Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change

Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change

by James Kenney


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"Are we living in an age of moral decay or moral growth?" James Kenney asks his audiences in talks in the U.S. and abroad. The pessimists win out, citing everything from road rage to economic crisis, religious fanaticism, global violence, and environmental disasters. But the good news, says Kenney, is that what we see is not what we get. We misperceive things because we're in a period of accelerated cultural evolution, or "sea change." The last one being 300 years ago, it's no wonder we may not grasp what's happening now. Kenney illustrates using two intersecting waves: A dominant wave, representing worn-out values such as patriarchy, racial inequality, the inevitability of war, exploitation of nature, and materialism, is on the decline. Another wave, representing more evolved values such as gender equality, nonviolence, spirituality, ecology, human rights, is on the rise. At this point in time, the influence of the two waves is about equal. It is a crosscurrent marked by chaotic change, uncertainty, identity crisis, and extremism. But it is also enriched by new understanding, energy, commitment, and spiritual growth. Kenney not only provides a historical perspective on the phenomenon, he ends the book with 12 principles for personal growth.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780835608763
Publisher: Quest Books
Publication date: 05/04/2010
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

For the past twenty years Jim Kenney has been recognized as a leader in the global movement for interreligious and intercultural understanding and cooperative action. Working to promote harmony among the world's religious communities, Kenney had primary responsibility for the two largest interreligious gatherings ever held, the 1993 and 1999 Parliaments of the World's Religions (Chicago and Cape Town). The Parliaments focused on bringing religious communities together to work for peace, economic and social justice, human rights, and ecological sanity. Kenny was global director for the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions from 1995-2002, creating new structures and contexts for interreligious dialogue and cooperation. One of the world's most effective interreligious organizations, the Parliament is dedicated to the facilitation of international interreligious encounter, dialogue, and commitment to cooperative common action, bringing the leaders and the faithful of the great religious and spiritual traditions together to make a better world. Kenney is an educator and well-known lecturer on a wide range of topics relating to history and possible planetary futures. For over thirty years, he's lectured widely on political, social, religious, and cultural issues. For the past 10 years, a particular focus of his work has been on cultural evolution: how human societies move toward a better fit with the real world. In 1975 he co-founded Common Ground, an adult educational organization and study center which offers a wide range of programs focusing on the great cultural, religious, philosophical, and spiritual traditions and their implications for every dimension of human experience. For thirty years, Common Ground has provided a rich variety of first-rate educational programs for seekers with broad horizons. Kenney has been Executive Director since 1988. Kenney is co-founder and co-editor of Interreligious Insight: a Journal of Dialogue and Engagement published four times each year in the US and the UK by the World Congress of Faiths, the Interreligious Engagement Project, and Common Ground. Insight is the only journal of its kind: a chronicle of the global interreligious movement and the changing world religious scene. Kenney was consulting editor and regular contributor to Conscious Choice Magazine, which was published monthly out of Chicago, IL until it recently went out of business. He continues to work closely with a number of important organizations dedicated to building a better world, which include: Interreligious Engagement Project, International Committee for the Peace Council, Network of Spiritual Progressives, Abraham Path Initiative, and Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence.

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Thriving in the Crosscurrent

Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change

By Jim Kenney

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 2010 Jim Kenney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-3019-1


Rhyming Hope and History

Imagine an ocean moment: two waves converging in the same time and space. One is powerful but subsiding, the other just gathering momentum and presence but not yet cresting. At the moment of their meeting they are nearly equal in amplitude and influence. As they cross, who can say which is rising, which descending? In that moment only the chaos of wave interference exists.

Now imagine modernity as a powerful wave of cultural values that crested half a century ago and is slowly beginning to subside. At the same time, a second wave of countervailing values rises equally slowly, building until its crest begins to rival the declining energy of the older wave (see fig. 1.1 on the following page).

In Western culture the modern wave has long been dominant. Deeply rooted in classical antiquity and European history, the modern wave has profoundly shaped every culture in the world. In our own time, however, we have begun to sense the weakening of its influence and to recognize the growing strength of a challenging newer value wave.

