Monday, February 23, 2009

Semi-Annual Migration

Due to trans-Atlantic migration the next post on this blog may be late, possibly not until March 15, though I will do my best to find a way to post as I travel.

Green Faith Day III

What is the most useful thing we could all do to protect the environment?

Learn the work of silence.

The root cause of climate change (and most of our other problems) is that we have lost our core silence, inherent in our evolution, essential to our survival. Proof of this is our preoccupation with wildlife programmes on TV; as we watch the animals' core silence at work in their relationships with each other and their environment, we are looking at our own lost nature. Recent studies are suggestive: we can relieve stress to a certain extent simply by looking at a photograph of the natural world. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is now a psychosis known as "Deprivation of Nature Psychosis" , which afflicts urban dwellers.

The more we re-familiarize ourselves with nature, immersing ourselves in it physically, learning to see, hear and sense its subtle messages, the greater the interior healing; and with our healing, a greater sensitivity towards the earth. We see the healing impact of nature all the time in Alaska where elderly people come to learn how to die (even if they may not be aware that this is their agenda), and problems with alcohol suffered by Native people can often be relieved simply by their returning to fish camp and their traditional foods and ways.

Alaska's indigenous Elders know that to survive you must listen. Deeply. For them, when they are out in the wilderness or on the sea-ice, a mistake is the same as a lie, and a lie is the same as murder. For this reason Native peoples also regard with horror the white person's habit of ripping time away from space and motion, of which it is a function, and treating it as a discrete entity.

Our toxic, phantasmagorical pseudo-world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. A life of illusion adores only what it can consume and lives solely for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of deception and arrogance that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence. But when he comes, will he find faith on the earth?

One reason that the "dominion over nature" problem developed (see Question 2) is that human beings lost the balance between silence and speech. It's ironic that the Genesis story can be interpreted as the moment that balance is lost, leading to hallucinations—the paranoia, the flaming sword. God doesn't punish; God just heaves a great sigh and makes Adam and Eve some clothes. Their altered perspectives stemming from the distraction of the first conversation changes their relationship with and attitude towards the earth (once a gift, now a toil).

It is a sad fact that the institutional church has exacerbated the loss of this needful balance between silence and speech. By the time of the Council of Constance, which was held in the second decade of the 15th century, the hierarchy had effectively banned silence, for its members knew that a person who has been educated by silence has matured to an autonomy that cannot be coerced. The rise of the 14th century mystics can be seen as a protest against the institution's growing insistence on mind control and a relentless infantilization of its people.

This suppression of silence was so effective that between the death of Nicholas of Cusa and the birth of Martin Luther, silence, taught as a practice and used as an interpretive tool, completely disappeared from the official institutional repertoire. By the time Luther became trapped in his nightmare feedback loop of language about sin and damnation, no one knew how to help him. Although he had an instinct towards the work of silence, he was trapped by the language wars of the time. Sadly, the institutional church is still incapable of helping us recover our silence because it no longer knows, understands or teaches it. If we want to learn to live happily in simplicity, then we must recover the work of silence on our own. The laity are the church; we need not and cannot wait for the hierarchy. (The work of silence was preserved by certain humanists, dissenters, metaphysical poets and hymn-writers down through the 19th century; in the 20th by people such as Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.)

Religion without silence is madness because religion is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour, the resurrection of the mind through the body. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. If the people making the rules and writing the doctrines do not practice the silence from which these doctrines arise, then religion gets bent out of shape.

The work of silence can be described very simply: it is the process of getting beyond the noise of our own minds. Anyone who has practiced single-pointed meditation is familiar with it (counting the breath, focusing on a phrase). Merely learning to sit perfectly motionless and utterly relaxed for thirty minutes can change your life. But meditation is only the beginning of the work of silence. One of its goals is to help us to learn to seek silence our "default" setting; that is to say, that instead of turning on the radio as soon as we come home, to reach inward, beyond the noise, and tap into that core silence. After one meditates for a while, this silence becomes more accessible; one can go there directly without much in the way of mediating steps. With time, there is a continual flow between this core silence and ordinary thinking so that the balance between speech and silence is re-established. But be warned: this growth will alienate you from consumer culture.

