Book Review of Hope and the Future by Charles M. Johnston, M.D.

Charles Johnston - Hope and the Future

by David Walker Moore

Hope and the Future is not a large book, only about 160 pages. But be aware: this is not a book that we are likely to sit down and just read all the way through; because it challenges us. The challenge is not in the difficulty of the language, or even the concepts. In some ways the concepts are common sense simple. It is what the concepts are doing that challenges us.

The title of the book is Hope and the Future, not Hope for the Future. This is a subtle but significant distinction. We'll come back to this later.

The subtitle of the book is: An Introduction to the Concept of Cultural Maturity. So what is Cultural Maturity, and how is it important? And how does it relate to hope and the future?

The concept of Cultural Maturity is based on a view of culture as a process over time, which goes through developmental stages and evolves. One of the great powers of this perspective is that it allows us to think about the future in ways that go beyond the near term views of the next election or the next quarter economic report.

The notion of Cultural Maturity may be engaged in various ways. First of all, it is a new concept. But like any concept, part of its meaning depends on its context. While we often encounter new concepts that we can understand within our normal framework of thinking, this is not the case here. As we progress through the book, we see that the full meaning of this concept is embedded in a way of thinking that we have not yet developed in our modern culture. So, we are being challenged to do more than just understand a new concept; we are being challenged to learn to think in a new way in order to understand the new concept.

And this is the essential conundrum of the book, both for Dr. Johnston and for the reader. For Dr. Johnston, the task is to write about Cultural Maturity in a way that leads us into the new mode of thinking necessary to understand Cultural Maturity. For the reader, the challenge is to recognize the task for what it is, and to be willing to become engaged on a deep enough level to understand what Cultural Maturity means.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with an appendix of Frequently Asked Questions for people who are new to the concept of Cultural Maturity. The chapters are:

  1. Making Sense of Our Time – The Concept of Cultural Maturity
  2. Addressing the Seeds of Conflict – Toward an End to "Evil Empires"
  3. Acknowledging Limits — When Enough is Enough
  4. Rethinking Relationship and Identity — Love, Leadership, and the Modern Myth of the Individual
  5. Understanding What Matters and Why — Truth, Responsibility, and the Future of Human Advancement
  6. Theoretical Perspective — A Closer Look at the Concept of Cultural Maturity
  7. Looking Ahead — The Appropriateness of Hope

The first chapter sets the stage for understanding Cultural Maturity. Dr. Johnston sees us at a transition phase in culture that, in one way, is similar to the emergence of the modern world out of the medieval world some 400 years ago. The famous dictum of Descartes that "I think, therefore I am" represented not just a new thought, but a new way of thinking, a new way of perceiving the world, and a new way of experiencing our agency in the world. It was this new way of thinking, and the new way of being an agent in the world, that has created our modern world – with all of its successes and, now, with its emerging challenges.

Dr. Johnston makes the case that these seemingly overwhelming challenges are systemic challenges. As such, they cannot be resolved by partial solutions that ignore essential parts of the system, and/or ignore systemic interaction and integrity. But the basic issue that Dr. Johnston sees is that, while the challenges we face are systemic, the way that we think is not.

This "way that we think" includes much more than our conscious thinking, much more than whether we think logically, or critically. It includes the basic assumptions that we hold about our selves and our world, basic assumptions that have become part of us, part of our identity, simply from growing up in our modern culture. These unarticulated, basic assumptions are the foundation of the way we think.

(For those who like to "think" that we are "rational animals" who are mostly conscious of our thinking processes, and who make rational decisions and behave in mostly rational ways, I recommend the recent book by Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Based on cutting edge, emerging science, this book will help you understand and appreciate just how powerful the whole mind really is, and how little of it we are truly conscious of.)

Please note that Dr. Johnston does not believe that the way we think is "wrong." On the contrary, he is quite clear that the way we think in our current culture was timely for the emergence and development of the modern age. What he argues is that we are now in a transitional phase of culture similar to the one 400 years ago, where we are being asked to grow in a way that has not been necessary or even possible before now.

In chapters 2-5, Dr. Johnston uses four different areas of our current cultural challenges to show us how these challenges may be understood and addressed from the perspective of Cultural Maturity. In doing this, he uses two visual images to help convey what he means by "the perspective of Cultural Maturity."

