Mother Love All The Way Down—A Mothering Sunday meditation in the context of the refugees trapped on the Greek-Macedonian border

Venus and Mars
Readings: I began by explaining why I was not going to use the reading from which we derive the whole idea of Mothering Sunday, namely, Galatians 4:21-31. Not least of all this was because Paul's image relies upon us abandoning, for wholly spurious reasons, one human mother and child in favour of another. I said that, instead, I wished to begin with reading something found in the Book of Isaiah, specifically in the King James translation:

Isaiah 49:8-18

. . . Zion said, The LORD has forsaken me,
     my Lord has forgotten me.
Can a woman forget her sucking child,
     that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
     yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands;
     your walls are continually before me.
Your builders outstrip your destroyers,
     and those who laid you waste go forth from you.
Lift up your eyes round about and see;
     they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, says the LORD,
     you shall put them all on as an ornament,
     you shall bind them on as a bride does.

The second reading was taken from:

Proem to Book One of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, trans. by David R. Slavitt (University of California Press, 2008)

     Mother of Aeneas and of his Rome, and of gods
and men the joy, dear Venus, who underneath the gliding
heavenly signals busies the seas with ships and makes
earth fruitful (for only through you are living things conceived
and because of you they rise up to bask in the light of the sun):
from you the harsh winds flee and the skies’ black storm clouds scatter
at your approach; for you the intricate earth sprouts flowers,
wide ocean roads subside into gentle smiling, and furthest
reaches of heaven glow serene in response to your prompting.
In the spring’s first days, the nurturing western breezes breathe
free again, and birds in the air, smitten by you,
warble the news of your coming, as beasts of woods and fields
cavort in the meadows and splash through brooks—and all for love.
Under your spell, all creatures follow your bidding, captive
eager even. Look to the teeming seas, the mountains,
the fast flowing streams, the treetops, or rolling gorse where the birds
flutter and dance the reel of lust as earth once more
renews itself as you have ordained, for you alone
govern the nature of things, and nothing comes forth to the light
except by you, and nothing joyful or lovely is made.
I seek, therefore, your blessing and help in writing these verses
that I presume to compose on the Nature of Things, the way
things come about and are—for Memmius’s sake, my friend
whom you have favoured, goddess: for his sake give me words.
     Make it happen that war interrupts its savage work
on land and sea, for this would be in your power
and you can bring to mortals that peace we long for as Mars,
who is mighty in warfare and rules over bloody deeds, adores you,
will lay his head on your lap, defenseless, utterly vanquished
and altogether undone by love’s unhealable wound.

I also showed members of the congregation a picture taken by Petros Giannakouris (Associated Press) of a refugee woman holding her child as she ran away from police firing tear gas on the Greek-Macedonian border, 29th Febraury 2016.  Do please click on this link to view it before you read on.

For the record, this address is revision and rewrite of one I gave on Mothering Sunday back in 2008. For those interested in such things, on my blog you will be able to compare the two texts which will give you some idea of my own direction of travel over the past eight years — one that will, no doubt, please some and disappoint others.

—o0o—

Over the nearly sixteen years of my ministry with you I’ve remained acutely aware that when I use the word “God” in this church it can sound to a first-time visitor — and even to quite regular visitors — as if I am talking about the same God that is believed in and worshipped in most Christian churches and, for that matter within Islam or Judaism. This impression can be added to by the fact that I so often choose to illustrate what I have to say, as I have done today, by drawing in part upon some biblical text from the Judaeo-Christian tradition — the tradition out of which I came and which, despite my knowledge and genuine interest in other religious traditions, is the only one I can truly claim to know. Consequently I can, and sometimes do, sound to many people, although liberal, still metaphysically quite Christian. However, those who really know me know me know this is far from being the case.

Of course, I’m genuinely happy for any of you to use and understand the word God how you will, but when I use the word here I’m always doing it in one of two ways; the first is clearly human and decidedly non-metaphysical, the second appears to be somewhat more metaphysical in flavour. 

When I’m using it in a non-metaphysical way (which is most of the time) I’m drawing upon John Dewey’s use of the word God as found in his important book, “A Common Faith”. He wrote:

‘We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God”. I would not insist that the name must be given’ (A Common Faith, 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47). 

When I’m minded — or sometimes need — to appear more metaphysical, I’m using the word God in a way which draws upon Henry Nelson Wieman’s use of the word:

‘Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist’ (Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan Company, 1926, p. 9).

In early-modern period this ‘Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance’ seems to me to have been most attractively and plausibly presented by Spinoza who thought it was best understood as being equivalent to Nature. In a nutshell he consistently sought to divinize Nature and naturalize the divine, and that’s a project I’m certainly trying to continue here. Most importantly Spinoza’s “Deus sive Natura” (the God-or-Nature referenced in our opening words) is NOT personal and you cannot, in any normal, everyday sense, talk with, pray to or influence such a God. It is also vital to note that neither does this kind of God (this 'Something') write books, holy or otherwise, in order to communicate with us. Anyway, I more or less agree with the words Albert Einstein wrote to Murray W. Gross in 1947 (26 April), saying:

‘It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem - the most important of all human problems.’ 

By taking my cue from Einstein’s point about treating ‘values and moral obligations as a purely human problem’ and as ‘the most important of all human problems’ I can begin to move towards a theme obviously connected with Mothering Sunday.

