Shifting Worldviews

At one level it feels as if everything is collapsing around us. Terrorist attacks, fraud and corruption within the major corporations, scandal within the Catholic hierarchy, an increasingly militaristic approach to both domestic and foreign policy, economic development that values consumption at the cost of basic human needs and planetary health. Everything is changing, shifting under our feet. Some experience disequilibrium and want to return to the ways things were. Others are trying with all their might to maintain the status quo with its privilege and power. Others experience the chaos and believe that something is dying and something new will be born.

Today, many scholars propose that we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift. That is, the way we think about ourselves, our reality, our purpose and meaning is changing. To understand the paradigm shift we are experiencing, we need to reflect on the current paradigm within which we are operating.

Worldview Rooted in the Enlightenment

For the past three hundred years, the Western world developed within the worldview primarily characterized by Newtonian physics. According to this physics, the material world is divisible into discrete parts that can be described in objective terms. Their interaction can be predicted and controlled. The scientist is said to be objective, distinct from what s/he observes. This approach is reductionist, determinist, and objective. Physics is the fundamental science. There is no room for other ways of knowing other than scientific observation.

The philosophy of Rene Descartes supported such an understanding because the dualism in his thinking emphasized the role of reason and excluded subjective consciousness. Religion was displaced as a partner of science and became privatized. Dualistic thinking, either/or ways of approaching reality prevailed. Patriarchy continued within this worldview disproportionately valuing the male experience and perspective in world culture.

The physics that guided the Enlightenment provided a technological know-how rivaled by none in human history. The benefits and the costs have been experienced across geographical and national boundaries, albeit disproportionately. These scientific concepts have had implications for every aspect of life although they have taken decades to be understood and embodied in institutions, systems, and ways of thinking.

Today, we see their impact in globalization and the breakthroughs of telecommunication which increase the complexity and speed by which ideas, finance, commodities and personnel, traverse the globe. Today we also experience great disparity between rich and poor, increasing environmental destruction, unceasing violence, and the commodification of all life forms. This has made many of us painfully aware of the suffering and devastation caused by this worldview embodied to the extreme and without any countervailing force.

Worldview Rooted in Quantum Physics

However, with the discoveries of quantum physics, there is emerging a complementary expression to Newtonian science. The new physics is not reductionist, determinist, or objectivist. The observer is not separate from what s/he observes. The whole system is not the sum of its parts but rather there are emergent properties that are not deducible from the parts alone. It reveals that existing entities have two levels of being—the actual and what they might become. And so rather than analyzing in either/or ways it has developed both/and or complementary concepts to describe such a phenomenon.

Complementing quantum physics is the cosmology that has been enhanced by the discoveries of Edwin Hubble and subsequent use of the Hubble telescope. The universe is alive, expanding, involved in a dynamic process of change. Stars and the universe itself are born, live, and die. We see a universe that is interconnected and in process. No longer do we look at our world in atomistic ways but rather we see how integrated life is on the planet. We live in a web of relationships. We cannot totally explain everything and for some scientists the invitation is there for religion to again engage in the conversation.

Just as the new physics complements but also transforms Newtonian classical physics, the implications of the new physics and cosmology also challenge and transform our conceptual frameworks with implications for how we think and live. The new physics both undergirds and finds resonant expressions in some of the social movements of the last fifty years.

  • The feminist movementchallenges patriarchy and heightens the need to incorporate values such as mutuality, cooperation, and right relationships into the way we operate in society.
  • The ecological movementchallenges anthropocentrism and presses us to think in terms of sustainability and the interconnections of living systems.
  • The social responsibility movementchallenges corporations to see the long-term consequences of their decisions and how they affect all aspects of a community.
  • The renewed democracy movementreveals the importance of the individual and the community participating in the decisions that affect their lives.

The insights coming out of these and other social movements and the breakthroughs in science are challenging our understanding of progress, an economics which maximizes profit with short term gains, a geo-political situation of competing nation-states, ethnocentric policies that do not reflect the interdependence of the global community, violence as the acceptable way to resolve conflicts and power structures that undermine the dignity and rights of the human person.

Such insights impact religious thought as well. In many cases, core religious values of respect for the dignity of all persons, for Earth, the interdependence of all, and responsibility for the common good are confirmed. But the new science and the breakthroughs in cosmology provide a new context within which we search for meaning. Within this context, we need to reflect and articulate anew how the universe began, the role of the human within it, and who God is. Both/and ways of thinking, as well as the dynamic process of change, challenge some of the more absolute claims of religious denominations.

The growing awareness of ecological concerns and the new cosmology heighten the need to transform a predominantly anthropocentric perspective and moral ethic. Within this larger context, there is a religious resurgence occurring. People are searching for meaning and for spirituality. The removal of religion from the public debate may be ending. The question will be whether or not the current religions of the world will be able to engage the positive and emancipatory energies of the spiritual impulse within this new context and bring it to bear on the societal issues facing us as Richard Falk so eloquently discusses in his book, Religion and Humane Global Governance.

