“Buber was convinced that the struggle to discover the divine in the terrors of history would lead to personal transformation.” (Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture, Rescuing the Sacred Texts, p. 464)
Let’s take Buber at his word, and begin a meagre, yet determined, ‘dig’ for the divine in the ‘terror’ of the history of 2020.
Theologians often are asked, and also ask themselves, “Where is God in the midst of this calamity?” And, of course, answers are often posited that satisfy few if any. People suffering terminal cancer will often ask, “Why is God doing this to me..I have lived a good life and can’t understand how this can be happening?” While there is no legitimacy to the “God doing” this to me scenario from a spiritual or theological perspective, the profoundly embedded notion of our ‘sin’ and God’s displeasure with us because of our sin has taken hold of millions of hearts, minds and belief systems in the west. Similarly, many in the west conceptualize the end of life as a dark and foreboding event, especially if the event is premature, untimely and unexpected, rather than as the natural sunset of a life will lived.
While it would be a gross exaggeration to consider either of the above views as “slavery,” there is an element of cell-like convention that might be holding many from exploring other perspectives. What if, for example, the certitude of our death were to enable and ennoble creative, courageous and principled transformations in how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we might ‘fit’ in the universe’s landscape. Dr. Martin Luther King once commented: “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.” And another ‘Kingism’: A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
Even death then, from this perspective, is and can be a lens to see through and a spark to ignite purpose, definition, hope and transformation. Sounds a lot like Buber whose light continues to shine into the darkest corners of human hell.
Many clergy will also recount stories of death-bed confessions, themselves another form of transformation, epitomizing the Mark Twain quote; Nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged” borrowed from Samuel Johnson’s: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Looking back over his tribe’s enslavement in Egypt and his tribe's decimation in Auschwitz and Birkenau, Buber knows full well that seeking the divine in terror is the highest calling and the greatest challenge for humans. And who are we, as humans, if not called to our highest and best challenge? And where are the most difficult questions and challenges if not in the most penetrating and off-putting darkness?
So, where is God in this moment generally conceived to be if not outright apocalyptic, then clearly verging on the apocalyptic?
§ The west coast of North America is on fire.
§ Draught, winds, and water shortages continue unabated.
§ The social congestion decimates thousands daily around the world, through COVID-19 and other co-morbidities.
§ The Gulf Coast is awash with hurricane winds and tidal surges and torrential rains.
§ The airwaves are filled with lies, deceptions, distortions and narcissistic venom.
§ The supporting sycophantic silence almost drowns out the noise.
§ The streets are becoming boarded up as stores literally stop breathing. Their workers are clinging to expiring support cheques, and frayed hopes of work or training.
§ Greenland’s ice sheets are falling into the ocean, and vessels will soon traverse the Arctic.
§ 2020 is the hottest year on record and the last five years are the hottest five-year period on record.
§ The Scientific American magazine has endorsed Joe Biden in the first such presidential endorsement in its 175-year history.
Hardly a comprehensive picture, yet adequate to display two observations:
1) We are facing a climatic, biological, economic, political and ethical cliff.
2) We are also drowning in a sea of lies, and hatred, denial and narcissistic self-aggrandizement.
Are we content to be victimized by our own complicity?
Or are we prepared to shed our insouciance and prepare the path for the divine to return, not as a “white night” or a superhero or a vengeful deity, but rather in more subtle, ironic, graceful and melodic, if unobtrusive and perhaps hidden form?
Are we going to grab whatever transient and titillating “bobbles, bangles and beads” from whatever show promises the most to feed our insatiable appetite for instant gratification?
Having concentrated on our extrinsic, empirical and immediate personal needs, collectively packaged and marketing as “holy grail,” have we not bought rather a “pig-in-a-poke”.
Where is that holy grail that might actually shine light on a different human pursuit that is less immediate, far less heroic, far less military and armoured, far less rich in the cliché sense of that word and for more lasting, intrinsic, ephemeral, gender-race-religion-and-ethnicity-neutral?
Are we ready to challenge the long-held view that humans can control nature, a fallacy that has helped to make the human race concrete and immoveable to ecological concerns?
Are we ready to come to and openly express agreement with the Earth Charter that states “we can achieve a just, sustainable and peaceful global society only if we ‘care for the community of life with understanding, compassion and love’? (Armstrong, op. cit. p 480)
Are we ready to bring faith and the “holy” back into the conversation about who we are, what it is we are about, where we want to go and how we might begin the pilgrimage on that journey?
Are we ready to rejoin the humility of unknowing to the modern obsession with power and mastery, in human affairs, in our attempt to govern ourselves, and in our vain attempts to “secure” the future?
Are we ready to explore the spectre that the planet has adequate resources for the 9-billions of projected population, only if we are prepared to enact structures, systems, processes and monitors that ensure food, health care, education and work with dignity for every single person on the planet?
Are we ready to do the extremely difficult, challenging and, from the perspective of today, seemingly impossible and unachievable task of transforming not only our personal perspective on ourselves and ‘the other’ but also on our desperate need (and gift) to sacrifice our excess in favour of the authentic and lasting gifts of charity, without patronizing, condescension and pity?
Are we ready to find within ourselves, the so-far buried empathy, (not sympathy, we are drowning in that!) and the creative expression of not only courageous philanthropics but the actual surrender of those shibboleths we have considered “sacred” that have constructed and maintained the cultural, ethnic, religious and ideological silos in which we currently live?
Are we ready to implement, first in our individual and personal circles, and then in our jurisdictions stretching into the international geo-political spheres, strategies in the fields of jurisprudence, medicine, trade, environmental protections, labour and civil rights, human rights, the cessation of production of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons, the institution of geopolitical standards and controls over cyber-security, the weaponizing of space and the sharing of intelligence with those historically deemed our hated enemies?
A final word from Ms Armstrong’s epic tome:
“Religion is often regarded as irrelevant to modern concerns. But whatever our ‘beliefs,’ it is essential for human survival that we find a way to rediscover the sacrality of each human being and resacralise our world. Perhaps we should end with an ancient text that considers what will happen when the world ‘grows old’ and an awareness of this ubiquitous holiness is no longer observed, interpreted and animated by the ritualized language that helps to create that sense of sacrality within us:
This totality so good that there neither ever was, nor is, nor shall be anything better, will be in danger of perishing; men will regard it as a burden and will despise it…No one will lift up his eyes to heaven. The prior will be thought mad, the godless wise and the wicked good. The gods will take leave of men—O painful leave-taking…
In those days, the earth will no longer be firm, the sea will cease to be navigable, the heavens will no longer hold the stars in their course; every godly voice will inevitably fall silent. The fruits of the earth will rot, the soil will be barren, and the air itself will be stale and heavy. That will be the old age of the world: the absence of religion (irreligio), order (inordinatio), and understanding (inrationabilitas)
(Armstrong, op. cit. p. 481, Reference: Hermes Trismegiste,Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols. Ed. A.D. Nock and A. J. Festugiere (Paris, 1954) vol. 2L Asclepius 24-26: trans. In Jan Assmann, ‘Officium Memoriae: Ritual as the Medium of Thought,in Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory.)
Clearly, not a vision of life any of us want!