GLOBAL REQUIEM:
THE APOCALYPTIC MOMENT IN RELIGION, SCIENCE, AND ART
by Jack Miles

Humans might become extinct sooner than anyone imagines. Think of the prospect as an opportunity for spiritual and artistic growth.

JACK MILES is Senior Advisor to the President of the J. Paul Getty Trust and author of God: A Biography. This article was delivered as a keynote address at the fiftieth anniversary Cross Currents Consultation in New York City.

The title of Ernest Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, came from the King James Version of the Bible, more exactly from the opening of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. . . The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-9)

The Book of Ecclesiastes is an example of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament or Tanakh. Biblical wisdom differs from biblical prophecy in that God, who sometimes promises through his prophets that he will indeed do something new under the sun, is expected in wisdom literature to do no such thing. Unlike prophecy, wisdom envisions the future of the natural world as the continuation without change of the past. Vain illusion is overcome and relative peace achieved when the striving of human beings, each with just a brief lifetime to live, is seen against this backdrop of natural eternity: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever."

The title that Hemingway borrowed from Ecclesiastes for his novel was well-borrowed, for The Sun Also Rises does indeed present a picture of hectic, hedonistic striving. Its characters, a "lost generation" of expatriate Americans and Englishmen in the Paris of the 1920s, do not achieve resignation but only, on a few wistful occasions, aspire to it. The novel's title is not a description of its contents but, by allusion, the author's judgment on the vanity he is portraying. The central character, Jake Barnes, has been rendered sexually impotent by a war wound. It is he who comes closest to the inner peace that can only come, Hemingway suggests, in accepting the larger impotence of the human being pitted against nature in the cruel and unequal contest that he sees best ritualized in the Spanish bull ring.

Not all great literature and by no means all major religious traditions teach a wisdom that entails this kind of resignation to death as a part of the human condition. There are religious traditions, especially in the West, that promise victory over death, and there are works of imaginative literature that celebrate a reckless defiance of death that verges on outright denial of its reality. Within the Bible, the voice of prophecy -- exulting with St. Paul "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (I Corinthians 15:55) -- is much louder than the voice of wisdom, and even secular art in the West often aspires to immortality through the undying fame of the artist or through the durability of the art itself. Thus, death can be defeated if, as Shakespeare's sixty-fifth sonnet conventionally puts it,

. . . this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Even in the Bible, however, and even in secular Western tradition, the voice of resignation to death is never entirely silenced; and particularly if we recall that the wisdom that links the Book of Ecclesiastes to The Sun Also Rises also links it to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, this tradition may be regarded as a virtually perennial, virtually universal wisdom.

Within this universal wisdom, the typical function of the imagination has been to find ever more telling ways to contrast the brevity and vulnerability of human life and therefore the folly of human desire with the immemorial indifference of nature. You and I may grieve at our own passing or the passing of a loved one. We may ask, like King Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms,

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life
And thou no breath at all?

Yet we may be consoled that, though we pass away, the sun rises, and the sun sets, and the earth abides forever. We may bring ourselves, by a spiritual discipline, into harmony with this whole. There are different paths to this harmony, some more ancient, some more modern, but the essential psychological mechanism at work here is older than Ecclesiastes, older than the Epic of Gilgamesh, as old, perhaps, as fully human speech.

In our own day, however, this ancient wisdom, this primeval therapy, is being undercut by processes that are both spiritual and physical. We have been in possession since Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin of a disturbing new awareness that nature too has a history. It does not abide forever. This alone is enough to undercut the age-old contrast between the temporality of mankind and the eternity of nature. But more recently that disruption has acquired a corollary. If the first generations that assimilated Darwin's thought were concerned with the origin of species, our own is concerned in an unprecedented way with the extinction of species and, above all, with the threat of extinction that faces the human species. During the 1850s, while Darwin was concluding The Origin of Species, the rate of extinction is believed to have been one every five years. Today, the rate of extinction is estimated at one every nine minutes.