This younger wave represents positive change. It is the wave of future possibility in the present, the advent of a cultural evolutionary transformation.

Sea Change: The Good News

Not long ago, my wife and I were joined by two of our adult daughters as we rewatched a few hours of a wonderful video series. David Halberstam's The Fifties is an engaging but often critical portrait of the decade, based on a renowned journalist's celebrated book. Different chapters address American attitudes in the 1950s toward racism, sexuality, advertising, suburbia, war, and so on. What made watching with our daughters so amazing was the discovery that while my wife and I had lived through the period and somehow outgrown or overcome many of the more disturbing sociocultural attitudes depicted, these young women had never harbored them at all.

They alternated between hysterical laughter at some of the depictions of American women and outright horror at the stark images of American racism. Well-educated young people, they nevertheless asked again and again, "Was it really ever like that?"

I often suggest that those who are skeptical about the idea of cultural evolution should consider the differences in values that separate them from their parents or grandparents on the one hand and from their own children on the other. Attitudes toward other races, other religions, and other cultures make good starting points for such comparisons. Ideas about justice and the human relationship to the Earth offer others. Most of us will have no trouble recognizing a significant cultural shift.

As the long-dominant older wave loses amplitude and the newer one surges, we cross the threshold into an interesting time. The cultural critique—of patriarchy, the legitimacy of war, ecological exploitation and pollution, racism, injustice, religious exclusivism, and imperialism—has arguably never been more pronounced. At the same time, we've begun to explore and even embrace emerging values including non-violent conflict resolution, universal human rights, social and economic justice, ecological sustainability, and interreligious harmony.

But the passage is anything but straightforward. The interference of two culture waves unleashes both apparent chaos and emerging order. This dynamic creates the signature turbulence of a sea change: a profound alteration of cultural values toward a better fit with current realities. Sea changes are rare—in this book, I identify only four since human prehistory. They are daunting but richly creative periods, with at least three recognizable benchmarks:

• a dramatic increase in cultural complexity;

• a growing awareness of the interdependence of all with all; and

• a variety of new multiperspectival approaches to knowledge and action.

Never easy transitions, such evolutionary shifts in values produce profound inspiration and originality and, at the same time, cultural confusion and identity crisis. And, of course, the widespread emergence of new values and new ways of thinking always threatens established structures of power, thus adding a dangerous intensity to an already-volatile cultural mix.

For all that, the current sea change is very good news indeed. The idea of a sea change offers hope, and the two-wave model gives us insight into the troubling times in which we live. To find our way in a time of shifting values we need to consider the following questions:

• What are the dynamics of twenty-first-century sea change in our own lives, in American culture, and in global society?

• What is the character of an age of sea change?

• What does it mean to live in such a time of crossing?

• How do we cope and how can we contribute?

• How can we distinguish between "old-wave" patterns and those of the "new wave"?

• What are we to make of destructive phenomena that belong to neither culture wave but emerge from the turbulence of the crossing?

• What triggers such a major shift in values?

The Power of Anomalies

Sometimes I visualize a group of women on an American college campus in the mid1960s. In my mind's eye, they've just returned from a meeting or a demonstration to advance the struggle for the rights of women. It's been a frustrating day. Most men just don't seem to get the point, and far too many women dismiss the movement as a threat to traditional gender relationships. But the members of this imaginary circle did not give up, just as the women they represent did not surrender. In time, their movement grew steadily more organized, articulate, and effective. They directed America's attention to an anomaly at its cultural heart. As we look back over the span of forty years, it's hard to comprehend fully the amazing transformation of American (and global) society and culture that the campaign for women's liberation has already accomplished.

This example shows the role of anomaly: telling us our models may be wrong and prompting us to challenge them. The anomaly is not the bad rule or assumption (women are incompetent), but the unexpected result (women performing well in responsible positions).

For millennia, the notion of the innate superiority of the male was rarely challenged. While women certainly knew better (and knew it eons ago), the fact that the patriarchs' assumption was terribly wrong did not become fully apparent until the modern age. The anomaly—the unexpected fact—was the increasingly apparent ability of women to excel in the very areas of life for which they had traditionally been deemed unsuited. By the late twentieth century, the buildup of anomalies could no longer be ignored.

