Finding the right forms of language has real effects in the world. It changes conversations, which changes cultures, which changes practices.
Integrating Our Souls, Systems and Society
Topic: Society & Civil Religion
I’ve come to the conclusion that, actually, finding the right forms of language has real effects in the world. It changes conversations, which changes cultures, which changes practices. And I think, those who are charged with making sense of the world and feel called upon to do that should not despair that their work is irrelevant. I think I’ve come to believe that making the world clearer and looking at our foundations more fully can actually give rise to real results for people who are suffering on a day-by-day basis.
Applied philosopher Jonathan Rowson insists on holding a deeper appreciation for how our inner worlds influence our outer worlds. His research organization, Perspectiva, examines how social change happens across “systems, souls, and society." Recent book "Spiritualize: Cultivating Spiritual Sensibility to Address 21st Century Challenges."
Tippett, Krista. “Jonathan Rowson - Integrating Our Souls, Systems, and Society.” On Being with Krista Tippett, The On Being Project, onbeing.org/programs/jonathan-rowson-integrating-our-souls-systems-and-society/.
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Jonathan Rowson – Integrating Our Souls, Systems, and Society
Krista Tippett’s Interview with Jonathan Rowson [Excerpted Passages]
“Ms. Tippett: And it’s interesting, also, that there has also been in modernity this idea, this assumption, certainly in intellectual circles, that secularization was happening and would continue, and religion would, if not disappear, just become ever more consigned to the private sphere. And in some ways, religion — the way I see it is that religious institutions are in a state of great evolution and flux, like every institution. However, as you point out, what is happening instead is not what was predicted, because spiritual inquiry and these questions simply don’t go away. It turns out that they are part of us.
You have this great quote — I’ve heard this before, but I saw you requote it. I always like being reminded of it, from Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” And that the sacred and this longing for the sacred, and in fact, this longing for the deep things, the better part of us — that this part of the human endeavor tended, questioned, carried forward in time and community and ritual — this is as vibrant as ever before.
Mr. Rowson: It certainly can be, and it’s there for people to experience and engage with. The challenge is that it’s not perceived that way, at least not in the UK. I know the context in the U.S. is a little different, but secularization is some way further on here. But I believe some recent survey by Pew Research that says 90 percent of the world will identify as being religious by about 2030, give or take.
And that’s really an extraordinary way of looking at it. Religion is not going away; far from it. It’s actually the sort of secular, atheist view that is somewhat irregular. And it’s not necessarily because it’s more advanced or more sophisticated. It could be because it’s missing something. Is that God? I don’t know. That’s maybe going too far. But I think, at least, we have to be less allergic to the language of religion and not — I have a friend called Elizabeth Oldfield who speaks about the G-bomb, with regard to God. But I think a culture that can’t use the word “God” without getting the heebie-jeebies has some serious problems. You should be able to just use the language without feeling that there’s a threat in the room.
Ms. Tippett: But I think the important point is what you’re driving at when you say we have to be able to talk about this. And the words are all inadequate, and the words are awkward, and they mean different things to different people. But we have to be able to talk about this part of ourselves — about what it means — what have you said — to take a look, more deeply, at what it means to be human, we have to have a more fulsome understanding of the human in order to grapple with life and society in the way that we long to. That’s what this is pointing at….
Ms. Tippett: Well, I think I want to talk a little bit about hope, as we draw to a close. You also gave me this beautiful quotation of Vaclav Havel, which I know I heard years ago, but it was good to read it again in this moment, which I’m going to read it now. “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” [laughs] And of course, he had lived through just extraordinary complexity and hardship. Those were hard-won words.
Mr. Rowson: Well, I mean — where do I start? I think, with the question of hope, I think it’s incumbent on anyone who would define their work as being in some sense about changing the world — and that can be quite a hubristic notion, of course — but anyone who is trying to fashion better forms of living, they need some working theory of hope. And I like the definition of Roberto Unger, as well, which is that hope is the “visionary anticipation of a direction.” So it’s not just so much about thinking things will be better, but actually seeing a place that’s worth going to and orienting your will towards that.
So when I quite recently created a new organization called Perspectiva, and the purpose of the organization, in some ways, is to paint a vision of the future and a pathway of getting there that does instill a certain amount of hope. And I think the only way we’re going to do that is if we get better at linking together what we call “systems, souls, and society” — so, complex systems, including the economy and politics and all that, the totality of our inner worlds, and then, how we talk to each other and how we live together. And I think, if we can get better and more nimble and more generous about how we move between those worlds, then the chance of creating a hope that makes sense for all of us is all the greater….”
Ms. Tippett: Anything else you’d like to say?
Mr. Rowson: The only thing that comes to mind is that I was asked by the Open Society Foundation, a sort of massive global organization, to try and help them make sense of the global crisis in human rights as they saw it. And in the process of doing that, I’ve again realized that a lot of it comes down to our working theory of what it is to be human. But I think the real challenge is linking that question, as a sort of living, breathing, unresolvable, perennial issue, to a particular political predicament.
Now, I wrestle with that, whether, really, this conceptual work that we do can really make a difference to people who are in need. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it can. [laughs] I’ve come to the conclusion that, actually, finding the right forms of language has real effects in the world. It changes conversations, which changes cultures, which changes practices. And I think, those who are charged with making sense of the world and feel called upon to do that should not despair that their work is irrelevant. I think I’ve come to believe that making the world clearer and looking at our foundations more fully can actually give rise to real results for people who are suffering on a day-by-day basis.
Ms. Tippett: Is there any example that comes to mind, in terms of a shift of language?
Mr. Rowson: One that comes to mind is climate change itself, actually, because I think “change” is such a neutral term that I now think in terms of climate “collapse.” I find it a more useful — I think climate “emergency” is too strong; I think climate “breakdown” makes it sound too mechanical. I think we’re looking at a systemic collapse gradually unfolding in front of us.
So you need to find a form of language that is heartfelt and true to the nature of the problem, but which isn’t shrill and doesn’t provoke a needless defensive reaction. Given that that language is perpetuated and multiplied a million-plus times around the globe, finding the right form and the right reverberation of language really makes a difference in terms of how people feel it, because as I said earlier, the main challenge on that particular issue is learning to feel it.
So “collapse,” not “change,” because our lungs collapse; financial systems collapse, and we collapse in exhaustion at the end of a difficult day. I think people can relate to that. So if we say the climate is collapsing, it’s so much more evocative than to say it’s merely changing.”