The FULL circuit of object, image, action at every point of our lives

In his 1951 essay called the 'Human Universe' the North American poet and critic Charles Olson made some insightful comments that are, I think, worth bringing to your attention as we try to figure out what we, as a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition, can be saying and doing in the contemporary world.

What follows are just my notes - I ran out of time to put them into an easy and readable form so they're in a God awful mess! But, well sometimes, you just have to wing it with what you've got and, if you're lucky, you get just enough height to miss the surrounding mountains and land on the other side. If you're unlucky . . . well you decide.


Olson thought that the "human universe is as discoverable as that other, and as definable." By the 'other' he means, of course, the universe at it is discovered and known by the various natural sciences.

But, in doing this, Olson is not putting forward another version of the old, and by now fatally flawed liberal project of constructing a quasi-scientific religious language that was thought to be able neutrally and universally to describe a world of 'spiritual facts' or 'essences'. Instead, what he hoped to re-discover was a 'way' of being in the world that can help human beings be more fully present in the world and, therefore, to attain the fullest flourishing possible. To have, as Jesus promised, life and to have it abundantly (John 10:10).

But the problem in discovering this modus operandi and making it a concrete practice is that when we come to look at the world and our place in it 'the definition is as much a part of the act as is sensation itself'. Olson noted that, in this sense,

'life is preoccupation with itself, that conjecture about it is as much of it as its coming at us, its going on. In other words, we are ourselves both the instrument of discovery and the instrument of definition.'

We must add to this difficulty (that we are implicated fully in the world) the allied one that we can only share the discovery and definition of this through language, and language, as we have been exploring over the last year, is as liable to mislead us as it is to bring us any genuine clarity. It can trap us like flies in a fly bottle.

The problem is, of course, that we in the West have consistently made the mistake of thinking language can actually describe an objective world 'out-there'. On the back of this, as a species we have gone on to develop many metaphysical systems which, in ordering the apparently available facts have given apparent coherence to the whole and, therefore, have offered us a variety of ways by which we can come to feel our own human coherence.

Now we desire coherence because, as we all know, the human-condition is such that so much of life often seems quite the opposite namely chaotic and incoherent and I'm sure I don't need to list all the fears and worries each of us has with regard to the meaning of life and our own place within the world. We desperately want truly to know how we belong to the world and what to do in it. Another way of putting it is to say we desire to know first hand an ultimate home - which is a 'place' of coherence.

Now this is what anyone comes to any church or religious body wants to discover and I take the task of helping you reach such a 'place' (home) with absolute seriousness. Because I don't want to defraud you with cheap illusions it is why I'm sometimes so hard to follow. It is also why, under the heading 'opportunity for conversation'  in the order the order of service in this church you will see the words that 'We affirm but one orthodoxy: a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it.' I cannot tell you how important that statement is for the community I hope we are building and I urge you to commit it to memory.

Anyway, given this need for coherence we are all too easily persuaded (quite understandably) into adopting one kind of metaphysical system or another - the one that seems to us the most 'reasonable', 'true' or, at least, 'the least unlikely'. One person chooses (or keeps to an inherited) Christian metaphysic, another a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Hegelian, a Spinozean, etc., etc..

And it is true that these systems do offer their adherents a feeling of coherence. As Olson notes, we are often so 'astonished' that we 'can triumph over [our] own incoherence' through these systems that we stick with our chosen solution through thick and thin and we 'go at a day again happy' we at least make 'a little sense'.

Very few of us are prepared to examine very closely our chosen solutions because, to some degree or another, they do make us happy, they do make us make sense to ourselves. Why would we want to ditch them? Well surely - if we are truly committed to the one orthodoxy of this church then if we come for one reason or another to be sure that our coherence is built on sand and not upon rock surely, surely, we would want to revise our thinking?

It seems to me that Wittgenstein's therapeutic non-metaphysical philosophy does just this because it shows that the way we mostly USE our philosophical and religious language is fatally flawed.

Another way of putting it is that the compass we have been using for centuries to direct our spiritual hopes and exploration and engagement with the world has been shown to be faulty. Over the past year I have been, with varying degrees of success, gently trying to show this. It's a disturbing discovery I'll admit.

