Talk presented to the conference on "Engaging the World With
Compassion," presented by the Learning Alliance, Voices 21, SEVA
Foundation, & The Rene Dubos Consortium for Sacred Ecology at the Cathedral
of St. John the Divine, New York City, Friday, January 17, 1997.
by David C. Korten
We are here to celebrate and affirm the unfolding of a profound
political and spiritual awakening of humanity. It is as if we are collectively
rousing from a deep cultural trance from a time when we temporarily
forgot that we are spiritual, as well as material, beings.
By bringing us to a more holistic awareness of who we are, this
awakening leads us to a long overdue acceptance of responsibility for how we use
the awesome technical and organizational power now in our hands. During our
period of forgetfulness, we used these abilities to dominate nature and one
another in an obsessive quest for material wealth and power.
Now, spiritually impoverished and on the brink of destroying
the natural and social fabric on which human life and civilization depend, we
face a fatal choice. Forsake the ways of greed and violence. Acknowledge and
nurture our capacities for love and compassion. Or perish forever from this
earth as a failed evolutionary experiment.
The choice itself demands a fateful step transforming
the very process of evolution itself into a conscious collective act.
Every part of our world is linked into a global communications
network. Unique among the species of this planet, we now have the capacity to
take the step from mindless self-destruction to learn to function as a global
We have the potential to anticipate the consequences of our
collective acts, assess whether these consequences are consistent with the
reason for our being, and if not to consciously chose a different path.
The cosmos is calling us to act on this potential to
embrace a new story of our origin and purpose.
As science tells the cosmic story, consciousness is nothing
more than an illusion born of chemical reactions. This sterile story has
robbed our lives of meaning and left us with no purpose other than the pursuit
of hedonistic impulses. Thomas Berry tells us in Dream of the Earth
that our survival as a species depends on discovering a new story.
This story must draw us to a choice for life with a compelling
vision of new possibilities. Grounding our lives in a larger cosmic purpose,
this story must guide us to embrace new values and to create new institutions
that better serve the realization of that purpose.
Duane Elgin’s remarkable book, Awakening Earth, captures
the essence of both the story and our purpose in two brief sentences.
"As humanity develops its capacity for reflective
consciousness, it enables the universe to achieve self-referencing knowing of
itself. Through humanitys awakening, the universe acquires the ability
to look back and reflect upon itselfin wonder, awe, and appreciation."
It is a powerful message for our time. We inherit through
our birth a responsibility far beyond assuring our own survival. Our wondrous
ability to perceive beauty and feel love and compassion is central to our
participation in a grand, continuously unfolding cosmic event.
It is a story premise far more logical than the premise that
the remarkable way in which we experience life is nothing more than a chance and
meaningless event in an otherwise lifeless universe.
The new story calls on us to accept responsibility for the
impact of our actions on the life of this planet and to assume a conscious and
responsible role in shaping the directions of our own continuing evolution.
Surely it is self-evident that creation did not bestow on us
the gift of life so that through our profligate consumption we could destroy in
a mere hundred years the fruits of millions of years of evolution. We have
mistakenly assumed that the intelligence, awareness, and freedom creation has
given to us above all other species conferred the right to dominate and
exploit, failing to recognize that these gifts only confer a greater
responsibility for the whole. Again, from Elgin:
"Our universe is deeply caring but intent upon on giving
us the precious freedom we need to develop our unique capacity for reflective
self-determination. . . . After giving us the priceless gift of existence, the
Meta-universe demonstrates its great compassion by not interfering in our
choices, whether personal or planetary."
Our species, far beyond any other on this planet, has been
engaged in a continuing process of intellectual, social, and technological
evolution toward ever-greater species abilities. It is one of the great and
mysterious wonders of the cosmos that each of our developmental stages has
prepared us for the next and then in exhausting itself created the imperative to
break free from what is familiar and take an uncertain step into the
Both the failures and successes of Western societies in the
scientific-industrial era now passing can be traced to an image of ourselves and
the cosmos in which the material has dominated the spiritual. The future of East
and West, South and North now depends on achieving a self-image that embodies a
balanced integration of the material and the spiritual so we may finally become
whole persons capable of creating whole communities, and whole societies, living
in harmony with nature, and consciously participating in the epic quest of the
universe to know itself.
Poised at the threshold of a new millennium, this is the
challenge to which we are now called.