This conference urges us to take action on climate change. But all the talk is pointless unless we recover the work of silence, which alone can help us change our consumer habits. So-called "will power" will not work. The work of silence enables us to want to live simply. When we repeatedly yield all our cravings, all our thoughts and ways to the silence, its mysterious transfigurative power will effect the necessary changes to our habits and our lives. Without it, we are trapped in the cycle of heedlessness.

I have deliberately used non-religious language to describe this process, but it is only a short step to understanding that however else the bible is interpreted, the work of silence is a major theme running through it, particularly through the New Testament. Paradox is often a signal that this theme is present: "Who loses life shall gain it" is the most obvious example. The bible keeps trying to turn our attention away from narcissistic distraction towards the face of the divine; yet the practices of modern religion makes us more reflexive. Bible translations are only one example: the loss of the God-ward word for the wondrous exchange, "behold," has been replaced by the reflexive and analytical words "see" or "look here". The sort of ignorance that gives rise to these dreadful, unmusical and often unreadable translations, is symptomatic of how serious the impact of the loss of the work of silence has become.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Swimmer's Eucharist

[This fragment is part of a meditation given on a wilderness retreat about 20 years ago. It seems appropriate to post it after the beautiful BBC film on salmon last night.]

The humble God refuses to control, the humble God indwells and co-creates by enhancing life. The humble God in joyous, incarnate self-outpouring, chooses the cross, chooses it simply to show us the extreme to which Love is willing to go to show us how it sustains, indwells and co-creates with us.

How, then, can we find symbols that communicate this humble God to us, this God in whose image we are made and whose life we are invited to mirror? How, in a technological society where control is the highest goal and sacrifice is despised, where the price of life is hidden under cellophane wrappers, and the homeless haunt the streets?

One reason for hikes such as this is to remind us that the life of God permeates all creation, that we must be humble before it, serve and preserve it, because the principle that underlies the cosmos is one of sacrifice—sacrifice that is not annihilation but fulfillment. The sacrifice to which we are called is to embrace our mortality, creating a density through which the spaciousness of salvation is brought into being. Or, put another way, mortality becomes like the framework of a sonnet that causes our creativity to burgeon and flower into spaciousness beyond its narrow gate, a spaciousness that enhances lives that follow.

It is hard to find liturgical images for city-dwellers that communicate the principle of sacrifice that lies at the heart of things. In Alaska we are luckier: we have the indigenous tradition of salmon, the Swimmer who shows us life spilled out in fulfillment, life that joyously gives itself, life that flaunts its wounds and leaps ecstatically through the frame of mortality. Salmon calls forth our tears, tears of pain, longing and joy inextricably mixed within us, tears that anoint our wounds in Christ’s, still visible in resurrection, not covered over or hidden, but entered, offered and glorified. Swimmer is Eucharist.

But we cannot use the metaphor of Swimmer in isolation. Swimmer is only one creature in the Eucharist of interrelationships. Swimmer’s solitude bears fruit in community, not only with other salmon, but with Raven, Eagle, Bear, Orca, rocks, trees, moss, barnacles, kelp, plankton, fungus, fern and devil’s club—creatures visible and microscopic. Swimmer's life and death are essential to the life of the forest.

In the solitude of each creature is the spaciousness, the listening stillness where these connexions are made, and from which community receives its life. It is only in our solitude’s stillness that any metaphor can help open us to the delicate equipoise of God’s life indwelling the creation, and the importance of our choices, not only for our own planet, but for the planet’s collective choices that affect the web of the universe in ways we cannot know.

How blessed are they who know their need of God.... how blessed are we when we have to the humility to know that we need the life of the humble God expressed through creation; how blessed are we when we have the humility to know what we minimally need, when we confront ourselves with greed disguised as need—greed that threatens to extinguish much life on the planet. For when self-care and self-confrontation are held in balance within us, we are given the gift of self-forgetfulness, the gaze on God that causes us to flaunt our wounds, flinging our hearts through the stream of love pouring from ourself-forgetful God, and this is the end for which we are made.

“The whole life of the swimmer is one of courage and adventure. All of it builds to the climax and the end. When the swimmer dies he has spent himself completely for the end for which he was made, and this is not sadness. It is triumph.” (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven, p. 47)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Between Omnia and Nihil, Everything and Nothing

[You don't have to know any Latin to use this image; see sermon below]

Between Omnia and Nihil, Everything and Nothing

Sermon for St Olave's Church, York, February 15, 2009

Wisdom playing before the face of God; wisdom seducing people in the marketplace; wisdom revealed in the diversity of creation; wisdom expressed through the person of Christ; wisdom in the language of the Logos, the creative rationality of the divine—today's readings are rich enough to make us gloriously dizzy.

