I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Karlberg’s premise that our systems of meaning—“the semiotic codes, ontological assumptions, and interpretive frames all people employ to make sense of the world”—must be thoughtfully evolved if humanity is to make the Great Transition we so desperately need. This is the premise behind system scientist Donella Meadows’ assertion that the most powerful leverage point in a system is the guiding paradigm. I especially appreciate his acknowledgement that new actions and new narratives must be pursued in tandem, each informing the other. And at the same time, there is special importance in inviting an evolved framing narrative, since it then opens up new imaginings, new possibilities, new motivation for action.
Where Karlberg’s proposal raises concerns for me is in its implied focus on actively driving the reconcepualization of religion through a focused discourse, rather than supporting its emergence. Though the etymology and the core intent of religion is to bind us together, the scope of that “binding together” has generally been limited to others practicing the same religion. In this way, religion has tended to inform our individual identities and sense of distinction more than it has been a universally unifying force.
This is precisely what compels Karlberg to propose a discourse to reconceptualize religion in search of universal and unifying principles. But my concern is that such a direct—and potentially directive—approach seems fraught with the risk of provoking defensiveness, debate, and distraction from the goal of the initiative. The risk of strife is not reason to avoid an important discourse. But there may be alternative—or even parallel and complementary—paths that would deliver the desired results more effectively.
Specifically, I wonder if we might distill and catalyze a narrative of life—the one universal and transcendent factor we all share—and then invite all religions to determine for themselves how their principles and practices might grow in alignment with life’s core tendencies and requirements. After all, the larger aim of the initiative Karlberg describes is to encourage religions—and their followers—to act with greater reverence and responsibility for all life. And ultimately, that is the nature of the Great Transition that is needed. Enabling life to thrive is not currently the explicit intention of most human endeavors; instead, we generally set our sights on lesser goals. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that what we’re creating is something decidedly less than life thriving. So what if a narrative were to be generated around serving life, around the clear intention to create the conditions for life to thrive, in a movement that might be called “thrivability”? And then what if religious groups were invited to explore the role each might choose to play in that overarching quest?
The connection ought to be natural. There is inherent spirituality in any meaningful exploration of what enables aliveness and thriving: life seems to rely on “a Source, a First Cause, a Supreme Animating Will or Power,” as Karlberg mentions. And there is a level at which humanity—and all creation—constitute “an organic oneness.” Within a narrative of thrivability, there is also clear practicality: certain basic conditions are needed if life is to thrive, and our religions can be invited to support and cultivate those. By “basic conditions,” I don’t mean specific chemical processes or nutritional inputs. I mean the limited number of general characteristics that can be found in any living system—in our bodies, in sea sponges, in ant colonies, in rain forests, even in communities and organization—and that are required if the living system is to thrive. Though there isn’t broad agreement among scientists about the specific set of conditions that are needed, I’ll share below the four that my colleagues and I refer to in our work with organizations and communities.
First, all living systems are made up of individual parts—cells in your body, bees in a hive, people in organizations and communities. We know from the concept of biodiversity that, if the living system is to be resilient, adaptive and creative, the contributions of those parts must be as diverse as possible. In human communities and organizations, this means that we need to invite and enable diverse contributions from the people involved.
Second, in living systems, those diverse parts are connected to each other in a dynamic relationship. If the system is to thrive, those relationships must be supported by strong but flexible infrastructure. In your body, this is your skeletal, digestive, and circulatory systems, and more. In human communities, it is the supportive structures and connective systems that allow us to be in responsive relationship with each other and with the world around us.
In all living systems, parts come together in relationship in service of an emergent level of life—a convergent whole that has characteristics and capabilities that can’t be found at the level of the parts. In your body, this is you—and you are so much more than just a collection of cells. You think, and you feel, and you move—and these are not properties of your individual cells. This emergence of new capabilities is the generative promise of living systems. In human communities, it is enabled by a compelling shared purpose that draws people together and transforms them from a shapeless crowd into a vibrant living ecosystem capable of concerted effort and collective intelligence. This is where we have the direct experience of being part of something larger than ourselves.
Finally, what sets the process in motion is the spark of life—the Source, First Cause, or Supreme Animating Will that Karlberg describes. It is this property that enables the system to integrate parts into wholeness, that powers the emergence of new capabilities, and that enables self-healing, self-organization and self-creation. Acknowledging the presence of this animating force invites us to see ourselves not as mechanics and engineers of our communities and organizations but as stewards or gardeners, creating the fertile conditions for life to thrive. It invites us to participate in life’s unfolding process with a sense of reverence and responsibility.
Acknowledging this fourth characteristic is in no way disenfranchising, as past religious claims of a guiding “higher power” have often been. Instead, it seems more appropriate to speak of an inner and at the same time all-encompassing essence or property. It seems more accurate to speak of our active and increasingly conscious participation in a wise living system that is learning along the way, as it seeks to connect to itself in novel ways. And each of us represents an infinite source of novelty.
What we learn from this exploration of the conditions life requires is that the underlying tendency and urge of all life is to connect with other life to create emergent, transcendent forms. It’s what Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran calls “life’s longing for itself.” And this search for self-transcendence is what drives us to create families, organizations, communities—and religions.
In fact, the four core conditions described here are probably the same ones that Karlberg’s proposed discourse would identify—honoring all forms of life, weaving respect and sacredness into our relationships, being in service and stewardship of something beyond ourselves, and living with a sense of reverence for the animating force of life. Indeed, the scientific characteristics of living systems may be said to mirror the trinity found in many major religions.
Offering religion a new and yet resonant lens from outside itself—and perhaps from a less controversial base—might have an effect similar to Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system: it might serve as an invitation to religions to explore how they will integrate that new perspective and new context into their existing belief systems and practices. Such an understanding of the nature of life might comfortably open the door to discussions about how any particular religious group can invite people individually and collectively into a stance of wise, compassionate, and reverent stewardship of life.