Dove that ventured outside - adding real freight to liberal culture

Reading: Genesis 8:1-13 (the story of Noah's sending out of the dove)

One of the great tropes of liberal religion, at least at its back-end in the crowd which has inherited its so many of its fruits (i.e. us), was that it hoped to bring about, and to a limited degree did bring about, the possibility of a way of being religious that was free from fear and superstition. I still subscribe to this project and the for the possibility of a religion without superstition and, as many of you know, one of my great models here is the Roman philosophical poet Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC). In his poem, De Rerum Natura, Lucretius saw that:

"It was long the case that men would grovel upon the earth, 
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition (religio) whose head 
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her dreadful visage 
until Epicurus of Greece dared look up and confront her,
taking a stand against the fables and myths of the gods
with their stories of those impending thunderbolts from above . . ."

(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, University of California Press, 2008 p. 3-4 trans. David R. Slavitt)

You will remember that for him this terror, this darkness of the mind was to be dispelled ". . . not by the sun's light or it's ray's shafts but by careful observation and understanding of inner laws of how nature works" (ibid, p. 7) and his poem remains a glorious example of this process at work. I've talked at length about this in a series of addresses earlier this year concerning "naturae species ratioque" - the outward and inner workings of nature - and I refer you back to those addresses if you are interested. 

But, even as I maintain an unswerving loyalty to this great liberal project, I have to admit that many - especially certain influential modern secular atheists - have pursued it in a way that I cannot support. The reason is that they have consistently failed to distinguish between superstition and faith such that, even as the needful attempt continues to be made to rid society of superstition there runs a disturbing parallel attempt to rid society of faith. But religious faith and superstition are not the same thing as Wittgenstein succinctly observed:

"Religious faith and superstition are entirely different. One of them springs from *fear* and is a kind of false science. The other is a trusting" (Culture and Value p. 82 - MS 137 48b: 4.6.1948).

(Superstition is, of course, a kind of belief and so it can be helpful to make a distinction between them faith and belief. The well-known story of the promoter and the tightrope-walker is a good illustration. You can read a version of it here.)

Any project which, even if unintentionally, begins to drive trust and faith from the world is a bad thing and under no circumstances will I support it. Anyway it is clear to me at least that Epicurus and Lucretius most certainly did not desire this. I would also add (in passing today though it is a vital point in the bigger picture of my own thinking and teaching) that I think Jesus' teaching can be understood as concerned to develop in us a faithful way of being-in-the-world that was not about belief and so could be free from superstition. Alas, much Christian thinking over the centuries developed a quasi-scientific, propositional way of looking at the world - i.e. it believed that it could, and was, talking about metaphysical (and sometimes physical) facts about the world - and so increasingly in many of its forms it has become a superstition not a faith. It seems clear that this tendency is not confined to Christianity.

Anyway, today I want to promote the idea that trust and, therefore, faith is vital, not only to our individual but also to our corporate well-being. And, to begin we must observe that trust only exists as a meaningful way of being-in-the-world in a world in which not everything is, or can be, known in a merely theoretical or unembodied way.

It is important to see that this kind of not knowing would be the case for us even if we knew all the facts of the world.

So, for example, although we might imagine being able to know every scientific fact about a pint of Greene King IPA (that's a kind of beer for the uninitiated), until we actually pick up a glass of it, smell it, and then actually taste it an important truth of the beer would remain unknown to us. Truth is, in this sense, "aletheia", i.e. an "unconcealedness" in which the world is disclosed, opened up, made intelligible to us by our direct participation in it.

So now let's take a similar thought but one couched in a way that, as far as our culture is concerned, is more obviously spiritual than a pint of IPA even as it still uses some very down to earth imagery, namely a dove and a ball, Rilke's sublime poem "Taube, die draußen blieb" - "Dove that ventured outside" (trans. Stephen Mitchell):


Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah, the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn't it fill our hands differently upon its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.


The doves who never leave the dovecote and the known aspects/facts of their world, cannot live in the full and abundant way that the dove that ventured outside can. But it is important to notice that the dove who "ventured outside" over the abyss returns to the known aspects/facts of its world - and we read at the outset that she is "housed and protected again". To this important point I will return and when I do I'll hang it on an old and well-known Zen saying that: "In the beginning mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. After practice for some time, Mountains are not Mountains, rivers are not rivers. After that, going further, Mountains are again mountains, rivers are again rivers." (As I use this saying I want to make it clear that I am not claiming this is how Zen practitioners use it. I'm simply using it because I think it helps me illustrates something I feel I have seen and felt in my attempt to live a non-metaphysical form of Christianity - see here.)

