St John the Divine, Isaiah, ducks and rabbits - or an odd, but important, way of seeing the world

This is a considerably expanded version of the address I gave on Sunday in church.

Revelation 21:1-6a (RSV)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."


When I first explored this passage from Revelation - the set new year reading this year in churches which use the Lectionary - I took a generally negative stance towards it and argued that, in the realm of practical and everyday human politics, the dream of a perfect human society being delivered by God complete from on high was, not only implausible, but also potentially very dangerous.

I pointed instead to my prefered vision of the "coming" of the kingdom found in Isaiah where a voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain" (40:3-4 RSV). I felt that here we encountered a more plausible image of how the kingdom of God might be brought about i.e. by encouraging us to engage in incremental human change.

But, of course, there is no need to take any Biblical text one-dimensionally and so where I earlier took these two passages to refer to the realm of public politics and society it is also perfectly legitimate to think of them in relation to inner states of being. In this setting I've increasingly come to the conclusion that St John the Divine's vision may be more apt than Isaiah's. Here's what I mean . . .

I inherit, like many of us, a Cartesian world-view shaped by the methods of the natural sciences. From this point of view knowledge is mostly understood as something slowly and incrementally acquired; individual facts are collected about the world and then a variety of theories are proposed which attempt to show how these many disparate facts might coherently hang together. As new facts are discovered new theories are proposed which try to take them into account. The ultimate aim being the achievement of a fuller, more rounded and complete description of the world. This has been a stunningly successful project. If you are deeply rooted in the Protestant rational dissenting tradition that gave birth, not only to this particular church, but also to key aspects of the modern scientific secular world-view itself, then it can be tempting beyond belief to adopt a similar way of approaching self-knowledge. Bewitched by this "scientific picture" self-knowledge also comes to be thought of as something that can be slowly and incrementally acquired. I'm sure you can see that Isaiah's vision fits very well with this outlook.

The problem has proved to be that adopting scientific or quasi-scientific methods (bewitched by a "scientific picture") doesn't turn out to be appropriate to the work of acquiring "self-knowledge" - which can also be described as the project of understanding how to become a fulfilled and flourishing (happy) human being - to have life, as Jesus taught, and have it abundantly. As the American philosopher,  Stanley Cavell, realised self-knowledge does not have anything to do with the acquisition of facts about oneself:

"The more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one's problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have *forgotten* what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached a conviction, but not about a proposition; and a consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognise as problems are different, your world is different" (cited in Ethics without Philosophy - James C. Edwards p. 135).

The point of all the foregoing is to make it clear that our desire for self-knowledge - surely one of the reasons for coming to a church - *cannot* be fulfilled through the collection of more facts or theories about the world but only by bringing about a radical change in our sensibilities so that we come to *see* the same world differently.

What is odd about such radical changes in the way we *see* the world is that they arrive, not incrementally but suddenly. The world appeared one way last night but this morning, somehow, everything has changed. Think of how, although one can know in a factual way that one is mortal, a direct personal brush with death suddenly changes your general sensibility towards this fact. You begin to live differently because you see life differently.

For another example of how the seeing of facts which remain the same can suddenly alter we may take a look at Wittgenstein's famous (if borrowed) "duck-rabbit" (Philosophical Investigations Part II, §xi) printed at the top of this blog. When you first look you see it only as a "duck" but then, lo!, it suddenly (even if it takes a while on the first occasion!) changes to a "rabbit". Once you can see both and flip between them - where formally you could see only one - you realise that something about you has changed. But notice it is not that you now know more hard facts about the world (after all the picture remains the same) or facts about your self it is simply that the world - or at least this funny little drawing - is seen by you differently. Your *sensibility* has altered "before your own eyes"; this popular colloquialism - "before your own eyes" will become important in a moment so hold on to it.

