Our first Guest Blogger, Ian Sloan, is minister at Centenary United Church, Hamilton, Ontario.
I have recently joined Centenary United Church in Hamilton, Canada, an inner-city church in the downtown core of Hamilton committed to being a safe and diverse community of faith offering acceptance and hope. Faced with a scope of responsibility to this community that seems (as I begin) to be overwhelming, and looking for thought and practice large enough to meet the challenges I am committed to meet, I was struck by the similarities between the following comment in the last chapter of Frye’s Double Vision [“The Double Vision of God”] and a passage from the author’s introduction to a recent book on environmentalism.
I sense a longing for some kind of immense creative renovation, which, I should imagine, would have to be the product of a large-scale social movement. Earlier in the century a proposal for such an awakening would automatically have been responded to with the word “revolution,” a donkey’s carrot still held before the student rebels of the sixties. Revolutions, however, are culturally sterile: they weaken the traditions of the past but put nothing in their place except second-rate versions of the same thing. I think the real longing is not for a mass movement sweeping up individual concerns, but for an individualized movement reaching out to social concerns. Primary concerns, that is: food, shelter, the greening of the earth, and their spiritual aspects of freedom and equal rights. (56-57)
Environmentalist Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World (Penguin, 2007):
By any conventional definition, this vast collection of committed individuals does not constitute a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. People join movements, study their tracts, and identify themselves with a group. They read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tapes or in person. Movements, in short, have followers. This movement, however, doesn’t fit the standard model. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums – and yes, even fancy New York hotels. One of its distinctive features is that it is tentatively emerging as a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up…I sought a name for the movement, but none exists. ..No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye. What does meet the eye is compelling: coherent, organic, self-organized congregations involving millions of people dedicated to change. (2-4)
How does Frye “belong” to the movement Hawken describes? How might you? If it seems like it could go somewhere, I may from time to time blog here about how I might.
I really appreciate this post because it questions how Frye can be personally and socially relevant, which is what I am concerned about.
Here is my take, based on my limited understanding of Frye.
I think one of Frye’s contributions is as an historian of the imaginaton (that’s not quite the right term, since Frye does not try to make a rigourous historical case for anything). He gives a historical-imaginative context for the kind of changes he and Paul Hawken are describing. In particular, he sees people’s imaginations as being shaped by imaginative cosmologies. By cosmology, he meant simple mental pictures, almost diagrams, that structure almost everything about how we imagine the world. There have been two cosmologies historically (Blake was the prophet of the second one but he also saw beyond it) and Frye suggested that third was on the way. All three can be traced to the Bible.
My understanding is that the first two are vertical cosmologies. The first is the authoritarian cosmology with god/father/king figure and all legitimate authority at the top and the devil/child/slave, and everything legitimately subject to authority at the bottom.
The second is the revolutionary cosmology and it is formally a parody of the first, where the figure at the top is seen as as a tyrant or a fool and the bottom is reservoir of creative (and destructive) energy. The second cosmology informed Freud’s view of the subconscious, and Marx’s view of the proletariat. Frye also mentions Nietzche here. So all the dominant worldviews of the 20th century come out of ideas developed in the 19th-early 20th century, having their origin in this major cosmological shift heralded by Blake at the end of the 18th.
Frye saw the third cosmology as interpenetrative, an Indra’s net where connectedness, identity, and equality within the context of incredible diversity replace the dominance, alienation, inequality, and uniformity of the first two cosmologies. It is a non-ideological cosmology because it is not hierarchical. Because it is non-ideological, it can make primary concerns truly primary.
If I had to make a judgement on the interpenetrative cosmology, I would say that we haven’t discovered its full potential yet, but it is hard for me to believe it is a new mold in which all of our imaginative structures from now on can be formed. I think we still need the first two cosmologies as well as the third. But because the third is new, it will be the source of real and good imaginative innovations that we have not yet seen.
I haven’t read the book by Paul Hawken, but perhaps he is one of these innovators.
Thanks to Google, I recently discovered my footnote in history
The gay marriage movement in Canada is a candidate for the type of movement that Paul Hawken is talking about, but I wonder if it really fits. The legal strategy was only ever determined by a very few individuals. The political strategy was determined by Canadians for Equal Marriage which was an organization that many people coalesced around including EGALE, the existing lobby group in Ottawa for gay rights. No one, that I am aware of, questioned whether Laurie Arron of CEM was the legitimate spokesperson for the same-sex marriage movement in Canada. Experienced gay rights people took the lead in creating CEM and, in general, activists, including me, accepted the authority of the organization to represent us. I, like others, did my own work that I thought was necessary (and many people coalesced around that too), but I coordinated with CEM and was willing to take their advice.
I really don’t know what to conclude. You could say the organization of this movement was top-down and bottom-up and self-organized and I don’t know that you would be contradicting yourself. Partly it was a Canadian trust of authority that allowed things to work so smoothly, just as part of the American demonization of socialism and judicial activism is an irrational distrust of authority.
My belief in my right to be married is not based on any kind of relativism or anti-authoritarianism, but on a conviction the what I am demanding is objectively morally right. Any belief in objective morality, binding on everyone, requires a vertical cosmology (or the equivalent) to accommodate it.
That’s why I do not want a total jettisoning of authority from our cosmological conditioning any more than I want a return to Mother Church.
Thanks for the great post Ian, and for mentioning Paul Hawken’s work.
Based on Blessed Unrest, Paul founded WiserEarth http://www.wiserearth.org – an online global community connecting the millions of people and organizations who are transforming the world by working on environmental and social justice issues.
WiserEarth is an online community featuring free Group collaboration spaces, networking, and job and event listings.
You and other changemakers are welcome to join the WiserEarth community.
With thanks for the important work you do.