Will the human species be extinguished in its turn? The statistical question, perhaps the statistical likelihood, is complicated, morally, by the probability that human extinction, if it comes about soon, will prove to have been species suicide. "Human reproduction," veteran foreign correspondent Malcolm W. Browne wrote in his 1993 memoir Muddy Boots and Red Socks (Times Books):

has some disturbing similarities to cancer. In an analysis published in 1990 in the journal Population and Environment, Warren M. Hem, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, noted some striking clinical parallels between a typical urban community and a malignant neoplasm, a cancerous tumor. They share rapid uncontrolled growth, they invade and destroy adjacent tissues, and cells (or people) lose their differentiation, the concerted specialties and skills needed to sustain a society or a multicelled animal.

In his monograph, Dr. Hem included photographs taken from space satellites showing the growth of Baltimore and the colonization of the Amazon basin, side by side with photomicrographs of cancers of the lung and brain. They were hard to tell apart. "The human species," Dr. Hem wrote, "is a rapacious, predatory, omniecophagic [devouring its entire environment] species" that exhibits all the pathological features of cancerous tissue. He grimly concluded that the human "cancer" will most likely destroy its planetary host before dying out itself.

"Many would disagree with that assessment," Browne concludes, "but for what it's worth, my own experience as a journalist bears it out" (284). As voices like Browne's are increasingly heard, the cause that until now has been presented as the defense of the environment, as if the environment were an importunate relative whom long-suffering mankind was being asked to support, is beginning to be presented as the self-defense of the human species itself. The environment is, after all, the human habitat, and time after time extinction has followed on loss of habitat when the species at risk was not able to adapt in time. Despite our large numbers, we are an endangered species.

As this paradigm shift takes place in the realm of politics and activist science, another change looms in the realm of the imagination and, perhaps also, in the practice of religion. If the earth is failing as a viable habitat for our species, then we can no longer imagine our individual deaths, as we have so long been accustomed to do, against a backdrop of continuing life. As we cease to do so, as we recontextualize our personal deaths in the emerging prospect of species death, can there, should there be a religious wisdom that will accept species death as if it were personal death? Can a new William Cullen Bryant write a new "Thanatopsis" in which "The paths of glory lead but to the grave" not just for each man and woman but for the human species as a whole? Beyond even that, can we resign ourselves in advance not just to extinction of our species but to the extinction of the terrestrial biosphere as we know it, consoling ourselves perhaps that the planets will still orbit the sun even when the one planet that for some few millions of years supported life no longer does so? Or should we, instead, repudiate this ancient wisdom as unwisdom and turn instead to the prophetic option, the path of protest and refusal rather than the path of acquiescence and acceptance? Do we prepare to die with dignity, or do we shed all dignity and prepare to fight to the death? The religions of the world have resources for either option; but whether we consider religion or art, the choice we face is an historic one, for step by step, the earth, which once seemed to abide forever, now seems to be dying around us.

In each part of the world the omens of this death are different. I grew up in Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan, and found a kind of peace, at different seasons of the year and of my early life, walking along the lakefront. A moment of ecological truth came for me when in 1987 I read William Ashworth's somber, brilliant book The Late Great Lakes: An Environmental History (Alfred A. Knopf). Lake Michigan, which had seemed so timeless, was dying faster than I was. Before my own life was over, it might become a vast vat of chemicals, as devoid of life as ashes in a funerary urn. The ancient lake and my still young self seemed almost to be exchanging places. Unsettlingly, though the lake seems in the interim to have recovered somewhat, it was I who then seemed to have the longer life expectancy.

But who in today's world is without some such experience to report? In Beijing, China, Liang Conjie, the president of a local environmental group, told a reporter: "When I was a little boy, the blue sky was really impressive. I can still remember that. Nowadays it's so hard for you to see the blue." Liang lives in a city in which citizens who can afford it patronize "oxygen bars" to escape air so polluted that breathing it is equal to smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day (Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1997). Residents of Shenyang, China, the most polluted major city in Asia, breathe in "up to ten times the limit of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter" set by the Chinese authorities themselves (Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1997). Sulfur dioxide emissions in China may well be the cause of acid rain over Japan and of a huge cloud of smog often visible over the western Pacific Ocean.

