By Péter Buda
“‘God exists’ writes academic and journalist Yelitza Linares (2000) in her account of her conversion to Christianity at the moment when, having taken refuge on the roof of her house destroyed by a flood of mud and rubble, she was persuaded that she was going to die.” Didier Fassin and Paula Vasques recount the case of the 1999 Tragedia in Venezuela caused by massive landslides triggered by heavy rains, when a state of emergency was proclaimed, which was, as they describe, desired by the majority of the population rather than “feared and denounced.” As they recall, “in the name of emotion generated by the cataclysm and its human repercussions,” in order to cope with affliction, “it was the sacred union of the populace that was invoked” by the clergy and government. It was the “the permanence of the theological-political in modern democracies,” that made possible a situation when the humanitarian state of exception became a paradigm.
As collapsologists like Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens have been arguing for some time, due to the unprecedented interconnectedness of our world, one of several crises “could trigger a gigantic series of domino effects” and lead to global systemic collapses in our lifetime. Or, in the words of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk of the University of Cambridge, which recently, on 20 January 2021, evaluated the Report of the G20 Science Engagement Group (S20): “[t]he world faces impending disruptions due to the 21st century’s unprecedented, highly complex, and interconnected global systems. These systems have improved the human condition in many respects, but they have also revealed transnational fragility: the economic, health, and political disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic is an active example.”
Time seems to be ripe, then, to consider the prospect that a global humanitarian state of exception could become a more common paradigm. With the impending threat of a global collapse or “Tragedia,” resurgence of the spiritual or invocation of “the sacred union of the populace” may also well be emerging, with all the inherent political consequences.
In this regard, the time around World War I offers a valuable historical perspective. In fact, apart from the frightening analogies that cataclysmic war offers in terms of economic and social crises, its effect on mentalities also provides a helpful benchmark for our efforts to interpret present-day realities in this regard. In an age of unprecedented wars, pandemic, natural disasters (like the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, the deadliest in US history), and with their concomitant systemic collapses, religious and spiritual phenomena were on an exceptional rise, refuting the secular expectations of many. “All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life: revolution and famine, currency depreciation and terror, epidemics and emigration,” as Stefan Zweig recalled his memories. The protracted war with the extra calamity of the flu pandemic initiated an apocalyptic era in need of divine intervention to bring about universal peace on Earth, as Philip Jenkins pointed out so eloquently. This was a unique socio-psychological epoch. Indeed, as Jenkins argues, ignoring a mental upheaval on a scale of what a contemporary British spiritualist Hereward Carrington had called “a gigantic psychological experiment” undertaken in Europe is tantamount to missing half of the story. Can we expect the return of spirituality and religion today, with an impending Tragedia on the global horizon?
Servigne and Stevens, mentioned above, came out with a new volume a couple of years later (English translation: 9 February 2021), on the topic of the return of spirituality. Facing an impending global collapse, what we would normally expect from scientists is a more logically punctuated discourse of what we are supposed to do in terms of rational calculus. Instead, what we are confronted with is a warning that “[s]cience, technology and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything,” and that the “distancing of the structures of religion from public life has led to a desacralization of the world,” by which human society “deprived itself of the basic tools we will need in the long term.” The authors’ conclusion is plain and simple: it is impossible to “approach the end of a world without spirituality.” Psychological foundations of a potential invoking of a sort of sacral unity in a case of emergency are present as expected to become the new normal.
The head of the world’s biggest spiritual superpower, Pope Francis’ use of the term “crisis” or its equivalent (“trial”) 24 times in the Prologue alone of his recent book (1 December 2020) should be seen and interpreted in this context. As Massimo Faggioli, a professor of Roman Catholic historical theology, someone with intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the current Pope’s strategy, states in one of his recently published works: “Francis’ response to the global crisis is not a retreat or a defense.” The Pope clearly wants to make use of the current and impending crises for reshaping globalisation, indeed, human society, when stating in this aforementioned book that “We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis.” As Francis goes on, we need to create a new political and economic system, which provides authentic – including also spiritual – “securities.” What the Pope advertises is an international society based on a “moral supernorm,” as we have been informed by Drew Christiansen, the distinguished Jesuit professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. And at the last resort, as the Pope says, when “a supranatural common good is clearly identified, it necessitates a specific, legally and concordantly constituted authority capable of facilitating its fulfilment,” (or, as Pope Benedict XVI recalled Pope John XXIII’s words, a “true world political authority”).
