Re-story-ation - “Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
READINGS:

Re-Storying the World by Steve Dunsky

Dougald Hine from the flyer for the Dark Mountain event here in the church on Friday 13 Apr 2018 7:00 pm—9:00 pm called “The Kind of Hope Worth Having: An evening with Dougald Hine (The Dark Mountain Project) & Billie Bottle”

 "I want to talk about what happens when we stop assuming that despair is a thing to be avoided at all costs," writes Dougald. "But also when we stop assuming that it is an end in itself."

          Running behind the everyday rhythms of our societies, there is an undertow of fear and loss – and the tools for making sense of the world that we've inherited from recent generations don't equip us to handle this.
          So while the toxic consequences of unexamined grief spill out into the political landscape, we have experts arguing that this is all a terrible misunderstanding. They can prove to you with graphs that everything is getting better and optimism is the only rational position. Then there are others who will say, yes, something has gone terribly wrong, and what we need is to recover the faith in the future embodied in Kennedy's moon speech or the cybernetic socialism of Stafford Beer.
          I don't think those calls to optimism are going to cut it. Too much gets swept out of sight, left unnamed, in order to make those arguments. So I want to start instead by talking about grief and loss and longing – not because this is all there is to say, but because unless we can start from here, what we have to say will not sound real.
          There is hope to be found in this direction, but it is a humbler thing than optimism. It makes few promises, and it does not lean as heavily on the future as the architects of the modern world felt able to do. But it can help us get oriented and ground our actions in the present.


Carmel Point by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.


—o0o—

ADDRESS
Re-story-ation—“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

We are still, of course, just at the beginning of the seven-week long Easter season which will end on Pentecost or Whit Sunday on 20th May. Given this I want today to stay with the basic Easter trope which is that out of suffering and darkness there can come a restoration of light and life, a trope paralleled in much thinking and writing about spring.

But, as I have noted once already this year, the modern liberal religious tradition whilst it will often, with gusto, seek to celebrate the joys of Easter it has developed a widespread tendency to try to do this without first having travelled through the Psalmist’s “Valley of Tears” (Ps 84:6) and Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond” that is the death and dark tomb of Good Friday and Black or Holy Saturday. I have often found in liberal circles what is to me a disturbing unwillingness fully to live the truth found in some words attributed to Tolstoy that “A person who doesn’t recognize the beneficence of suffering has not yet begun to live a rational, real life.”

It’s not that somehow I take morbid delight in dwelling upon darkness and suffering per se, but simply that both study and experience has taught me that any light and life which has not first been refined by passing through some kind of real darkness and suffering is, in the end, going to be an all too fragile and untempered material out of which to make a lasting flame and truly strong and resilient life.

Now the process of refinement which occurs in the tomb, the “Valley of Tears” or the “Slough of Despond” is one we might be tempted to call a “restoration” as I did at the beginning of my address. But the problem with using that word to describe this complex process is that we will be in danger of thinking that out of the darkness we can (or should) be returning to something resembling the kind of light and life we had previously, a restoration of the status quo ante. Such a restoration is problematic because (were it possible — which I doubt) it would merely return to us our previous unrefined and untransformed state of light and life — we would have been restored to a condition that was still full of our old toxic problems and dysfunctionalities which would, in turn, continue to drive us into making the same destructive mistakes that lead us into the Vale of Tears and the Slough of Despond in the first place.

Despite this there remains alive for me a certain healthy and hopeful resonance in the word “restoration” and I wouldn’t want to loose that by introducing into play a wholly new word. This is why a few years ago I was hugely grateful to an American film-maker working with the US Forest Service called Steve Dunsky who, as you heard in our reading, alerted me to the fact that his colleagues at Oregon’s “H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest have begun using the word “re-story-ation” to describe the complex process abut which I’m talking.

It is the thought contained in this — that the only restoration worth its salt is one that re-stories our lives in new ways — which allows him powerfully and prophetically also to say “Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

The Dark Mountain Project is absolutely centred on the recognition of this and that is why I have invited one of its founders to speak to us in this church next Friday.

But, alas, we have not yet created — or at least not fully articulated — the required new stories or metaphors. The simple reason for this is because we are not yet, culturally, religiously, philosophically, scientifically or politically speaking, anywhere close to “Easter”. Instead we are only just collectively beginning to wake-up to the fact that we are rapidly approaching (and perhaps have even just entered into) what is clearly going to be for all of us on the planet Earth our own ecologically, politically and religiously created Good Friday and Black or Holy Saturday.

This is a terribly hard message to bring before you because as much as I would wish it were otherwise I do not believe it is now possible to arrive at any meaningful “Easter” for our planet without passing through an exceptionally difficult, grief inducing and potentially hope-sapping period of refining darkness.

