An unprecedented situation? Perhaps, but only if we look merely to the recent past.
A century ago, the Spanish Flu sowed a disarray and devastation that we know all too well. A few centuries earlier, the tragic Black Death depopulated countries and continents. World history has been punctuated by trials like these, each carrying symbolic, existential meaning. Human beings have always tried to respond and interpret to each crisis, with the distinctive knowledge, ignorance, and superstitions that characterized their era.
We usually stress this history to underline that, in recent centuries, we have left behind the eras where ignorance and superstitions ruled, to enter a time enlightened by reason. For the modern world defines itself explicitly as an age of pure rationality, well able to withstand invasive tendencies of ignorance and superstition.
That is why the present situation was not foreseen and came with so little warning. In his March 16 speech, President Macron stressed that “the unimaginable has happened!” The virus, beyond dominating attention, has imperceptibly crept deep into our daily lives and consciousness, gradually taking control of our planet and our reality.
With every major crisis, questions about its meaning exert a marked influence, even if, after the wave’s crest has passed, we generally go back quickly to our past rhythms.
So what does today’s crisis tell us? That humanity is very fragile – and therefore we must attend carefully to it – and that pretensions to control and mastery, that past history systematically debunked, are dangerous both to our health and to the welfare of humanity.
We should recall the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and King Nimrod’s pretentious effort to challenge God himself by building a tower rising up to Heaven.
And what then was the instrument of power? The fact that men spoke the same language. We might also understand this as a parable of today’s globalization.
Take note that Nimrod, blinded by his sense of omnipotence, which was both personal and collective, was tested by God in the following manner: the Lord sent him what is described as a tiny mosquito (at that time the word virus was not in use) which entered through Nimrod’s nose and caused him such internal turbulence and buzzing that he literally hurled himself against the wall.
Omnipotence was at the mercy of a mosquito!
The prophet Abraham used other arguments in trying to curtail Nimrod’s hubris, but to little effect. A Qur’anic passage relates the exchange. “God”, Abraham says in the Qur’an, “is the one who gives life and death”. “I can do the same”, replies Nimrod. He was thus alluding, according to some commentators, to the fact that he could decide to pardon an inmate on death row and give the order to kill whomever he liked among his subjects. “God”, the prophet then says, “is He who brings the sun from the East. So make him come from the West! Nimrod, who had not believed, was abashed! …” (Koran. 2/259).
Just a very months ago, on the question of life and death, the predominant discourse was that this matter was now in the hands of our triumphant humanity, and that thanks to artificial intelligence and no doubt to Google’s “Calico” program, transhumanist immortality was, if not within our reach, at least in that of future generations.
The pretense to change the order of the Cosmos is probably a bit more complicated!
The new technologies of globalization appeared to have defined what our future and the nature of humankind should be. A future that many fear, but still seem to accept as inevitable, portends the unstoppable advance (so goes the belief) of science. We have no choice!
Some wise voices, like that of Abraham of old, are speaking out today, maintaining that this non-choice is not inevitably dictated by either science or reason; it is merely an ideological illusion. The world we want to bequeath to our children is, rather, one grounded in the quest for meaning and the elevation of our consciousness, not one where power is handed over to science and to some Nemrods, aspiring sorcerer’s apprentices, who have taken on the role of masters of globalized techno-finance.
The world will see no shortage of viruses, ever more subtle, ever cleverer. They will remind us that we are on the wrong track.
Science teaches us today that it took almost 13.7 billion years and a foolproof mathematical precision to create our humanity, and create in it the most precious thing, the capacity to become self-aware – and to marvel at this permanent miracle, to probe its meaning, and to discover its harmony.
It is precisely this vision that we discern at the heart of wisdom’s great teachings. This end is the foundation of our human dignity and defines our path: a deepening by wisdom, art, science or any other form of activity, of this human consciousness, which is also a knowledge of ourselves.
We are thinking here of the wise injunction inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo.
The Abrahams of our day can draw attention to our human minuteness in the face of the great cosmic adventure wherein we discover each day a dizzying expansion of new clusters of billions of galaxies.
Faced with crises like that caused by COVID-19, we must raise our eyes to the sky but also turn them inwards!
We must remember that, faced with viruses (technological, natural or both at the same time, which will become increasingly formidable and unexpected), ecologies, natural and human, will teach us forcibly a central principle: to know how to cultivate, as a gift and treasure, the diversity of our languages, our cultures, and nature, which here must be our master and inspire us. The same lesson will at the same time underscore that diverse as we are, we are also interdependent, and that the path to managing our world is to build and constantly strengthen our bonds of solidarity.
We must seek together another height, different from new towers of Babel, real or mythical: human heights, ones whereby humanity can relearn how to link power to wisdom and science to spirituality.
Human survival is at stake in every sense of the word.
We need to understand the accounts of sacred texts as archetypes to inspire reflection and meditation.
Nimrod symbolizes an illusory power, devoid of wisdom; An “Abrahamic soulmate” opens the possibility of overcoming Nimrod’s blindness, allowing a new consciousness and a new conception of human development to arise in us.
Thus the very tiny mosquito offers a stunning lesson for our time. Are we ready to hear it?