Mindful Metropolis December 2009 : Page 36

one on one Finding Common Ground Jim Kenney, founder and executive director of the interreligious center Common Ground, talks about why he believes we’re witnessing a breakthrough in cross-cultural understanding intervieW By jaCoB Wheeler naysayers all around you? Take a deep breath, and consider the notion that they no longer represent the dominant voices in our societies. They represent old and archaic values, not new values that are growing in popularity, such as ecological sustainability, peace, economic and social justice, human rights and the empow- erment of women. Visionary Jim Kenney, the founder and executive director of the interreli- gious and intercultural education center Com- mon Ground, based in nearby Deerfield, Ill., and author of the forthcoming book Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Hope and Clarity in a Time of Cultural Evolutionary Sea Change (Quest Books, May 2010), believes that we’re experi- encing a unique period of global cultural under- standing. Those adhering to the old values may cause destructive whirlpools, but they’ll never succeed in changing the course of the stream. Kenney was instrumental in the founding D of Mindful Metropolis’ predecessor, Conscious Choice magazine. He’ll speak at our Dec. 3 36 december 2009 o shortsighted people get you down? Do you sense religious zealots, war- mongers, racists and global climate screening of the film “Oh My God,” and we talked to him last month to discuss Common Ground, his book, and why he believes we’re witnessing a breakthrough in cross-cultural understanding. how has Common ground changed since you and ron Miller founded the organization in 1975? The biggest change in Common Ground has been that we’ve moved from focusing on “ev- erything you always wanted to know about religions of the world, and interreligious dialogue,” to what we now say, which is that Common Ground is an adult education cen- ter that focuses on the world’s great religions, philosophical, spiritual and cultural traditions, and their implications for every aspect of hu- man enterprise, endeavor and inquiry. We offer programs that range from art to history to literature, politics, philosophy and current events. We have a very broad spectrum, but the core idea has always been the world’s great religions, all of which have great value to con- tribute to understanding. The way I’ve been putting it lately is that Common Ground helps its participants be better global citizens. how have you evolved since then, spiri- tually or otherwise? The biggest change for me has been getting connected to the global interreligious move- ment, in particular the Parliament of the World’s Religions, one of the largest of the global interfaith groups. I became one of the group’s founding trustees and board members and later the program director for the Parlia- ment which was held in Chicago in 1993. We brought 8,000 people here from all religions of the world to talk about the role of religion in making the world a better place—not to craft one world religion, which is what we were al- ways accused of, but to talk about the role of religion in addressing the most critical issues of our time—and then I took on the role of Global Director of the Parliament, through 2002. I got hooked, and since then I’ve had a deep involvement in global, interreligious affairs. I got to know people in Chicago and all over the world, from many religions—great spiri- tual teachers, thoughtful people that have had