Just consider that if all modernity's animating assumptions about the world were entirely correct:

• men would clearly be superior to women;

• war would produce peace;

• global economic and social justice would be unnecessary (and impossible);

• the concept of universal human rights would be unthinkable;

• humans could never really damage the Earth;

• one civilization would be worthier than every other;

• only one religion could be valid;

• the spiritual dimension of life would be far less significant than the material;

• no field of study would mean much to any other; and

• the pinnacle of cultural evolution would already have been attained.

In each case, our experience of the real world contradicts the expected outcome. The fact that women are demonstrably equal or superior to men in important ways is a modern anomaly. The fact that war does not, as a general rule, produce peace is another. And scarcely anyone could seriously argue that we have reached the cultural evolutionary summit.

When we begin to notice the falsity of something that was supposed to be true, we encounter the disturbing presence of anomaly and we begin to wonder. When a cultural period comes to be characterized by an astonishing buildup of readily apparent anomalies, change is all but inevitable. Welcome to the twenty-first century!

Signs of Change

The rising tide of the current sea change incorporates new understandings of the physical world, new social structures and interactions, new cultural and religious as well as intercultural and interreligious dynamics, and a revaluing of the inner dimension of human existence. Examples are easy to provide.

The brief list that follows hints at the energy and hope of countless people who are committed to trusting forward toward a better future. To be sure, many of the events and trends listed below are in their early stages; some seem to be fighting long odds. But that's the nature of a movement or a major value shift, and the following patterns are indicative of the rise of a new culture wave:

• a global movement opposing war as an instrument of state policy, coupled with the advance of nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution;

• the decline of patriarchy and the rise of new models of gender partnership, along with a dramatic upswing in women's leadership;

• a new global emphasis on social and economic justice and universal human rights;

• a resurgence of environmental awareness, new models for ecological

• sustainability, and unprecedented planetary commitment and activism in opposition to powerful anti-ecological values;

• a variety of serious efforts to shape multiple dialogues of civilizations as a real alternative to older-wave prophecies of a clash of civilizations;

• increasing openness to interreligious engagement, the growth of inclusivist and pluralist thinking as a counter to exclusivist and fundamentalist intolerance;

• rising spiritual hunger, a revitalized spiritual search, and deepening of spiritual practice expressed in many different forms;

• the new interspirituality, active awareness of and engagement with the spiritual paths that have shaped the world's great traditions;

• the convergence of wisdom teachers, experts, scientists, social and political visionaries, and activists to produce truly integral approaches to personal and planetary advancement; and

• a surge of interest in new ways of understanding and modeling cultural evolution.

These values form the nucleus of an emerging consensus that opposes globalization from the top down—the creeping Westernization and Americanization of the planet. The younger wave clearly represents a very different global order, a sort of globalization from the bottom up. Around the world, there is a noticeable shift from ethnocentric to world-centric values.

Each failing cultural dynamic of the older wave—sexism, racism, intolerance, fundamentalism, injustice, eco-abuse, imperialism, or mate-rialism—manifests the essential blindness of ethnocentrism. That pathology is nurtured by the conviction that one's own group, gender, race, class, nation, species, or way of living is somehow inherently superior to every other.

So Why Doesn't It Feel Like It?

Some readers may protest that the state of the world seems to reflect very different trends. We are moving, they may argue, in an ethnocentric direction. World centrism is just a foolish dream. The global political or social or cultural reality doesn't suggest evolution. We are daily faced with everything from incivility to global violence. The realities seem to argue for devolution.

I meet this reaction all the time, and that's actually a good thing. It reminds us all that we do not yet live in the period of new-wave dominance. Ours is the time of crossing. The habits of thought that nurtured patriarchy, harbored racism, estranged civilizations, tolerated injustice, refined the arts of war, and presided over the rape of the planet have been challenged as never before. Their influence has sharply lessened, but their institutional and cultural infrastructures remain in place. At the same historical moment, however, a powerful array of contrasting values, hopes, and dreams is taking shape as a new cultural wave ascends to take the place of the receding older tide.

