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Duane Elgin – Profile of a Visionary

Mapping Humankind's Collaborative Opportunities

by Paul Chaffee

Duane Elgin, who might be deemed the most important visionary alive if more people knew about him, is a man who defies attempts at ‘categorization.’ But if you are involved with multicultural, interfaith work and care about humankind’s future, you need to know about this joyfully complex thinker who is offering a vision and tools for achieving our highest goals.

Duane Elgin

Duane Elgin

Interfaith organizations like other nonprofits have a hard time resisting the corporate habits of the culture. Too often we compete with each other financially and programmatically, work secretively, undercut cooperative bonds, and rob our efforts of their natural synergies. We share broad goals – peace, opportunity and dignity for all, economic sustainability, and the like.

But we don’t share strategic planning. We don’t develop connective tissue institutionally for empowering people of good will to work collaboratively in addressing the stunning difficulties humankind faces. Duane Elgin’s contribution is in providing a new cultural narrative, a platform and frame-of-reference, along with practical tools, that honor us in our particularities while offering a map for transforming the tragedies around us.

Elgin’s background is rich and complicated. As a student he shifted from wanting to study medicine to focusing on societal healing. Trained as a social scientist, he did his Masters in economic history at the University of Pennsylvania, an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and more recently received an honorary doctorate from the California Institute of Integral Studies for his work on “ecological and spiritual transformation.”

As a young professional he worked for a couple of years on the senior staff of the Presidential-Congressional Commission on the American Future. He then left Washington, D.C. and moved to California to work the next five years as a senior social scientist at SRI International. His “futures research” included co-authoring a book with mythologist Joseph Campbell and a small team of scholars. He also worked with NASA for three years as a subject exploring humanity’s intuitive capacities. Then he struck out on his own to write and become an activist for media accountability and citizen empowerment. A series of books followed, beginning with Voluntary Simplicity (1981). The most recent, The Living Universe – Where Are We? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?” (2009), best captures his whole vision.

Duane Elgin’s religious journey has been equally rich. Raised as a Southern Baptist in rural Idaho, Duane was attracted to Quakers as a young man. He was further influenced by the Jesuit priest and activist, Daniel Berrigan, while both were living in Paris for half a year; they spent hours discussing social justice and non-violent action. Later he explored different aspects of the human potential movement. Most significantly, he has been actively studying spiritual practices from all traditions for 40 years and is particularly drawn to Tibetan Buddhist meditation.

The animating principle in Elgin’s vision is that the universe is a living system and not dead, as the scientific materialistic philosophies of the past three centuries have claimed. His 12-point comparison between a dead universe and an alive one starts out this way:

DEAD – The universe is non-living at the foundations. The universe is a collection of mostly dead matter and empty space that is not fundamentally alive. At the foundations, the universe is a cold, barren, unfeeling, and spiritless place.

ALIVE – The universe is alive at the foundations. The universe is a unique kind of living entity that is sustained by the flow through of phenomenal amounts of Life-energy. The cosmos is a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it and is filled with feeling and soulful learning at every level.

For better or worse, we find our species waking up together on a small planet circling a relatively young star located at the outer edge of a swirling cloud of a hundred billion stars – an average-size galaxy in a universe of billions of galaxies. Will we become one of the unfortunate cosmic seeds that has taken root but is so crippled by fear and self-destructive behavior that we will never flower into the fullness of our potential? Or will we become one of the gems of the galaxy, the Earth a place of great beauty and humanity notable for its conscious and compassionate planetary civilization? These are the pivotal times for our species and the Earth.”

            – From Promise Ahead – A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (2000) by Duane Elgin

A red flag may have surfaced if you are theologically inclined, especially with the metaphysically resonant ‘alive’ description. But in The Living Universe Elgin bolsters his case by drawing on science, particularly physics and cosmology, and equally from world scriptures. Almost universally, he notes with some detail, sacred scriptures assume an alive universe; and increasingly, in fascinating ways, science is agreeing. In Elgin’s view, consciousness is at the foundation of our universe which he describes as being continuously regenerated in its entirety. He also sees humanity reaching a critical period where we will choose whether to pull together and collaborate to create a more promising future – or pull apart in conflict and destroy ourselves.

Of course, Elgin is not alone with these dire warnings. Fifteen years since Promise Ahead appeared (see inset), prophetic voices are starting to abound. His particular genius, though, and a great source of hope, is a deep understanding of humanity’s story and its influence on who we are and where we are headed. In this he offers a treasure trove for religious educators of all traditions.

The Transforming Power of Story

“Look,” he says, “I start a story as soon as I’m up in the morning, and so do you. Brush my teeth, have breakfast, read the news and so on – and all the while I’m living out an often invisible story about who I am and what I’m doing with my life. Everyone does!” In short, we experience our lives, plan them, and remember them, with our stories.

Elgin notes that the popular stories in movies and digital games today tend to focus on conflict, winner take all, and competitive accumulation – all natural stories in a dead universe, a world where “Whoever has the most when he dies wins” is a bumper sticker. He doesn’t want to censor anyone’s stories, but thinks that we are addicted and distracted by what mainstream media offers. “Donald Trump’s hair got more attention on TV than the accumulated time the networks devoted to climate change. It’s insane!”

As a “trans-partisan” media activist, Elgin promotes stories of transition which realign us with the living universe and a planet in distress. To that end he created the Great Transition Stories program.

Great transition stories have four requirements, he says. They must be: universal (apply to us all), simple (can be captured, or at least begun, in a sentence), emotionally powerful (or “so what?”), and evoke our higher potential (such as healing a broken world).

One story line he has used around the world goes, “Humanity is growing up…” People immediately understand. He asks, “How old do you think we are now?” Most say we are in our adolescence. Then he says, “You’re an adult now – what moved you from adolescence to growing up? Tell me that story and what you learned.” And the conversation moves outward to humanity growing up. “We have deep wisdom of where we need to go vis-a-vis our necessary growth,” say Elgin, “if we know how to tap it.”

Another story: “A global brain is waking up…” People often pull out their cell phones and say, “You mean this?” And I say, “Yes.” People immediately understand the new story that they are connected with the world in a new and intelligent way and if we want to use this new power for collective communication, the entire Earth could have a new voice for its future and start to handle our challenges constructively.

Stories are the tool. The task they support is engendering a healthy, peaceful, interfaith culture for the Earth and all living entities. The concluding section of The Living Universe starts out addressing “Six vital tasks for the journey home.” They are:

  • Co-creating our story of awakening
  • Cultivating reflection and reconciliation
  • Living simply and sustainably
  • Creating new kinds of community
  • Becoming media-conscious citizens of the Earth
  • Bringing our true gifts into the world

Nothing adolescent about it – humanity growing up. In light of the issues we face today, these goals offer a high, hopeful, and realistic agenda. It is one that people of good will can affirm and tell stories about, whatever your race, religion, gender, or social, economic status.

Duane Elgin is a visionary whose rural boyhood leads him to self-identify as a “farmer planting some seeds,” seeds of planetary awakening and healing. He won’t be at the head of the parade, or high up some institutional ladder. But he speaks to thousands every year and is read by many more than that, offering us all a contagious whiff of hope in these troubled times.