All societies live by their stories. This provocative book from one of the most provocative leaders in the church challenges the governing story that has shaped and defined Western culture and society - a story that has manifested itself in ecological destruction, war and the obscene military expenditures that go with it, unprecedented consumerism, economic disparity between rich and poor, mistreatment of non-white cultures and races, sexism, and fear.
Clearly, it is time for a new story. Bill Phipps takes on the task of outlining the core themes of this new story with the passion and vision of a modern-day prophet. He shows us the deeply spiritual nature of the issues and choices that confront us. Recognizing that the challenges we face are inherently interconnected and can no longer be treated in isolation from each other, his approach is multi-faceted, touching on all aspects of life, including the role of the arts in bringing about transformation.
As a culture and as a society, we do indeed stand at a crossroads - one of those rare grace-moments when we are granted the opportunity to choose our future. So the question remains before us. Will we choose the way of death, or the way of new life? Cause for Hope is part warning cry, part visionary exploration, part encouragement for the journey. As such, it is itself a cause for hope.
The Very Reverend Dr. Bill Phipps is currently one of the ministers at Scarboro United Church in Calgary, AB. He was Mod-erator of the United Church of Canada (1997-2000) and is an International President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace.
Phipps has had a varied career as a lawyer, community organizer, hospital chaplain, adult educator, and minister. He has an abiding involvement in social justice work, particularly with interfaith partners and First Nations. He has academic degrees from the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, and McCormick Theological Seminary.
Phipps is married to writer Carolyn Pogue, and they enjoy three adult children and their partners, and one grandchild.
I believe that if we are going to get back into balance with nature, we — and I mean the whole human race — need to change how we think about our relationships with the planet and each other. A book I read recently is all about coming up with the new myths, stories and principles that we will need to achieve greater social and environmental harmony. Cause for Hope, written by Calgarian Bill Phipps, is an inspiring read for those like me who are often discouraged by the slow pace of positive change. Phipps not only argues that a global shift in values is required before meaningful change can occur, he very skillfully offers models of thought — new myths — we can use as examples. I suppose some will see this as a religious book and be turned off by that, but I think Phipps is talking about spirituality in the great big Joseph Campbell sense. One certainly does not have to be religious in the narrow sense of the word to be inspired.
While Phipps' book is all about hope and transformation, it is written in the context of sounding an alarm about the depletion, pollution, and poisoning of the earth, that living beyond our means is no longer sustainable for either the earth or the human family, and the shameful inequality of peoples worldwide. His introductory chapter points to the unprecedented death march across the earth and offers numerous examples of individuals and local global organizations that have made real progress in slowing the progress of destruction. He names several worldwide movements that challenge the mainly corporate and political entities “who flaunt international law, see resources as theirs for the taking, and show so little respect of people and the Earth.”
In the following chapters he interprets the crises in terms of the myths or “stories” that have “shaped and defined our western culture” and resulted in the crises our world is facing today. He identifies the harmful elements in the “stories” that operate in the developed and developing nations and outlines key elements of the “new story” that he believes is emerging. Woven into this analysis is the story of Phipps' own coming to consciousness and understanding in the years he was preparing for and executing his ministry in the United Church (Phipps was moderator of the United Church of Canada from 1997- 2000).
He argues that the issues and choices facing us are spiritual in nature and calls on “faith communities to step forward and give leadership.” The “new story” is based on an understanding that all aspects of the crises we are facing are interconnected and that none can be isolated when seeking solutions.
Cause for Hope is a warning cry, a call to consciousness and a beacon of hope and encouragement for the journey.
From Chapter 2: The Importance of Story
All societies live by their stories, narratives, or myths. These stories reflect who we are and determine who we will be. Rooted in tradition, they convey and define our roles, priorities, and values; and provide a vision of who we can become. Both consciously and sub-consciously, our stories shape who we are as we reflect them in the social, political, and economic structures we create. We make personal and political decisions within the context of our society’s overarching narrative. Our economic and ethical choices both reflect and shape the underlying narrative we live out individually and collectively.
If the narrative by which we live emphasizes individualism, personal gain, a win-at-all-costs mentality, exclusivity, power over, and other related characteristics, the society we create will reflect these elements in its shape, structures, and ways of being and doing. Public policy will emphasize individual initiative and responsibility, and will minimize collective and cooperative responsibilities. People will need to “fend for themselves.” There will be no limit to the wealth individuals can accumulate, nor to the poverty into which people can sink. Privatization of public services will become desirable (to some). Government funding for public enterprise will give way to increasing reliance on lotteries, on state-sponsored-and-encouraged gambling, and on private fundraising. A society of winners and losers will quickly develop and be celebrated. Moral judgements will be made against those who are unable to compete. Mean-spiritedness will creep into public discourse and leadership.
As a result, feelings of fear become pervasive on all levels. Fear creates separation – more gated communities, more security systems, and more private police forces. Fear creates suspicion, mistrust, and more aggressive behaviour. Fear creates an economy of scarcity, and therefore of accumulation, in which people strive to get and to keep wealth as quickly and as vigorously as possible before someone else gets it or it disappears altogether.
This type of narrative undermines communal institutions and networks of collective rights and responsibilities. The planet becomes a battleground, where competing interests determine who will win and who will lose, who will have power and who will be marginalized.
On the other hand, if the narrative we live emphasizes community, collective well-being, a desire for everyone to win, inclusivity, power with, and related characteristics, these elements will determine the shape of the society we create, and the ways in which it functions. Public policy will emphasize collective and communal responsibility. It will encourage individual initiatives within a framework of collective action and collective well-being. People will feel supported and encouraged by publicly funded institutions. There will be no limit to the good of inclusivity. Everyone will participate in raising the standards of individual and communal well-being. Efforts will be made to ensure that no one lives in poverty, receives a sub-standard education, or is left out of prosperity. Governments will not rely on the evils of gambling, or on the whim of private donations.
Rather than fear, trust develops and grows. A sense of belonging – to each other, to the local community, and to the Earth itself – takes root. Individuals come to know that they are valued as part of the human family and as part of the Earth community. Communal institutions and networks of rights and responsibilities are enhanced. Rather than a battleground, the planet becomes a home in which all feel secure and valued.
New stories, new life
Suffice it to say that if we ignore the overarching and underlying story of our society or culture, we will fail to understand the issues and challenges we face. Without serious reflection on our governing narrative, we will see certain things as inevitable (poverty, for example) and therefore as impossible to change. We will see other things as having no observable cause (for example, some diseases). Only as we begin to see the issues of society (politics, economics, spirituality) within the context of our governing narrative will we be able to develop public policies that can find effective solutions and healthy ways forward.
As I stated at the beginning of this chapter, this is a spiritual issue, for it touches on who we believe we are and how we will relate to each other and to the Earth. In a way, the story of a culture is the spiritual framework in which a culture lives, and moves, and has its being.
I believe the time has come for new, dangerous, and life-giving stories. We need stories that celebrate the amazing biological, racial, and cultural diversity of the Earth, and which, at the same time, illustrate the realities of power, poverty, racism, and all the other ugly things that divide humankind from itself, and from the blessings of the Earth. New stories lead to new understandings, which lead to new agendas, which lead to life abundant. We need new stories to put us in touch with the mystery of life, with its beauty, possibility, danger, and opportunity; with its love, compassion, and tenderness. But first, let’s look at the old story.