Our Changing World: from Belgian Francs to Euros …

The Little Sisters of Nazareth, who take their inspiration from Joseph Cardinal Cardijn and Charles de Foucauld, asked me to prepare a reflection on our changing world. These sisters are very close to concrete people, very often people who suffer, and they are also aware that some of this suffering is caused by structural characteristics of our global world that, often, are not and cannot be understood or seen by those who suffer. I have been looking, over the past days, for a metaphor to understand the changes and also to allow to think about our reactions to these changes. What came to me is the experience of having had to change from “Belgian Francs” to “Euros”, where one (1) current Euro corresponds to forty (40) former Belgian Francs. The very meaning of “1” (in its relationship to all things that money can value and buy) changed, and I still have difficulties adapting to this … 1 Euro seems so little, but it is about double the weekly pocketmoney that was given me as a kid …

I am wondering whether our changing world does not have that same kind of effect on us: a change of measuring sticks, a change in our way of scaling things, and the difficulty we have to adapt to this. The change of units is necessary, of course: our world has changed and requires other units and coordinates of measurement. Nevertheless, our units of coordinates, as we use them to frame our world (framing our world is a bare necessity of life!), have changed abruptly. What seemed immensely far when I was a kid, is now near: my neighbourhood is bigger than it has ever been. I know about what happens in what were once exotic places: Zimbabwe, Timor, Cuba, etc. I have friends in many of these places and can easily get in touch with them through the internet, whereas not so long ago letters would have taken weeks to move around. The world is smaller, not only in the sense that I now know more about other places, but also because we are more and more interdependent, as is clear – in a threatening way – from worldwide economic and political crises, or from the causes and effects of global warming and the ecological challenges. The world also seems to move faster: communication through e-mail has given us a different time perspective. We expect answers within 24 hours and, therefore, decisions are taken much more rapidly, putting us under pressure sometimes. The change of measurement scale can be felt also with regard to the number of people that inhabit earth: we are a fast – exponentially – growing species, and I wonder sometimes whether the expression “many people” has the same meaning as it had some 100 years ago, or whether we do not, more easily than ever before in history, hide behind large numbers, both to impose policies and convictions, and to protect us from the impact of human suffering. Given our numbers, the structures that organize our life together, have also become more complex and more difficult to fathom. Moreover, although we participate in a very small way to maintaining these structures (that sometimes produce new and unheared injustices on a worldwide scale), and although we sometimes feel as their victims, we do not have yet developed adequate ethical guidelines to define our responsibilities within such structures, particularly when there comes the need to question or even to oppose them. I am not sure, as a RCC theologian, that my church’s concept and understanding of “sin” can really sufficiently cope with this difficult relationship between structure and individual – over the past years I sense that we are deepening our understanding of guilt and responsibility.

We have to learn to work under circumstances where our measurement units have changed, where even new parameters have been introduced. We may not be aware of this … and, when we are aware, it may well frighten us so that we are tempted to remain with our old way of measuring. Are there clear and neat criteria ready for us in our new situation? Certainly, the preferential option for the poor remains a crucial perspective. Moreover, we are discovering the ideas of sustainability and of creational dignity … they are not completely new, but they are in need of elaboration. We feel the challenges of a reality in which structural features have come to play an important role. We are also more and more aware of many kinds of plurality: many religions seem to compete with one another, many political and cultural views or convictions share a worldwide market, … How can this manifold become a wealth and an opportunity?

These are very broad and sweeping questions, but it is fascinating that they are also concrete questions for very ordinary people. Even when we are not aware how much we are involved in a world that requires a yard stick larger than what we had before, even when we would prefer to run away from the complexities of a world that is too large for us to understand, we can nevertheless not escape our embeddedness in this larger world and its challenges. I am not sure how this will evolve. This moment is a “kairos”, a risky moment of our history, but also an opportunity. Will we be able to maintain worldwide complexity? Do we want that? Who will pay the bills of a world that becomes more complex? Or will today’s complexity not be able to maintain itself and will our world fragment and fall apart? And who will pay those bills? How are we, moreover, going to take into account that other non-human player, nature, that seems to escape our control?

The questions here are theological questions, for sure: this world is the holy ground on which God calls us to work towards the Kingdom. They are also very practical political issues: what kind of structures and decision making processes do we need to develop so as to reach more worldwide justice and to find a new covenant with nature and the world as a whole?

Those sisters ask good questions … on tough issues …

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