The first is an arched doorway that the reader stands in front of, on "Cultural Maturity's Threshold." On each side of this doorway is a pillar. Each pillar holds the representation of our cultural way of thinking in the "either/or" of polar opposites. On the other side of this threshold is the new way of thinking. As we discover, stepping over this threshold involves much more than just converting our "either/or" thinking to "both/and" thinking. That is only a starting point.

The second visual image is a box of crayons. The "Whole-Box-of-Crayons" Systemic Thinking is what we are able to begin to understand and use when we are on the other side of "Cultural Maturity's Threshold." As we progress through the chapters, these two images go with us, and help us feel our way into this new way of thinking.

Please be aware: the focus in these chapters is not to give us "the answers" to these challenges. Instead, the focus is to guide us into what it would be like to address these challenges using "The Full Box of Crayons" Systemic Thinking instead of the one crayon of a partial perspective. From the Cultural Maturity perspective, if we are not using Systemic Thinking, we cannot even adequately understand the full nature of the challenge. And if we cannot grasp the extent and nature of the challenge, and who all needs to participate in addressing the issue, only partial solutions will be offered and/or imposed. And, because they are systemic challenges, any partial solution will invariably fail in the long run.

One of the most important insights I gained from chapters 2-5 was the discussion of ideological thinking. (Note: within the perspective of Cultural Maturity, the concept of ideology is "used in a specific way – to refer to any belief that identifies with only one part of a larger systemic complexity." In other words, an ideology represents one crayon from the whole box.) This discussion helped me understand much of the difficulty our current culture has in relating to real systemic limits. Each ideology, while being a part of the systemic whole, makes claims as if it is the whole. Essentially, buried within ideological thinking is an implicit claim to be limitless.

In chapter 6, we are given a more theoretical view of Cultural Maturity, which can deepen the understanding we gained through the examples of its use with various cultural challenges. With this additional theory, the notion of our being in a transitional phase of culture becomes clearer. At the end of the modern age, we are in what may be viewed as a "mid-life" crisis of culture. For 400 years, we have been living out the assumptions that generated the modern age. Dr. Johnston views the cultural influence over this period to have a parental aspect to it. We have not really questioned the values and the assumptions we have inherited from the culture; we have been too busy exploring their possibilities and living those assumptions.

Thus, we face what Dr. Johnston refers to as the "dilemma of trajectory." We can get a sense of this dilemma in the various ways that people go through their own personal mid-life crisis. Some people refuse to face the limits of their changing bodies. They cling more tightly to their image of youth, and invest their time and energy in maintaining the façade of youth. Others almost give up; the best years of their life are over, and it's "all downhill" in the second half. And others accept the changes they go through during the mid-life crisis, and use these changes as ways to discover and develop new capacities, and new ways to become more fully alive.

The "dilemma of trajectory" contains within it a fundamental choice. The first half of life can be lived relatively fully without becoming aware of the cultural imperatives and assumptions that one is living out. The second half of life cannot. The momentum of the first half trajectory carries one forward into the second half, trying to live the second half as if it were another first half of life. The second half of life, in order to be fully lived in its own right, requires a new, deeper awareness of one's purpose, of the meaning that one gives to life, and of a new sense of one's agency in life. It requires a conscious choice to recognize and come to terms with one's emergent limits; it requires a conscious choice to develop new capacities within these limits to more fully express one's life. This is the fundamental choice that Dr. Johnston suggests that we now face in the emerging, systemic challenges: the choice to move towards Cultural Maturity or not.

I said earlier that this book challenges the reader. If we read the book just as an intellectual exploration of some new concepts, we risk missing the point of the book entirely. For only on the surface is it a book of ideas. Essentially, this is a book – not about a new way of thinking – but a book that attempts to engage us from the new way of thinking, and to invite and nudge us over the threshold of Cultural Maturity so we get a sense of what the perspective looks like from there.