Before everything else, of course, what we mean by “common” needs to be identified, as another insider, the Jesuit Bill McCormick states:
Appeals to the common good ring hollow in our time, as it is the very notion of ‘common’ that is under dispute. Pope Francis, however, has spoken of a ‘reconciled diversity.’ The Holy Spirit brings about communion and unity despite all the manifold differences among humans. The Spirit brings about ‘harmonic unity in diversity.’… This is the genius of Catholicism: holding in tension the universal and particular. It is also an image of the common good we desperately need in our time.
“True world political authority,” as we can see, presupposes a true spiritual authority capable of “reconciling diversity.”
International political authority does not grow on trees or descend from heaven. It needs to be established as a result of a political process, always driven by the strongest. Returning to our historical analogue, the “traumatic experience” of the First World War became a turning point for the Holy See to launch a campaign for establishing a world organization, as two prominent Jesuit historians of the Vatican’s diplomacy argued. In the same manner, many – especially the Social Gospel movement, the main religious force behind President Wilson’s initiative of the League of Nations – considered the war a supernatural catalyst for establishing the religious brotherhood of humankind, which was supposed to serve as the basis of the League of Nations. Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict XV’s praise of President Wilson clearly indicated that his hope for international organization laid in the global leadership of the United States, as the already mentioned Jesuit diplomatic historians continue, adding, that “in the popular mind the names Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson became associated with the proposed league of Nations.”
These two protagonists were about to collide in cherishing a utopian internationalism, the way E.H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau defined what utopian internationalism is really about: “clothing their global interest in the guise of universal principles,” upon which – in their belief – “a rational and moral political order can and should be established here and now” – under their leadership. Carr, characteristically, was clearly mistaken when failing to admit the role of religious conviction in the construction of perceptions of global interests and principles. Indeed, sentiments like those articulated by a leading advocate of the Social Gospel movement, George D. Herron (who also facilitated backchannel diplomacy in Switzerland between President Wilson and the Holy See on the League of Nations) might have even harbored for the Holy See the promise of a sort of modern synthesis of the sacral and the temporal on a global level. He described President Wilson as a “colossal apostle,” his words as “divine visitations,” and the rostrum of the U.S. Senate becoming “God’s burning altar.”.
Part of the story especially concerning the “rostrum of the U.S. Senate” becoming a “burning altar” may sound odd today, but who knows: at least Pope Francis seems to be cherishing some hope, as he has indicated it in his message sent to President Biden (20 January 2021) “At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses … I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good.” I cannot help but recall at this point Pope Benedict XV’s letter to the American people in 1919, in which the Pontiff “invoked divine help for Wilson” in his peace mission, especially with regard to the establishment of an organization “united under divine law,” with some recognition of the pope’s superior moral authority. As we have seen above, however, “appeals to the notion of ‘common’ ring hollow,” unless it is based on “reconciled diversity” brought about by the “genius of Catholicism.” What the Pope is campaigning for, as our only remaining hope and response to the “crises” or “traumatic experiences” of our world is the invocation of a sacral unity of humankind, meaning more specifically an international order centered around the “moral supernorm” embodied by the Church.
As we can see, placed into their historical context, abstract and even mystical concepts like “universal common good,” “reconciled diversity” and a world organization united under “divine law” are filled at once with tangible content. A mass “conversion to God” as a result of taking “refuge on the roof” of our global home provides fertile ground for ideas of utopian internationalism, obviously not without consequences for the secular paradigm of international as well as church and state relations.
Péter Buda is a PhD student in International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva and has an academic and professional background in international relations and security, religious studies and history. He works currently on historical analogies of the disruptive impact of potential systemic collapses on social mentalities and its possible paradigmatic implications for international order and internationalism.
Featured Image: A Tsunami Hazard Zone warning sign in Bamfield, British Columbia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.