To be human is to engage with the world not only as rationalist philosophers and scientists, but also as poets and artists. We think, and we feel and imagine. To help us explore and discern what might be good and lasting human values and moral obligations, we have often given those same values and moral obligations faces and personalities and we have turned them into characters in plays, poems, songs, novels and films. For example, in ancient Israel, “wisdom” became personified as a woman, Lady Wisdom; in Greece and Rome “wisdom” was Athena and Minerva respectively. In Christianity this tendency to personify was, of course, taken to its ultimate extreme in the figure of Christ who, by degrees, became a personification, not just of one virtue but all of them and, as such, for many Christians a male, father God himself. Over the centuries this has become increasingly problematical and there are millions upon millions of people around the world who really think God is a interventionist and often violently judgemental male person arbitrarily condemning some to hell and others to paradise both in this world and the imagined next.

In the face of this horror I am often tempted to ditch the idea of personification altogether. But remember my earlier point that to be human is to engage with the world not only as rationalist philosophers and scientists, but also as poets and musicians — we continue to gather around not only the lab-table but the campfire or hearth and we are always already imagining and creating stories along the way. This is one of the reasons I so value the Roman poet Lucretius (1st Century CE) who, although a naturalist and atheist, was wise enough to begin his epic poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), with a paean to a god — in his case Venus, who was for him a personification of the beautiful face of Nature in its creative mode. 

With Lucretius’ dear Venus in mind, the need for and value of poetic language in our exploration of human problem of values and moral obligations, and the fact that it is Mothering Sunday, I’m going to suggest that there is today a rich harvest to be gained by more regularly personifying God-or-Nature as a mother rather than as a father. Remember, as I do this, that I don’t think the personification of God-or-Nature as mother is any more really-real than personifying it as a father — all I am saying is that in our present age such a female personification seems more amenable, appropriate and vital to our present and ongoing needs as human beings. For the following illustration I’m indebted to my philosophy tutor at Oxford, mentor and, later, friend, Victor Nuovo, under whose gentle and wise guidance I first properly began to explore and truly come love both Spinoza’s philosophy and Lucretius’ extraordinary poem.

Victor invites us to consider the love of a mother for her suckling child and also the image of God or Nature as mother. He suggests that ‘if God is truth, then, since mother love is a truer image of love, we perhaps ought to embrace it.’ Indeed, I am inclined to agree with Victor that such an image better ‘expresses the whole meaning of our existence’ than does the image of God as father. In connection with this thought he told me a story about something that happened to him one spring in Vermont where he and his wife, Betty, have lived for many years:

‘Some weeks ago, I was loading a cart to carry my recycling down the driveway. It looked like rain, so I though it advisable to cover it with a tarpaulin, to keep the paper from becoming rain-soaked and hard to handle. The tarpaulin lay rolled up beside the cart, where it had been for some weeks. When I unravelled it, I discovered that a mother mouse had made her nest in it; there she was nursing her brood. She was terrified as were her nurslings, whose eyes had yet to open. They clung to her teats not, in this instance, to suckle, but because they found security there. She tried to cover them with her body. They were as one being. It was a beautiful sight, and yet heartbreaking. I had absolute power over them. I could have killed them, and perhaps I should have. But I could not. Instead, I set them gently on a flat shovel, and carried them to the edge of the yard and set them down in some undergrowth. Once there, the faithful mother mouse moved away, her nurslings still clinging to her breasts, and found shelter. Oh how I wished that I might make all beings in the world safe! But I am not the king of love, or a faithful shepherd. And there is no such power. There is only mother love all the way down.’

Victor observes that the aim of a mother’s love is ‘to nurture to maturity a free human being (or, indeed, an adventurous mouse!), the perfection of the life that was conceived in her womb and carried there.’

A mother’s love and suckling is, as Victor notes, ’the beginning of a child’s engagement with the world, the first moment in the adventure of learning, the awakening of the mind, perhaps its first act, a prelude to finding one’s way in the world.’

Victor then asks the all important question of ‘Where does this love come from?’ The answer given in most churches points, of course, to the personal God of monotheism, but for reasons already touched upon this is an answer which is simply not available to me. Victor answers, as do I, in a Lucretian manner by suggesting ‘that it is in the nature of things to love in this way.’ In other words an emergent quality of God-or-Nature is, in living creatures, this astonishing thing we know as mothering love — it seems to be graven on the emergent hands of Nature itself as Isaiah once believed it was graven on God’s eternal hands. 

Victor concludes that, although we cannot all be mothers, ‘we can all learn to love like this, tenderly, faithfully, steadfastly, in a way that nourishes, that gives life, that comforts, that seeks to set free, as though we were all mothers to each other.’

To borrow a beautiful line from the book of Common Prayer it is surely ’very meet, right, and our bounden duty’ to observe this on Mothering Sunday in order to encourage us to display this through all the realms and days of human activity.

Which point allows me, lastly, to turn again to the picture of the refugee mother and child you have before you. It seems very important to note Lucretius’ felt that dear mother Venus is also, by her creative love and beauty, capable even of quieting the savage work of Mars, the god of war. This image of a mother and child refugee from war speaks painfully and eloquently to the need for such global expression of creative mother love that can play its part in quieting the savage work of war which continues to bring this mother and child, and countless others, such dreadful pain and anguish. 

Let us, in all our actions bear witness to the natural truth that there is, indeed, mother love all the way down.

Amen.
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