Life nowadays is carried out in parentheses. Here we are in the third year of the Covid Epoch, masked up and advancing in a stutter step, only to be chastened by wily variants, astounded by stubborn resistance to common sense, and exasperated by endless episodes of political opportunists. As winter wobbles into spring, any sense of a future we hope for collides against a whack-a-mole landscape of uncertainties.
In short, whatever I would dream of, whatever I care about, has no simple, distant horizon. Instead, my dreams are brought up sharply against those curved brackets, containing uncertainty’s sibilant snakes. Once again, I find myself where I had been last year and the year before. Even the face mask I wear takes on a parenthetical expression. Confined and confounded, beleaguered by breakthroughs, I rub up against walls that seem to have no give to them.
Until I recall what I did as a child against unforgiving walls. I bounced balls against them. I learned to anticipate where the ball would rebound. I toyed with the wall. My throwing and catching developed as I played relentlessly as the sun went down.
How can we face those rude interruptions of our future? Is there some way to toss a ball against them? Can we toy with that host of disruptions? Perhaps the first task is to take a deep breath and find out what we have to play with. My recalling what I did as a child is only an example of what our memories hold in store.
Let me toss in another memory. I think of the time when the nuclear race was once again at high speed, when as a young father I wondered why we had ever brought a child into such a desperate world. But as I worried and pondered how I could respond to what seemed so enormously beyond me, I realized that if I gave in, the Bomb would have already gone off in my heart. I also became aware that on the other side of the globe an Australian doctor and a Soviet physicist were leading anti-nuclear movements. I realized then I was not alone. Indeed, what no one detected was the rise of a Soviet insider who would one day even win the welcome of Ronald Reagan.
There is also a line from Book of Sirach that has hovered for years in the back of my mind. Let’s see how those haunting words play out:
The cry of the poor pierces the clouds
And will not rest until it reaches its mark. (Sir 35:21)
Of course, we live in different atmospherics. There are no divine figures above the clouds. But we still can use the heavens. We can bounce messages around the globe in ways that continue to surprise. The cry for justice still gets out, still resounds. The answer comes in unexpected human terms. One man’s desperate cry for breath was heard from continent to continent. People stirred and marched despite the epidemic.
Yet the brute incursions of our world push back: I cannot overlook the scenes where so many, intubated and cut off from their dear ones, die among strangers or, worse, slip away alone. Their final cries never had a chance. Those very moments were on my mind recently as I read Exodus 3 with my students. How could this ancient episode play around our modern world?
We can notice easily how the burning bush passage displays the marks of the holy. A bush burning but not consumed both fascinates and is fearsome. The command to Moses to take off his sandals since he is entering holy space underscores the depth of the situation. Such an encounter was rather standard fare for an ancient experience of the holy. But the story does not end there. The burning bush is a lead-in to one of the most remarkable claims of the ancient world. The most surprising element of the story was the discovery of a God who remembered slaves. For in the ancient world slavery meant annihilation. You had lost any hope of relating to others as human, your future ended in oblivion. There was no one who gave a damn. The long-standing nagging memory for the people of Israel is that somehow slaves are not forgotten.
Amos later picks up this memory thread and ties orphans and widows to the unforgettable. Jesus added the poor and the marginal, while Paul discovered that the godforsaken crucified, the one with no advantage, was not forgotten by God.
As I bounce these memories against the Covid compound, I do not expect some deus ex machina. But I am aware that teams of scientists had also been tossing balls against some walls. Without their work, there would have been no vaccines, no viable hope. I am also aware of those who have courageously suited up night and day despite the personal cost. And I write these words, tapping out attempts at detecting meaning in-the-midst-of-plague. I toss these words to you, dear reader, to play against the confines of our time. What happens when you take a breath and notice what the crisis cannot countenance? What does it mean when our memories jolt our heart?
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But, the story of the growth of our planet says that we do. To catch a glimpse of this reality just return to the experience of breathing as one meditates. In our breathing out and in, we recognize out mutual interdependence. We depend on those plants that can convert CO 2 and H 2 O to sugar and O 2 . We are thoroughly implicated in this inter-breathing.
Science has learned that the blue surrounding our planet has been a long time coming. Originally formed in the superdense cores of stars, oxygen could be found three billion years ago on the forming Earth. But as yet there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun started the process, penetrating, breaking up CO 2 and unleashing oxygen 2.9 billion years ago. Oxygen truly took up residence in the atmosphere around 2.45 billion years ago. Blue-green algae began employing photosynthesis to produce oxygen on a global scale, thus enabling the evolution of complex life, including us. A “boring” billion years later, (1.45 billion years ago) animals emerged with oxygen levels high enough to sustain life with 21 percent O 2 in the atmosphere.
In our cosmology “the blue” surrounds us. And it is this layer of the atmosphere, generated millions of years ago, that we are on the verge of tearing apart.
What happens when we discover that the blue has limits? What do we sense when we realize that we are thoroughly implicated in its fate? Can we still attempt to find meaning in what seems now to be more than a problematic metaphor?
By simply following the science, we begin to see that we are interrelated in surprisingly extensive ways. Through this inspection of “the blue” we make connections through time and space. We recognize that we are endlessly implicated in a cosmic nexus of relationships. Consider that without those long distant relatives—anaerobic bacteria—we would not be here.
Consider also how George Floyd’s dying cry “I can’t breathe” now resounds in this cosmic echo chamber. The unexpected response by millions on this planet to his last breath now carries far beyond the nightly news shows, thereby exposing the lie that each of us dies all alone.
As we continue to explore our atmosphere, we may begin to understand that consciousness is not a solitary affair. As Teilhard de Chardin would say, when consciousness emerged it was a planetary phenomenon. Consciousness is a “knowing-with.” It is inherently social and allows the dust of stars to speak.
We stumble and bump about, fumble with sounds and metaphors, and every so often—out of the blue—we realize that there is more in our midst. We even find infinity in paper Moebius strips. More and more we are astonished that our blue marble is so dear.
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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