Anyway, it should be obvious that this sudden "arrival" of a new way of seeing the world is much more like St John the Divine's vision of a new heaven and a new earth suddenly coming down from out of the sky than it is like Isaiah's.

OK, all well and good, but this leaves us with the rather important question of what kind of radical change in the way in which we see the world is to be encouraged - or more honestly what kind of change am I, as a minister of religion working within the Christian tradition, trying to encourage in others (and myself of course)? I'll remain with the "duck-rabbit" to help me. But please remember this is just a simple teaching aid to help you to a sudden change in the way you see the complex world because seeing the complex world is infinitely more complicated than seeing a simple picture that reveals itself alternately as a "duck" or "rabbit". So, let's stick with the relatively simple for the moment!

Traditionally, of course, many (most?) of the world's religions have sought to encourage potential adherents to experience such a sudden radical change - to undergo the life-changing experience called conversion. But, if they succeed in this aim they also (often silently) seek definitively to replace a person's former view of the world with the new one. So, if my religion's way of looking at the world reveals "duck" and I find that you claim it reveals "rabbit", then I am likely to want to get you to see "duck" and, at the same time, to persuade you that seeing a "rabbit" is, not only false (at best a mere illusion) but also morally wrong and, in important ways, deleterious to your ultimate well-being and/or salvation.

But I'm trying to encourage us to SEE THAT we see that the picture can be seen as either a "duck" or a "rabbit" but without, as I do this, seducing you into thinking I am making a claim that we can see "through" this kind of seeing to an underlying  universal and essential picture of ducks and rabbits. Even with this new kind of seeing it is important that I get you to realise that we cannot escape seeing it as EITHER a "duck" or a "rabbit" - we are NOT enabled to see what we might call a "dubbit" from a position sub species aeternitatis ("from the perspective of the eternal"). 

I want to effect a sudden change in us - in the first instance at least - so that (before our very own eyes) we are enabled to "see something about seeing itself" rather than worry about what it is that we see at any particular moment. Only then, can I move honestly to my next point: replace either the word "duck" or "rabbit" with the word "Christianity" and you might just suddenly catch a glimpse of the very unusual kind of "Christianity" it is I am encouraging us to practice here. This is not a crude relativism because I am encouraging us to life fully out of our ways of seeing the world but being more honest and clear about our ways of seeing the world - seeing that we are seeing the world in a certain way.

Enough! That will have to do, utterly inadequate as it is to my task . . .

One of my philosophical heroes, Paul Wienpahl, said the following which so resonates with what I am trying to say today that I'll must begin to draw to a close with them:

". . . I have grown tired of thinking and the rational. This is not to say that thinking and the rational can be found to be unimportant. It is rather to say that something else slips in. I feel the need for control, and, hence, for the rational and reasonable, as strongly as ever. But from investigation I have gone to reflection, — from the river to the pool, from the clear and clean to the turgid and opaque. The way is not easy and perhaps I should not have selected it for myself."

I'm acutely aware that what I am saying will simply seem to many of you to be dreadfully turgid and opaque, but I have offered you these words at the beginning of a new year because I really do think that if a modern, meaningful form of Christianity (in fact any traditional world-view) is to survive and flourish in this coming century then this apparently odd way of seeing the world needs to become much more commonplace throughout the human species. Why? Well, I'll just offer two of many reasons.

Firstly, people are less likely to engage in religiously or philosophically derived violence if they can be helped to see that, without changing the world in anyway at all, their beloved "duck" can also appear as a "rabbit" but without going on to create new false imperialist universalist religions which claim to be able to see behind "ducks" and "rabbits" a truer "dubbit."

Secondly, because anyone who suddenly sees this, instantly experiences something (if only fleetingly at first) of that state in which our attachment to desire for things, people or theories about the world is overcome and, at last, they take their first breaths of the abundant life Jesus and many other great religious sages such as the Buddha promised could be ours.

That we all move a little closer to this more peaceful and abundant life is my new year wish for us all.