What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century? How do we understand ourselves to be, not only on a molecular and biological level, but also in relation to how we understand the world around us?
These are the central questions that permeate Belief & Beyond Belief, our year long series of talk, discussion and performance, which returns this month after a summer hiatus. Already this year we’ve been joined in our ruminations as to what all this means, by such luminaries as Professor Stephen Hawking, Tom Stoppard, Sir Martyn Poliakoff and the composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and backed by the stirring sound of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
But for those of you yet to interact with our Belief & Beyond Belief programme, getting a handle on the purpose and pursuit of this series of talks and performances may feel a bit like wandering into a David Lynch film midway through. Therefore, here to offer greater context to our programme, are the words of Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly.
We are fascinated about what being human means. Whoever we are, we have some things we share, namely birth and death, and in the middle we’re often thinking ‘what’s it all for?’ ‘What does it matter?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ Some people find this through clear religious purpose, others find a sense of relief in saying nothing means anything, and most people lie somewhere in the middle.
This search for the meaning of being human is ongoing, it always has been, and the arts has always been a place where people have put that search. It’s indisputable to me that human beings seek meaning, and all societies create religions and all religions - because of this idea of meaning - are tied into cultural outpourings of music and dance and paintings and more. But this is art and culture is all part of humans needing to make meaning, to make a story, to make relevant their place in existence.
We all inherit a canon of ideas, something which is very much tied our upbringing. As such we have a set of ideas based on what we were given as children, and we tend to carry on holding them - even subliminally if not actually - and I think this can make us sometimes intolerant. It makes us less able to understand a wider story.
Though we live in a global world of capital, and human, exchange, the thing that the human carries around with them on this journey - their belief system - we don’t really have a way of exchanging ideas about that. And that’s what we need to be interested in, together. Because the most important thing is not what we’re buying off each other, or where we’re travelling to, but how we’re accepting each other’s beliefs, particularly for the future.
This then, is a year of exploring things we think we know, things we don’t know, and maybe confronting the certainties that other people are pushing back to us and saying, ‘well, are we sure?’ ‘How do we know?’ Belief & Beyond Belief is an opportunity to be puzzled, bewildered and investigative, and I hope you can join us for it.