Dead deer in a fallen tree . . . meaning what?

Pine-woods in Wells-next-the-Sea
Reading: Acts 17:16-29

Also, in place of a conventional reading I distributed the pictures in this blog to the congregation and, without saying anything about them, invited those present to interpret their meaning in whatever way they could.


After service a couple of week’s ago I had an interesting, if all too brief, conversation about whether I had been using the word “God” simply to fill in the present gaps in human knowledge? The person was referring, of course, to the so-called “God of the gaps” position where the gaps in our scientific knowledge are believed, or taken to be evidence or even proof, of God’s existence. My conversation partner held the view that science could, in principle (although not necessarily in practice), fill up all the gaps and any that might, in the end, remain were simply going to be the result of irretrievable data loss.

I replied to him, “No” and that, although I was not using the word God to refer to the ultimate entity or super-being of theism, I was using it to gesture towards something that was for us as human beings foundational in some fashion and that I used the word God to speak of something more akin to the possibility of there being anything at all, including gaps to be filled that we can understand meaningfully as things we call gaps!

As I have thought through this question over the last couple of weeks I have found I still agreed with the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from his prison cell in Berlin in 1944:

“ . . . how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know” (29 May 1944).

Another way of saying “we are to find God in what we know” is to say that the word God might be used to speak of “the source of meaningfulness” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014) and “intelligibility”. Indeed, in a new translation of Tolstoy’s “Gospel in Brief” (where Tolstoy is giving his take on the words of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) we find that he arrives at a similar thought:

“. . . the true beginning of everything is comprehension. What we call God is comprehension: this is the true God and is the entire fundamental principle.” (Shubin)

Dustin Condren, another recent fine translator of Tolstoy’s Gospel translates this same idea as “Knowledge of life is God”

So, to sum up, I’m saying the word God might be used to refer to “the source of meaningfulness”, “comprehension” and “knowledge of life”.

But I realise all this can sound impossibly nebulous, even flaky, and certainly in desperate need of grounding. I hope my story which follows about something that happened on a walk in the woods near Wells-next-the-Sea in February will fit the bill reasonably well.

During what follows I quote a few passages from an important recent lecture by Thomas Sheehan called, “What, after all, was Heidegger about?” It’s important to say that I really did have these quotes mentally in mind whilst I walked and thought because I had been spending a great deal of time with it in the previous few weeks. Indeed, without Sheehan’s essay, I might not have seen what I did.

Pine-woods in Wells-next-the-Sea
As we were walking home through the woods I suddenly became aware that there was something odd about the fallen tree just off the path to my right — it had about it what I could only describe as a vague, animalistic aspect. I called Susanna over to come and have a look but, as I began to move towards it it’s unusual aspect began to fade and I could see nothing but the broken stump of what had been a branch. At that moment I very nearly turned away to return to the path but Susanna’s eager approach served to make me complete the half-dozen remaining steps to the tree.

Dead deer in the pine-woods, Wells-next-the-Sea
Up close, and for a good few seconds, we could see nothing unusual about the tree but, slowly, the features of a head and the fore-leg of a dead munkjack deer became increasingly discernible to us both. Once seen it became immediately apparent that someone had taken great care to bind them both together so as to be able to hang them over the stump of a branch and we could now see that on top of the fallen trunk, directly above the animal’s hanging remains, there was a careful arrangement of feathers, grass and leaves.

What was this? What did it mean? How was this to be interpreted?

Susanna and I had, of course, no assured way to proceed in answering these questions. There was no one around we could ask and we were without any signal that could have given us access to the internet to look up, . . . well, what on earth would we look up?

All we had to go on were the bare physical facts before us and our own feelings, imagination and general knowledge.

I felt certain that this was not designed merely to shock townies unused to seeing dead and rotting animals, nor, given the care with which the ensemble had been made, did it seem to be an accidental melange created by the mere disposal of leftovers from a straightforward kill by a hunter. Without overplaying it, and although I may be completely wrong about this, when all things were considered, it was difficult not to see here something religious and ritualistic. But ritualistic in what way, for what purpose? In other words, what did it mean?

Was it, perhaps, an offering to some perceived ancient spirit or spirits of the place? If so, was this an offering of thanks or one designed to appease?

Was it something created with subtle integrity by a person deeply embedded in a sophisticated, neo-pagan tradition, or was it the improvised product of a single mind or group of people with only a vague, surface, clichéd sense of in what might consist a pagan offering?