Belatedly, the Chinese are coming to the defense of their own environment, but China faces in a particularly acute form the choice that the whole world faces between waging war on pollution and waging war on poverty. Given the fact that the per capita energy consumption in the United States, with roughly one quarter China's population, is more than four times the per capita consumption in China, a one-child policy in the United States country might do more in the short run to halt global warming than the same policy in China. But the United States is no more likely to adopt a one-child policy than China is likely to adopt American-style restrictions on the burning of soft coal.

I offer merely representative examples. Others may easily be culled from The State of the World, the Worldwatch Institute's annual report on "Progress Toward a Sustainable Society." The derivative question that I want to pursue at greater length is this: What will be the consequences for religion and for the arts, especially literature, if and when we conclude that the effort to produce a sustainable society has definitively failed? Long before the human species is extinct, we may know that we are irreversibly en route to extinction. Just as any of us may discover tomorrow that he is not just mortal but actually dying of an incurable disease, so we may discover as a species that we are not just endangered but actually doomed and that within a foreseeable, measurable time span. Such a prognosis, if it comes, surely will not come as it does in the disaster movies that are now so strangely popular; namely, with a warning that unless a given action is taken within ten days or ten hours, the world will end. No, it will come rather as an accumulation of ignored warnings from scientists and science journalists and an ensuing consensus that the opportunity to take the action that would have saved the species has come and gone. At that scientifically apocalyptic moment, should it be reached, and we can certainly imagine it being reached, actual extinction may still be far enough in the future that there will be time for a new kind of religion and a new kind of art to develop. These will be, no doubt, a religion and an art born of despair, but religion and art -- far more than politics or commerce or science -- are precisely those products of the human spirit to which we turn in times of despair. The last days of the human race may be, not to speak at all flippantly, our finest hour.

The phrase "prophecy of doom" seems almost always to be spoken with a smirk, but prophets of doom are not always wrong, and it surely matters that some of the gloomiest prognostications are coming from some of the soberest minds in the developed world. The historian J. R. McNeill, to name one, quotes Ecclesiastes rather as I have just done in the title of a just-published book entitled Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (W. W. Norton). McNeill maintains that the ecological adjustments of the sort that saved unsustainable national societies from extinction in the past will be unavailable to save an unsustainable global society from extinction in the future. It is the globalization of ecological change that makes all the difference. The human species, McNeill warns, is "playing dice with the planet, without knowing all the rules of the game."

Similar in tone and import is the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. As sober in its style as it is sobering in its substance, this warning arrived in 1993 bearing the signatures of more than 1670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates -- a majority of the then living recipients of the Prize. The introduction to the warning reads:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

After summarizing threats to the environment under the headings "The Atmosphere," "Water Resources," "Oceans," "Soil," "Forests," and "Living Species," the signatories come to their collective point:

WARNING We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.

There follow five exhortations:

1.    We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on.

2.    We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.

3.    We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.

4.    We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.

5.    We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.

The scientists conclude their warning:

We require the help of the world community of scientists -- natural, social, economic, political;

We require the help of the world's business and industrial leaders;

We require the help of the world's religious leaders; and

We require the help of the world's peoples.

We call on all to join us in this task.

The issue, to repeat, is not change as such but the acceleration of change. After summarizing a number of recent studies in global warming, Bill McKibben wrote in the New York Times (May 3, 1997):

Understand this about these changes: They are enormous. They do not represent small shifts at the margin, the slow evolution that has always occurred on earth. Spring a week earlier; 20 percent more storms, 10 percent more vegetation since 1980. These studies are like suddenly discovering that most Americans are 7 feet tall. If we were looking through a telescope and seeing the same things happen on some other planet, we would find it bizarre and fascinating. If someone's watching us, they're doubtless bewildered. . . This is a new planet, not the earth we were born on.

I venture to say that few in the global modeling community would go so far as to join McKibben in equating the newest studies with a discovery that most Americans are seven feet tall. But we do seem to be moving toward rather than away from some such state of alarm. Maintaining a tone of studied moderation, McNeill nonetheless sees fit to write:

. . . in natural systems as in human affairs, there are thresholds and so-called nonlinear effects. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's Germany acquired Austria, the Sudetenland, and the rest of Czechoslovakia without provoking much practical response. When in September 1939 Hitler tried to add Poland, he got a six-year war that ruined him, his movement, and (temporarily) Germany. Unknowingly -- although he was aware of the risk -- he crossed a threshold and provoked a nonlinear effect. Similarly, water temperature in the tropical Atlantic can grow warmer and warmer without generating any hurricanes. But once that water passes 26 degrees Celsius, it begins to promote hurricanes: a threshold passed, a switch was thrown, simply by an incremental increase. The environmental history of the 20th century is different from that of time past not merely because ecological changes were greater and faster, but also because increased intensities threw some switches.

