Engaged: Religion and the common good

Author: Mahan Mirza, Ansari Institute Executive Director

Introducing a series of online conversations at the Ansari Institute


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Wednesday, April 8 was the 15th night of Sha’ban, a holy night in the Islamic tradition when angels descend from the heavens with God’s decree for the coming year. The month of Sha’ban heralds the arrival of Ramadan, a month of fasting, which follows. This year, “the night of decree” in Sha’ban coincided with the beginning of Passover in the Jewish calendar, two days before Good Friday moving into Easter Sunday, which for Christians marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of humankind.

While divided in theology and ritual, the Abrahamic family finds itself synchronized in holiness in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet, with the advent of COVID-19, the coincidental calendrical unity among the Abrahamic faiths is superseded by a more universal unity of humankind.

As Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically reminded us in the last chapter of his final work, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace (177).

A few days ago, I participated in a meeting co-organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Religions for Peace, World Faiths, Development Dialogue, and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs on “Religion, Conflict, and COVID-19.” The meeting included participants from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, who shared  experiences of the pandemic from their respective regional perspectives. Both meetings, the COVID-19 emergency meeting and the webinar celebrating the 15th of Sha’ban, took place on my computer screen. That’s also where I’ve been meeting my students, the Keough School’s Dean’s Office leadership team, old friends in a nightly study circle, and my extended family, which is spread out across four continents.

The world has changed overnight due to the pandemic, and we are still processing what this means. Regardless of any long-term implications—political or economic, social or spiritual—the immediate consequence is a shift to “virtual engagement”—something that was previously seen as occasional or optional. For those who are fortunate enough to isolate with their families, our new condition has permitted a rekindling of family bonds. Others, less fortunate, are trapped by the same dynamics all by themselves, with no companionship in true isolation, or in abusive environments. There are two sides to everything, including the pandemic.

The Ansari Institute invites us to explore not just the challenges but the opportunities opened up by the pandemic. This is not to minimize the real suffering, fear, uncertainty, and loss being experienced by so many in this precarious moment. It is, however, to realize that misfortune has been the plight of an uncountable number of people even before the pandemic, and to resolve to do something about it. It is to see the air and water breathe a sigh of relief from reduced human activity, and to rejoice therein. It is to embrace the opportunity to pause and reflect on new possibilities for the human condition.

There is no doubt that an “embrace of the opportunity to pause” comes from a place of privilege. A close relationship exists between privilege, power, and responsibility. The Ansari Institute intends to recognize its position of privilege and to use it responsibly. Instead of reflexively calling for a return back to normal, we need to take this opportunity to work towards a better normal. If the old normal is a routine disaster for millions of people in the richest country in the world, there is something terribly wrong with the place we all want to quickly return to.

Not for nothing did the entrepreneur turned politician Andrew Yang title his book, published well before any sign of this pandemic, The War on Normal People. Yang illustrates with first-hand anecdotes and copious data the dire condition of “normal” Americans, as well as normal people all around the world. The pause has only worsened their plight, so every moment of reflection counts. We need a new normal, and we need it soon.

The philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in reflecting on our present condition through the metaphor of liquidity, writes that the original vision for human progress was not one of infinite growth. It was a vision that sought to bring the human family to a level of subsistence with dignity, after which we would be permitted a pause. Instead of stopping at a baseline for all, we have ended up with drastic inequality, the pace of progress has accelerated, and the means to move us forward have come to replace the ends. With little meaningful connection to the past and no final vision for the future, humanity finds itself perpetually adrift on the ocean of a liquid present.

The opportunity to pause, for those who are privileged to do so, may be received, then, as a gift. What will we do with this gift? Will we rush to return to what was, out of a fear of what might be, or will we muster the courage to imagine a new tomorrow, a tomorrow that brings everyone along instead of leaving so many behind?

In exploring Bauman’s metaphor in Liquid Modernity, one might wonder if the human condition he describes is truly new, or whether his insight simply sharpens ancient spiritual wisdom, as displayed in the whirling of the dervish who seeks to find a still center amidst the endless whirling of the world around him. A spiritual master, much like the modern Bauman describes, sees no past or future, finding eternity in the ever-present. Perhaps this pause will give all those who are so inclined an opportunity to find time for stillness, get their bearings, and reset their moral compass, before the engines of civilization thrust them back into acceleration.

What is new might not be the vicissitudes of time and change, but rather the pace of change, which has accelerated in our time like never before. Thomas Friedman’s latest book that uses this phrase, “age of accelerations,” also speaks of a “dynamic stability” that individuals must find today, which I find to be resonant with what the mystic has always sought.

The Ansari Institute wishes to draw on the shared wisdom from our ancient traditions to respond to the present moment. We see the good of religion in the precepts of “engaged Buddhism,” which channels insights from inner contemplation into compassion for each other. We see it in Judaism’s notion of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” We see it in Hinduism’s concept of “atman,” that every living thing has a soul that is to be cherished. We see it in Islam’s commandment to “bid what is right, forbid what is wrong.” We find in Native teachings that help us see ourselves as a part of nature instead of only as its masters. And we see it in Pope Francis’ call “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet . . . to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”

In turning to religion for inspiration and guidance, we do not reject the material world with all its scientific wonder and technological power. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell speaks of the need for a dynamic dialectic rather than unbridgeable binary between material and spiritual. Channeling the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Campbell says: “What is required . . . therefore, is a dialogue, not a fixture at either pole” (13). The choice need not be between accelerating change and full stop. There is a third way that combines and recalibrates the inner and outer worlds. 

Yuval Noah Harari, a natural historian hailed as a prophet by the apostles of Silicon Valley, ends his best-selling book Sapiens with a speculation on the future of human beings in a transhuman reality that we will be capable of engineering ourselves. “But since we might be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us,” he says, “is not ‘What do we want to become?’ but ‘What do we want to want?’” Now, this is a question for the great religious and spiritual traditions of the world.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, the Ansari Institute will engage in online conversations on questions relating to the human condition and to global affairs, from poverty and peace, climate change and good governance, tradition and technology, with the goal of adding a few bricks toward the construction of MLK’s “world house.” We believe in the dream. Our conversations will be with local and global partners, students and educators, journalists and educators. For suggestions on topics and themes, please email us at ansari@nd.edu.

Watch Conversations