In every sea change, a moment arrives at which the influence of the declining value wave and that of the ascending newer wave are approximately equal. Our own period of crossing has, for better and for worse, appeared. Chaotic change and vanishing certainties will produce identity crises and challenges to existing power structures. Various forms of extremism will necessarily emerge to make the crossing even more turbulent. However, new understanding, values, and commitment will also enrich and enliven it. And it's essential to remember one more thing: the newer wave has momentum on its side. When you're part of the next big thing, you exude energy and confidence.

Finally, we'll take up another essential question along the way: What proportion of a society must be committed to a movement for cultural evolutionary change for the movement to be effective? The good news: it's a smaller percentage than you might think.


If we think of a continuum between two poles—the pole of hope and the pole of fear—then we can imagine that at any specific moment each of us is situated at some place on that continuum. In times when a large number of people feel their attention being drawn more toward the pole of fear, we can talk metaphorically about a flow of social energy moving in that direction. And we can experience in ourselves how frequently the voices of fear pop up precisely at the moment when our energies are moving toward hope. —Rabbi Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God

One useful way to begin to think through these issues is to identify some of the most characteristic responses to the newer ideas and values that are emerging in the crossing. How do people respond to the sea-change model itself? Over the last several years, I've been asking persons of all sorts, from every walk of life, whether they believe we're living in an age of moral growth or a time of moral decay. While the "moral decay" answer is somewhat more common, there's no shortage of vibrantly positive replies. I've come to think of the two groups of respondents as the yeasayers (moral growth) and the naysayers (moral decay). Over the last few years, I've broadened the question, but the patterns of feedback (yeas and nays) have remained fairly consistent. These days, I tend to ask for reactions to the sea-change hypothesis, the two-wave model, and the notion that ours is a time of accelerating cultural evolution, and attitudes toward some of the most important aspects of the newer wave (peace, justice, sustainability, interreligious harmony, interdisciplinary and integral knowing, etc.).

Not surprisingly, there turn out to be more ways to say yea and nay than can be taken up here, so we'll focus on the most common categories in each group.

I was born and raised in Colorado, with the Rocky Mountains as my compass and frequent destination. I live somewhere else now but return home often and am certain that no place in America has a richer distribution of cultural outlooks. I feel at home among the integral thinkers, activists, and New Agers who make their home in "the socialist republic of Boulder" and almost as much at ease with the slow-drawling ranchers and farmers who dwell on the western slope of the Rockies. Though their views of the world are very different, these two culture complexes are, for the most part, made up of people true to their values and their hearts. But they have a real dissimilarity, a cultural dissonance that goes well beyond any simplistic "blue-red" taxonomy. Their disparity has everything to do with the theme of this book. My Colorado folks—strangers, acquaintances, family, and friends—span the range of responses to the possibility that we're living in a time of particular promise and responsibility. And they fall naturally into the two major groupings (Yeas and Nays).

We'll take a closer look at the two categories. But first let's meet the Scholars, the Left Fielders, and the Pomos (Postmodernists) whose views bracket the core Yeas and Nays.

The Middle Ground

Each of the two groups calls on its own scholars to articulate its best arguments. These thinkers are deeply engaged with the question of human evolution. The sea-change hypothesis is framed by their arguments. We will engage the Advocates and Skeptics throughout the book.

Next come two groups that dominate the center: the Left Fielders and Pomos. The pairing is fascinating because individuals in either group seem equally likely to move in either direction.


Excerpted from Thriving in the Crosscurrent by Jim Kenney. Copyright © 2010 Jim Kenney. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Why This Book, Why Now? 1

1 Rhyming Hope and History 9

2 Just Changing... or Evolving? 35

3 Four Strong Winds 53

4 Three Crossings 73

5 Modernity: How Can a Sea Change Go Wrong? 93

6 Who Says It's Getting Better? 113

7 Maelstrom 143

8 Life in the Renaissance 171

9 The Second Axial Age 191

10 Thriving in the Crosscurrent 209

Notes 233

Index 239

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