Language is the house of being and in its home we dwell—A Mothering Sunday meditation

An engraving of Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto
READINGS: Galatians 4:21-31 (trans. David Bentley Hart)

Tell me, you who want to be under Law, do you not listen to the Law? For it has been written that Abraham had two sons, one from the maidservant and one from the freewoman. But [indeed] the one from the maidservant was born according to the flesh, and the one from the freewoman through the promise. These things are told allegorically; for these are two covenants — the one from Mount Sinai, giving birth for slavery, is Hagar. And this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to present-day Jerusalem, for she slaves along with her children. But the Jerusalem above, who is our mother, is free; For it has been written, “Be glad, O you barren woman who bear no children; break forth and shout, you who suffer no birth pangs; because the desolate woman’s children are far more plentiful than those of her who has a husband.” And you, in the manner of Isaac, are children of a promise. But just as, back then, the one born according to flesh persecuted the one according to spirit, so now also. But what does the scripture say? “Cast out the maidservant and her son, for by no means shall the maidservant’s son inherit along with the freewoman’s son.” Hence, brothers, we are not the maidservant’s children, but the freewoman’s.

From
“The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism”, Penn State Press, 1997, pp. 233-234) by James C. Edwards

I have been arguing that for us the only thing capable of taking the place of supernatural religion is a life that takes as central to itself a particular kind of social practice. If [John] Dewey wanted to erect the scientist as a figure proof against our cynicism or gluttony or abandon, I have (following Heidegger, of course) wanted to raise up instead a poet like Thoreau or Maclean. In their kind of writing, and that is to say in their kind of thinking and building there is still the full Pathos of inevitability. Both know themselves to be working under the discipline of truth. Sentence must follow sentence, board must follow board, thought must follow thought “as a necessity requires.” Nothing in the thing is accidental or excessive or ornamental or invisible; everything — every word, every action, every stroke of the chisel shaping a farmhouse windowsill or every sweep of a scythe through a field of grass — tells. The work of writers like these shows a constant and overriding concern to “get it right”, the “tell the truth,” to offer “a simple and sincere account,” to “stand right fronting and face to face to a fact”; so much so that it is not an exaggeration to see their lives, as recounted in their books and things, as something like prayer: beseeching the godhead to invest itself in “the alien,” hoping to be surprised as the clearing opens before one and one is struck by seeing there the ordinarily invisible. That is the discipline of truth; that sort of questioning, that sort of continually renewed asking-for, is the piety of thinking.
          [. . .]
          In this discipline there is the constant dialectic between the necessity doing things as it is proper to do them (imagination’s own discipline of truth, I have called it) and the freedom — the need — always to try again, to listen better, to front the fact more directly. However good and true a poem may be, there is always call for more such poems. Poetry is a practice that destroys both idolatry and anomie. There is, after all, the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only I can hear it), but it is a word properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor any of the Philosophical Fathers.
excessive or ornamental or invisible; everything — every word, every action, every stroke of the chisel shaping a farmhouse windowsill or every sweep of a scythe through a field of grass — tells. The work of writers like these shows a constant and overriding concern to “get it right”, the “tell the truth,” to offer “a simple and sincere account,” to “stand right fronting and face to face to a fact”; so much so that it is not an exaggeration to see their lives, as recounted in their books and things, as something like prayer: beseeching the godhead to invest itself in “the alien,” hoping to be surprised as the clearing opens before one and one is struck by seeing there the ordinarily invisible. That is the discipline of truth; that sort of questioning, that sort of continually renewed asking-for, is the piety of thinking.

—o0o— 

ADDRESS
Language is the house of being and in its home we dwell—A Mothering Sunday meditation

One of the most important religious/philosophical themes that has been lost by the turning of “Mothering Sunday” into “Mothers’ Day” is that which allows us to explore the idea of what might be thought of as our “true home” — a theme I introduced to you last week via the thought that there is nowhere for a human to live except in meaning. Meaning is for us connected indissolubly with language and so today I want to explore something of this link which might, in turn, open up the possibility of a more secular, non-metaphysical way of celebrating Mothering Sunday.

