A man is put under fMRI until his neural synapses light up a computer screen, “solving” age-old problems of human existence: this is oft-repeated story of our brain-obsessed contemporary culture. But our collective obsession with the brain is strikingly recent. The Jewish Torah claimed that God breathed humanity into being; ruach, meaning “breath” or “spirit,” described the moving power that sets humanity in vital motion. This emphasis resounded into Greek thought. Aristotle believed that human life was entirely dependent upon pneuma—the root of our word “pneumatic”—a vitalizing power that transmitted crucial bodily nutrition and imparted movement, “analogous to the element that constitutes the stars.” Pneuma would then, for Christian Apostles, describe the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

Our brain-obsessed culture is rediscovering the awesome vital power of breath: from the strength of a virus exponentially, reciprocally spread through breathed particles; to the phrase “I can’t breathe”: all-too-often gasped as a simultaneous fact and plea before the awesome life force of a black man or woman is choked out of existence.

Relearning the power of breath has been difficult. To relearn the power of breath is to also unlearn the presumption that we are somehow sealed off from the world through the self-contained powers of genetics and cognition, vulnerable only to the degree that our minds may be “lit up” by external stimuli. It has forced us to unlearn that our lives are primarily defined by our self-evident, self-determined rights. It has forced us to realize that while we may not be vulnerable, our very existence may prove to be a risk to our neighbor. It has taught us the importance and the danger of unguarded intimacy, and the importance of carefully instituted boundaries in our homes and hearts. We have learned both the pragmatic power and the psycho-social poverty of breathless algorithmic technologies. We have learned how the “inner sanctum” of our own hearts and minds can be tainted by racist ideas that permeate our cultural milieu.

But we have also relearned the sheer significance of breathing a shared lifeworld: from the first cry of a new born baby to the first, communal inhale of a choir about to merge in song. We’ve begun to re-value the very act of sitting close enough with a new friend to see the whites of their eyes; unconsciously absorbing their “difference” through processes like chemical and electrical entrainment, imbibing their sacred existence for the sake of a broader devotion to the lived reality of all people: expanding our sense of self by encountering others.

And we are learning. Our hope, with this call, is that this time of social distance may help us learn to be a people not defined by the everyday distances of presumed self-enclosure, but by selfhoods forged through intentional, healthy communion with the surrounding world. Selves who long for a spiritual life of lived vitality, inevitably forged in the world for the sake of individual and communal flourishing. And we believe that creative re-engagement with the world, forged through art, can reawaken us—as the Catholic film theorist Andre Bazin put—to the world “for which our eyes would otherwise not have filled us with love.”

Prompt by Nathan Roberts