Could we take it as a sign that the maker/s thought people could walk on through these woods with a feeling of safety and gratitude in our hearts or, instead, with a keen sense of danger and apprehension? Perhaps both were intended? Perhaps none?

These, and many other possible meanings, ran through my mind as Susanna and I pondered what we saw and I began to realise my that my personal responses to this, let’s call it an ‘offering’, were very complex.

As a child of the Enlightenment I have to say that my deep-seated, initial response was simply that of straightforward, and somewhat detached, intellectual curiosity. By which I mean I wasn’t, in the first instance, at all viscerally and emotionally effected by this ‘offering’. As I had looked upon it, carefully and gently examined it with the end of my walking stick, and taken a few photographs, I experienced no fear, no tingling down the spine, no strong nor even any vague sense of what we are tempted to call the supernatural, normal or physical; but then, of course, these are categories that, by and large, simply don’t show up in the world in which I daily live and move and have my being.

It was initially very tempting to me to think of the matter in terms of a riddle, one to be solved cooly and empirically. I might, for instance, be able to discover who had made the offering and, through a series of interviews with them, discover something about their beliefs and motives. These, when combined with other kinds of sociological, psychological, anthropological and brain-science studies would allow me eventually to say that I now understood, in some (claimed) objective way, the meaning of this ‘offering’. I could even imagine how I might be able to write an interesting and nice and tidy old-school monograph or conference paper on the matter entitled, say, “Modern Pagan beliefs and practices in the woods of Wells — a case study”.  

But this would be a solution, an answer — even if it were vaguely close to some imagined objective truth (which I doubt) — that left something very significant out of the picture, namely, something existential that goes to the heart, or perhaps better, to the source or foundation of all religion and, in fact, of all human cultural life for the past 50,000 odd years.

It would be a “solution” that left out the uncanny, existential fact that, despite my own deep-seated, intellectual skepticism which made me believe there was absolutely no supernatural deity (or dieties) of this place whose actual existence could underwrite the ‘offering’ and give it what I wanted to call real meaning and intelligibility as an ‘offering’, despite all these factors, there was still “real” meaning to be found.

Now here’s the subtle point in all this that we must be very careful not to miss if this address is to make any sense at all.

It is very important to see that the offering’s very lack of what I wanted to call “real” meaning and intelligibility according to one frame of reference (in this case the existence of a supernatural God or Gods), did not stop it from having “real” meaning and intelligibility to me according to another frame of reference (namely, my own religious naturalist, non-theist understanding of the world).

The really important point to grasp here is that was no escape from meaning and, as Heidegger once noted:

“When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: *the world holds forth” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8),

Heidegger also once noted that,

“Even the most trivial thing is meaningful (even though it remains trivial nonetheless). Even what is most lacking in value is meaningful” (ibid p. 8).

Heidegger’s words reveals a startling truth, beautifully summed up by Thomas Sheehan, that

“there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning”
(ibid. p. 8).

This thought gave me pause and it brought into view something that all of us nearly always miss seeing — myself included. It helped me to be lead back, again as Heidegger put it,

“. . . back from the apprehension of a thing [this offering] . . . to the understanding of the being of the thing [this offering]: understanding the thing in terms of the way it is disclosed” (ibid. p. 5).

In other words, I began to glimpse not the ‘offering’ itself but, instead, at the background truth that meaning and intelligibility is showing up all the time for everyone involved in an encounter with this ‘offering’, both for me as the ‘Enlightenment skeptic’ and for my imagined ‘neo-Pagan believer’ — indeed for everyone all the time in everything we experience. We all experienced this in our open exploration and discussion of the picture that we undertook earlier in place of a conventional reading.

So, to conclude, I’m sure you all know the story about how the fish can’t see the water in which it always-already swims. Well, this address today is simply an attempt to help us to glimpse something of the “water” in which we human beings daily swim — namely meaning and intelligibility.

Glimpsing this extraordinary, and ultimately very mysterious fact, suddenly made my hair stand on and send a tingle down my spine and it impelled me quietly to pick up a feather that was lying close by and to place it carefully and reverently above the head of the hanging deer. And so, in the end, I found I had, despite my initial scepticism, a real need to make my own kind of grateful offering to an "unknown God" in whom/which, as St Paul once said, we live and move and have our being and, as I would now add, we always-already gracefully experience meaning and intelligibility.