Unburdening America

Three visions of the North American story:
progress and utopia, apocalypse, and planetary culture

by David Spangler

LIKE MILLIONS OF other Americans, part of my morning ritual for years has been to read the Peanuts comic strip. Whatever else the paper may offer, the thoughts and adventures of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and others get my day off to a good start. I remember one particular episode from many years ago: Charlie Brown and Linus are comparing the contents of their lunch sacks while walking to school. In addition to the usual sandwich, fruit and cookie, there was in Linus's bag a note from his Mom, exhorting him to strive for excellence that day, to do well and accomplish all of which he is capable, thereby making Dad and Mom proud. Finishing reading this note, Linus sighs and says to Charlie Brown, "There is no burden like a great potential!"

In many ways, North America is like Linus. The colonization and development of this continent had a heavy flavor of destiny, a feeling of new beginnings from which great potentials could be unleashed and great visions be fulfilled. This sense of destiny has been a pressure ever since.

One often hears the question these days of whether or not North American society has been true to the vision of its birth. Are we "on track," so to speak, or has the potential for this continent, sensed by the early pioneers, been diverted or thwarted? Certainly, on a physical, material level, no societies have been as abundantly successful as those of Canada and the United States. The citizens of North America have the highest standard of living in the world, and in many ways the American dream of freedom and prosperity has been amply fulfilled. What, however, about deeper potentials? What about the spiritual visions that lay behind the founding of America?

There are, to my mind, three visions that weave throughout the North American story, influencing our history and our expectations. These are the visions of progress and utopia, of apocalypse, and of planetary culture. These visions overlap and intertwine, creating the overall gestalt of this continent's potential role in world history and giving us, like Linus, the burden of great expectations.

The vision of progress is perhaps what most people think of when they think of the American Dream: it is the essential quality behind the image of North America as the "land of opportunity." It sees this continent as the place where men and women can be free from the past, free to grow and succeed to the limits of their innate abilities, free to create a new world for themselves and their children. This is the dream that has drawn millions of immigrants here from all the nations of the earth, to find a chance to start over and build anew. It is the dream of forging a society unfettered by history, a society whose obligation is not to the conventions of the past but to innovation and the possibilities of an unlimited future.

As I have mentioned, this is the most obvious vision for North American society and the one that has been most evidently fulfilled, though often in brutal ways where the environment and the native peoples have been concerned. In this respect, it has proven at times to be a selective vision, offering its benefits primarily to those of a certain Anglo-Saxon or European descent. The struggle for full equality of opportunity continues, and in recent years progress has been made. Now the challenge is to extend that equality to non-human lives in the light of a greater ecological awareness. If the essence of the American Dream is to nourish and support the well-being and capacity to unfold of each of its citizens, then this cannot be at the expense of the well-being of nature, in which we live and from whose health we draw our own basic sustenance.

In European history, as well as, to some extent, in Oriental philosophies, one can trace the development of the idea of the sacred civilization. This idea essentially holds forth the possibility (and in some cases, the prophetic certainty) that there will eventually arise a civilization characterized by harmony, wholeness, creativity, and abundance: a culture marked by oneness between God, humanity, and nature. In its secular form, this idea becomes the image of utopia; in religious contexts, it becomes the image of the Kingdom of Heaven, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, the Millennium.

Almost from the beginning of its discovery by Europeans in the Fifteenth Century, North America became a focal point for this idea of the sacred civilization. The image of progress which I have mentioned is itself a derivation of a more basic utopian expectation: that upon this seemingly virgin continent (virgin from a European point of view, anyway) the New World could be created. Here, away from the corruptions, the traditions, the limitations of Europe, the ideal society could take form. In the writings of idealists and visionaries of that time, America was another name for Utopia.

Many of those who founded the first successful colonies in North America saw utopia in religious terms. America was the new promised land where God's Kingdom would finally manifest on earth. Such a Kingdom, however, is beyond the efforts of humanity alone to create; it's appearance is through an act of God at the culmination of history. Human beings can prepare for it, but its manifestation is ultimately through apocalypse.

"Apocalypse" comes from the Greek apokalupsis which means to uncover or to reveal. It is actually a synonym for "revelation." However, in popular usage (or misusage), it has come to mean "disaster" or "catastrophe", perhaps because in that final revelation which it represents, all that is of illusion and not aligned with God (which might be construed as being most of human civilization) is swept away.

In a deeper spiritual sense, then, apocalypse stands for that moment in which we see the truth and are made free by it, all falsehood falling away. That revelation may indeed overturn our personal (or collective) world, shattering closely held assumptions, forcing us to revision the nature of reality and propelling us into that reorganization of guiding myths which some are calling the "paradigm shift." It is important to realize, though, that while such an overturning can seem traumatic and disorienting in the moment - a true disaster - the emphasis is on the revelation, the new vision and insights, the new life that now springs forth. Apocalypse originally stood for an act of liberation and birth, not of death or destruction.

However, apocalyptic thinking did not carry through this original emphasis. Instead, it has become an image of conflict between forces of good and evil on personal and planetary scales. This image necessitates a vision of an enemy and a consciousness of struggle. It divides life into two armed camps and defines the meaning of life in terms of battle and conquest, with apocalypse itself being the final moment of victory over the forces of Satan when history is brought to a close and the eternal kingdom of God is brought to earth.

Where the utopian vision may see history as the story of unending progress, the apocalyptic vision sees it as a means to an end. History is the temporary battleground between Light and Dark, Good and Evil; its function is to make itself obsolete, to bring us all to the Final Days when that battle will be won and history - and progress - will be unnecessary. Utopia focuses upon time, while apocalypse focuses upon the timeless.

