Imagine a clearing into which the light pours

First an admission of a huge debt. Over the past two years I have been profoundly impressed and influenced by the work of James C. Edwards. Indeed, during this vacation I re-read his The Plain Sense of Things  (Penn State Press 1996) upon which this post draws heavily. Of course I take full responsibility for how I use his work and my project as the minister of this particular church in Cambridge is not his and he should not be blamed or implicated in what I write. I am not a philosopher myself and admit that I am bound to have misunderstood him at many key points. Having said that I really do think he offers people like me (and maybe you!) a way to live authentically (and religiously) in the light of the demise of the persuasiveness of traditional religion.I do recommend you check him out.

However, I have to say that I find it bloody difficult to take this kind of thinking and present it in a community context in a way that is accessible and genuinely helpful. Do I succeed? - well, rarely if ever (and here I must thank my congregation for their patience with me). I get too complicated and haven't (yet) figured out how to do what needs to be done either eloquently or with simple ease. Yet the task of developing a religious response after religion, after metaphysics and after God seems to me to be one that must be attempted and that's what's going on here in this very small local liberal Christian church. Ho hum . . . Anyway, here's an expansion of what I offered folk this morning at the service:

Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, “Look, here it is!’ or, “There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The time will come when you will wish you could see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. There will be those who will say to you, “Look, over there!’ or, “Look, over here!’ But don’t go out looking for it. As the lightning flashes across the sky and lights it up from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.  (Luke 17:20-24, GNB)

One of the most powerful guiding images of the intellectual and spiritual life in the West has been light. Of course it is a guiding image also found in other cultures but for us (i.e. late twentieth, early-twenty-first century Westerners) the light came generally come to be understood as illuminating the things of the world – where there is light, or when we (knowing subjects) find ways to access light, we can then see the more world clearly and truly.

This image of light has shaped our religious (and actually also our non-religious) understandings of in what consists salvation – that is to say how we achieve a sense of meaning, harmony and belonging to God and/or Nature. Light, whether expressed as Christ or reason (or whatever) has been understood by us as key in securing this essential salvific knowledge. Knowing the nature of reality we would not only know the true nature of things (itself a great boon) but also what to do and what is good, true and beautiful.

Outside the Bible the locus classicus of this image is for us, of course, Plato’s Republic (Book 7) in which he offers us his famous metaphors of the cave and the sun. Last week I was practicing my Chi Kung - or Zhan zhuang  站桩) – which is a kind of standing meditation – in the yard out the back when I found myself in the middle of this metaphor. I was facing a wall upon which the sun, which was behind me, was projecting shadows of gently moving trees. I don’t think I would have particularly have noticed this projected image (over and above its gentle, calming ambient quality) had not a squirrel suddenly jumped from branch to branch and then onto and along the other wall behind me. Standing there I became mindfully aware that our culture had a story which, once upon a time, was able to deliver over to us something that we might call an assured knowing of the nature of all reality.

Of course, with regard to this present world the metaphor remains powerful and still very much able to deliver. After all you and I both assuredly know that, were I to turn around from the shadowy  pictures on the wall, I would be able to see, directly, what we are tempted to call a clearer, more real or more perfect picture of trees and squirrels. If you like, the shadowy promise can be ‘cashed’ by simply turning around to see the gold of ‘real’ trees and squirrels.

But I say that our culture was once upon a time able to deliver over to me something that we might call an assured knowing of all reality because this story was also supposed to offer us assurance that this present world – which we often felt to be shadowy, confused and apparently imperfect in so many ways – was grounded, underwritten and given meaning and genuine substance by another transcendent clear, coherent and perfect world. Thanks to light – whether Christ/God or reason – we were assured that somehow (in prayer or the practice of the empirical sciences) we were able to “turn around” and see this more perfect more real world of God and/or Nature – we could ‘cash’ this shadowy world for the pure gold of Heaven, the really real world.

But the power of this metaphor relied upon the idea that reality included human minds were able to receive accurate representations of the world out there. External reality was understood to impress itself upon the mind rather like a seal is able to impress its image upon soft wax. The impression the mind receives is not the original but there was – when you believed this picture of reality – a very precise and accurate relationship between the world and my mind’s representation of it.

True, our mind’s impression of reality may, at times, be somewhat shadowy but, we needn’t worry because it will always be possible to check and correct this shadowy impression through accurate data whether the data of science or of faith). Incidentally this is why belonging to the right church was and still sometimes is so important – after all you wanted to be assured that church X or Y had access to the right set of data.

It should be clear that this metaphor was, in addition to being a great support for religion (especially rational religion inspired by the Enlightenment as the Unitarians most assuredly were) it was a powerful metaphor for science.

