We belong to each other – a digression about humanity and its toughest challenge yet

When I was a theology undergraduate, I read a book by Julius Wellhausen called Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Wellhausen was a German biblical scholar who published this, his greatest work, in 1882, setting out the hypothesis that the first five books of the Bible are fundamentally made up of four separate sources, which he analysed. This “documentary hypothesis” had huge influence and is still foundational today. It is quite an achievement, in any field of knowledge, to come up with a hypothesis that survives for so long.

However, what really stuck in my mind was not his main argument but a phrase he used when setting out some more personal beliefs about the religion of the Bible, the Church and the nation. Wellhausen was very much in the individualist Protestant tradition, and highly critical of the Church, but he saw it having a role. He wrote:

“…if the Church has still a task, it is that of preparing an inner unity of practical conviction, and awakening a sentiment, first in small circles, that we belong to each other.”

We belong to each other. That was the phrase that stuck with me and which I have never forgotten. Five small words that say so much about what it means to be human. As has been widely observed by those who study these things, when the ancestors of homo sapiens first appeared, an impartial observer might not have given much for their chances of survival. Humanity had little physical strength, was slower than many predators, had no fur to keep warm and teeth so puny they could not even eat many things without elaborate preparation. And yet they not only survived but flourished, spreading out across the globe, and changing the planet irrevocably.

How did they achieve this? It does not take much reflection to see that the key was, and is, the capacity humankind has for co-operation. As soon as there were people, the evidence suggests, they were organising themselves into groups, dividing up labour and managing shared endeavours. Then came cave painting, religious expression and making artefacts, all requiring elaborate social systems and co-operation. Later on we had building projects like Stonehenge and the pyramids and so on, until today we have developed webs of co-operation that are staggering in their complexity and sophistication. Those of us living in affluent countries use countless tools that we would not have a clue how to build – toasters and kettles, never mind smartphones and laptops. We have access to them because numerous people we will never meet have invented, designed, manufactured, marketed and sold them.

So the really striking feature of humanity, for me, is our interdependence. Alone, we are pretty much helpless. Together, we can do extraordinary things. I am not making a discovery here. This has been observed and noted by countless poets, writers and thinkers down the centuries, from the writers of Genesis (“it is not good that man should be alone”) to John Donne (“no man is an island”), E.M. Forster (“only connect”) and many others. For sheer elegance in expressing this perspective it is hard to match T.S. Eliot:

“We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.” (from Little Gidding)

It is a truth recognised and promoted by the traditional religions, at least when they are at their best. We are all interdependent and need to look after others, whether they are our sort of people or not. This is from the New Testament:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 12, 2)

And this from the Qur’an

“Do good to parents, relatives, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near and neighbours who are strangers, the friend by your side as well as the traveller, and what your right hands possess. Allah does not love the arrogant and proud ones.” (4:36)

My personal favourite literary expression of this is Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Christmas Carol. I have more to say about this novel later, but for the moment I want to observe that the really critical aspect of Scrooge’s transformation is that he comes to understand he is connected to the rest of humanity and needs to cherish and build that connection, not try to isolate himself.

So we all get this, right? The critical fact about humanity is that we belong to each other. We are interdependent and when we work together we achieve so much more than when we work apart. In fact, there is a strong trend in human history that we co-operate in bigger and bigger groups to achieve more and more. In the process, we get better and better at working with, not excluding, those who are different. Surely the trend is clear.

Well, no. Seen in this light, the bizarre thing is how eager so many people are to divide themselves from others. The key drivers here seem to be fear and a sense of superiority. They make us divide ourselves in one way or another from “others”, people who are not like us. Maybe they are from a different country, speak a different language, follow a different religion, have different values or a different skin colour. Even more subtle and fearful are the differences that are not so obvious and less well understood – perhaps the other person is Jewish, or has a different sexual orientation.

For it is ironic and tragic that, as we are reaching new levels of co-operation, we are also seeing a resurgence of xenophobia in many countries around the world. I use the word deliberately. Xenophobia is often used to describe antipathy to foreigners, but its roots are slightly more complex than that. Phobia is, of course, derived from the Greek word for fear and the Greek word “xenos” is usually translated as “stranger”. That word has lots of varying overtones in both English and Greek. A stranger can mean someone we don’t know, but it can also mean someone who is different, possibly because they come from a different country, but maybe for other reasons.

There are many causes, which I will not analyse here, for what seems to be a general increase in xenophobia – fear of people who are different. History has shown that it is a highly destructive force that can easily result in war, persecution and terrible suffering. But it is also a luxury we simply can’t afford any more. Just as we have taken co-operation to new levels, in fact partly because we have taken co-operation to new levels and built a powerful economic machine, we face a challenge that is going to test us to the limit. It is now all but certain that humanity is causing the Earth’s climate to change, with consequences that may well be catastrophic for our civilisation. Humanity has created the problem and needs to solve it. As a species, we are extraordinarily good at solving problems co-operatively. Previous large-scale challenges such as fighting a war or putting a man on the moon have been faced, and often met, at the level of the nation. But no nation can solve climate change on their own. For the first time, we face a severe challenge that can only be resolved by the whole of humanity working together. It is our toughest test yet and the stakes are very, very high.

We belong to each other. This has always been true at the level of poetry and morality. Now it is true at a very practical and literal level as well.

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One response to “We belong to each other – a digression about humanity and its toughest challenge yet

  1. Pingback: Connections, faith and politics – The Way Station Blog

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