The apocalyptic vision is deeply rooted in North American history. It manifests as a sense of mission, of being the representative of the Forces of Light upon earth, which in turn stimulates the need to have an Enemy. This Enemy has not always been another country; at times it has been nature. However, it is this viewpoint that contributes to such ideas as the United States being the world's policeman. In the past two years, we have seen this tendency starkly portrayed in the Reagan Administration, which turns the Soviet Union from being another country with whom we have both differences and common aims into being the embodiment of planetary evil, America's satanic counterpart.

The challenge with the apocalyptic viewpoint is that it seeks the final battle; it desires the resolution of the dialectical tension between good and evil but sees this resolution not as revelation but as victory and conquest. In an age of nuclear weapons, to conduct foreign policy from an apocalyptic perspective is to flirt with suicide.

This perspective can also lead one to devalue the things of this world in favor of the world to come. Everything becomes fodder to be used in arriving at the apocalyptic moment when history will end and eternity begin. The dialectic between good and evil extends to become a split between spirit and earth, humanity and nature, eternity and history. One effect of this is a disregard for the things and processes of the earth and the loss of an ecological sensitivity. I am reminded of a statement attributed to Secretary of the Interior James Watt, made while he was addressing a convention of fundamentalist Christians. He is alleged to have said that we need not be overly concerned about the environment because the Second Coming and the Millennium were soon to take place, after which all earthly concerns would become meaningless. Whether or not he actually said this, it is an attitude I have encountered amongst those strongly influenced by apocalyptic thinking and represents one of the negative aspects of this perspective.

These images of progress, utopia, and apocalypse strongly affect our thinking about the destiny and purpose of North America. They shape its vision. However, they also distort that vision by laying an unhealthy and at times unrealistic burden upon this continent. The implication is that we are the leaders, the saviors, the transformers of the world, divinely appointed to usher in a new order of the ages (a Novus Ordo Seclorum, as it says on the Great Seal of the United States). This is a worthy and noble ideal, and certainly we in North America, blessed as we are with so many forms of natural and material abundance and with a free and creative society, have a responsibility to humanity to use our richness wisely and for the good of the whole. We are not world saviors, though. The burden of creating a sacred planetary civilization is not ours alone but is shared by all nations.

The challenge is to allow the vision to inspire us and not simply feed a collective ego that would see ourselves on this continent as God's Chosen. Our sense of mission must be inclusive and holistic, not exclusive and divisive. There is enough to be ashamed of in our own history, enough mistakes, enough distortions, to demand humility in seeing ourselves as specially placed to lead the world into paradise.

There is another vision, though, that is also part of the "DNA" of this continent. This is the vision of a planetary culture. This vision has been articulated since the Renaissance and may be traced to earlier times. It is a central vision of the western esoteric and philosophic traditions. It is not a pure utopian vision, for it does not envisage a perfect civilization, nor is it apocalyptic, for it does not see this planetary culture as an end but simply as another step. What it does see is the emergence of a civilization based on a deep understanding of the wholeness and interconnectedness of all life, one which claims as its citizens all the elements of the natural world, humans and whales, trees and stones, birds and dolphins, watersheds and oceans. It also recognizes deeper, invisible aspects of life, what Findhorn would call the "nature kingdoms," the spiritual citizens of the planet.

There are those who have written about the esoteric teachings that went into the founding of North American society who have traced historical evidence that some of our leading statesmen had knowledge of this tradition. They saw this continent as a place where all the peoples of the world could come together in freedom and discover a way of living that would allow a planetary culture to emerge. North America would be a laboratory, a research center for synergy.

At the heart of this vision, however, is a recognition that the responsibility for creating this holistic culture rested with all peoples everywhere and that every nation would make its own contribution. Thus, the United States and Canada each offer their own experiments in building a new culture, but so does the Soviet Union, so does China, so does Africa and Latin America, and Europe, and Asia. Some nations do so with clarity; some have not yet awakened to that vision. Still, though some countries may be leaders in this movement, none are the chosen ones who will do it all. Each has its own measure of failure, each its own measure of success.

I have no question that North America is a land of exceptional inspiration and promise, nor that it does have a spiritual mission, a high vision to embody. This vision should not become a burden, however. We are not alone in the world. Planetary transformation is a collective project, involving all humanity and many forms of life and consciousness beyond the human. In this continent, we must assess our strengths and weaknesses realistically, and instead of pursuing ideals that are only disguised dreams of power and collective egoism, offer our humility and our strength, our lessons and our inspirations to all humanity. If there is a promised land, it is the earth itself. If there is a chosen people, it is humanity itself.

For this historical moment, North America may be in a crucial position to represent humanity and the earth in their mutual quest for synthesis and deliverance from the crucible of suffering that surrounds them both; if so, we must learn how to be proper representatives of the whole. The burden of great potential rests on all the world. It is time for North America to be unburdened from the expectation of being the sole possessor of that potential, unburdened from its image of being accountable for the salvation of the earth, an accountability that can all too easily become arrogance. Then in concert with other nations and with people everywhere, it can make its unique and vital contributions, alert to its power but empowering in its approach to others.

Ultimately, I feel, this is the vision of North America, not to possess or to be a great power but to be a source of empowerment, not to be at the pinnacle of a new order but to be a foundation of support from which a new order may emerge. It is the vision of servant leadership, in which, as the Bible so aptly states, he who would be the greatest of all must be the servant of all. Greater than utopia, transcending apocalypse, deeper even than images of a planetary culture, this spirit of service and empowerment lies at the heart of the beingness of this continent. It's special role will come as we touch that heart, and then, perhaps only then, will we be in tune with the promise of this land and the destiny that gave birth to the nations of North America.

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