If McKibben is right and we are indeed living on "a new planet, not the earth we were born on," then the religions and arts that served us well enough on the old planet may no longer be serving us so well. On this new planet, the title The Sun Also Rises carries other connotations than those Hemingway intended, and the somber vision of Ecclesiastes no longer quiets the soul. How can we take up the question of how we might expect or wish art and religion to change in response to such drastically changed circumstances?

As a preliminary response, I should like to review the career, especially the late career, of John Cage, a man who has been honored as an artistic and perhaps even as a religious visionary. Cage, who died in 1992, achieved world fame and lasting influence in 1952 when his epoch-making anti-composition 4'33'' was first performed. George J. Leonard, in brilliant study entitled Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage (University of Chicago Press, 1994), quotes from a first-hand report of the second-ever performance of 4'33'', which took place at the Carnegie Recital Hall:

It was a hall that you could hire, quickly, and it would seat a modest number of people -- seventy-five at most. A small, beautiful little hall. It was in the summertime, and the windows were open, either in the hall or in the hallway outside. We heard the traffic sounds. David Tudor, then very young, came out and sat at the piano, and I believe he had a somewhat formal outfit on, as befitting a performer. He adjusted, in the usual manner, his seat -- I remember this very vividly -- because he made a pointed activity out of it. He kept pushing it up, and pushing it down. He had a stopwatch, which was the usual way of John's things -- being timed. And he opened up the piano lid and put his hands on the keys as if he was going to play some music. What we expected. We were waiting. And nothing happened. Pretty soon you began to hear chairs creaking, people coughing, rustling of clothes, then giggles. And then a police car came by with its siren running, down below. Then I began to hear the elevator in the building. Then the air conditioning going through the ducts. Until one by one all of us, every one of that audience there -- and I think they must have been all of our kind [artists], began to say "Oh. We get it. Ain't no such thing as silence. If you just listen, you'll hear a lot." I was very struck by 4'33''. I intuited that it was his most philosophically and radically instrumental piece. Instrumental in the sense that it made available to a number of us not just the sounds in the world but all phenomena. Then the question is, now that everything's available, what do you do? (Leonard, 189)

Though John Cage published several manifestos about music over his long life, the statement that has come to be taken as the canonical expression of his own interpretation of 4'33'' came in 1956 as a remark to a midwestern student audience about to watch a performance by the Merce Cunningham dance company. On that occasion, Cage said:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act on its own accord. (Leonard, 174)

If this much-quoted statement sounds vaguely Buddhist, there is an explanation ready to hand. In an interview with Leonard, Cage said:

Since the forties and through study with D. T. Suzuki of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, I've thought of music as a means of changing the mind. . . an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. (Leonard, 147)

John Cage, in short, was one of the many American artists of his day who were deeply influenced by the daring Japanese émigré who, consciously modeling himself on St. Paul, made himself into Zen Buddhism's apostle to the gentiles. Leonard explains Suzuki's sudden and seemingly inexplicable success by showing how it built on a pre-existing Western artistic movement that had been gathering strength since the time of William Wordsworth and that sought beauty and indeed a kind of religious experience by seeing anew what the great romantic poet had called "the simple produce of the common day." In each successive generation between Wordsworth and Cage, this movement enlarged the boundaries of what could be considered art until, at length, there was no difference between art and reality itself. For those with eyes to see, anything could be art.

Suzuki, who had acquainted himself with this Western movement by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson while still in Japan, seems to have recognized Emerson's ideal as analogous to the satori sought by the Rinzai Zen sect to which he belonged. Among American artists, this school of Zen -- which Americans initially equated with the whole of Zen -- provided an artistic evolution that was already under way with a new rationale and a thrilling acceleration.

