We’re a month into a new year and I’ve never been so aware of how fragile so many people feel. In the run up to New Year one friend wrote to me about a police raid on her home. She and her husband are clergy and had taken a refugee into their home. The police claimed to have a warrant from the Home Office, but this turned out to be false. There never was a warrant or a reason for the raid, arrest or subsequent holding of an innocent person in detention for two months.
Another friend wrote to say he was getting through life by not looking at any news items. Another wrote to tell me she couldn’t bring herself to wish anyone ‘a happy new year’ when she was so aware of how the most vulnerable in society have less and less protection.
The situation in the UK seems dire but it’s not unique, by a long way. And whether we stay in countries that increasingly feel alien or make journeys to others, there is no guaranteed save haven. Shangri-la is nowhere on the planet.
So where do we look for hope?
Beyond the jealous gods
When the myths we live by no longer work, when we’ve fallen out of myth into decaying stories of ‘more more more’ or ‘number one first’ or ‘let’s trample on those who are not like us’ then something has to change.
Myths arise to meet particular, often critical needs. Think about the story of Moses as an example (it makes no difference whether we’re talking history or not, it’s a great myth). Here’s a man who is an alien in his adopted culture. He’s out of step and has fled from Egypt after killing an overseer who was beating a slave. For a while he has a new life and lives with his wife and her family, but he hasn’t shaken off his past. In a state of high tension he has a vision of a burning bush and feels compelled to return to do something about the plight of others, even though he is sure he won’t be capable of stringing a sentence together on their behalf.
But with the help of a more eloquent brother, Aaron, and a powerful sister, Miriam, Moses pulls off the the flight from Egypt. He does this not just for himself but for all the am ha’aretz (the rag-bag of slaves and peasants united by their misery, and a term used in later Judaism for the ignorant riff-raff).
But, as they wandered through the desert, stateless and hungry, it soon became clear that they needed more than a shared escape story complete with violent revenge on the Egyptians (including their animals and innocents) to hold them together as a people.
When the myths we live by no longer work, when we’ve fallen out of myth into decaying stories … then something has to change.
They needed new myths. And they found them. Over a period of forty years they shared stories of finding food in the desert (manna and quails) and water in rocks. They found a renewed sense of shared history as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They tried out other gods and found them wanting in comparison to a burgeoning law and culture.
So many of those stories still hold riches but there are dissonant notes including a god who constantly let them know:
I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me … Exodus 20:5
Moses didn’t make it to the promised land (only two of the original thousands made it) but nonetheless he had forged a new people. They had new myths and new culture. They had a god who didn’t want human sacrifice (some gods just can’t get enough blood, it seems) but he did want absolute control. And there were very clear rules about who was in and who was out.
Many religions have used exclusivity, backed up with atrocities, to gain loyalty. The witch hunts of the middle ages, which killed men as well as huge numbers of women and targeted those on the margins of society, were extraordinary feats of dominance and control. A new version of a ‘jealous god’ was peddled to kill those who didn’t fit the profile of the right type of ‘believer’. A powerful way to convince others to believe without question.
Of course there are people of faith across religions, mainstream and tiny, whose notions of divinity would never include such atrocities. Their faith is not rooted in some extrinsic deity who is jealous, vengeful, petty and blood-thirsty. And ideologies with no religious content can of course be brutal. But what I’m convinced of is that our myths matter. Wherever they originate, our myths can kill and the world needs people of all faiths and none who are not willing to tell myths about who must be drowned in the sea or kept outside the walls or burnt at the stake.
Beyond the savage myths
Some myths are vicious, but people who want to throw in their lot with hope and radical change in an uncertain world are those who are done listening to stories of who is in and who is out.
One of the features of many of the most savage myths is that they depend on tribalism. You have to share blood or worship the same god. You have to have the right accent or the right academic credentials. You have to wave the same flag and be counted as kin.
But what if we change the story?
Becoming am ha’aretz
In the Moses story, the slaves eventually became a people with a shared identity, history, law and culture. But initially they were an assortment of desperate people from various tribes and groups of Semitic origin, tagged with a derisory term. They were ‘the dregs’, the am ha’aretz.
But there’s an irony in that term that our current desperate world can make use of. One of the most hopeful myths we can tell in a world saturated with fake news and claims to know it all is that we are all ignorant peasants, seeking our way together.
In The Way of Ignorance, the poet and activist Wendell Berry puts it like this:
There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.
But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.
Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…
Ignorance can drive us to find out, to discover, to empathise. But only if only we will allow ourselves to work through the discomfort of not knowing.
Berry isn’t saying that there is no such thing as knowledge or truth. He’s not collapsing evil into morality, but simply saying that we are all am ha’aretz. We are all limited and should therefore have the humility to listen.
What’s more, ignorance, far from being something to look down on or feel embarrassed to admit, is a great motivator for learning. Ignorance can drive us to find out, to discover, to empathise. But only if only we will allow ourselves to work through the discomfort of not knowing.
Becoming people who wonder
We can use our fallibility to ask questions, to wonder. More than ever, the world needs people who are able to live with questions instead of answers. It needs people willing to live without arrogance and hubris.
Writing in The Island of Knowledge Marcelo Gleiser notes:
What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. … Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality … our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, … but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery…
When we don’t imagine that we have all the answers, but instead are humble, curious and eager to learn, then we’re unlikely to want to trample on those who seem different.
the world needs people who are able to live with questions instead of answers
Becoming not just kin but kith
we replenish our souls not so we can stay in our cosy corners, but so that we can go back into the world, open to the difficult questions and to connecting with all life
Hope comes when we stop telling savage myths in which some are outsiders who can be burnt with impunity. It comes when we own our ignorance, not the kind that wilfully refuses to learn, but the kind that drives us to live with and ask questions; to explore in humility. It comes when we admit that no matter how much we discover there will always be more that is mysterious, and this is okay.
And it comes when we recognise that no matter who we claim as our ancestors, we are all connected. We are so intimately connected that not only were we all once stardust, but this skin on the hand I call mine may once have been a snail. The stuff of my eye could have been a sea washed pebble millennia ago. As Whitman puts it at the beginning of ‘Song of Myself’:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Of course, sometimes in order to stay sane as we make our way through the desert of modern life, we need to get together with those who are like us in some way. Those who share a political perspective or the same family stories or some cultural references that ground and nurture us. Sometimes we need our kin or those who share a kinship of spirit with us. But we replenish our souls not so we can stay in our cosy corners, but so that we can go back into the world, open to the difficult questions and to connecting with all life. We do this so that we can tell stories about a shared earth on which all perish or all thrive together.
In the end, we do this so that we can tell stories of hope in which all life, from the trees to the creatures, from the moss to every human, are our neighbours on a shared planet; are our kith.
Becoming a different story
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