Rather more than half of the Afghan population faces levels of food shortage unprecedented in decades. Just under 1,500 people died in the Mediterranean in 2021, trying to flee to a safer environment. The likelihood of wildfires is predicted to be a risk comparable to severe flooding in parts of the UK over the coming decades. About one in 1,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has received a full vaccination against Covid-19. And the challenge of the pandemic around the world, the continuing context of loss and fear, still casts a huge shadow.
Statistics – not just unrelated – that lend some flesh to the general feeling that 2021 has been a bleak year – in addition to the low-level anxiety, unexpected personal losses, and sheer confusion experienced by all who are. caught up in the pandemic. Human history doesn’t look much like a smooth record of upward progress right now. We are more fragile than we have been led to believe. And that means we’re also less different from our ancestors than we normally like to think – and that the most secure and successful members of the human race are less different from their fellow human beings than they find comfortable.
Our ancestors, until modern times, knew they were fragile. A brief period of dazzling technological achievement combined with the absence of any major world war produced the belief that fragility was receding and that making our global environment sustainably secure or controllable was within reach. But the same technical achievements that generated this belief turned out to be among the major destabilizing influences in the material environment. And the absence of major global conflict has been accompanied by the proliferation of bitter and vicious local struggles, often civil wars that have spanned decades. But it is perhaps only in the past two decades that we have come to realize that global crises are indifferent to national borders, political beliefs and economic performance. Vulnerability cannot be carefully sealed off.
For the foreseeable future, we will have to get used to this fragility; and we are going to need considerable imaginative resources to deal with it. In the past, people have found such resources in art and religion. It is crucial today to learn to see science as a resource and not as a threat or a rival to what these older elements offer. It is high time to forget about the false war between faith and science or art and technology. To belittle the imaginative inspiration of genuine science is as dumb as the idea that sees the arts as just a pleasant extra in human life, or religion as some sort of outdated scientific explanation. Just because exaggerated claims are made for science and unrealistic hopes are raised, it is dangerously easy to forget why and how it matters, and to be drawn into the bizarre world in which the minority report in science. (on climate, pandemics or whatever) is given an exaggerated importance simply because we were disappointed in the absolute certainty that we thought we had been promised.
And what matters in scientific research is that it is not undertaken to prove that an existing opinion is correct, and therefore to reinforce the existing power or advantage of some over others. People rightly view with deep skepticism research that purports to show that racial, social or sexual privilege is somehow embedded in the natural order. Ideally, what scientific discourse offers is not the guarantee of indisputable results that will simply tell us what to do, but a method of meeting in a shared exploratory conversation that will not be derailed by the presence in the room of convictions. non-negotiable. on the natural world which would make any discussion on an equal footing impossible.
Science helps us live with our fragility by giving us a way to connect with each other, recognizing that this is the same world we all live in. We must forget about our self-protective habits in order to discover our common challenges. But what science alone doesn’t do is create the motivation for a deeper level of connection. We act effectively not only when we find a common language to identify the problems, but when we recognize that those who share these challenges are deeply like us, to the extent that we can to some extent feel their fragility as if it were the ours – or at least, to feel their fragility directly impacting ours, so that we can’t be safe as long as they remain in danger.
This is where art comes in. Like the sciences, it makes us put aside our habits of egocentricity. Listening to music, watching an exhibition, reading a novel, watching a play or a television series, we open the doors to experiences that are not ours. If science helps us discover that there are things to say that are not determined solely by the self-interest of the people speaking, art opens up to what the stranger feels, discovering connections where we weren’t expecting them.
What religion adds to this is an extra level of motivation. The very diverse vocabularies of different religious traditions claim not only that the Other is someone whom we can recognize, but that he is someone whom we should regard with something like reverence. The person before us is entitled to our attention, even our contemplation, and our active generosity. The religions of South and East Asia question the very idea of a secure and stable self with a territory to protect from others; while for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the claim of the foreigner is based on the belief that every human being is a vehicle of the presence of God and the glory of God – “made in the image of God “.
Being more deeply connected will not remove the fragility of our condition, but it will help us see that it is worth parking the obsessions of tribes and echo chambers so that we can actually learn from each other and them. from each other; that it is worth making all the local difference that can be made, so that the dignity of the human person is perceived with more clarity. “Our life and our death are with our neighbor,” said one of the saints of early Christian monasticism. It is humanism that we need so as not to be paralyzed by the fragility that we cannot escape.