How this Lenten feast day got its name remains obscure. The historian Ronald Hutton, points out that there is a long-established, but still unproven, argument that during the medieval period Mothering Sunday was a day when we visited or sent gifts to our mother church — i.e. the cathedral of the diocese. In an age when people more often remained fairly close to their place of birth this naturally often also occasioned a family reunion (The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, OUP, 1996, pp. 174-177).

But, what we do know is that one of the readings appointed for the day was that from Galatians we heard earlier (4:21-31) in which Paul expressed his belief that the (capital C) Church was believed to be a symbol of (or even an actual portal through which we could glimpse) the heavenly Jerusalem above which Paul thought was best symbolized by Sarah who, allegorically speaking, was our mother.

The idea of the church as a mother later came to rest for our culture most securely, not in the image of Sara, but in that of the Madonna and Child beloved of Christians and Humanists alike. I chose to use on your order of service the particular engraving of Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto because this image carries with it not only obvious Christian resonances but, because it was also a central symbol in Auguste Comte'sReligion of Humanity”, it offers the secular humanist a powerful, iconic image as well. 

In Galatians, Paul was trying to offer his first readers (or more likely hearers) sight of something most of us will have hoped for at some point in our lives, namely, that behind our transient world — a world in which all actual mothers and all actual individual instances of mothering die — there lies a permanent, foundational mother and mothering to which we can always turn in our moments of greatest need.

However in our own time and culture, for reasons I have often explored with you, such a hope is for many people impossible to hold and the whole idea of there being an actual, distinct, perfect heavenly realm or city separate from our own — let alone a supreme divine being occupying the throne of such a heavenly city — has been rendered vanishingly implausible.

Because of this it seems impossible to have any meaningful modern, secular celebration of Mothering Sunday and this is why,  perhaps, the day has morphed into “Mother’s Day” instead — it’s an awful lot easier to deal with than the theme I’m attempting to tackle today. But I think there is a way of sensing something that can be for us today meaningfully enough like Paul's heavenly mother or city but we can only hope to glimpse it insofar as we are able to keep from thinking metaphysically (ontotheologically).

But to get to this quite different conception of in what might consist a mother or city “above” we need first to explore one of the most important aspects of good mothering (and remember in all this that good mothering can be offered just as much by fathers, siblings, friends and strangers as it can by someone we conventionally call a mother), which is the ability to be there in an almost infinite range of specific and ever-developing situations and able to speak to a child or young adult just the right word. It is to be present to speak a word which, even as it supports, guides, teaches (and to some extent also imposes certain rules about how to negotiate the world well) is also a word which is able to remain open enough so that the child or young adult is able eventually to leave behind those same supports and rules, to stop doing what has or is merely generally done, and slowly begin to push out into their own, authentic experience of the world. It is, of course, at times also to say the kind of word which indicates one is listening and saying (almost) nothing.

But this kind of skill — so essential to good mothering in every context — is one our increasingly digital culture seems to be losing. As a friend of mine, a writer who teaches English and writing at UCLA, Dana Cairns Watson, noted after a Mothering Sunday address I gave back in 2012 that

“The digitalization (or just the recording) of sound and image suggests that it’s the words/sounds that matter, not the setting and specific needs. This assumption — not stated aloud but asserted by the technology itself — is one of the bad theories behind the idea of online education as a good substitute for classrooms, or having a child learn language from tv and cds, rather than interpersonal communication.”

