A Story for the Future—Confronting Our Time’s Crisis of Purpose

We can think of all the various “crises” of our time as aspects of a single, more encompassing crisis of story—in the end, a crisis of purpose. The guiding stories we have known and lived by—the American Dream, progress’s promise of ever onward-and-upward advancement, opposing political ideologies, the beliefs of our various religious traditions—can today still help us in limited ways. But most often they fall decidedly short. And the narratives put forward to replace them rarely do more than just capture pieces of the larger picture. Do we think of our time as a dramatic new Information Age offering endless potential for the human species? As a time of aimlessness, decay of traditional institutions, and loss of basic cultural civility? Or, with the end of the Cold War, as a period of new hope for a peaceful and democratic world? Do we think of this moment as a time of profound environmental crises that might be beyond our power to solve? As a spiritual New Age? As a time of moral downfall, of impending Armageddon?

Each of these new candidates for a new guiding story addresses something we feel. At the very least, they reflect real hopes or fears. But none, by itself, quite explains what today we witness around us. And none succeeds at providing reliable and compelling guidance. Our times cry out for a fresh, more complete kind of story. If we are not to run from the great demands we face today, we must have concepts and images able to put the immense complexities before us into meaningful perspective.  Cultural historian Thomas Berry articulated well the importance of a new story for our time in his book Dream of the EarthIt is all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we are in-between stories. The Old Story—the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it—sustained us for a long time. It shaped our emotional attitude, provided us with life’s purpose, energized action, consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, and guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. But now it is no longer functioning properly, and we have not yet learned the New Story.”

The concept of Cultural Maturity attempts to answer our contemporary  question of story.  I recently got at reminder of the importance of the kind of hard-nosed but also affirming kind of picture it presents. A man who had heard about my thinking came over to me while I was having dinner at a restaurant. He was a teacher and wanted to talk about the apathy he felt in his students these days. I asked him at one point what he saw when he looked to the future. His response reflected the kind of “its all going to hell in a hand basket” worldview common in people of liberal/humanist persuasion.

As he was clearly serious in the question he asked me, I decided to be provocative. I asked him how he could expect anything else but apathy from his students if that is what he believed. I proposed that his self righteous cynicism at best reflected a lack of creativity and courage, at worst beliefs that could only be self-fulfilling. I told him that if he wanted inspired students, he would need to dig deeper in himself, find a way to think about the future that gave those he taught a reason to look squarely at the questions we face. I backed off by quick response a bit, as he was obviously a dedicated teacher. But our conversation highlighted what is ultimately our time’s defining challenge.

The concept of Cultural Maturity, with its notion of a needed and now possible collective “growing up,” presents an overarching cultural narrative able to takes us beyond the limited worldviews implied in more familiar, often-warring cultural stories. We tend not to think of the word maturity as terribly sexy, but put in this context it could not be more so. Certainly guidance that works is provocative simply through its effectiveness. But maturity, too, is where we humans find greatest ultimate meaning and fulfillment—as anyone who knows it in their personal lives will attest. In the long-term, it is also where we as a species will find ultimate meaning and the full expression of human possibility.