christian mind, which assumed it to be ordered by an inscrutable but beneficent will."

According to Lawrence Cahoone, professor of philosophy at Boston University and editor of a compendium on postmodernism, postmodernism announces "the end of rational inquiry into truth, the illusory nature of any unified self, the impossibility of clear and unequivocal meaning, the illegitimacy of Western civilization, and the oppressive nature of all modern institutions." Daniel Bell tells us that for postmodernists, impulse and pleasure alone are real and life affirming. Reason is the enemy and the desires of the body constitute truth. Referring to postmodernism and academia, Roger Shattuck writes in The Atlantic Monthly, "Our culture, in particular the institution of the university, has contrived over the past few decades to transform sin and evil into a positive term: ?transgression.? As used by postmodern critics, ?transgression? an implied form of greatness in evil. On an intellectual level...evil can become supremely cool."
So in sum, America has had almost a century of literature, art, cinema and higher education expressing first the supremacy and then the negation of rationality, the denial of any God, freedom as unfettered expression of the ego, the impossibility of absolute truth, nihilism at the core of existence, the absence of any transcendent meaning, the irrationality of any degree of self-discipline, and the arrival of the de-centered self.

Finally, the defining reality of our time is the awareness of the human community as a single entity-commonly referred to as "globalization." The basic referent is no longer my tribe, my nation, or even my civilization. In this new era we are incorporating the planetary dimensions of life into the fabric of our economics, politics, international relations and culture. For the first time in human history, we are forging an awareness of our existence that embraces humanity as a whole. What is emerging is a new context for discussion of value, meaning, purpose, or ultimacy of any sort.

These, then, are some of the contemporary currents shaping the Interregnum. They?re by no means the only megatrends at work, but they are among the most readily visible.

The Hinge of the 20th Century

By the 1950s, it was clear to thoughtful people that America and the world had entered a new stage of history. It was more than just a "postwar" period. It was something qualitatively new. We had entered the heart of the Interregnum.

This new phase seemed somehow to have come unhooked from the past. It was free-floating into a new dimension where the ground rules were unknown, where relationships lacked definition, where beliefs fragmented, and where historic forms of governance appeared threatened by population mass, new technology and seemingly unlimited possibilities. It was a new world shaped by different dynamics.

Thus if the Interregnum represents a period between two ages, no decade of the 20th century represents the hinge on which a new age was swinging open as do the 1950s. While the 1960s may have been more explosively dramatic, it was the ?50s that most exemplified the underlying shift from one age to another that had been taking place throughout the previous 50 years.
Conventional wisdom, of course, pictures the ?50s as a placid, uneventful decade, presided over by the benevolent father figure of Dwight Eisenhower. Explosive economic growth, to be sure, but essentially the Leave It to Beaver or the Ozzie and Harriet decade. A decade of secure jobs, suburban homes, paternal corporations and, generally speaking, a sense of optimism and security about the future. And, yes, a decade of resistance to communist expansion in Europe and across the globe.

But when one reviews the economic, technological, moral, cultural and psychological trends of the ?50s, it?s clear that the 1950s were a turning point. It was the last decade of any sense of national coherence. Between Two Ages spells out the details, and it?s worth the read, as the 1960s would not have been what they were had it not been for what took place in the ?50s.
What, really, were the 1960s all about? Five points tell the major story, which Between Two Ages elaborates in detail: (1) The arrival of the largest, most educated and wealthiest cohort of young people in the history of America or any nation; (2) The escalation of America?s age-old race issue to a new dimension; (3) The collapse and demoralization of the Establishment that had sustained the great initiatives of the postwar period; (4) Vietnam and the explosion of foreign policy flashpoints; and (5) The end of the era of nation-states and the emergence of a global civilization, which was dramatized by man first seeing earth from another celestial body.

The Pace Accelerates

When we look at the 1970s, ?80s and ?90, events are moving with such speed that it?s impossible to incorporate them in narrative form in a book. Thus Between Two Ages includes an appendix that is a matrix for the three decades. For each decade, there is a listing of the major events in the categories of science and technology, economics, social and political, and global. Simply a cursory glance at this matrix boggles the mind: The first personal computer, the Arab oil embargo, floating exchange rates, Microsoft founded, Roe v Wade, President Nixon opens China, "Camp David accords," China begins modernization, first successful embryo transfer performed, Chernobyl, virtual reality, the cellular phone, breakup of AT&T, banking deregulation, CNN and instant global news created, Virginia elects first African American governor since Reconstruction, Berlin Wall falls, Soviet Union collapses, World Wide Web created, rise of the "Asian Tigers," Nelson Mandela freed from 27 years in prison and becomes president of South Africa, East and West Germany reunite, Hong Kong returned to China, Globalization, a new century and millennium arrive, mapping of the human genome-and on and on it goes. New events have so multiplied with such speed that it is next to impossible to assimilate the meaning of what is happening.

Are Humans Superfluous?

And the pace is only going to get faster over the next three decades! We may well have entered an age where certain technologies have nothing to do with augmenting human effort, which is the historic function of technology. Rather, some technologies exist in their own right, under their own laws, and for purposes that appear to supplant human effort and meaning altogether.
Let?s take a look at what some of the technological visionaries predict.
Marvin Minsky, cofounder of MIT?s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory: "Suppose that the robot had all of the virtues of people and was smarter and understood things better. Then why would we want to prefer those grubby, old people? I don?t see anything wrong with human life being devalued if we have something better."
Ray Kurzweil, a computer scientist, inventor, award-winning author, recipient of nine honorary doctorates and honors from two U.S. presidents: "When we can determine the neurological correlates of the variety of spiritual experiences that our species is capable of, we are likely to be able to enhance these experiences in the same way that we will enhance other human experiences. With the next stage of evolution creating a new generation of humans that will be trillions of times more capable and complex than humans today, our ability for spiritual experience and insight is also likely to gain in power and depth.

"Twenty-first century machines-based on the design of human thinking-will do as their human progenitors have done-going to real and virtual houses of worship, meditating, praying, and transcending-to connect with their spiritual dimension."

Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine: "In the great vacuum of meaning, in the silence of unspoken values, in the vacancy of something large to stand for, something bigger than oneself, technology-for better or worse-will shape our society. Because values and meaning are scarce today, technology will make our decisions for us."

Bill Joy, chief scientist and cofounder of Sun Microsystems, puts it all in a needed perspective. Discussing the potential effects of GNR technologies (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, which will all eventually be able to self-replicate) combined with computers a million times as powerful as today?s PCs, Joy says, "I think it no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals." Joy says philosopher John Leslie has studied the potential effects of the GNR technologies and has "concluded that the risk of human extinction is at least 30 percent, while Ray Kurzweil believes we have ?a better than even chance of making it through.?" Joy suggests that the only way to guard against the potentially destructive effects of GNR technologies is "relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781462829170
  • Publisher: Xlibris Corporation
  • Publication date: 4/4/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 703 KB

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