Transformation of Consciousness

This paradigm shift also signifies another significant reality. It is heralding in a time of evolution when a major transformation of consciousness is occurring. It is the kind of shift humankind has only experienced three previous times.

The first was 35,000 years ago when humanity awakened. It was the beginnings of a reflective consciousness– we began to know that we know. Human culture was born. The second was 10,000 years ago when we shifted from a nomadic life to a more settled existence in villages and farms. Midway during the agrarian period-5,000 years ago-we saw the rise of city-states and the beginnings of civilization. The third was 300 years ago following the scientific revolution, when the stability of agrarian society gave way to the radical dynamism and materialism of the industrial era. The fourth is now where we are moving beyond nation-states and experiencing ourselves linked globally. It comes in the wake of quantum science, exploration into space, and the technological revolution which is shifting our understanding of the universe from a fragmented and lifeless machine to a unified and living organism. We are evolving to see that the universe is a developing community with an important role for the human in this process.

Paradigm shifts and evolving consciousness are difficult tasks. The predominant social-economic-political-cultural systems and structures embody the old ways of thinking and acting and are quite resistant. Those of us engaged in transformation through social action or education work hard to achieve a more just world in a variety of ways. Inspired by faith, we work to change systems and structures as well as to transform consciousness. As we engage in social analysis and theological reflection we know that the systems that cause injustice are increasingly more interconnected and complex. There is a desire to effect systemic change but too often the successes affect only incremental changes within the system.

While falling short of its intent, our work has achieved more just and compassionate policies which often mitigated a more devastating effect. But the frustration grows, as our experience with the disenfranchised, refugees, environmental destruction, and global poverty demands much more radical responses. These are responses that go to the root of the unjust structures and that call for the transformation of culture and consciousness. In addition, many of us are acknowledging that how we have been going about the work of justice has failed to touch into the hearts of the average person. There is a growing sense that we desire and need to renew our own passion for the Gospel vision of justice and peace. It is this kind of experience and insight that draws many social justice activists to begin to see their work from a contemplative perspective..

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

© 2003-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue

Further Reading:
Falk, Richard. Religion and Humane Global Governance.New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.
This book is informative, hopeful, and challenging. Falk who teaches international law at Princeton skillfully discusses the dominant world order trends in relation to global governance. He explores secularism and monotheistic religions and globalization. He believes that humane global governance has not happened because of the exclusion of religious and spiritual dimensions from the public debate. He discusses the current religious resurgence which is both problematic and hopeful. He concludes with showing the positive effects of including the emancipatory religious and spiritual perspectives in world order thinking and engagements.

McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant.Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001.
McFague, a theologian, develops a planetary theology in this work. She understands theology as taking place within a context, a worldview. She presents two approaches to how we understand ourselves, our world and God. One is the contemporary economic model and worldview; the other is the ecological economic model and worldview. She then develops how a planetary theology might approach our contemporary socioeconomic context and rethink some of the traditional topics in Christianity.

O’Murchu, Diarmuid. Quantum Theology.New York, NY: Crossroad, 1997.
O’Murchu explores the new paradigm or worldview emerging from the insights of quantum theory. Approaching it from a multi-disciplinary point of view, he provides an overview of the concepts underlying quantum theory and draws implications for our theological reflection.

Ray, Paul and Sherry Anderson. The Cultural Creatives. New York, NY: Harmony Book,2000.
Ray and Anderson report on a study they did which examined cultural attitudes of US society. Their conclusion posits that over 25% of adults living in the US fall into a category they call “the cultural creatives”. This group holds attitudes and beliefs which signal a shift toward a more just, sustainable future and a strong commitment to spirituality and, or personal growth. This book is essential to read to understand the context within which we live in the United States. In addition, Ray and Anderson reflect on the results of the study in an inspirational way offering food for thought and hope in our future.

Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science.San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 1999.
Wheatley does a masterful job of explaining the new science and its implications for how we work in organizations. She challenges us to see change in a radically different way and how to engage with life’s creative force for change. Wheatley not only offers a new view of organizational dynamics but challenges the current world-view rooted in the Enlightenment.

Zohar, Danah and Ian Marshall. The Quantum Society.New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1994.
Writing from their backgrounds in physics, philosophy, psychiatry and theology Zohar and Marshall employ the insights of quantum physics to offer a vision for transforming society. Their theory of cosmic and social evolution invites us to redefine the meaning and purpose of society through an appreciation of diversity and pluralistic thinking. The result is a model of society that celebrates the unity that is possible when we consciously work toward our interdependence.


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