In her book, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today — a task I completely support — Avril Henry uses a quote to set the stage. “Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on.” (Thurman Arnold) I think that describes the underlying theme of life in the 21st Century. We are struggling to find ways to describe and understand the world we have created up to now — and all our ideas, programs and solutions seem to fall short. The sheer complexity and interrelatedness of everything makes past formulas for living a “good life,” even the Christian ideals, now seem somehow inadequate. The enormous difference in scale between what confronts us and what we can understand and control, is what we need to make sense of in this era.
Hints of the way forward
I like to look for an author’s way forward in transforming the world’s situation. Their summary generally comes near the end of the book. I have selected a few brief passages from books written by authors I admire, because I think they provide hints about the task we face in the 21st century in making sense of the world.
- Avril Henry’s final word in her book is about acceptance: “I invite you to join me on a journey of awareness, understanding, tolerance and ultimately acceptance of difference, which will enable each of us to create a better future and world for many generations to come.”
- Margot Cairnes, in Approaching the Corporate Heart, sees the way forward in individuals accepting an invitation to make the hero’s quest: “May you rise to the call next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid, self-effacing, dry self-limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light.”
- Elizabeth Dreyer, in Manifestations of Grace, sees the way forward as being, ultimately, dependent on community: “Grace is above all a community affair. In grace we see ourselves as peers, not only with all peoples, but with the earth itself.”
- Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, sees the power and love we need as already emerging: “As we enter the Twenty-first Century we are experiencing a moment of grace. . . A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.”
Metaphors to guide us
We can only see what we don’t know in terms of what we already know, so these hints use metaphors to point toward something new emerging in the Twenty-first Century. By unpacking them, we can begin to make sense of what is going on.
- “Journey of awareness” [Avril Henry]
- “Hero’s Quest” [Margot Cairnes]
- “Community of grace” [Elizabeth Dreyer]
- “Vision and energy coming into being.” [Thomas Berry]
You can use your own intuition to make sense of these hints. You may want to find others too; there are plenty around today.
Making Sense of the Twenty-first Century
My own sense is that these metaphors tell us something about ourselves indiividually, about our local communities and about the human race as a whole. I find the following “both/and” statements helpful in making sense of both the great uncertainty in which I find myself and the great traditions and wisdom of the past that have shaped me thus far, which are both relevant and yet inadequate.
- Dynamic and unchanging: A journey is about movement, from something toward something. In my life I have been, and still am on a journey, and the entire human race has been and always will be on a journey. That is what it means to be human. We are becoming more conscious of our ever-changing yet unchanging journey in this Century, so we are becoming more responsible for guiding ourselves and the world in its movements.
- Individual and together: My life is in my hands yet my life cannot be lived alone. Who I am becoming is inextricably connected to who my family, my church, my company, my country and the entire human race is becoming. In this Century the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ is disappearing, to be replaced by some new, commonly held view of what it means to be human in community. I am responsible for being part of conversations that are shaping that view.
- Inner meaning and external actions: What I will become is being shaped in my core (my soul) and by my actions shaping the world around me. In the Twenty-first century, things can only make sense if we understand ther meaning in a much larger context then we did in the Twentieth Century. The future will no longer be measured by how well we as individuals, companies or countries competed, found security, and achieved near-term outcomes. That just isn’t adequate. I am responsible for conversations and actions that help this new model for “success” emerge.
As an example of how to begin to think, act and make sense of it all in a Twenty-first century way as a Christian, read my post entitled Christians and Muslims; A way forward. Also read my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation.
At the beginning of the First Century, Jesus established the unchanging yet ever-changing way forward for Christians. I could quote many verses but these seem to me to state His way:
- “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In the Twenty-first century Christians must learn to include non-Christians in Jesus’ way, in a loving concern and respect for them as brothers and sisters.
- “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:4] Creating unity among scattered Christians is our unchanging challenge, dealing with ever-changing forces of diversity.
- “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2] The ultimate measure of our growth toward maturity is how well we imitate Christ and carry out our purpose as ‘dearly loved children of God.’ Love is the only way we can deal with the centripetal forces of hatred and greed threatening to divide humankind in the Twenty-first Century.