However, having said that, the message of hope hidden at the heart of this darkness is that re-tory-ation does occur in such times — this is something I explored with you a couple of weeks ago on Palm Sunday. But for this much longer-term hope to be a realistic one we must ensure that we do not waste the creative opportunity the darkness offers us.

We must not go resignedly or thoughtlessly into this night but rather go into it wide-awake of the need to use its qualities to help deliver up to ourselves and those who come after us a truly strong and resilient new light and life.  

Since we are only at the very beginning of this refining process  we do not yet have the re-story-ations that might finally emerge from it but, fortunately, I think we already have some helpful indications of where were we may usefully and fruitfully start the hard work that must be done.

One such place that has occupied my own thinking for a number of years now is the need to “uncenter our minds from ourselves” and to “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from”. Following our readings you now know that these words come from a poem called “Carmel Point” written by the American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). In his preface to his 1948 collection “The Double Ax and Other Poems” he tells us that unhumanization 

. . . is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness. (Source)

Unhumanising ourselves will, I think, be one the most important and difficult re-story-ations we’ll attempt because, until recently, almost every story humans have ever told each other in pictures, carvings, poems, books, plays and films across the perhaps 200,000-year history of homo sapiens has had us at the centre of things playing a indispensable and central role in the unfolding of both the physical world and the world of meaning. In one sense, how else could it have been or ever be different? This is because we have no access to the physical world or the world of meaning apart from our embodied human-being which makes it all to easy to feel and think we are at the heart of it all.

Because of this limitation Jeffers was aware that we needed to do our unhumanizing in a sensitive, pastoral but still unsentimentally honest way which allows us to keep what is best in the old humanist perspective whilst sloughing-off all that is worst about it. Consequently, in the same preface Jeffers writes that, although we must “Turn outward from each other . . . to the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity” we need to ensure that we do it only “so far as need and kindness permit” and we do it in this fashion because this “is not a slight matter, but an essential condition of freedom, and of moral and vital sanity.”

Now I offer these words to you at a time in our human development when the evidence before us now overwhelming reveals we are not at the centre of existence but are, instead, an intimate and interdependent part of existence and that we need new stories to help alter our profoundly wrong and ultimately destructive human-centric perspective accordingly.

From where I’m standing it seems to me that the regular, careful and strategic use of word “unhumanism” in our public conversations, dialogues, stories and academic papers and so forth is one useful way we can help change the direction our species has been heading for two-hundred millennia in way “a few well-placed rocks” can affect the entire flow of a river. The word “unhumanism” seems to me to be just such a rock which can play its part in shifting our previously destructive human-centric flow into gentler, more creative, life-sustaining unhumanistic ways of flowing.

This is, I think, one simple, practical and genuinely hopeful way we can begin to help along the re-story-ation that needs to take place in our coming Good Friday and Black or Holy Saturday.

But another thing we can do to help is to acknowledge the need to express out loud our profound grief at what is being lost to us in this time and also to facilitate ways of doing this which lead, not merely to restoration of the status quo ante, but to the kind of grieving that can help re-story-ate us.

The new metaphors we create in our coming Good Friday and Black or Holy Saturday must be ones which include those which involve an acknowledgement of profound grief; grief at the poisoning of the air and the sea; grief at the raping and pillaging of the land; — all griefs to which each of us have knowingly and unknowingly contributed. And so we also need to offer stories about and practices of profound repentance — something of which I explored in last week’s Easter Sunday address.

But the trouble is that I find, as Dougald Hine finds, that although “[r]unning behind the everyday rhythms of our societies, there is an undertow of fear and loss . . . the tools for making sense of the world that we’ve inherited from recent generations don’t equip us to handle this.”

This disturbing lack of tools means that plenty of people around us — including many influential politicians, religious and philosophical figures, scientists, artists and futurologists — are only too willing to offer us (snake oil) arguments and “graphs [which claim to show] that everything is getting better and optimism is the only rational position.” But, again along with Hine, “I don't think those calls to optimism are going to cut it. Too much gets swept out of sight, left unnamed, in order to make those arguments.”

In my own ministry with you I also “. . . want to start instead by talking about grief and loss and longing – not because this is all there is to say, but because unless we can start from here, what we have to say will not sound real.”

Let’s not forget that, even though what both I and Hine are talking about will be hard beyond anything any of us has ever faced before. Despite this, as Hine notes

There is hope to be found in this direction, but it is a humbler thing than optimism. It makes few promises, and it does not lean as heavily on the future as the architects of the modern world felt able to do. But it can help us get oriented and ground our actions in the present.

I feel strongly that only strategies informed by some of the foregoing thoughts will eventually be able to do the the kind of heavy lifting required to deliver up to us the modern "Easter" re-story-ation we know in our hearts we must to bring about. And as we work together in this task over at least the next twenty, fifty or hundred years let’s try not to forget the motto that has lain at the heart of this address:

“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

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