In 2017 Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast released an episode called “The Destroyer of Worlds.” I’d recommend everybody listen to it, but don’t expect to come away feeling buoyant about humanity’s future. The title “Destroyer of Worlds” is a quote from the Bhagavad Gita that physicist Robert Oppenheimer said came to mind after he witnessed the first successful nuclear test in the Nevada desert: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In his gripping way, Carlin manages to communicate the foreboding atmosphere that is altogether fitting when discussing the nuclear sword of Damocles that is still hanging over our collective heads. Since the Cold War ended, humanity has breathed a collective sigh of relief; perhaps a nuclear Armageddon is avoidable after all. However, after listening to the aforementioned podcast, and considering the growing military tensions between nuclear powers, a cheery optimism is altogether misplaced.
The advent of nuclear weapons—especially the high yield thermonuclear variety (hydrogen bombs)—has, for the first time in human history, given us the power to destroy ourselves. Before nuclear weapons, humanity was still able to wipe out large portions of any given generation—consider the joint, pre-nuclear calamities of WW1 and WW2, which turned large parts of Europe into a literal charnel house. But we never had the power to utterly destroy both ourselves and the environment on which we all rely until the inner power of the atom was discovered.
According to calculations by scientists regarding evolutionary statistics, and the mind-boggling vastness of the universe, we should expect to be detecting the radio emissions from other non-human civilizations across the cosmos. All things being considered, these civilizations should be relatively common. But the universe is strangely quiet*. This has led some to posit that each intelligent civilization, after it begins to discover the physics of the universe, must pass through a “great filter.” As each civilization advances in its knowledge, it eventually reaches the technological capacity to destroy itself. In order to avoid this fate, it would seem that each civilization must advance not only technologically but also spiritually and morally. If not, then the great filter eventually claims them and renders them silent.
The disturbing fact is that humanity is now at its “great filter” moment in history. Nuclear weapons are more than capable of wiping out all sentient life on this planet, and even a relatively small nuclear exchange (say between Pakistan and India) might be sufficient to cause a nuclear winter, widespread starvation, disease, and a collapse of human civilization. As the famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” That is assuming, of course, that there is anybody left to fight.
We are a species that can develop war plans that involve the incineration of hundreds of millions of people. We still have nations around the world trying their hardest to multiply their nuclear weapons. We are still at a dangerous level of immaturity, and the metaphorical dice are rolling. We have embarked on an experiment that has no end date. Our options are either to grow spiritually as a human race to a point where the thought of using nuclear weapons against each other is inconceivable, or to carry on until eventually the great filter claims us. If we are to survive, there is no middle road.
What is the spirituality we need to avoid destruction?
The simple answer is the Gospel. We need to live the teachings of Jesus who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44). We require a spirituality where our swords are put away (Mt 26:52) and where a longing for the day they are beaten into plowshares is cultivated (Is 2:4). We need a Catholicism whose fruits are love, peace, joy, gentleness, and kindness (Gal 5:22-23) and a kind of life where we consider meekness, persecution, mercy, and poverty of spirit to be blessings (Mt 5:3–12), not curses to be resisted. We should seek an attitude that shuns anger and fury (Mt 5:22) and turns the other cheek (Mt 5:39), that resists enmity, factions, strife, and disputes (Gal 5:20).
If we had always lived the Gospel in this simplicity, the power of the atom—a part of God’s gracious and loving creation—would never have been turned into a weapon of hateful destruction.
What is the spirituality we need to reject?
We can no longer afford a spirituality that loves setting up “ins” and “outs” and where tribes are developed and justified by faulty interpretations of scriptures. We need to reject a faith that secretly revels in the idea that enemies will burn forever in hell. A faith that eagerly looks for “markers” or opinions that, once detected, automatically condemns the other as a heretic will simply not do, nor will a philosophy that looks to violence to solve problems, instead of peaceful and non-violent forms of resistance. Tit-for-tat, retaliatory justice——which endlessly perpetuates the cycle of violence, rather than reflecting the gracious mercy of our creator—is a “luxury” our species can no longer afford.
We need to embrace a faith that places people over ideology. Let’s hear the words of Pope Francis reflecting on Saul’s anger prior to his conversion—when he asks, “Do I adore God or do I adore dogmatic formulations? How is my religious life? Does the faith in God that I profess make me friendly or hostile towards those who are different from me?”
The Revolution that Will Save Us
The world needs a revolution of gentleness, kindness, and mercy. The world needs a revolution of respect for the dignity of all human beings, made in the image of their creator—regardless of whether we agree with each other or not. Pope Francis, throughout his papacy, has written about the importance of human fraternity “that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal,” which can nevertheless be “torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women” [A Document on Human Fraternity].
Francis has forcefully condemned even the possession of nuclear weapons, let alone their use. At a meeting for peace in Hiroshima he remarked:
“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral, as I already said two years ago. We will be judged on this. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth. How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war? How can we speak about peace even as we justify illegitimate actions by speeches filled with discrimination and hate?”
When we cultivate discrimination and hate—which we do whenever we objectify or fail to respect the human dignity of others—how can we imagine peace? In the age of nuclear weapons, how can we imagine our future? To even have a future, we must love people above ideas and systems. It is easier to exterminate an enemy when we see the enemy through an ideological lens. It is not so easy when we become aware that our “enemy” is made up of individual men, women, and children. Pope Francis is emphatically calling for a new vision of humanity, where we no longer treat each other as totems of abstract ideas, but as brothers and sisters of a common humanity made in the image of God.
Is this vision of humanity a fantasy or wishful naivety? Maybe it is. We certainly witnessed an ideologically-driven backlash against the Document on Human Fraternity, rather than a positive response to its urgent call for a united humanity. The clock is ticking for humanity to resolve not to bring about its own destruction. If we don’t come together, one day our “luck” will run out, our number will be up, and the “destroyer of worlds” will be unleashed on humankind.
May God have mercy on us.
* Recent UFO reports notwithstanding. Perhaps the universe is not as quiet as originally thought!
Image: Pope Francis prays at the Meeting for Peace at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Nov 24, 2019. Vatican News.