And perhaps that's the point. Every once in a while we need to be yanked out of our cozy domestication of God to be overwhelmed with an excess of images. The word excess is important because its Latin form in the Middle Ages is linked to union with God, often signaled by the phrase excessus mentis, a kind of prayer in which the ordinary self-conscious mind is transcended—tipped over the threshold, perhaps, by an excess of images and words.

Words such as God, wisdom and silence are useful in this process precisely because they de-schematize our minds. They can't really be defined because they gesture towards a vastness of life and love that is without geometry, without boundary, without circumscription or horizon. Whatever form Wisdom appears to take, whatever task she energizes, her playground is between everything and nothing; everything in the sense of the limitless God who is Alpha and Omega, and nothing —well, it's the various sorts of nothing that perhaps we need to look at.

God is no-thing—how could it be otherwise since God worketh all thing as Julian of Norwich remarks?

But the infinite potential held in God's no-thing is very different from, say, the tohu-bohu, the messy chaos, the empty ruin of Genesis out of which creation is made; and both of these forms of nothing are different from the de-creating chaos of trapped minds making their own hell, the dead-end of reductive thinking.

Sometimes the words everything and nothing have the same referent. A person can have everything in the material world, but in the context of a personal crisis everything becomes nothing in comparison with the interior resources needed to face death. In a similar way, if we ask, 'Who am I'? we might first think of everything we are, an impression formed largely by paying attention to the noisy opinions of other people which augment our equally noisy and skewed perceptions of our selves, our wants and needs.

This cacophony includes judgements we make about our so-called 'true self' and 'false self', as if the self were a static commodity, to be elongated or chopped off to fit a procrustean bed sized to stereotypes. Worst of all, we make the assumption that we are capable of making these judgements about our selves, an assumption that makes us little better than bandits on the road to God.

If we were able to stop and be silent long enough to allow the noise of opinion and judgement to fall away, we might come to realize that this everyday critique of our selves is itself nothing, is illusion; that only by finding our way past the noise to the seeming nothingness of the silence of self-forgetfulness can the everything of who we are, the fullness of the unfolding truth of our selves, be revealed.

This movement into silence is mirrored by wisdom's progression through this morning's readings. In the Old Testament lesson and the psalm, her delight is a full measure, brimming over in an unquenchable stream. By contrast, her appearances in the New Testament readings, are more coded. By the time we reach the Gospel of John, wisdom is no longer even named; she has become cryptic, tantalizing and unfathomable, the creative rationality of God hidden in logos language. To point this out is neither to praise the Old Testament nor to denigrate the New. The two ways of describing wisdom may themselves be another example of the reach between everything and nothing, from the obvious metaphor in Proverbs, to the gesture towards the ineffable in John.

Everything and nothing dominate the first three verses of the Gospel of John. David Howlett, the editor of the Medieval Latin Dictionary, set this passage as out as poetry. [See the image above.]

In the middle of the Prologue are the words facta sunt/factum est, that is to say the fullness of what is made. What is made is bracketed above and below on the left by the Latin words for 'through him' and 'without him' per ipsum and et sine ipso, yet another expression of everything and nothing.

And all of these phrases are bracketed—again, above and below to the left—by the words omnia, everything, and nihil, nothing. And the entire passage is bracketed by the words Verbum, the silent Word through whom all is created, and tenebrae, a darkness we might think of as an act of silencing, which cannot comprehend the Word or the light of life it brings. It cannot silence Silence; it cannot evacuate into a negative nothing the everything in the hidden Word.

However, what John has written is but a prologue, a beginning.

If we really want to understand what these passages about everything and nothing mean for everyday Christians, we need to turn to the Prologue's mirror, which is the great kenotic hymn in the second chapter of Philippians (5-11), a hymn we will hear repeatedly during the coming weeks of Lent and Easter. Caveat lector! Reader beware! Translations of this passage are often misleading, because the theology that it espouses is today so poorly understood.

The hymn begins by saying that Christ was in the form of God; there is endless argument over what the word 'form' means, but that need not concern us here except to note that this word signals the equivalent of everything. The hymn tells us in verse six that the revelation of Christ means that God's understanding of power is not as we think of power; perhaps an echo of Isaiah 55:8, : 'for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.'