"Suzuki's satori," Leonard writes,

is largely identical to transfiguration of the commonplace. "Satori finds a meaning hither-to hidden in our daily concrete particular experiences," Suzuki explains, regarding the world from the "religious aesthetical angle of observation. . ." The "artist's world," therefore "coincides" with that of the Zen man except that the Zen-man, Suzuki was teaching by 1938, has freed himself of art objects. "While the artists have to resort to the canvas or brush or mechanical instruments or some other mediums to express themselves, Zen has no need of things external. . . The Zen-man is an artist," but he "transforms his own life into a work of creation!" (Leonard, 161)

The path from Suzuki's classroom to Cage's silent recital hall is extraordinarily well-marked. Cage's 4'33'' announced the end of art, the ne plus ultra of a hundred-fifty-year process, more radically and years earlier than did the Brillo boxes of Andy Warhol, who indeed frankly acknowledged his debt to Cage. And though Cage came decades later than Marcel Duchamp and his famous urinal, Duchamp was celebrated for epitomizing what at the time he intended to satirize. The French artist eventually came to accept his artistic destiny, but in 1917, when he first displayed the urinal, the gesture bespoke not Zen but Dada.

4'33'' is aleatory music inasmuch as chance determines what real-world sounds will fill the silence. During the first performance of the work at Woodstock, New York -- the same Woodstock of the later, legendary rock concert -- a rainstorm broke out, and the silence was filled by the sound of raindrops on the roof of the concert shed. Cage has written other kinds of aleatory music, but he and everyone else regards 4'33'' as his most important and most visionary work. For that reason, it is interesting and much to the point of today's investigation to learn, as one does in Leonard's book, of the degree to which he later turned against his own vision.

To speak poetically, what John Cage eventually heard in the silence he had created was the sound of the world dying, and he could not bear to hear it. During the last thirty years of his life, he was what George Leonard sees fit to call an ecology activist, though Cage's activism seems to have consisted mainly of writing fragmentary poetry in defense of the environment. This was, in effect if not by intent, the composer's response to his critics, and he did have his critics. In 1969 the Harvard theologian and culture critic Harvey Cox in a book entitled The Feast of Fools faulted him sharply for "assum[ing] a creation that is not only good but perfect." To Cox, though he astutely recognized the theological dimension in Cage's work, the composer's stance risked becoming "a supine acceptance of the world as it is." And there were artists and art critics who had similar objections. Rather than awaken her audience to "this excellent life," one performance artist said in 1981 she wanted to awaken it to "the ways in which we have been led to believe that this life is so excellent. . ." And as late as 1989, performance art critic Henry Sayre faulted Cage for being "so vastly apolitical, so vastly unconscious of social and political reality."(Leonard, 175-76)

These critics were, if you will, the reassertion of classic Western prophecy against Cage's fusion of a form of Western aestheticism with a form of Eastern mysticism, but by the late sixties Cage had begun to find his own way back toward prophecy and, in principle, toward activism. His was, however, a halting retreat. His 1968 collected essays, A Year from Monday, began with the sweeping proclamation, much in the spirit of that revolutionary year: "Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution." But the first long poem in the collection was entitled: "Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)." Obviously, the activism of "How to Improve the World" and the quietism of "You Will Only Make Matters Worse" contradicted each other. To judge from Leonard's extended report, enriched by long interviews with the composer, Cage never resolved this contradiction.

I am drawn to Cage's struggle because it seems so much to be our own, only the more acutely ours as the ecological crisis worsens. The pre-crisis Cage, asked on one occasion if there was too much suffering in the world, said that, no, there was just the right amount. Consistent with that view, the early Cage, contemplating the prospect of the death of Mother Earth and all her children with her, might have said, as we say when one of our own mothers dies, "It's sad, but then she had a rich and full life." In other words, the early Cage, rewording his famous interpretation of 4'33'', might have exhorted us to awaken to species death as "excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act on its own accord." If resignation to death is good counsel for the individual, why would it be bad counsel for the species?