I realise that some of you do not agree with me on this point but, given that I'm charged by you to be your minister and lead you safely into a genuine 'home-land' my job is to say to you absolutely clearly I think the liberal religious compass is broken and, given that I'm genuinely interested in actually getting to where we want to go and not go on pretending we know where we are and what we are doing I can do nothing other than say, 'Whoa, let's stop. Guys, sorry to tell you this but, collectively speaking, religious liberals are mostly lost.'

Now some people will interpret this admission as despair but really such an admission is not at all desperate. In truth it is entirely sensible and rational to state it. The compass is broken; we're lost; let's stop and see if we can fix it (cf. Philosophy and Real Politics, R. Geuss, p. 8).

(NB. Pretty much all my work over the last year has been trying to land, as gently as possible, this unpleasant 'punch'. Only when as a community we can really see how language can't do what we thought it could do can we hope to get it to do what it actually can.) 

However, what I find hugely comforting (and true) about Olson's words is, not only do they make it clear that he felt likewise - albeit not in an obviously religious context - but also that he thought we could fix the compass and he, like Wittgenstein, thought we had a chance of doing this by examining, firstly, 'the present condition of the language'. That is why I will continue to encourage us to look very, very closely at how we use our language.

But in the process of fixing of the compass - if I'm not being too previous in claiming that the compass I'm now using is at least working better than it was, we quickly discover another problem. This is that we come to see that all the religious words we once used to help guide us to our destination no longer contain the information we once thought they did; words like, 'God', 'the kingdom of Heaven', 'salvation', 'union', 'redemption', 'goodness', 'truth', 'beauty' etc. etc. need to be recalibrated with the readings of the repaired compass.

So how do we ensure that we can do that recalibration and figure out what direction we need to head?

Well, for me this is where Olson's genius is revealed - in offering a possible way of recalibrating those words. Olson points - somewhat sloppily it is to be admitted - to Heisenberg's discovery that when it came to certain pairs of physical properties - such as position and momentum - so, the more precisely one of them is known, the less precisely we know the other. Olson thinks that something similar is the case in the human universe when we try to measure human life; when we try to precisely measure only one aspect of human life other aspects become imprecisely known. The similarity between a particle's wholeness and human wholeness is that they are both moving, journeying things commingling with everything around them. So Olson says "There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it." [The kinetic energy of an object is the extra energy which it possesses due to its motion.] He continues:

'Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. And why art is the only twin life has - its only valid metaphysic. Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is  once more to possess intent in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again.'

The repaired/recalibrated compass points 'in' to this world - not out of it. The words we use don't separate us from the world but are ways of deepening our involvement - commingling with - the world.

Olson is careful in his own poetry to show us what he means by this - show us because it is really impossible to say this (and why this post is a bloody awful mess) - the bewitching power of language is so great.

So let's take a poet. In Olson's mind (and mine) a true poet does not describe the world but only commingles with it, takes it in through her senses and, by her own powers of conversion creates a poem and the poem then 'made' is not precisely an independent thing capable by analysis of being understood fully but only a property of the poet's enacted life. Remember Olson's point about Heisenberg - to measure or analyse the poem as an independent thing is not to get to the heart of the matter. Merely to measure one of its properties is to blur other properties - we don't understand the whole that includes the poet and the poem, the subject and the object.

So true poets don't seek to describe the world instead they are people who can show us how to be fully at home in the world - they contribute to the restoration of the human house. Their life is commingled with the world so that object, image and action are in their lives not pulled apart.

We may say similar things too about other kinds of artists and their work and we may also say it about the great spiritual leaders. The work they produce is never really an independent thing attempting to describe an external world - no matter what it may look like - no their work is only an enaction of life itself - kinetic. As Olson suggests - there is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it. And here we are back at a point I have made a number of time with relation to our own church's basic spiritual discipline. In our case the kinetic is glimpsed in the life of Jesus. We can only share the fruits of such an abundant life by re-enacting it. We don't in doing this become carbon copies of Jesus - but simply more fully ourselves.

Now that's the terribly difficult trick we have to perform as religious liberals - to reconnect as artists the FULL circuit of object, image, action at every point of our lives.

So everybody clear about that???!!!


Mickbic said…
Great thoughts for equinox!! Our compass may no longer work and our alarm clocks don't always do the job. I am reminded of the phrase "you have hewn out broken cisterns that can hold no water."

Each of us can experience the abundant life Jesus promised regardless of our pet theologies and political views. That should be our hope anyway.
kbop said…
you made it over the mountain.
Ah, thanks Kev. Though I think there was definitely some crap in the carburettors . . .