Perhaps an experiential analogy will help us understand the challenge to the reader. Assume that as a boy my father taught me the basics of boxing so I would be able to defend myself; and that, while I was never a great boxer, I spent two or three years learning and practicing it. The stance, the reflexes, the attitude became a part of my self-identity and my muscle memory. I embraced boxing, and it became a part of me as I grew up. Years later, as a thirty-something adult, I decide to take up aikido training as a martial art. The underlying philosophy and practice are very different. The boxing training is aggressive, using my power against the other person; the aikido training redirects the other person's aggression and strength away from me. I discover that my biggest obstacle in the aikido training is the attitude, the stance, and the reflexes that became a part of my self-identity and my muscle memory when I was learning to box. In order to truly learn aikido, I have to embrace it so it becomes a part of me. I have to allow, through time on the practice mat with others who can model aikido and provide experiential feedback, the emergence of a new, perhaps more mature self-identity, one that encompasses a new stance, a new attitude, and new muscle memories. I can't acquire this just by thinking about it. I have to live it. And that takes time.

We don't just cross the threshold of Cultural Maturity one time, and say, "OK, I'm there." The engrained ways of being in the world – the underlying, mostly unconscious assumptions of attitude and thought that we have absorbed from growing up in our current culture – are the reflexes from boxing. Often, we don't even realize they are there, until we consciously try to act and think in ways that are different from those attitudes and assumptions. The aikido practice mat is when, in my involvement in the systemic issues that I participate in and feel passionate about, I "re-cognize" the issues from the Cultural Maturity perspective to the best of my ability to do so.

(Note: I did not learn to box; this is just an analogy. I have learned to cross the threshold into the Systemic Thinking of Cultural Maturity. But I am just a visitor; I haven't learned to live there yet. So, it's back to the practice mat.)

So, how does Cultural Maturity relate to Hope and the Future? In chapter 7, we return to this issue.

Inherent within Cultural Maturity is the foundation for hope. Cultural Maturity asserts that the complexities of the challenges we face are understandable, and that there is a way to move through them. But even more, Cultural Maturity is about more than just survival. Cultural Maturity asserts that there is a potential richness to life that is attainable. And, as Dr. Johnston points out, the steps that lead to Cultural Maturity build on capacities that are inherent within us already. It simply – not easily– requires our nurturing attention and commitment to the development of these capacities, individually and as a culture.

Ideological thinking, based on the perspective of a part of the system, projects a vision or plan into the future, and believes this vision or plan provides hope for the future. A competing ideological perspective projects a different vision or plan as hope for the future. But this kind of hope is an illusion, for it is not based on the developmental evolution of the whole system. And, the same can be said about the future. The future is what we imagine we can become from where we are now. If our imagined future is only from a partial perspective, and not congruent with the developmental evolution of the living systems of which we are a part, then this imagined future is not desirable for parts of the larger whole, and it is not a sustainable future. Thus, in order for us to conceive of real hope, and a real, desirable, sustainable future, they merge, in systemic thinking, into two sides of the same coin.

It seems then that the title Hope and the Future is quite apt. From within the perspective of Cultural Maturity, we cannot really think about hope for the future. We think simultaneously of both real hope and the possibility of a real, desirable, sustainable future as a function of the systemic thinking that grasps the reality and dynamics of the whole system.

So, where are we now? Well, we are starting to realize that human beings are living systems, not mechanical systems. Good. That's a beginning.

After exploring the concept of Cultural Maturity, and hanging out with it for a while, it seems to me that I can engage Cultural Maturity in at least three different ways.

  1. As a new concept that leads me towards understanding a new way of thinking.
  2. As an image that has the power to transform values and constellate new behaviors. (See The Image, by Kenneth E. Boulding.)
  3. As a practice or journey that I undertake to arrive at a desired personal future.

Who would I recommend this book to? First, to anyone who explores the world of ideas, and, in particular, how certain ideas feed back on our understanding of who we are, what we can become, and of our potential for agency in co-creating the world we want to live in. More specifically, I would recommend this book to anyone who feels "called" in some way, not just to make the world a better place, but to help grow the perspectives and ways of thinking that allow us to work together to co-create a world we can all live in.

This book can be used as a guide to beginning the transformation of the way we think. This has to happen first as individuals, so we can serve as catalysts of real change, systemic change, that can help us co-create a culture for our descendants to live in that is…well, culturally mature.

And therein lies the hope for the future.

Copyright © David Walker Moore, 2014. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

David Walker Moore is a retired aerospace software engineer who was a past board member of the Institute for Creative Development.