The Paul VI Papal Audience Room at the Vatican features a remarkable sculpture called La Resurrezione. The translation means simply, as you might expect, the resurrection. The artist description of his work is intriguing. Pericle Fazzini says that his piece represents Christ rising out of the ashes and fire of nuclear war. Indeed, it is a dramatic and ominous sculpture, which during a papal audience makes it look like Christ and the fumes of war are threatening to envelop the Pope.I viewed a picture of it in the New Yorker and the piece has haunted me all morning. I wonder why the Catholic Church would place such a sculpture in an area of religious significance. The danger of nuclear war is a bold subject to adorn a public room in the Vatican. I would imagine the larger message is that humanity can withstand even nuclear war with faith, and rise up out of the ashes, as Christ is doing. It is for sure a warning about the perils of the nuclear arms race, but perhaps also a gesture of assurance: life will go on.
For me the sculpture recognizes the human attribute of resilience. I believe it is a foundation of our species and civilization. We survived the horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust and nuclear war, and within a couple of decades had moved on. Countries devastated by bombing and invasion sprung back to find prosperity. Millions lost their lives and cities were destroyed and yet humans persevered. The plight of Jewish people is perhaps the most dramatic example of that perseverance. A military power sought to wipe Jewish people from the face of the Earth, and yet despite the incredible loss of life, the Jewish people, and the Jewish spirit, live on today.This is my larger point: humans can survive and grow under incredible hardship. I am not suggesting that First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would have an impact on the human race such as war does. First Contact could, and hopefully would be, completely peaceful. And yet First Contact, especially high information First Contact, where there is a real conversation with extraterrestrials, would be challenging and challenging in ways that we may not expect or fully understand, at first. First Contact could stress our systems of economics, politics, international relations and religion. Even more challenging would be the impact to human science and the process of knowledge building.
We have always known this vacuum of lonely human existence in the universe. To experience the intellectual atmosphere of another civilization, or perhaps even multiple civilizations, would be something revelatory. There would hopefully be many great joys in the process of finding out about another civilization and another way of thinking. The universe could open up to us in ways we have never even imagined. And yet many people will not be able to accept such a revelation. First Contact would create upheaval in the short and long term. I think we could easily withstand the short term challenges: debate, protests, and even civil unrest. It is the long term challenges, the things we have not ever considered yet, that scare me the most about that scenario.
Of course, for now, we can remain comfortable in our human cocoon. There are no worries at our door step. The rising up of Christ, no matter what your religion, can be an inspiration to humans. No matter what hardship and change that we face, we have the ability to adapt and flourish. There is hope for the future.I may be making much more out of this eight ton sculpture than the artist ever intended. But this is my message if we ever do experience First Contact someday: Tremendous opportunities usually come with incredible challenges. Take heart and know that we can persevere and come out better for it.