Many readers among the faith-based community here at Patheos will probably find Charles Eisenstein’s latest book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, to be inspiring rather than upsetting to their existing belief systems. And that’s why I’m going to concentrate mainly on the book’s many flaws.
Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics and The Ascent of Humanity employs fables, stories, and anecdotal evidence to make his points, a main one of which is that the world is in pain due to our “separateness.” Early on he likens “us” to a little girl whose chiropractor permanently adjusted a spinal misalignment to stop her headaches (which the girl hadn’t complained of) so that now she was able to laugh for the first time. As he puts it,
How much of our dysfunctional, consumptive behavior is simply a future attempt to run away from a pain that is in fact everywhere?
And if you don’t agree with his assessment, that we’re all in pain and need healing, if you feel somehow better than other people, that very smugness is a sign of separation. And separation rather than “interbeing” is what’s wrong, Eisenstein writes.
The author’s attitude toward global warning and climate change is hard to grasp. He writes:
The conventional narrative about global warning . . . lends itself too easily to centralized solutions . . . and subordinates all the small, local things we need to do to create a more beautiful world. . . . . Focusing on greenhouse gas emissions emphasizes the quantifiable while making the qualitative—might I even say the sacred?—invisible. . . . We need to come into a direct, caring, sensuous relationship with this forest, this mountain. . . .
I don’t understand how my feeling close to the lake near my house, to the trees towering over my backyard (which I already do), might somehow negate the harm being done to the environment by short-sighted economic, political, and, yes, personal decisions.
Some of Eisenstein’s amateur insights strike me as just plain silly. As when a fellow at a men’s retreat shared with the group his penis’s burn scars that he got as a punishment from a foster parent when he was five. Eisenstein writes:
In a flash, I perceived that his reason for being here on Earth was to receive and heal from this wound, as an act of world-changing service to us all.
How very Jesus-like. And irrational. And even patronizing of this fellow’s sorry past.
When his ankle was hurt, Eisenstein writes, having his meridians cleared healed him quickly. He cites anecdotal evidence involving shamans and qigong and their inexplicable successes. He writes that resistance to such events is part of the old story and we ought to be letting that story go.
I knew I could no longer take Eisenstein’s conclusions seriously when he began discussing “morphic resonance,” an idea of Rupert Sheldrake’s that has been widely dismissed by scientists. Basically it says that “once something happens somewhere, it induces the same thing to happen elsewhere,” or natural things inherit a collective memory. He also firmly believes in the utterly debunked theory that water has a memory.
He wonders why there is so much hostility to such ideas. For one, it’s utterly frustrating that no matter how irrational an idea, no matter how often it’s been disproven, or at least unproven, so many gullible and vulnerable folks will still spend money and hope on alternative medicines based on such wild theories.
At base, then, Eisenstein seems to believe everything is spiritual, and that by ignoring that aspect, you’ll never change society. I remember these arguments from the 60s, 70s, and later, each time I attended school for another degree. After my BA at UCLA, I chose so-called “alternative schools” (Pacific Oaks, Fielding Graduate University). And I’d hear a lot of that sort of thing. You think too much, try these other ways of knowing, of learning. Up to a point, I could appreciate all that, as, after all, I’d once been attracted to Alan Watts and Krishnamurti and other Eastern ways of experiencing the world. And then I chose to fold those ways of thinking into a generally more rational way of living my life. It works well for me.
When it comes to health and making the world a safer, saner place for as many people as possible, that takes thoughtful research and science combined with rational thinking. No, you shouldn’t unskeptically accept everything the so-called establishment promotes. Nor do you flick it all away and take, instead, the words of alternative practitioners with few credible credentials. At least, that’s how I think we ought to behave if we find rationality a pretty good stance to take toward reality, quantum weirdness notwithstanding.
According to Eisenstein, who tends to repeat his thin credo in chapter after chapter:
A generation or two ago, Earth was not yet in such pain.
What? Is he suggesting that more of the world’s population is suffering than in previous eras? I’m always leery of such broad generalizations about “the Earth,” and about “pain.”
He sincerely believes that the world will be re-created in a better way in the future, the way so many optimistic generations have imagined, but the changes, our so-called healing, “will come from the margins.” From places like Colombia, which the author visited (where a third of the population lives in poverty), and concluded, “Here are people who haven’t forgotten so much how to be human. They are spontaneous, they hug, they sing, they dance, they take their time.”
Eisenstein could be correct there, and we’ve certainly heard similar sentiments about various less developed countries who tend to score high on certain “happiness scales.” Oh, those innocent and happy poor people.
I don’t see why we can’t hug and dance and also be compassionate AND rational in our approach to problems and social betterment. When Eisenstein claims that we should trust ourselves and “that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it,” I’m afraid I find that, as loving a person as Eisenstein seems to be, his prescriptions are quite useless.