One On One: Finding Common Ground

Jacob Wheeler

Jim Kenney, founder and executive director of the interreligious center Common Ground, talks about why he believes we’re witnessing a breakthrough in cross-cultural understanding<br /> <br /> Do shortsighted people get you down? Do you sense religious zealots, warmongers, racists and global climate naysayers all around you? Take a deep breath, and consider the notion that they no longer represent the dominant voices in our societies. They represent old and archaic values, not new values that are growing in popularity, such as ecological sustainability, peace, economic and social justice, human rights and the empowerment of women. Visionary Jim Kenney, the founder and executive director of the interreligious and intercultural education center Common Ground, based in nearby Deerfield, Ill., and author of the forthcoming book Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Hope and Clarity in a Time of Cultural Evolutionary Sea Change (Quest Books, May 2010), believes that we’re experiencing a unique period of global cultural understanding. Those adhering to the old values may cause destructive whirlpools, but they’ll never succeed in changing the course of the stream.<br /> <br /> Kenney was instrumental in the founding of Mindful Metropolis’ predecessor, Conscious Choice magazine. He’ll speak at our Dec. 3 Screening of the film “Oh My God,” and we talked to him last month to discuss Common Ground, his book, and why he believes we’re witnessing a breakthrough in cross-cultural understanding.<br /> <br /> How has Common Ground changed since you and Ron Miller founded the organization in 1975?<br /> <br /> The biggest change in Common Ground has been that we’ve moved from focusing on “everything you always wanted to know about religions of the world, and interreligious dialogue,” to what we now say, which is that Common Ground is an adult education center that focuses on the world’s great religions, philosophical, spiritual and cultural traditions, and their implications for every aspect of human enterprise, endeavor and inquiry. We offer programs that range from art to history to literature, politics, philosophy and current events. We have a very broad spectrum, but the core idea has always been the world’s great religions, all of which have great value to contribute to understanding. The way I’ve been putting it lately is that Common Ground helps Its participants be better global citizens.<br /> <br /> How have you evolved since then, spiritually or otherwise?<br /> <br /> The biggest change for me has been getting connected to the global interreligious movement, in particular the Parliament of the World’s Religions, one of the largest of the global interfaith groups. I became one of the group’s founding trustees and board members and later the program director for the Parliament which was held in Chicago in 1993. We brought 8,000 people here from all religions of the world to talk about the role of religion in making the world a better place—not to craft one world religion, which is what we were always accused of, but to talk about the role of religion in addressing the most critical issues of our time—and then I took on the role of Global Director of the Parliament, through 2002.<br /> <br /> I got hooked, and since then I’ve had a deep involvement in global, interreligious affairs. I got to know people in Chicago and all over the world, from many religions—great spiritual teachers, thoughtful people that have had A huge influence on me personally, spiritually and intellectually. That became for me a clear indication of the reality of cultural evolution: that human culture does evolve, and that we’re currently in a period of dramatically accelerated culture shift.<br /> <br /> What are those big cultural changes that are happening right now?<br /> <br /> This is the biggest single area of my research, and the topic of my book that’s coming out in May. Cultural evolution means that our values are gradually moving toward a closer fit with our deepening understanding of reality. We learn more about the world every day, and slowly, our values change to fit that. We gradually come to realize that women are not inferior to men, and then, much more slowly than that realization comes the value shift away from the patriarchal. We began to realize that the old assumption that the world is un-fragile and that nothing we did could possibly injure our ecological balance is simply wrong. Slowly, our values catch up.<br /> <br /> There are rare periods in history when there’s a sudden dramatic acceleration in that evolution of values. I suggest that we’re smack dab in the middle of one of those periods of acceleration. The positive signs I see are the areas of peace and non-violent conflict resolution, social and economic justice and human rights, and ecological sustainability.<br /> <br /> The lectures and discussions that Common Ground facilitates deal with current events, such as President Obama’s economic plan. Can we always find lessons in current events?<br /> <br /> If you’ve got a broad overarching vision, then there’s always a lesson to be learned. For me, that vision is human cultural evolution. We make a lot of mistakes as we go, but gradually we become wiser. We sharpen our focus, and there are always signs on the horizon. Even if we explore some major cultural failing, there’s always a lesson there.<br /> <br /> How do you identify politically? Spiritually?<br /> <br /> My politics are very progressive. I’m clearly to the left-of-center, as I think most people are who identify the critical issues of our time as peace and justice and sustainability. The same is true in my religious attitudes. I am a pluralist, which means that I believe it’s possible for more than one religion to be valid. Religions speak in symbolic language. I believe that since religions speak symbolically, the symbolic claims of the great religions don’t contradict each other, they complement each other.<br /> <br /> Common Ground is revamping its website, including the addition of an open forum and a social-networking site. How is the Internet changing the way we interact across cultural, religious and spiritual lines?<br /> <br /> I think it’s critical that we have access to other cultures. We’re all part of a generation that knows more about the world, other cultures and other religions than any other generation in human history. The Internet is a big part of that; it’s an extraordinary resource.<br /> <br /> I spend a lot of time thinking about the issues of the global commons—basically an extension of the old idea of the village commons. The forest and the land in the center of the village, the land surrounding the village, are held in common by all members of the village. They can pasture there, have animals there, they can garden and hunt. Gradually, the village commons was enclosed. The great landowners realized they could make the forests their own and wall off the village commons. The critical problems today when we talk about global commons are Antarctica, the deep sea and the high seas, outer space, the airwaves and natural resources that need to be protected.<br /> <br /> One of the most important aspects of the global commons is information and information sharing. An exciting development underway with the Internet is what some call the creative commons, an effort to project access to information that should belong to all and to keep it from being gobbled up by corporations that know how to make information proprietary.<br /> <br /> What are some examples of breakthroughs in cross-cultural understanding?<br /> <br /> In almost every area, there are major global networks at work. In the area of non-violent conflict resolution, for example, new approaches have been developed that link efforts in Latin America with efforts in Asia and efforts in Africa with the inner cities of the United States. Another wonderful example is the number of groups that are actively working to address the problems of climate change, or groups that are working on small-scale development programs in poorer countries or on the empowerment of women. You not only have groups that are working in their local areas, but groups that are working in global networks, sharing resources, information and technologies with others all over the world.<br /> <br /> Why did you write your forthcoming book Thriving in the Crosscurrent? What did you learn in the process?<br /> <br /> I wrote the book because I believe that cultural evolution is happening now. We’re in the fourth great period of dramatically accelerated cultural evolution. Older values that have long been dominant, such as patriarchy, the invulnerability of the earth, the idea that social and economic fairness are unrealistic goals, the idea that war will always be with us—all of those ideas, with which most of us were raised, are declining in influence, an outgoing wave of cultural values. At the same time, a new wave of values is rising: ecological sustainability, peace and justice, nonviolence, economic and social justice, human rights and empowerment of women.<br /> <br /> Theoretically, there comes a point when that outgoing wave of values is roughly equal in influence to the incoming wave. I think that’s precisely where we are. The crossing of one wave on the way out, and a new wave on the way in, is bound to produce a backlash. I use the term eddy, to stick to the watery, seachange metaphor. A whirlpool, a counterspin, when some portion of a body of water tries to resist the prevailing flow. They can be destructive, but none ever succeeds in reversing the flow of the stream.<br /> <br /> What’s sitting on your desk right now? What projects awaits?<br /> <br /> I’m very involved in this idea of the global commons, trying to understand it better, and to interact with the movers and shakers who are making a difference. And I’m working with the Interreligious Engagement Project (IEP21), a group I founded in 2003 after I left the Parliament of the World’s Religions. We interact with groups that are trying to make a difference, and that we can help by virtue of the connections we have to the global interreligious and intercultural community. This summer I hosted a conference at Loyola University on globalization for the common good. We bring together people from different disciplines and from the interreligious community, who believe that globalization is here to stay, but it needs to be dramatically influenced if it’s to reach out to those who are being ignored.<br /> <br /> We also publish the Interreligious Insight Journal, a quarterly journal of dialogue and engagement. It focuses on what you might call the best news from the religions of the world— what they do when they get it right. The journal is one of a kind, and we’re very proud of it.<br /> <br /> Jacob Wheeler is an adjunct teacher at Columbia College and publishes the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper (GlenArborSun.com) in northwestlower Michigan.

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