The post-crisis Cage, however, the composer turned ecological poet, could only counsel other artists to follow the example of artists like Newton Harrison (a sculptor who destroyed his sculptures to devote his time to reclaiming rivers and waterways), even though he himself could not do so. Once it became clear that the sound wafting through the window of the concert-less concert hall was indeed the voice of Mother Earth crying murder, the concert would have to be canceled -- not canceled in favor of some more prophetic or political performance, something that would necessarily keep the artists employed as artists, but canceled in favor of direct, urgent action -- a general mobilization as in wartime with guarantees for nobody.

The hope was once entertained for art -- perhaps, above all, for poetry -- that it could become a secular substitute for religion, but in our day that hope has been dashed by the termination of the very process that initially raised it. Natural supernaturalism, to borrow M. H. Abrams's famous phrase, began in the belief that artistic attention could bless ordinary reality and make it holy. But at the end of that process, when there is nothing left that is not art, and therefore nothing that is not holy, nothing toward which we cannot take Suzuki's "religious aesthetical angle of observation," then even the death of the human species will seem just the last produce of the last day: nothing to do but watch it happen. Perhaps if the planet could be returned to and kept in the condition in which it stood during the lifetime of Matthew Arnold, then art in the condition in which it stands today might be a passable substitute for religion. Art as we have known it scarcely seems able to play that role on the eve of human extinction.

And yet the activism with which the late Cage flirted cannot substitute for religion either. What matters is not the merit or even the eloquence of an ecological poet's words but the likelihood that enough people will read them and take them to heart. When results are the criterion, as they are for activism, then the size of the audience is critical. If a grave warning from a majority of the world's Nobel scientists can go largely ignored, surely no body of poetry is likely to be heeded.

In what may be the last years of the human race, the role of the imagination, I am driven to conclude, lies not in supplanting religion but in imagining how existing organized religious traditions might adapt their old resources to meet this new challenge. Most artists and writers, called upon to imagine such a thing, would reply "That's not my job." So much the worse for human survival if a few cannot escape this suffocating secular orthodoxy.

Worldwide, the time when religious traditions of all kinds most often make an appearance is the time of death. When a memorial service is held for a man or woman who practiced no religion, the mourners -- in this country, typically, of widely varying beliefs -- have to organize themselves into a kind of ad hoc congregation. I recall, in my own recent experience, the memorial service for poet Joseph Brodsky at St. John the Divine in New York and a much humbler service for Benjamin Pinkel, a deceased RAND Corporation physicist in Santa Monica. On both occasions, traditional religious elements were combined with a set of secular readings that took on an inescapably religious coloration.

So we may find ourselves doing if we come to believe that we are in the last days of the human species. Whether or not we believe in the existence of any transcendent reality, we may find ourselves forming ad hoc congregations that combine secular and religious elements in a mood that, in such a somber moment, will surely seem more religious than secular. The religious traditions of the world do have major resources to draw on. All of them speak of death and of such violent actions as slaughter and war in two senses, one of which, as I might put it, corresponds to the early Cage and the other to the late Cage.

All of them prepare the individual man or woman to accept physical death as the human lot. If the death of the human species truly cannot be avoided, we can at least hope to dignify this passing with decent grief and try by our resignation to prevent the last years of the human species from being a battle of all against all. However, all of the major religious traditions of the world also celebrate sacrifice to the point of martyrdom and even (in the West, I maintain, as well as in the East) self-martyrdom. And all -- short of that extreme -- teach disciplines variously described as the slaying of desire, inner jihad, or self-mortification. If the death of the human species can be averted at all, it surely cannot be averted without enormous sacrifice. In Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995), science journalist Mark Dowie speaks depressingly of the spread of the "Wise Use" movement, an ecological counter-movement that, as he sees it, refuses to accept the possibility -- for Dowie it is a virtual certainty -- that profits must be sacrificed to save the human habitat. When profits go down for the rich, wages, contrary to the hopes of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, invariably go down even faster for the poor. So long as it is possible to do well while doing good, so long as what is best for the bottom line can be sold as good enough for the environment, then no recourse to the ideologies of religious self-sacrifice will be required. Enlightened self-interest will suffice.

