Threshold Theology: An opportunity to Redefine Progress and the Good Life

My favorite winter hike takes me up a sunny ridge to Juan Tabo Peak in the Sandia Mountains that fringe Albuquerque’s northeast heights. I like how I can look west over the Rio Grande valley toward Mt. Taylor, or east toward the massive, snow-covered cliff face of Sandia Peak, which juts out more than two miles above sea level and more than a mile above the neatly gridded city below. The ridge trails along this juncture of mountains and desert are especially exciting because the views are so different from right to left. In fact, the cusp of anything is an exciting place to be. Which direction is worth pursuing? The decision is often pregnant with contrasting possibilities and ramifications.

As the 21st century ticks on, I picture our world poised on a threshold that separates two distinct mindsets. Most of the planet’s citizenry spend the bulk of their lives outside their dwelling’s thresholds, entering only to sleep or escape a storm. In this way they resemble traditional cultures, like those of Native Americans, who lived mostly outdoors in climates harsher than the one I enjoy. Finding themselves vulnerable to the natural forces of God’s creation, such folks tend to adopt a rather modest view of their place in the cosmos.

But in overdeveloped countries, many of us like to be in control, and we spend the bulk of our time mastering our immediate environment by remaining indoors, sheltered from the elements, often tuned in to some machine that simulates reality in an antiseptic package. When we do cross our thresholds into God’s creation, we usually buffer ourselves in some way (sunglasses, umbrellas, cellular phones) to minimize the interaction or to distract ourselves from a full encounter with nature. Not only do we rob ourselves of the experience, we tilt the balance in our souls detrimentally. Recreation is meant to recreate, to rejuvenate our souls. When we are in touch with nature, opportunity arises for a serendipitous recharging of our batteries.

Our human world is 85 percent people of color. Since the largest contingent of Quakerism is in Africa, most Friends belong to the global majority, and many are still in touch with the world outside their thresholds. One of the most delightful and uplifting Friends I met during my five years in Africa was a model farmer at Hlekweni Rural Training Centre in Zimbabwe. From the beginning, his calm, genuine, straightforward demeanor put me at ease and left me wondering what secrets shaped his peaceful personality. His whole life revolved around a trust in the goodness of God’s creation. Though human forces were conspiring to alter the climate of his vulnerable farming region, he submitted to the cycles of nature and acknowledged that he was not in control. This is a humbling admission; most global elites, myself included, are uncomfortable with such vulnerability, so we retreat back across our threshold into our cocoons where we hold sway. But we pay a price for our control addiction.

Outside the threshold—in the natural world—a harvest mindset rules. Traditional cultures have known for centuries that you reap the Earth’s abundance, you don’t rape it. Cultures that spend most of their lives outdoors at the mercy of natural forces are compelled to embrace the wisdom of harvest rules. Such cultures are not innately more sustainable. Rather, they learn through upbringing and experience to stay within certain limits that benefit the group. These humbled souls look with horror upon what we global elites call progress, and they consider most of what passes for civilization today to be anathema. Yet, as we speak, the steamroller of progress is eradicating these simple people.

Inside the threshold—in the virtual reality of the artificial world—a mining mentality rules. We clever global conquistadors have discovered how to extract resources faster than they’re being produced. Because we’re in control on our side of the threshold, we’ve created an oil-based plastic simulation of life without the wrinkles and unpredictabilities of nature. We’ve even fashioned our own golden calf; technology is our new god. Never mind that each new technology exacerbates global wealth disparities, ever more efficiently consumes and pollutes the planet, raises our collective stress level by accelerating the already breathtaking pace of life, denies future generations of both humans and other species the right to a habitable world, further removes us from reality, and falsely convinces us that we can go it alone and have no need for the God of our forebears.

Is there a better way? Although I was dismayed when Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen to be Pope, I was encouraged by the warning in his Christmas 2005 message against making technology our new god. Can the monster be tamed? Can we redefine progress and live what could truly be called the good life? Let’s explore that thought.

Steve Biko, the martyred founder of the Black Consciousness movement in apartheid South Africa, never flaunted his religious tenets, but a quote from him is revealing: "The truth lies in my ability to incorporate my vertical relationship with God into horizontal relationships with my fellow men; in my ability to pursue my ultimate purpose on this Earth, which is to do good." Change "men" to "beings" (to encompass both genders as well as more than just our species) and you’ve got a pretty good philosophy of life.

To my mind, the pursuit of Biko’s goal and embracing the Pope’s admonition both involve revising our collective understanding of progress and success. For me, the threshold represents the cusp between God’s untamed creation and human technocontrol. Progress is usually defined as moving from the former to the latter. I suggest that as we discover the drawbacks of our dead-end version of progress, we consider the wisdom of an about-face. What if, instead of hiring the world’s best minds to design weapons of mass destruction, we redirected that creative intellect toward devising techniques of mass construction? How about a prize for theengineer who can design the least energy- and resource-demanding dwellings, vehicles, clothing, and medical equipment, maximizing harvested and minimizing mined materials?

We’ll also need a revised notion of "the good life" to replace the mass media’s image of success. How about conceptualizing the successful good life as Scott and Helen Nearing did in their seminal book The Good Life half a century ago? We could aim for more time with loved ones by setting aside the last hour of each day to share reflections on the day’s activity and plan for a better day tomorrow. We could strive for greater solidarity with the world’s low-income folks while removing encumbrances to our relationship with God by seizing the opportunity to support Quakerism’s very own Right Sharing of World Resources, now located adjacent to Earlham College. We could avoid the schizoid pressures that result from a disconnect between our actions and our professed values by focusing on matching the two more fully and frequently. We could vow to spend and invest our time as carefully as we do our money in activities that reflect our best values and aspirations. And we could cross our thresholds to choose truer forms of recreation—a game of catch with a child, a walk in the park with a friend, a day of hiking, or a spate of gardening (one of the few forms of relaxation that actually pays you financial rewards)—that really do rejuvenate our souls.

The high-tech behemoth of progress need not flatten us in its tracks. Its power derives from the acquiescence of its victims. If we opt out of the materialist monster and embrace a global-sharing consciousness, we deflate our opponent through nonviolent resistance. As Mohandas Gandhi, the master of nonviolent resistance, exhorted us: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Cross that kairos threshold; a world of opportunity awaits you.

Chuck Hosking

Chuck Hosking lives in Albuquerque, N. Mex. He is a member of Harare (Zimbabwe) Meeting, and he actively promotes Southern Africa Yearly Meeting's Zimbabwe Famine Relief Fund through Schenectady (N.Y.) Meeting.