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The Challenge of Our Moment

A Roundtable Discussion with Don Beck, Brian Swimme, & Peter Senge
Moderated by Andrew Cohen

When it comes to predicting the future, uncertainty seems to go with the territory. But if there is one thing that all of the futurists and visionaries we spoke with for this issue seem to agree on, it is that whatever course our collective destiny takes, navigating the years ahead is going to be a challenge. As the unpredictable forces of change transform every sector of planetary life and culture—societal, technological, environmental, geopolitical—the terrain of our global village is morphing beneath our feet, bringing with it an increasingly complex, interwoven web of problems requiring our attention, demanding a response. But what sort of response will truly meet the challenges ahead? To whom can we look for a vision all-encompassing enough to embrace the complexity of the conditions that confront us at the dawn of the twenty-first century? If Einstein was correct in his assertion that "problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them," then what sort of new thinking and what sorts of new thinkers are going to take us beyond the existential conundrums of tomorrow?

Now, if you've been following the evolutionary trajectory of What Is Enlightenment? over the past couple of years, you may have noticed that a new kind of thinking has indeed been finding its way onto more and more of our pages. Call it integral, second tier, holistic, or systemic, this new thinking is the hallmark of a growing wave of visionaries with the eyes to look beyond the surface turbulence and grapple with the multilayered complexities undergirding our global dilemmas. Challenging us to face the elaborate interwoven forces that are shaping our destiny for better or worse, these evangelists of higher-order thinking offer what many feel may be the best chance we have at meeting the demands of the years ahead.

So, in attempting to come to terms with our uncertain future, and particularly with the role that religion will play in it, for this issue we decided not just to speak with a number of these leading-edge thinkers but to bring them together and have them speak with each other. As firm believers in Plato's assertion that the highest form of knowledge is that which emerges in dialogue, we couldn't imagine what could give us a better chance of seeing the biggest possible picture than a roundtable discussion between some of today's brightest integral minds, who are each attempting, in their own way, to forge a more evolved course through our present and future world.

Those who read our last issue will remember Don Beck as the psychologist and geopolitical wizard behind Spiral Dynamics (for a quick intro to Spiral Dynamics click here), a revolutionary model of human values development that is finding its way into the offices and toolkits of an ever-increasing number of global and organizational leaders. Drawing on the pioneering work of psychologist Clare Graves, Beck's theory presents a comprehensive picture of the progressive stages through which individuals, organizations, and cultures evolve, and in so doing provides a key to understanding and untangling large-scale conflicts. By showing that most major conflicts boil down to a clash between different "memetic codes," or core value systems, Beck has played a key role in such major undertakings as the ending of South African apartheid and the societal restructuring of Singapore. Founder and CEO of the National Values Center, and Spiral Dynamics Group, Inc., Beck has most recently teamed up with integral philosopher Ken Wilber to form Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi), a joint initiative aimed at "managing large-scale interventions, change, and transformation."

Large-scale transformation, it turns out, is also at the core of Brian Swimme's work, and in his case, large is the operative word. A mathematical cosmologist with the heart of a nature mystic, Swimme has spent the past two decades bringing to life the awe-inspiring tale of cosmic evolution that has been unfolding as our universe since it exploded into existence some fifteen billion years ago. Author of The Universe Is a Green Dragon, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, and The Universe Story (coauthored with his friend and mentor Father Thomas Berry), Swimme has dedicated his life to awakening others to the wonder of our cosmic heritage and the unique role and responsibility of the human in carrying evolution forward. In his speaking and teaching work, conducted through his Center for the Story of the Universe, he implores people to consider the profound implications of being conscious and to embrace our uniquely human potential to express a "comprehensive compassion" for all of life.

Changing the world means changing institutions, and there are few who have explored the territory of institutional transformation like "management giant" Peter Senge. Widely regarded as "the world's most extraordinary thinker on creating learning organizations," Senge shook the foundations of business thinking with the publication of his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, in which he transformed the abstract ideas of systems theory into practical tools for grappling with the complexities of large-scale organizational change. A senior lecturer at MIT and founding member of the Society for Organizational Learning, Senge speaks extensively throughout the world, calling leaders in business, education, health care, and government to bring vision, purpose, reflectiveness, and systems thinking into their organizational culture. Today, thirteen years after he burst onto the management scene, Senge is still leading by example, evolving his own ideas, and most recently teaming up with others to explore what the world's corporate leadership might be able to learn from the spiritual wisdom of the East.

So for this issue of WIE, we are more than pleased to have an opportunity to bring these three pioneering voices of change together in a roundtable discussion moderated by WIE founder Andrew Cohen. A spiritual teacher with a planetary perspective and a passion for evolution, Cohen has spent the last seventeen years engaged in a living investigation of our collective potential that is helping to redefine what it means to be a human being at the dawn of the third millennium. In the pages ahead, this cadre of visionaries grapples with the extraordinary challenge our moment in history presents, providing a real-time demonstration of what it means to bring the future into the present and a testament to the kind of shared exploration that may truly reveal the way ahead.

–Craig Hamilton

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This article is from
Our Future Issue