Quite a large number of us, regular people, are concerned about ‘survival’. From what to do in order to feed our children to how to protect wealth from being eroded by the inflation.
Some others, more ‘extreme’ or more sensitive, are actively preparing for what is known, by them, as ‘the imminent ending of the world’. There is no consensus on what will bring about this catastrophe – from the odd meteorite falling on Earth before the appropriate measures being taken to the unsustainable way we manage our economy or the environment but this is no deterrent for the hardcore survivalists.
In a way, they are right. After all it doesn’t matter how it happens, the main thing is to be prepared.
And this is exactly were the ‘fun’ part starts.
Most of them concern themselves with learning how to survive out in the open, how to build and stock an ‘anti-atomic’ bunker, how to use firearms, etc., etc… In fact they do is recreate the medieval ‘castle’ mentality where the world was disputed by strong armed thugs who tried to control as many resources as possible. In time, tired by the slow burning conflict that occasionally burst into open fighting, they ‘invented’ the rules of ‘chivalry’, a framework that provided both a venue for their need to ‘prove themselves into battle’ (the jousting tournaments) and enough social predictability that enabled relative stable economic relations between human ‘settlements’ that were ruled by different land lords.
From that moment on survivability was no longer improved by simply erecting higher and thicker walls but rather by maintaining a workable equilibrium between the members of a certain community – be it group of people, ‘commonwealth of villages’ or federation of states.
Fast forward to the XX-th century and we find out that the survival problem hasn’t been fixed yet. Andre Malraux, a Frenchman who started as a communist writer and ended up as an anti-totalitarian philosopher once wrote that “le vingt-et-unieme siecle sera religieux ou ne sera pas”. A rough translation would be ‘in the XXI-th people will rediscover religion or they will perish’. Coming from a professed agnostic this continues to create huge controversy as to its real meaning.
A solution to both the riddle and the survival problem might not be so hard to find.
Lets turn to the utmost survival specialists, the Jews. For the first 15 centuries or so they survived living in ‘history’s turn-still’ – Palestine – while for the next 20 they made do even without the benefit of having a place to call their own.
How did they do it?
By fighting each other? No, on the contrary.
By fighting against the people they were living amongst? They would have been wiped out long ago. Even when they were used as scape-goats by reckless and callous temporal rulers the Jews somehow found a way to survive, mainly because members of the general population remembered the normalcy of the situation before the pogroms were instigated, normalcy during which the Jews were adept at conserving their traditions yet playing their role as useful members of the wider community.
And maybe this is also the key of Malraux’s riddle. Religion is more than following ritual, considerable more than that.
The word itself comes from the Latin ‘reliegare’, ‘connecting to’. It can mean both the connections that appear between members of the same community but also the connections that appear between the community itself and its environment. So it doesn’t really matter if religious teachings are said to have been handed down from a God or are considered to be a distillation of long accumulated tradition. All it matters is ‘have those teachings proven useful?’ Were they helpful enough to their followers so they could cope with whatever history has thrown at them?
Well… in the case of Judaism they did that, for more than three and a half millennia. And nowhere in those teachings one can find ‘if things get rough leave everybody behind and hide someplace waiting for the worst to pass’. Every religion, be it based on a God or not – Buddhism, for instance does not have a godlike figure in its center – teaches its followers that it is a lot easier to survive helping the others than fighting against all others.
Honing individual survival skill is of course important. But we should not forget that crises come and go. What we really need is to learn how to survive the long stretches of apparent stability, during which we allow the build up of immense tensions that end up by tearing apart our livelihood. As is about to happen.