For the human race to evolve in consciousness beyond its sense of separation from others and beyond greed and perpetual war, it needs to learn to 1) embrace mystery, and 2) cultivate a passion for continuous independent learning, beyond formal education. Authoritarian thinking gets in the way of both options.
A defining trait of authoritarianism is intolerance of ambiguity. Authoritarian personalities are, by definition, people who rely on others—authority figures from parents to teachers to “experts”—to do their thinking for them. They tend to have rigid belief systems and have “pre-decided” what position they will take on any new information they receive. Whether their belief system is a religious one, or whether it’s atheism-as-a-belief-system, the result is the same: a mind made up in advance, opinions based on the authority of “experts.”
The word “education” comes from the root word “educare,” meaning “to draw out of,” not “to drum into.” Our culture tends to take the “drumming into” approach. After so many years of having certain facts drummed into our brains, we consider ourselves sufficiently stuffed with information. However, the “drawing out of” approach, real education, would leave us feeling there’s always more to learn—with openness to mystery and real love of wisdom.
I think if the human race is going to evolve beyond authoritarian thinking we have to be open to exploring unfamiliar spiritual traditions and seek out the views of various iconoclasts whose ideas have made a dent in the collective unconscious. I’ve read many hundreds of books on those subjects over the years, but two of my favorites are Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Capra’s book explores the relationship between quantum physics and the religious and philosophical traditions of the Far East. Capra shows that concepts in today’s physics bolster the worldview of Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and other Eastern mystics. He writes, “Modern physics leads us to a view of the world which is very similar to the view held by mystics of all ages and traditions. Mystical traditions are present in all religions, and mystical elements can be found in many schools of Western philosophy.”
Although Capra’s book was published around twenty-five years ago, most of it is contemporary. Capra says that because many of today’s scientists don’t seem to understand the philosophical implications of new discoveries in physics, many “actively support a society which is still based on the mechanistic, fragmented worldview, without seeing that science points beyond such a view, toward a oneness of the universe which includes not only our natural environment but also our fellow human beings.”
Capra is says human consciousness needs to catch up with what mystics have known all along—the fact that all of nature and all people are fundamentally interconnected. I think we also need to be open to doing what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggested in Letters to a Young Poet.
Rilke said the human race should be more open to our own expansiveness. He said we need the courage to “face the strangest, most fantastical and impenetrable things that we might conceivably encounter . . . the entire so-called ‘spirit world,’ death, all these things that are so bound up with us, and yet, through our daily attempts to ward them off, we have pushed them so far out of life that the senses with which we could grasp them have withered.”
From early childhood, authority figures—parents, teachers and others—urge people to push away any experience that can’t be explained by the mechanistic view of science. These “authorities” often aren’t aware that a different, non-mechanistic, kind of scientific understanding is available. Rilke says “the senses with which we could grasp” spiritual experiences, including our natural intuitive understanding, atrophy due to lack of use. Again, in a society where people are discouraged from questioning authority regarding fixed belief systems, people tend to fear ambiguity and innovative thinking.
Rilke continues, “Not to speak of God. But this fear of the unfathomable has not only impoverished individual existence, it has also limited relationships between people, lifting them from the river bed, as it were, with its endless possibilities and setting them down in a fallow place on the riverbank, to which nothing ever happens. For it is not only indolence that makes human relationships repeat the same pattern each time with unspeakable monotony and lack of novelty, but also the dread of any new, unforeseeable experience that one does not live up to. But only the person who is ready for anything, who won’t rule out anything, will live the relationship with another as something living and tap into the potential of his own existence.”
In this society, people aren’t encouraged to be “ready for anything,” or to avoid ruling out anything—in one-on-one human relationships or otherwise. The readiness of mind Rilke refers to is usually indoctrinated out of people from early childhood. The fear of the unfathomable Rilke writes about amounts to intolerance of ambiguity. For those with closed minds, anything new and ambiguous is a threat. When authoritarians are faced with any sort of challenge to the status quo, they panic. Authoritarians are anti-intellectual, because they fear receiving any “messy” new information that might challenge their ego-protecting belief systems.
I think the change of consciousness required of the human race for the planet’s survival is spelled out in the Capra and Rilke quotes and is available in hundreds of other similar sources as well. We need a human race capable of independent thought, open to new ideas and experiences, aligned with and able to feel and act on the universe’s rhythms and the inherent unity of all living beings. Unfortunately, many of our institutions—churches, schools, governmental agencies—cling to outmoded methods not aligned with reality. This clinging attitude and the authoritarianism that feed it are what keep the human race at war—war with “other” nations, “other” species, and a natural environment perceived as “other.” Let’s hope in 2012 we can move toward unity and toward healing the world.