Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Everything that rises...

The cover of a recent issue of Science. In grey at the bottom is a map of Afghanistan, divided into six regions. Rising above each region is a column representing monthly civilian casualties from January 2009 to December 2010, deaths as large dots, wounded as small dots, with weaponry and perpetrators (Allies and insurgents) coded by color. During this period 2537 civilians were killed and 5594 wounded.

It must be my Catholic upbringing that causes me to see these columns of dot as the souls of the dead rising to heaven, month by month, each little colorful cohort ascending to whatever reward welcomes them in Paradise. I am reminded of Gustave Dore's illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy of the souls of the just winging their way upward to their eternal bliss.

Is it a good or a bad thing that some quirkiness of mind makes me see a connection between 21st century graphic on the cover of Science and a fantasy of the medieval imagination?

We have gone from a view of humanity that sees each human soul as an immortal entity whose eternal fate is determined by whatever it takes (in that soul's particular religion) to stay in God's good graces, to one in which the fates of thousands of innocent casualties can be represented by colored dots. Divinity, if you will, versus data.

Strangely enough, I am inclined to think the latter view serves humankind best.

The religion I was brought up in would have excluded (at that time at least) unbaptized Muslims from Dore's ascending circles of saints, and Afghani Muslims (for all I know) might exclude Christians (and agnostics like me) from their own exclusive paradise. In either case, the hope of heaven has not done much to ameliorate strife on Earth and given rise to a lot of mayhem on behalf of vernacular theologies.

I look at the rising columns of colored dots and see not Christians, Jews, Hindus or Muslims but mothers, fathers, children and parents, who may not end up in heaven, but who deserved better on Earth than being the ancillary casualty of a land mine or errant missile. I look at the colored dots and see this…

"Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge." Teilhard de Chardin

(The (cropped) photo of an Afghan girl by Steve McCurry appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June, 1985. The quote from Teilhard de Chardin is the source for Flannery O'Connor's title.)