Astonishment or surprise? - or riding the crest of the world's continued birth

Last week I addressed head on a feeling that I know is prevalent amongst many of us, namely, that a belief that there exists either a theistic God or a transcendental realm "out there" which roots our earthly life and gives it meaning no longer strikes us with the force of inevitable knowledge. I noted that it is the case that increasing numbers of people are forced to agree with Hölderlin's thought with which he begins his poem "Germania":

. . . the blessed, who once appeared,
Those images of gods in the ancient land,
Them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .


I was concerned that such a feeling disenchants our world because the meaning, weight and importance - which used to be vouchsafed by God - no longer seems to have a "root" or "source". However, I did not think all was lost and went on to suggest that although we *may* not invoke God (because we don't think God is there) we *can* - indeed do - still invoke God but we find that what comes to us is not, of course, God, but only the space God used to inhabit. I noted that this imaginative space could still be called and felt as sacred - for after all it was the place God used to inhabit - and I cited the philosopher, Timothy Clarke, who suggested that it was "an empty space that might one day be filled but which for the present can only be kept open, safeguarded from obliteration" (Timothy Clarke, "Martin Heidegger", Routledge 2002, p. 110).

I concluded by suggesting that perhaps our task as a contemporary religious community was to do just this and not to succumb to the temptation to fill the sacred imaginative space opened up by the passing of God merely by replacing God with new and equally untrustworthy idols.

All well and good - and from your various positive reactions last week I take it that it is, broadly speaking, all well and good - but that still leaves many unanswered questions about how we might go about achieving this.

In the coming weeks I'll try to offer a few practical suggestions - it won't quite be a full scheme of works but it is as close to that as I can get at present. But a useful first step is to be aware of the appropriate attitude to our situation and task. The philosopher Mark A. Wrathall observes that:
 
"The search for a new source of divinity . . . becomes a question of finding a mood, a mode of attunement, which will allow things to show up as having weight or importance. By the same token, the inquiry into the death of God needs to be understood in affective terms - that is, as orientated around the question of the mood appropriate to the death of God"
(Mark A. Wrathall in Religion after Metaphysics, CUP 2003, p. 73).

So what might that mood or mode of attunement be? Well, a couple of weeks ago I re-introduced you to the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold via some observations he made in an essay entitled "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20). In that same essay he says something which points towards an answer by distinguishing surprise from astonishment. Here is how he presents surprise:

"Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made."

It is not that surprise has no place in our life, of course, but it is vitally important to note Ingold's point that we are only ever surprised when we allow ourselves to be seduced into thinking that we have got everything nailed. Consequently, surprise seems appropriate only as part of the overall learning process and so functions as a healthy reminder to remain open to the fact the world will go its own way regardless of the theories we develop when we try to hold the world solely to *OUR* account. Surprise does, therefore, have a real use at certain points in the ongoing human endeavour to understand the world and our place in it.

I think it seems reasonable to suggest that, on the whole, Western European culture has been surprised rather than astonished by the death of God - by which I mean the God of theology. But of course that should come as no surprise to us - pun intended - because the God of theology was very much geared towards control and predictability. If we could find ways to know this God (often in ways we thought, falsely, were analogous to the developing natural sciences) then the world - including the moral world - would for us become increasingly predictable and, therefore, increasingly controllable.

But, as we know, the world has gone on regardless and, to cite Charles Taylor, for us "conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible, honestly, rationally, without confusions, fudging, or mental reservation, to believe in God" (Charles Taylor in Religion after Metaphysics, CUP 2003, p. 53).

In passing - but very importantly - I want to say that when I am talking about the world here I am not just using the word "world" to mean the universe "conceived as a totality of objects of a certain kind" but also the world (or worlds) in which we live - i.e. the worlds of our practices, what Heidegger (in Being and Time) calls "the 'public' we-world, or one's 'own' closest (domestic) environment" (93)[65]. This is actually very important and there are some other distinctions to make on this matter but I'm just going to have to let them go for the moment.

However, as Ingold goes on to say:

"By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves then vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity."


It seems to me that "astonishment" is a "mood, a mode of attunement" that is entirely appropriate to our present situation after the death of God. But the question is how might we cultivate it?

Well we may make an effective start - in fact we have already made a start - by taking as our guides any person whose work clearly encourages this openness to the world - whose work doesn't hubristically seek to close down possibilities, whose work is not merely an attempt to describe and, therefore, control the world and predict its various outplayings. In the words of Ingold these are people who "ride the crest of the world's continued birth" (Ingold p. 19). Importantly we must realise that these surfers include both scientists and artists. I'll return to scientists in a moment if only because Ingold is not as positive about science as he might be.

One of the reasons I am taking a good long look at Mary Oliver at the moment is because she is one such person who clearly rides the crest of this wave - that is the world's continued birth. Recall her poem "At Blackwater Pond" that we looked at last week (you can here here read it here):

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?


I'm sure, now it has been pointed out by Ingold, that you can see Oliver's response to the cool water is astonishment not surprise. Surprise knocks you back because something has gone "wrong" with the way you thought the world worked - in its positive use this will help you to reassess things and go back to the world more respectfully. Astonishment, however, is an instantaneous heeding of a call from the depths of being (yours and the world together) to look deeper, or to remain with the surfing image, in the moment of astonishment - such as in the drinking of a glass of cool water - you can't help but help ride the crest of its wave deeper into the world.

Jesus, too, provides an example of someone who seemed constantly able to ride the crest of the wave that is the "world's continued birth". If you look at the way he responds to the world - in all its guises - he constantly responds with astonishment rather than surprise. It's his disciples who, for the most part, show surprise at the things that happen. But, if we able to connect with his spirit we cannot, alas, now connect with what he thought was the source of divinity - for us that God (the idea of that God) is dead. That is why I am pleased to belong to a church that meets in the "spirit of Jesus" not in the "beliefs (or imputed beliefs) of Jesus"

In the realm of science I particularly want to point to Erwin Schrödinger's wonderful 1944 book "What is Life?" a book that is full of astonishment - you get the real sense of a man riding the crest of a wave deeper into the world. (I'm sure many of you will be able to cite other such scientific texts - please do note them in the comments if you do - it i just that this is the only one I know reasonably well.)

As I said above, in the coming weeks I will try to offer you a few practical tools which can help us inhabit the world without God as we seek "a new source of divinity". However, in the meantime, I strongly suggest that you see if you can begin to be alert to the possibility of responding to things with astonishment rather than surprise. You'll undoubtedly fall off your surfboard more than a few times and will certainly get very wet and not a little dispirited. But do keep going, read authors like Mary Oliver and Erwin Schrödinger, be alert to their astonishment as well as Jesus'. If you do, and stick to it, then slowly but surely you will find you can ride the wave of the world's continued birth further each day.
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