What Rilke seems to be trying to show us in this poem is what happens when any creature has faith enough to risk actually experiencing factually unknowable aspects of the world - that is to say to enter into an important way of being by which any world is more deeply disclosed to us - a disclosure which, to repeat, can only come through a direct comminglement in the world. In this poem Rilke illustrates this direct contact through the image of the feeling the dove experiences through her wings as she passes "through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings" (a feeling analogous to the taste of an actual quaffed beer). Whilst never changing the actual empirical scientific facts of the world - this felt, embodied practical knowledge is what changes the dove and us in the most subtle but also the most important of ways.

But, because this kind of change is so subtle it can be very hard to talk about easily because we find that, when we *have* ventured outside and felt the world through our wings as we pass through all distance and fear, on our return the words we must use to encourage others to make this venture must stay the same as they once were if real communication between those of us who have ventured outside and those who have not is to be a possibility.

Before we venture outside we will almost certainly have some idea of in what consists, to use Rilke's list (though we can add countless more), "serenity", "loss", "innocence", "security", "tenderness" and "freedom". Indeed we deem these ideas (and others) so important for our society, our 'dovecote', that it is essential that something about them are capable of being taught to people before they have had the opportunity to experience them directly and at first-hand. But, for each individual in each generation, these abstract ideas are always in need of being won-back by us if they are to be truly alive and genuinely capable of offering us the satisfaction they both promise and we need. As Rilke's says, only the won-back heart is satisfied and truly free.

Mere belief in any idea (even the highest that our liberal society values) without at some point turning it into real embodied knowledge is potentially on the way to becoming merely a superstition. And make no mistake about it there exists such a thing as liberal superstition and it is expressed by every person who only pays lip service to those values and who do not have faith to leave the dovecote and experience that embodied truth about them which is always unknown until truly, felt beneath their 'wings'.

Alas, it seems to me that our liberal society as a whole is today frighteningly confined to the dovecote. In personal relationships, in our commitment to wider society, I daily come across an almost pathological fear of actually venturing forth into the world to touch, feel, taste, smell and see first hand the values we claim to live by and know. Our culture's pint of beer is on the bar but we are strangely fearful of crossing the abyss that stands between us and the tasting.

To be truly in the world always requires us to risk leaping over the abyss - that is to say into a region unknowable to us except by embodied experience.

Here we can begin to draw to a close by tying the story of the dove leaving the ark, Rilke's last stanza concerning the ball and the old Zen story I introduced earlier.

When you and me (along with the words/language we inherit) have faith to venture outside the dovecote/ark the first moments of flight (which may last sometime) are, naturally, frightening and upsetting. Old certainties suddenly disappear. The word mountain - whose meaning in the dovecote/ark we once knew - is now 'not mountain' because below only the abysmal water of the flood stretches out featureless around us. The word 'river' - whose meaning in the dovecote/ark we once knew - is now 'not river' because below only the abysmal water of the flood stretches out featureless around us.

But continuing to fly with faith, the abysmal water of the flood recedes and as it does we can begin the actual touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing of the world and this disappearance of the abyss allows us to become freighted (as Noah's dove is freighted with the olive leaf) with a practical embodied knowledge. When we return to the dovecote/ark and our fellows mountains have become again mountains and rivers have become again rivers. But for us the second word of each pair is now freighted differently - like Rilke's ball flung into infinite space and Noah's dove the words return to us heavier by the weight of where they (and we - for we are our language) have been.

The task - oh, so hard - is to get our fellow doves to realise the difference between the freighted and un-freighted use of words. But the difficulty is that these words look the same and both the doves who ventured outside and those who stayed behind can seemingly still talk meaningfully about "mountains" and "rivers", about "serenity", "loss", "innocence", "security", "tenderness" and "freedom".

Of course every dove comes back with slightly different freight to another. Venturing forth does not guarantee we will all come back and find ourselves in perfect unity about all subjects. Not at all. But venturing forth can guarantee that we do not develop societies whose form of life/language is increasingly empty of freight - a genuine abyss. My fear is that our Western European and North American liberal culture (especially in its religious and philosophical modes) has become empty and that we have lost faith that our values only have real traction and use when they have been touched/tasted/embodied by us. We may still believe liberal culture is a lively embodied way of being in the world but, increasingly from where I'm standing/flying, that's looking more and more like a superstition based on a fear of living.

Summer is a time of venturing forth. So I'd encourage you to risk flying out over the abyss to commingle with the world and so have a real chance of returning in the autumn with your whole being freighted with a deeper knowledge of the world in which you actually live.