Unlike ourselves for whom wielding power usually consists in self-inflation and self-reflexive dominance, God does not regard power as something to be 'grasped.' This is the word used by the excellent RSV translation, reflecting the Greek harpagmon, which, Tom Wright tells us, means license to grasp. The Latin for this word—reflecting St Jerome's characteristic vehemence—is the much stronger rapinam.

Rejecting these exorbitant and reflexive attitudes towards power, Christ refused to exercise license and instead, in the regrettable phrase most often used in translations, 'emptied himself'. This action would be far better translated as 'outpoured himself.' (Again the Latin is extreme, the word exinanivit has the equivalent opposite force of rapinam.)

The words of the hymn continue the trajectory of this outpouring: humbled, servant, obedient and death. In other words, God's nature is consistently outpouring as it stretches between everything and nothing. And the nothing in this passage is not just death; it is the force of de-creative chaos. The chiasmic text unwinds itself into a chasm, and it is into this unspeakable non-place, without geometry, boundary, circumscription or horizon, that Christ descends.

At the sight of this appalling black hole, it is as if the writer of the hymn—indeed the entire universe—takes a deep, deep breath in the next word, propter. Jerome's choice of this word to translate the Greek dìo, which in English is translated as therefore, is significant. He chose not to use the other Latin word for therefore, which is ergo.

By this choice Jerome reminds us that this hymn is not a proof, QED; it is descriptive. Propter is a space of expectation, of opportunity, the wild, crazy hope that comes only after passing through despair. The joyous words that follow, exaltavit and donavit, exalt and give, are not the consequence of the nothing but were made possible by the opportunity that the outpouring into nothing created. As in John's Prologue where the light does not replace the darkness but grows out of it, the exaltation and gift arise from the nothingness into which the everything of God's love is willing endlessly to outpour.

And the exalted gift is given is a name. In the ancient world, names were power: if you knew the name of a god, you had control over it. But we are not told this exalted name, for it is the silent name of God, the silence of self-outpouring. Laughing in the face of the abyss, the poet uses omne—another form of the word for everything—three times at the end of the hymn signaling all created beings (visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, powers), and all worship; and all praise.

One of the many implications of omnia as the exaltation of this willing nihil is that there is nothing that needs 'redeeming' because nothing, not even de-creative chaos, has ever been separated from God. God's outpouring stretches between omnia and nihil not once upon a time long ago, but now, in each fragment of the creation at every moment; it is the Eucharist we celebrate today.

This complex reciprocity, even identity, between omnia and nihil exists because of the paradoxical nature God's outpouring power. We cannot properly say that God has an identity or a self as we understand it, because for us, identity, like language, can only be self-reflexive. God's identity, paradoxically, is this outpouring, without reflexivity.

And if this were not vertiginous enough, the whole point of the hymn is that God's nature is also ours. We too are stretched between omnia and nihil, not only from birth to death—and which is which?—but in the choices we make in every moment of our lives, choices that ultimately reveal our complex and unfolding truth.

For us to realize our shared nature with the divine we have only to choose to inhabit the 'mind of Christ' which the hymn describes. Again translation is a problem, for the English word mind is insipid compared to the Greek, which signifies the way we dispose our being. The Latin nuances the Greek with resonances of experience, choice, way of thinking, meaning, purpose.

But everything in our consumer culture and our consumer spirituality mitigates against putting on this outpouring mind of Christ. Its noisy message tells us that wealth, power and ruthlessness are supreme. It assures us that walking labyrinths, talking and reading endlessly, participating in spiritual fads will sanctify our selfishness, bring us happiness in our greed; and, oh yes, our success will be facilitated by a lot of expensive kit.

Poised as we are today between the financial excess that once promised everything but has revealed itself to be nothing, and given the ongoing descent of the economy towards an unknown vacuity, few of us care any longer to be extended in this way. Perhaps in the deafening silence of a failed market economy we are beginning to wake up to the fact that everything that has gone wrong with our world, our relationships, our church can be traced to the refusal to put on the mind of Christ, which refusal is manifest in the loss of our lives' dialogue with transfigurative silence, that is to say, wisdom.

Wisdom, which we receive through the work of silence, stretches us with Christ between the omnia, the everything of the past, and the nihil, what appears to be the nothingness, of the future. It is ours as we play before the face of God in the equipoise in the present moment, which is not a moment, but a silence and stillness that remove us from the noise of the artificiality of time, self-reference, and merely linear thinking.

