25 August 2017

I suggest that most of our contemporary issues, concerns, and problems — involving religion, gender, race, patriotism, and politics — focus on personal and group identity in a changing world. The great constant of course is change, and our changing world is changing ever more rapidly. 

My entire life I have been an “American” a citizen of the USA. My paternal ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. I am proud of that. My American identity, however, has changed and evolved over the years, just as the world identity of the United States has changed over the years…. My entire life I have been a Christian, of the Roman Catholic variety. My Catholic identity over more than seventy years has changed tremendously. Yes I am a critical Catholic but I still identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, as that tradition continues to change and evolve. (And I try to give it a little push from time to time.)  

Perhaps the real constant in my life is the realization that I am on a life journey, along a road that sustains me and keeps me going with occasional wonderful surprises; but there are bumps and unhappy twists in the road as well. Change. A fact of life. 

Yesterday I finished reading a fascinating book about our changing world: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While one could perhaps question a couple interpretations here and there, the historic panorama that Frankopan depicts is magnificent and provocative in every good way.  Peter Frankopan is a senior researcher in Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.  

While for many of us the traditional historic view has been that Western civilization descended from the Romans, who were in turn heirs to the Greeks, who, in some historic accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians, Peter Frankopan argues that the Persian Empire was the center point for the rise of humanity. A fascinating perspective, which he presents very persuasively.  He begins his 636 paged analysis in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. He then guides the reader through cycles of human creation, destruction, and re-creation right up to our contemporary twenty-first century global transformations. The element that continually stared out at me was how, over millennia, people have turned other people into international slave-trade commodities. Packaging people for the big sale. Or slaughtering them when they were of no practical use. 

Frankopan points to periods of wisdom, insight, and discovery. Unfortunately — and far too often — to periods as well of savage brutality executed in the name of God, country, and the world’s great religions. Christians, by the way, have not always been paragons of virtue. 

In the book’s final chapter, titled “The New Silk Road,” we find Frankopan’s predictions for tomorrow:  “The age of the West is at a crossroads if not at an end….The world is changing around us….networks and connections are quietly becoming knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” The world’s center of gravity is shifting East and away from Europe and the United States. Back to the East with all the economic, political, and religious implications arising from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.; and China of course.  I am not fearful but solidly realistic. They may have some contemporary importance; but today’s really big issues are far greater than Trump tweets or tantrums in the White House. Another galactic shift is well underway. 

So where does one find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment? Probably where we always did: in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us. I offer no pious or romantic platitudes. We need other people to be a real person …. and they need us.

We are all time travelers, but occasionally we forget THAT part of our reality. In a delightful discussion with a group of university students last week, all of a sudden it hit me. My experiences and dreams in the 1950s and 1960s helped to shape my identity. In fact, however, the 1950s and 1960s, today, make about as much sense to these bright young women and men as the stories of the ancient Greeks and their search for the Golden Fleece. We either live in the present or we die in the past. God bless my students. May they live long with critical reflection, insight, and inner contentment. 

Change is a fact of human life. The challenge is clear. If we are incapable of respecting and loving those around us here today, we are doomed to end our lives in desperation and violent destruction. This is our contemporary truth message (with nothing “alt” about it). It rings true down the street, across the country, and around the globe. 

Our perspectives do change over time, if we are alert time travelers. My theological understanding of reality, for instance, has changed tremendously. Terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” are no longer part of my vocabulary. Reality is a unified whole, with many dimensions. Space, time, and spiritual dimensions …and probably many more! And far more exciting than a magnificent solar eclipse.  

God is not “up there” or “out there.” God, “divinity,” “the sacred,” “the holy” is as close to us as the air in our lungs and the poundings in our hearts. God-with-us is the greatest source of security for time travelers. We need to listen, think, and explore a bit more. We are not alone. 

A final reflection about living in sometimes turbulent times, whether in Charlottesville, Barcelona, or the shopping mall across town: Time travelers will have a more contented and a more optimistic journey when they keep their eyes open, their minds receptive and alert, and – like people packing suitcases for a big journey – when they only only carry with them the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life. The rest should be discarded as unneeded and unhealthy baggage. 

Safe travels. 

13 thoughts on “Who Am I? Where Am I Going? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?

  1. Jack,

    This is a beautiful and insightful piece. Keep on pushing!


    PS, 638 pages would be a struggle for me right now but I did manage SAPIENS by Yuval Harari at 464 pages. At present I am preparing a day-long series of four talks for MEDITATIO here in London of the topic, CREATION, EVOLUTION AND ORIGINAL SIN.


  2. Well done, Jack! “Respecting and loving those around us here today,” “keeping our eyes open, our minds receptive and alert” and “only carrying with us the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life.” True words of wisdom to live by. Thank you.

  3. Quite a heavy piece, Jack, and quite a hefty tome. You make Trump appear as a blip on the radar screen which in some odd way, I find consoling. I see this writing as the beginning of crucial thought deseerving an additonal chapter, or if you will, a sequel. I want to hear more about the renewal of the Silk Roads.

    1. Many thanks for your observations Joyce.

      Asian and other non-European heritage countries are not only ascending to central places in the global order, but are refashioning its structure. A key development here is China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR).

      Unprecedented in size and scope, China’s infrastructure project promises investments of around $1 trillion (though only $50 billion has been spent so far), covering countries accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP (though this includes critic of the plan, India). All this occurs at a time when Western global leadership is stymied by the Donald Trump effect.

      OBOR increases Beijing’s influence in states all along major trade routes, from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, then the Middle East and on to Africa and Europe.

      Beijing’s calling this 21st century initiative “Silk Road” and the project’s geography bring up thoughts of a grand past when European-heritage powers were not dominant and the New World was yet to be colonized. The imagery of the silk route conceives of an interlinked Eurasian landmass that does not include the United States.

      My observations are not anti-American nor soft on Donald Trump. People need to look deeper and react more strongly about what is indeed a galactic shift. Trump’s tweets – offensive as they are – are child’s play and he delights in having people react to tweets because they are not looking then at the deeper issues and events.

  4. Hi Jack, as always, I really enjoyed this beautiful piece of writing! May I pass it on to my Dad? Best wishes for a lovely summer from Marseille! Déirdre

  5. Mr. Joseph’s 4 talks on 3 subjects reminds me of a topic I hope you will address sometime – revelation. Where does it come from & how do we discern it? Creation in some sense is flawed from a strictly human perspective, as earthquakes, tsunamis & floods not attributable to human activity cause much pain. Are other sources of revelation, such as scripture, similarly flawed? Is revelation over & done with? Will

  6. Dick,

    I’m over a week late in responding to this earlier eloquent reflection of yours which I found personally helpful. But I trust you won’t mind.

    Like you, I’m not fearful that “the world’s center of gravity is shifting East,” and that it’s “in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us . . . (that we) find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment.”

    But, a few of your expressions gave me, (even without the discussion in which you engaged) an “aha” moment you yourself reported. It struck me also, that “My identity was shaped by my experiences in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s” – and likely even earlier as well, since I was born in 1935. But, – isn’t that something? Just from reading your account, – “All of a sudden it hit me” too!

    And, another of your insights is a gift to me: your inviting us to be “alert time travelers.”

    Finally, since I don’t have time these days to read The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan – what a treat to share in the fruit of your deep study.

    As my late husband, Francis would say – “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”


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