The trouble is that for a number of reasons, both scientific and philosophical, we late twentieth and early twenty-first-century Westerners have slowly been discovering that we can nowhere produce the original of the world to be able to encash this metaphor at any level other than the everyday and commonsensical. After Nietzsche in philosophy and after Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg et. al. in scientific circles it became increasingly apparent that there is no way we can observe the world from outside – there is no view-from-nowhere. In all kinds of ways we have begun to understand that we always-already-are-in-the-world and have discovered that it is not possible to separate us as knowing subjects (soft wax) from the world of things (seals).  Everywhere it is tempting to say we are left with only shadows and soft wax – mere impressions.

We have realised that we can only actually experience what we have called impressions of the world and so we are only able to check their veracity with further impressions and check those impressions by even more impressions. It should be clear that the metaphors of seals and soft wax, real things and shadows that allows us to use the word impressions in the first place eventually breaks down if you can never really find things which make could make these impressions.

In the face of this realisation to carrying on using the language of “impressions of the world” in the light of this realisation can be very misleading. As Wittgenstein wittily realised it becomes as futile as buying several copies of the same newspaper in order to verify the accuracy of its front-page headlines! (See Philosophical Investigations para. 265).

Now this might seem – indeed has been felt to be by many (especially in religious circles) – a reason for despair. What is there of real worth and meaning if we are left with only shadows, soft wax and impressions of impressions. But that is only true if we continue to use a metaphor that has been shown to be an inadequate one.

We need to change the metaphor in some way and that includes how we use light. Since our Christian tradition relies strongly upon images of light – witness our reading – I think we would do well to have a rethink about how to use this image in ways that do not run counter to our present understanding of the world.

What follows is but one suggestion that I think we might usefully think about. It’s not easy to take in because it doesn’t lend itself to words and explanation of the kind we have been used to. Also this relates to an address I gave earlier this year which a number of you found helpful.

The word 'light' in German is (das) Licht but Licht also means 'clear'. From it we get the word die Lichtung which means a ‘clearing’. Heidegger noticed this and he used to gesture towards another way we live with (use) the image of light (and also, therefore, clearing). Here’s James C. Edwards’ concise illustration of Heidegger’s thought:

‘Think, as the German word Lichtung happily encourages, of a bright and open space in the evergreen forest. Into the clearing the light pours, and in that gathered light one can see emerge the animals and plants that are at home there. “But light never first creates openness. Rather, light presupposes openness.” Without the light there could be no seeing, but without first the clearing there could be no confluence of light to make that seeing possible. And now think of that clearing as an event rather than as an enduring feature of the landscape; hear the word “clearing” as a gerund  rather than as a noun. In that clearing-event whatever appears, appears. The clearing (clear-ing) gathers the light in virtue of which whatever is seen – the thing – can be seen for what it is’  (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996, p. 181).

For those minded to follow this thought up there are powerful resonances here with Zen Buddhist thinking. As Shunryu Suzuki reminds us Dogen-zenji once said “every activity is a flashing into the vast phenomenal world. Each existence is another expression of the quality of being itself” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, Boston 2009, p. 104).

And, later in the same chapter Shunryu Suzuki says the following (his reference to body or mind points to the dualistic world view of subjects/objects that I want here to tackle head-on):

“Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realise everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong, and your existence becomes very meaningful” (ibid. p. 107)

The mention of “everything is just a flashing into the vast universe” strongly resonates for me with Jesus’ image of lightning flashing across the sky lighting up everything from one side to the other.

But what I am trying to gesture towards here cannot be known but only done. The light/clearing is not an object of knowledge but an event that includes you and everything else flashing into the vast universe.

I have to say that the old Enlightenment paradigm of light (still useful in certain areas of human life) informs the practice of giving sermons – the preacher is supposed (hoped) to have the right date set which has been lit up by the Gospel/Christ/God and this data and the same light is brought before you so you, too, can see the truth owhich will make you free and assure your salvation. The idea, the Word will save – knowledge of God/Nature is sufficient.

But we (again the caveat of late twentieth and twenty-first century Westerners must be added) – we now feel assured (thanks to contemporary science and philosophical heritage post-Nietzsche) that the world is very different from how we once thought it was – there is no world out there that can simply be known in itself.

What is required for us to ‘know’ the world now is (or so it seems to me and many others) for us to engage in some kind of sustained, disciplined, embodied mindful practice. Mindfulness Meditation, Chi Kung - or Zhan zhuang  站桩) and Sitting Meditation are my own preferred practices – there are others of course. (In the evening service in Cambridge we have a mindfulness meditation).

So, these days, I am minded to use the metaphor as Christ being the light of the world as an encouraging expression of this embodied practice in which a person reveals him or herself (and therefore all beings) to be a light/clearing that is “a flashing into the vast universe” and which makes it possible for anything at all to appear.

So we may say in the end that that there is another world but it is not the transcendent world of old (the one that we used to think grounded and rooted our own shadowy one) but this world perceived differently. That other world is here and now and cannot be pointed to – were the language not be so prone to misinterpretation I would be tempted to say it deserves the name the kingdom of God/Heaven.


Yewtree said…
I find your writing immensely helpful in articulating a way of being in and of nature, reality, the cosmos. Thank you - and keep it up!