I am parked down by a local park. It’s not quite 07:00. The sun is behind me, and I am intrigued by the way tree shadows trace linkages across the ground. We draw lines to link things – and now before me a transient line challenges me to see what has been linked. Two almost parallel shadow lines make a pathway from my car to a picnic table – an invitation to get out of my comfort zone?
Trying to Make Sense
COVID has become a huge thing in our lives. It has redrawn the contours of our conduct. It connects and separates us. What started off in one city in China has gone global. A virus which dwelt within a community of critters in the wild world was drawn out through trauma and has rampaged – seeking to return to an equilibrium – around the globe.
Humans do not do well with novel micro-organisms out of context of their natural home. That was catastrophically true when Europeans arrived in the Americas, and elsewhere as well.
But unlike earlier times, before travel became easy, our non-local interconnectedness is now addictive. We love to be other than where we are. We have eschewed the intimacy of the familiar for the sensation of the new.
Over 1996 – 1997 I spent 13 months in Dover, UK. I had planned to move to the UK from Australia permanently, but that wasn’t to be. I was there to get an education, and nothing more. Not that I knew it at the time.
I travelled, taking short trips to Paris, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, Dublin, Belfast and others. But I explored Dover too.
I lived near a pub, The Orange Tree. It became my go to place. Like so many local pubs, it was a community centre – a communal lounge. Many there had not left Dover for years. There was a chef who worked in Canterbury, a truck driver who drove across Europe – and that was it. There was a guy whose parents fled from Brisbane back to Dover so he wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of conscription and have to serve in Vietnam. Well, that’s the story he was told. Apart from that, nobody seemed to have been out of Dover too far or with any frequency. The landlady told me she had been on holidays one time – about 20 miles distant.
Being in Dover was a lesson in Community for me. This lesson was to be extended later in 1997 when I worked as Community Recovery Coordinator on the Tasman Peninsula, just a year after the Port Arthur shootings. Here the contrast between the old families and the new families was sharp.
Intimate familiarity versus novel exploration are two poles of what drive us. Without the former we have no foundation, and the latter is no remedy.
Animism and materialism reflect a similar polarity. The former is born of intimate familiarity. The latter spurred by the lust for the novel. It’s one thing to travel in search of a new foundation of intimate familiarity; and quite another to seek sensation, or to exploit, away from our familiar.
COVID has disrupted our norms and thrown social and economic behaviour into chaos. The intimacy of strangers was to be avoided. Travel for non-critical reasons had been denied.
And thrown back upon intimate familiarity we discover it is wanting. While it is intimate and familiar, it is not known. We can tolerate an intimate familiarity that is unpleasant so long as we can escape to something that offers respite and the chance to imagine an alternative.
A Need to Rethink
There is no doubt that COVID will become a background disease like the flu. It will become a hazard to be navigated. But we must see it as more than a public health crisis and acknowledge that it is the product of who we are.
In the US, Trump is still directing his supporters gaze to China as the source. It may be true that cultural and commercial practices in China released the virus from its natural domain. But it’s spread around the world was entirely down to us and our way of living. It has exposed crucial elements of the system of living we have created; and given us a chance to reimagine them.
The natural thing to do is to desire a ‘return to normal’ – if that normal was agreeable. But we might pause to consider whether than normal was even remotely agreeable to the planetary life. Clearly our economy has been designed to cater to normal, and to exploit opportunity to gratify our desires.
We in the west have long seen ourselves as a thing apart. This started with the Biblical creation of humanity as apart from all other creatures and then it was to humanity whom God gave dominion over all others – made apart and given to rule, to dominate.
For a long time that narrative served the interests of generations. Its crudity was swallowed up in the Earth’s capacity to soak up punishment, but only up to a point – and now we can see that point on the horizons of our informed imagination.
Now we have no recourse to imagining that the virus is a mere evil disputing our rightful dominion. The myths of millennia past do not protect us from intentional ignorance. Gone from the religious narrative is the notion of Divine punishment. That is visited only upon enemies and apostates. Our misfortune is an act of evil. The faithful are blameless.
The climate change discourse is the closest we have to a notion of divine punishment. That in which we live and move and have our physical being is kicking back. And yet, how strange it must seem that some of the most vociferous denials of climate change are those who profess the strongest religious ardour. They see it as a conspiracy of evil.
It is not paradoxical that science has become the moral voice. Religion was always an existential response to problem of action and consequence as it played out in the real and unreal worlds – the physical and the metaphysical. Science has eschewed the metaphysical for dogmatic reasons; but is being drawn ineluctably back into balance. In the meantime, religion has abandoned the metaphysical for the purely psychological. It has become materialistic also. It still employs the language and trappings of the metaphysical – but there is scant spirit in it.
This should not be a mystery. Religion is about succeeding in physical life – at least that’s the foundation of the Judaic strand of Christianity. As physical life became easier the need for metaphysical intervention has diminished. The moral dimension of material success was not something religion has been good at addressing – and, really, what else was there – beyond personal morality. A religion predicated on an intervening God really had no place to go.
Nietzsche’s famous declaration “God is dead” is better understood as ‘our conception of God is dead’. Materialism has essentially cleared the body away, but contemporary Christianity has set it up as an idol.
It’s All Part of One System
Stephen J. Gould has asserted that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria. He, like so many scientists, has misunderstood what religion is. They do not just overlap, they interweave. To grasp this, we must understand what religion is, and what it is not. It’s not as defined – the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods (Oxford Dictionary). That’s one aspect of what it is, not all it is. Our ancestors were animists. Their senses were profoundly attuned to the physical and metaphysical aspects of their reality. Their being in the world was precarious. Their way of knowing was framed in terms of agency, not mechanism. The luxury of the polarised thought that materialism has given us is novel; and was not available to our distant ancestors.
Religion is not about belief in, and worship of, gods. It’s about engaging with being in the world at a physical and metaphysical level – a way of knowing. We have replaced acute physical senses with technological ones, and we have replaced metaphysical senses with forms of psychology and arts in a materialistic framework. Absent is a deeper sense of the extent of the metaphysical aspect of our reality.
We are awash with self-interest. We struggle, as a culture, with notions of sustainability, peace, civility. This is, I think, part of evolution of individuality – still in its early phases.
As we rediscover a holistic way of knowing – seeing that complex systems are the foundation of our reality – we will struggle to reframe our moral vision and discourse. Indeed, globally, ‘progressives’ struggle to articulate a sophisticated ‘secular’ morality. In some cases, this is a reluctance to follow the evidence away from a self-centred ethos toward something that looks too much like the old values championed by religious hypocrites.
We can avoid ‘morality’ as a word, because of its hypocritical taint, and replace it with ‘values’. But the challenge is the same – we must rethink our values at quite a deep level and bring them into conformity with the insights that greater awareness of complexity (at all levels) is producing.
We have some work to do – individually and collectively.