This silence is a wellspring that flows from eternity. We can learn to draw on it continually to inform our daily round, to recover the balance between silence and speech, to enable the hidden eucharistic truth of each of us to unfold. We can learn to silence our mental noise, not by turning to other noise, but by learning to reach through it to wait in the silence of God. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up.

The way to God is not along the bandits' road of spiritual consumerism, relentless manipulation, and words without root or end, but through the strait gate of silence, whose doorposts are everything and nothing. This gate opens outward into the sanctuary where the angels of comedy and tragedy shelter the empty mercy seat; where we participate in wisdom's delight, playing in the silence of God who speaks in our hearts and says, 'Seek my face.'

Your face, Lord, will I seek.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Green Faith Day II

Question 2

Different versions of the creation story in Genesis describe our relationship with the world as being one of us having “control”, “rule” or “dominion” “over” our planet. This has been used as a mandate for exploiting creation. How should we understand it today?

The problem is that we have misunderstood this passage all along. God gives responsibility for tending the earth before the incident with the snake, the occasion of the first conversation. Up to that point, Adam and Eve had an undistracted communion with God; the optimum nurture and care of the earth was implicit in the instruction.

Irenaeus (2nd century) is good on this point; the kenotic hymn reiterates it. Equality with God (being made in the imageless image of God) is not license for grasping, as Tom Wright nuances the Greek harpagmon; God's idea of power is the opposite of "rule" and "dominion over".

But, thanks in large part to the desire of institutional church for mind-control, the art and work of silence, which restores communion with God, has been lost to Christianity's interpretative repertoire. [See my forthcoming article in Word and World, April, 2009, and a forthcoming book, Silence: A User's Guide.]

All we can do now is to try to re-learn how to listen to the earth, which is speaking to us all the time. Like the child and the horse in The Horse Whisperer we must become receptive so that the earth may heal our perception, in order to heal itself. Sadly, again like the child and the horse, we may have to be brought to the place where we look over the edge of the abyss before we are able to relearn this skill. By then it will be too late.

Wendell Berry has written a poem that sums up what this sort of listening is like:


By Wendell Berry

I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.
But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.
I go into the one body
that two make in a making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.
The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.

"VII" from the poem 1994 by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, © Counterpoint, 1998.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Green Faith Day, 17 January, 2009

[I was on a panel for Green Faith Day, held in Tilehurst, a suburb of Reading, UK. One of the organizers has asked me to post my responses to the set questions we were given ahead of time.]

1. If there is one contribution Barack Obama could make at the beginning of his presidency to the global environmental challenges we face, what would it be?

I would like to begin by telling you a story about how rapidly people can reduce their consumption of energy if they have the right incentive. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, our electricity comes from a hydroelectric plant about 40 miles south of town. The lines that carry the electricity cross some of the wildest and steepest terrain imaginable. This system is backed up by a diesel-fueled generator system in town.

Until last year we had been incredibly lucky. But in the late spring, an avalanche took out three of the towers that support the cables—this at a time when diesel was $5/gallon. No one knew how long it would take to repair the towers, and everyone was facing a five-fold increase in energy costs. As it turned out, the weather cooperated and we got the towers back online far more quickly than anyone anticipated. But what was even more interesting was the rapidity with which the populace, which has as many or more red-necks as conservationists, dropped its energy consumption. Within three weeks consumption had dropped by 30%. Some days it dropped as much as 50%. Of course, it was spring, the weather was warming up, and there was a lot of daylight. All the same, this example shows what people can do in terms of energy conservation if they put their minds to it.

I would like to see Obama introduce a form of creative energy rationing. Every household and business would be required to reduce its energy consumption by 30% over a reasonable period of time. This goal would be accomplished not only by cutting down on usage but also by having every household contributing to the energy grid by means of solar panels, and windpower. If a household contributed more than it used, it would be compensated according to the going rate. A household could go into credit. This sort of system is already up and running in a few places.

This program and structural modifications to properties would be financed in part by a heavy tax on windfall profits of big energy producers.

In addition, there would be deadlines for regions to reduce their auto traffic emissions by a similar percentage, forcing auto-makers to provide more energy-efficient vehicles, as well as forcing regions to create light rail, carpooling systems, and park-and-rides.