Sunday, January 21, 2018

The holy human spirit

After writing last week that Jesus emphasised the development of our humanity as a primary responsibility, I happened to view again, John Ford's version of Steinbeck's masterpiece, Grapes of Wrath, and reread the novel which explores the harrowing experience of American families during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s in a nation being calloused by capitalism and industrialisation.

Throughout the novel, its main protagonist, Tom Joad, "defends a humanistic point of view, choosing to follow more humane and universal principles of morality and justice". Comforting his mother, he says that whether he lives or dies, he would always be around because, "whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beating up a guy I'll be there…I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an—I'll be there in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise and an' live in the houses they build—why I'll be there."

This is the revolutionary human spirit, wanting a just and humane society and willing to place personal life and liberty at risk for it. Jesus could have spoken similarly to his own mother and friends before entering Jerusalem to be killed; that he would be with them always, present in spirit, permanently resurrected in consciousness, that residence of all great thoughts and acts that influence the evolution of the human mind and the development of civilisation; the place of all those who, with courage, creativity, commitment and sacrifice, sought the deliverance of human beings from material and spiritual deprivation, for man to live in freedom, dignity and enlightenment. Here was Jesus in Tom Joad, both linked in consciousness with others in the intellectual and spiritual lineage that has guided humanity throughout history. Here was the holy human spirit alive in Grapes of Wrath as it is in Matthew, the other gospels, and the whole heritage of great literary works, art, philosophy, music and in the stirring actions of those who lighted the way.

This human spirit has saved us always, before and after Christ. The violent, oppressive world got even worse after the crucifixion. For 2,000 years, often with Christianity at the fore, we have had horrifying carnage from multitudinous wars; from the fall of the Roman Empire, the establishment of Christendom, the crusades, centuries of blood-soaked Europe, the genocide of whole civilisations in the new world and two horrendous world wars. We have had plagues, pestilences, huge natural disasters, poverty, slavery, bondage, the holocaust, dehumanisation, alienation, tyranny and injustice. Not surprisingly then, as we approached the 20th century, doubt manifested and persisted in the western mind, reflected in Absurdism's view of a random universe and in the nihilism that sprung from Nietzsche's God is dead.

But through all that darkness, the human spirit persisted and the world also got better after Calvary. It seems that life is always the best and worst of times. Man evolves in spite of the darkness. Like Christ resurrected, human society has always emerged from its many dark hours. Hope has never been crucified. Neither has human endeavour nor the thirst for knowledge, enlightenment and freedom.

So in those very millennia that culminated in doubt, western civilisation also emerged from early medieval darkness and feudalism to the growth of towns and cities; renaissance of the arts, literature and philosophy; religious reformation and "the priesthood of all believers"; scientific and industrial revolutions that brought prosperity, physical comforts and longer life; the enlightenment that fuelled the American and French Revolutions; emancipation, decolonisation, and the spread of liberal democracy; globalisation, the information revolution and the world wide web; all creating more and more space for more people to discover and express their humanity, to determine the quality of their lives and society.

The indomitable human spirit produced the energy and creativity to combat darkness and despair, moving human society forward, often in spite of itself. Steinbeck speaks of this phenomenon in Grapes of Wrath: "This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, man reaches, stumbles forward. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but never the full step back."

We never completely slip back because of two important phenomena that emerged in our journey: firstly, the importance of the individual, his rights and freedoms; and secondly, his responsibility to society; individual and society, spiritually and legally contracted in freedom and responsibility. From the harmonisation of roles would come both personal fulfillment and social development. It also meant we had greater responsibility for ourselves and our world.

Indeed the individual had an obligation to deliver himself and society from oppressive or debilitating conditions, so that in the 16th century flowering of the European mind, Shakespeare would have Hamlet agonising over "whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them"; and would have Cassius emphatically assert that "men at sometime are masters of their fates" and that the fault "is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings" as he persuades Brutus to save Rome from the tyranny of Caesar.

This is the human spirit constantly seeking freedom from all that enslaves. Without it, we would have had the world of Orwell's 1984. It is a warning sounded by Steinbeck that we should "fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe." This we celebrate today at Christmas, our treasure, the holy human spirit.

• Ralph Maraj is a former government minister