But I doubt, personally, that enlightened self-interest will in fact suffice. Enlightened self-interest is no basis on which to exhort a man who does not wish to do so to place the interests of posterity above his own. The objection "What has posterity ever done for me?" is unanswerable on that basis -- that is, with respect to that demand for reciprocity. Nationalism or patriotism once mobilized self-sacrificial behavior to an extraordinary degree, but patriotism may have seen its day. The dedication John Cage affixed to his A Year from Monday was: "To us and all those who hate us, that the U.S.A. may become just another part of the world, no more, no less." When one's own country is just another part of the world, a leader who commands as John F. Kennedy did "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" becomes a laughingstock. Many breathe easier as patriotism fades, having seen the horrors that patriotism-become-fascism can perpetrate. As Arthur Koestler once said, the altruism of the individual is the egoism of the group. We are right to fear it.

And yet can we possibly save the human species without it? And whither, if not to the religious traditions of the world, can we turn in search of a benign form of altruism? Speaking very personally, I shrink from the challenge of religious leadership. It is not by accident that I am an ex-Jesuit rather than a Jesuit. But the survival of the species seems likely to require a degree of self-sacrifice rarely seen beyond the family.

The evolution of our species to this point in time has not required that degree of self-sacrifice. Unfortunately for us, our environment has now changed. Self-sacrifice to the degree now required has not been adaptive to this point. It has not served survival. If some such adaptation is now required, it will not come about by "spontaneous" biological evolution. Only a cultural adaptation can conceivably be developed in time, and it is this consideration that wins religion an at least preliminary hearing.

My friend Jared Diamond, the author of the recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning (and best-selling) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997), cautions me that nothing so tied to the existing social order as organized religion can be expected to retain much efficacy if and when the famine, epidemic, and anarchy that are already seething in parts of Africa spread round the world. This is surely true, and yet it also seems to be true that religion is what survives when the rest of an existing social order collapses. As Diamond himself puts it,

First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other -- by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks. (278)

But does "religion or shared ideology" only operate in the ranks of an army? Can it not operate in civilian society as well and function for the defense of the human habitat as a whole rather than only of a given nation's territory?

A religion functioning in defense of the human habitat would be a world religion rather than, as in Diamond's understanding, a national religion. Its holy land would be the planet, and its holy people the human race. But who would be its enemy -- its gentiles or pagans or infidels? Clearly, it could function only by making its practice radically reflexive. Ecologically, humankind has quite literally become its own enemy. A religion responsive to this ecological crisis would give ideological, ethical, and ritual expression to this unprecedented turn of events.

But this is surely the tallest of tall orders. Historically, the universalization of religious values may have tended to secularize and subordinate national identity. Against this tendency, however, national conflict, whatever its proximate cause, has tended to re-sacralize the nation and re-particularize religion, subordinating it to or fusing it with nationalism. The prospects for a religion that would subordinate national interests to species survival cannot be called good. Nations that share a religion are perfectly capable of going to war against each other. The fusion of religion and ethnicity must not be regarded as the root of all strife. It may, however, be regarded as a frequent exacerbating factor.

The prospects for either eliminating religion as an exacerbating factor in national conflict or employing it for the mobilization of the species against a peril facing it as a species are decidedly modest. It is a commonplace of contemporary political commentary that the end of the Cold War has brought about an intensification of religio-ethnic identity in one region after another. Ethnic divisions that had been secularized into insignificance in federations like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been re-sacralized; religious divisions that had been similarly subdued beneath an official atheism have been revived and pseudo-ethnicized (thus, for the Serbs the Muslim Slavs are "Turks"). One is forced to infer that it is psychologically easier to subordinate local differences in the face of a perceived military threat than to do anything comparable simply for the common good. It is easier, by that token, to imagine how religion might aggravate the ecological crisis than to imagine how religion might alleviate it.

Still, to say that a thing is difficult to imagine is not to say that it is impossible. The current moment merely throws the under-valorized role of imagination within religion into newly stark relief. A problem that religion may well make worse may yet be one that cannot be solved without religion. The challenge, though posed by science, is artistic as much as it is theological, a breakthrough of the imagination in the service of religion in the service of the human species in the service of life itself. We would be fools to predict such a breakthrough but worse fools not to hope for it.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 200, Vol. 50  Issue 3.