Christmas and the future of the human species

On 1 December, as the season called Advent (Coming) covering the four weeks leading up to Christmas was about to commence in the Christian liturgical calendar, Leonardo Boff’s weekly column was entitled “Are we approaching the end of the human species?” Basically, it reproduces a text published in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For years I have been turning this very question over and over in my mind. So what surprises me is not so much the question, but the fact that brother Leonardo has asked it again on Christmas Eve. I don’t know whether he did it on purpose, but the celebration of the birth of Jesus renders the question about the end of the human species not only more profound and radical but also more challenging.

I contemplate and celebrate the birth of Jesus as a figure of every birth, beyond the mere historical fact –about which we know so little, and even if we knew nothing– and beyond all dogmas –which in their traditional version are meaningless for a vast majority of our society, and for me, too. Christmas celebrates the universal miracle of life, so delicate and powerful, so diverse in its infinite known and unknown forms, life in permanent transformation, in eternal interrelation, life on this marvellous planet or on countless other planets in the universe or multiverse. Christmas is the feast of life and all that makes it possible by sustaining and nourishing it: earth, water, air, light, the light of the sun that rises every day and every winter solstice, the light of the stars that illuminate the night, like the star that brightens up the night of the shepherds outside Bethlehem, like the star that guides the way of the Magi of Persia, wise seekers, to Bethlehem, to wherever life is born. Christmas is the feast of matter, the original matrix, energy and the inexhaustible potentiality of life and consciousness in all their imaginable forms, holy animated matter, pure form and diaphaneity, transparency, of spirit or of breath. Every birth is an epiphany of the universal relationship in eternal creative transformation, the astonishing mystery. I bow down and worship Jesus and every living thing, the Breath that beats in everything, pushes and recreates it from transformation to transformation.

If life is a universal relationship that metamorphoses eternally, what is so strange about the fact that our species Sapiens, a form that emerged 300,000 years ago –just a moment ago– will at some point become extinct as such a form? The death of forms is the condition for the birth of new forms and the permanence of life, and all dissolved forms remain perhaps in the eternal cosmic memory of life. So what is so strange or disturbing about Leonardo Boff’s question about the possible end of our species? We are neither the final destination nor the end of evolution. We are no exception in the never-ending story of life.

The concern and alarm stems from the fact that the end of our human species is due to its exterminatory behaviour. From the beginning, Homo sapiens has also behaved like Homo demens. Homo faber has simultaneously been Homo predator, exterminator of other living forms and of its own living environment. Inspired in particular by Théodore Monod (1902-2000), an extraordinary naturalist, explorer, humanist, environmentalist and pacifist activist, and a fervent believer, Leonardo Boff himself has not ceased to point this out. Since the beginning, brother has killed brother, Cain killed Abel. And whoever kills the other one kills him/herself. The extermination of other animals and living species, whether we like it or not, sooner or later becomes self-exterminating. The killer commits suicide. A widespread nuclear war, the danger of which Théodore Monod warned so much, would be the worst demonstration of that.

But I do not believe that the end of our human species will come about as a result of a nuclear war. It would be dreadful –although not much more dreadful than what we are seeing in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan…, only widespread– but I don’t think it is likely. What I do regard as highly likely, as Yuval Noah Harari has warned time and again for the last 10 years, is that our species will sooner rather than later fall victim to its power or to its powerless ambition for power, and that it will succeed in doing so by developing technologies (biotechnology, infotechnology, artificial intelligence) over which it will end up losing control or over which only some (the most powerful) will have control; both would lead to the same thing: the possession of such technologies by some would end up dividing humanity between an elite of “enhanced” humans (!) and everyone else reduced to subhuman outcasts. They would both be the incarnation of Homo Dehumanised. Is it not already happening before our astonished, anguished eyes?

But why can this marvellous species, capable of the most sublime, get as far as this level of risk, this degree of horror, or is already approaching it? It is not because it was born with any “original sin” or as a result of “natural evil” or a “conscious, guilty decision”. So why? Simply because, like all living things, we were born unfinished, but with an extremely dangerous peculiarity for ourselves and for the community of all living things: our species was born endowed with amazing capabilities but at the same time is incapable of managing them wisely, harmoniously, fraternally. How can it go on being both alive and human?

Once again I contemplate Bethlehem, the crib, the figure of nascent life, of living goodness, of good life: Jesus, the baby Jesus in the arms of Mary and Joseph. Not because he was the son of a virgin mother, nor the consubstantial son of a supreme deity, nor because he is the only icon of humanity. It is the icon that reveals the most to me, and in it I look at what, with my eyes wide open, I could see in any newborn living being. And I believe that, if our species wants to become Sapiens, to harmonise its immense capabilities and its quasi-infinite power, if it wants to survive as a living and human being, it must urgently –looking at the icon of Jesus and countless others of yesterday and today– rethink and relearn how to live, it must invest its scientific knowledge in all this and redirect all political, educational, healthcare and economic institutions to all this, it must assimilate deeply what Jesus dreamed of in the arms of Joseph and Mary, what all children and the whole universe dream of, and what he announced and experienced as an itinerant prophet and healer, at the cost of his own life and for the eternal resurrection of his life: that we can only eat our fill at the common table, we can only be free by putting ourselves in our neighbour’s shoes, we can only be wise by being simple, we can only heal ourselves by caring for all, we can only be happy by being merciful, we can only live in peace by freeing ourselves from hatred. Only by being human can we be divine.

Aizarna, Basque Country. 22 December, 2023

(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)