The first known existence came with the big bang 13.8 billion years ago and the first life appeared 3.7 billion years ago. From these unlikely beginnings the race of Homo sapiens emerged, developing over time to be the extraordinary race of humankind which apparently rules the planet Earth today. There does not seem to be any equivalent anywhere else in our universe, and so to this extent at least, we humans are special.
The human race has grown in number and power and ability to generate complex creations. But it has lost understanding of the simplicities and will to live by them.
Specifically what has been the human achievement? More or less every aspect of our existence has been marked by achievement, from individual consciousness through to highly developed forms of social organisation and the ability to produce new life. The ability to think, to reflect, and to assign values to things has been central to this parade of achievements.
But with achievement has come downsides. The pattern of conception-flourishing-fading-death is evident in society as in every other form of life. So we make history which then becomes heritage, living only sometimes in memory and ongoing ways of doing things.
Currently we are seeing the first signs of the fading of religion – religion which dates back 3,000 years. Religion has been democratised and atomised, and in this process it has lost its vitality. Overtaking it are ethics, which are more or less universally accepted as the lingua franca of good practice in human behaviour. Ethics are necessary if we are to enjoy a civilised life, but they can also be seen as little more than a lowest common denominator.
Democratisation has left more people in touch – somehow – with the eternal verities, but it has robbed us of leadership in the exercise of those verities. We don’t know where we are going.
Along with democratisation (everyone getting power of some degree) has come materialism (everyone getting more means). These have become ends in themselves, transcending the political goals of concentration of power and concentration of wealth. Authoritarianism, capitalism and the like are not ultimately the things which have brought us down but the excesses of personal egoism and greed.
Without religion we have lost a whole dimension of our being. Without religion we lack breadth and depth and drive. We lack largeness of spirit sufficient to encompass all creation, intensity sufficient to plumb its depths, and felt conviction (for feeling is crucial) sufficient to propel us on, constantly pursuing and promoting truth and using this truth to bind us all together.
Despite centuries of consideration, we still have no agreement on the existence or nature of the Ultimate – our Source and Sustainer and Completer. This remains the Great Unknown (or Unknowable).
We the human race have been held down by our own egoism, greed, apathy and fear. We have lacked – and still lack - the will to propel ourselves forward.
The human race has a poor outlook. We are threatened by ourselves, as evident in the continuing strife between nations. We are potentially threatened by the rise of the new species we call artificial intelligence (which we elevate through the capital letters AI while downgrading God to lowercase god). We are threatened by pushback from our natural environment.
The very existence of humankind is under threat. Presumably this is a bad thing; in other words, presumably humankind is worth “saving.”
We have faced massive challenges in the past but not of such scale.
It is possible that we need the destructive power of these challenges to bring us back to our senses, as it has in the past, for example after the world wars. But this would be very risky.
A qualification is necessary in regard to much of what has been said above. Some of these observations are more true of the West than they are worldwide. However, warning signs are clearly present for the human race as a whole.
We can only do our best in the face of these challenges. The optimistic amongst us will also have hope. Beyond hope there is faith, which might be faith in the capacity of the unknown – or Unknown – to somehow “save” us. Can the unknown right the errors or the wrongs of the known?
We do not seem to have a story or collection of stories that can guide us through this difficult time; or maybe story is there and we simply don’t recognise it. Some of the old stories have enduring relevance, but which ones?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition (I don’t know enough to speak about others) we have the Jesus Christ story which helps in terms of personal suffering but also elevation and achievement. The earlier stories about the people of Israel – their waywardness and sufferings and part redemption - can help as template for survival of a whole society, the fundamental message being one of necessary humility and submission to the divine will. (Note: seen this way, the Old Testament stories are not superseded by the those of the New Testament; rather, they complement each other). But are these stories enough? Do they speak to us in the 21st century? Or are there other stories from our more recent past and from other parts of the world – like the story of indigenous Australians who were massively degraded but survived and came back through assertion of their own culture.
A story that continually resonates with me is that of the Peter Weir movie The Last Wave. This is a story of coming together of worldviews, old and new, in the face of an emerging and mysterious new threat, one of cataclysmic proportion. A threat emerging out of apparently nowhere, a deceptively blue sky, a deceptively calm sea, and in a place where such an eventuality might least be expected. It is only when people step outside themselves and embrace the different perspectives of others that awareness (followed hopefully by new understanding) begins.
In the massive uncertainty of our present time, as in the world of The Last Wave, anything might happen. What can we do about it?
Voltaire in Candide advised us all to simply “look after our own small patch.” Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo said “wait and hope.” These are wise words. I would add the plea of Robert Kennedy, speaking after the assassination of Martin Luther King, that we do whatever we can to “make gentle the life of this world.” Thankfully, the accumulated wisdom of humankind gives us no lack of guidance on how to do so. We just have to find the will.