Dana added to this point some words by another teacher at UCLA, Emanuel A. Schegloff (a Distinguished Professor of Sociology) who noted that

“. . . participants [in an actual face-to-face conversation] analyze and understand, from moment to moment, the contexted character of their lives, their current and prospective circumstances, the present moment” and that “the very terms of that understanding can be transformed by a next bit of conduct by one of the participants (for example, a next action can recast what has preceded as ‘having been leading up to this’)”(Source)

Having myself taught (rather unwillingly) half-a-dozen online courses in my time, Dana’s and Schegloff’s words resonate very strongly with me. Also, having had over the past seven years occasional grandparenting duties looking after Susanna’s grandson in playgrounds around the city I have also seen the power of digital screens to take many a parent away from being properly present to their children and from being in the position to offer any kind of word to them, let alone the right one.

These things and others besides have been a powerful reminder to me that in the business of mothering the word must never become a disembodied, contextless one, but one always made flesh.

Now any reference to the phrase “the word made flesh” inevitably brings to mind in those of us of us brought up in a Christian context the verse from the Gospel of John (1:14): “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Or, as David Bentley Hart renders it: “And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth.”)

Again, for reasons I have explored with you at other times, I think it is possible to say and mean along with the writer of the gospel that “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), however what is here meant by “the Word” is not what Christianity as a whole came to mean by it. Today most of us are likely to be in agreement with the American philosopher James C. Edwards’ take on the matter when he speaks of the poet’s understanding of the kind of word in which all human related things begin. For the poet it is 

“the word properly required *only* for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers(James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, p. 234).

Now I think that the best mothering is also to be speaking this kind of word as a poet because it, too, is a poeisis (ποίησις), i.e. an activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before, namely, an educated, poetically creative and active human being. The beginning of this this new, educated creature always begins in and depends upon the social practice that includes the delivery of the right word. To draw further on the passage we heard earlier from Edwards, good mothering also knows that it is under the discipline of truth and that: “Sentence must follow sentence, board must follow board, thought must follow thought ‘as a necessity requires.’” Good mothering also knows that “every word, every action” of parenting tells; knows a “constant and overriding concern to ‘get it right’, to ‘tell the truth,’ to offer ‘a simple and sincere account,’ to ‘stand right fronting and face to face to a fact’”; knows that 

“In this discipline there is the constant dialectic between the necessity of doing things as it is proper to do them . . . and the freedom — the need — always to try again, to listen better, to front the fact more directly.”

It was this kind of insight that led Heidegger to observe in his “Letter on Humanism” that “Language is the house of Being” and that in its home the human dwells, to which he added the thought that “those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home” (Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism 1947).

This kind of understanding of the word helps gift us see that we are always already within human language — it is the medium of our lives and through it we are gifted an intelligible and meaningful world in which it is possible to help mother into being the accomplishment of the most abundant life both for ourselves and others. Our liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition has come strongly to feel that we bring about this kind of life best, not by forceful, brute coercion, but always by being present in conversation to utter the right word, by persuading each other, with arguments, programmes and petitions and also, at appropriate times, even with commands, prohibitions, resolutions and decrees. The aim is, of course, always to embody the right word, to incarnate it, in all our actions — it is everywhere to attempt to make the word flesh.

I hope you can see that this understanding of the “Word” is radically different from that held within traditional monotheism even as it offers us certain helpful continuities with that understanding.

Anyway, the point is that language is always-already there for us and in it we dwell and have our being and so, in this sense, language — were this possible as “itself”, before it turns into actual words, sentences, poems and novels — seems like it is “above” us and has, therefore, the feel of something we might still, at least poetically and allegorically, want to call “heavenly”, “transcendent” or even “the Jerusalem above”, our mother.

So, to conclude, I’d like questioningly to suggest that, when a person consciously thinks and creates — employing teaching, guiding and insightful words in the fashion I have explored above — are they not themselves becoming a guardian of this house of Being, becoming themselves an example of the word made flesh? Also, in so far as that same person comes to know they belong to this mother, this dwelling, and seek to pay homage to her by guarding and supporting her, might they not also be on the way to being able to celebrate a meaningful, secular-religious, humanistic version of Mothering Sunday?

I remain hopeful, but not at all optimistic, that this can be so . . .

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