"I will be what I will be" - seeking home (Heimat)

In living as in knowing, be
Intent upon the purest way;
When gale and current push you, pull you,
Yet they’ll never overrule you;
Compass and pole-star, chronometer
And sun and moon you’ll read the better,
With quiet joy, in your own fashion
Will reach the proper destination.
Especially if you don’t despair
Because the course is circular:
A circumnavigator, hail
The harbour whence you first set sail.

J. W. von Goethe (trans. Michael Hamburger in Goethe: Poems and Epigrams, Anvil Press, London 1983)

Perhaps simply because of its final stanza, this epigram of Goethe's came back into my mind on the train last week as Susanna and I made our way back home from a stay in France. Of course, in this piece Goethe is not speaking about a return from a summer vacation such as the one we had been on but of the kind of spiritual return he thought each human soul could make during the course of its whole life. Anyway, Goethe's lines - with which I am going to disagree - provided me with the impetus for today's address - an address which picks up on themes I was exploring with you during June and July.

Since stumbling across it in my early twenties Goethe's epigram has often comforted me. It said that, as long as I remained intent upon following the purest way - that is to say to hold fast to the good, true and the beautiful - I would be capable of navigating myself back to the eternal safe harbour from whence I first set sail; a harbour that goes by many names though it mattered not whether I called it God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Absolute or Deus-sive-natura.

My Christian upbringing naturally gifted me with the strong belief that this harbour existed and I was taught (via its literature and various religious and philosophical teachings  such as Goethe's epigram) that I could access a recollection of this divine, perfect home or harbour - and this, in turn, would not only give me the skills to read compass, chronometer, pole-star, sun and moon to help navigate my way back to my home harbour but also gift me an associated quiet joy and confidence.

This idea of a divine, home harbour has, of course, been a key idea within our European and North American religious cultures and, upon entering the ministry, it was made clear to me that one of my roles was to find ways by which I might jog the memories of this home in those whom I served so that together, in quiet joy and confidence, we might all make our way back to the harbour from whence we had once set sail.

Perhaps this story is true but as I sped through the French countryside last week contemplating Goethe's lines I was forced to admit that as I have continued on my own journey through life I have become less and less convinced that I am a circumnavigator returning to a previously known port and now when I look down to read compass, chronometer or up, to read pole-star, sun and moon, the only measurements I find I can read off them these days are ones that suggest, not a circular, but a complex linear and open-ended course of travel.

To help you see what I mean it is perhaps helpful to begin by thinking about recollection and memory - what Plato called 'anamnesis'. Ernst Bloch reminds us that:

'The [Platonic] doctrine of anamnesis claims that we have knowledge only because we formerly knew. But then there could be no fundamentally new knowledge . . . Anamnesis provides the reassuring evidence of complete similarity . . . Anamnesis has an element of attenuation [that is to say a narrowing or closing down] about it, [which] makes everything a gigantic déjà vu' (cited in 'Ernst Bloch' by Vincent Geoghegan, Routledge 1996 p. 37).

But, to me at least, life has begun to show up as much more creative, sophisticated and alive to new possibility than would be the case if it were merely a gigantic déjà vu. Just before going away for the summer I spoke to you about this in an address called 'Tracing paths of the world's becoming' in which I cited the anthropologist Tim Ingold (Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Routledge 2011). He said, you will remember:

'To be sentient . . . is to open up to a world, to yield to its embrace, and to resonate in one's inner being to its illuminations and reverberations. Bathed in light, submerged in sound and rapt in feeling, the sentient body, at once both perceiver [of the world] and producer [of things in the world], traces paths of the world's becoming in the very course of contributing to it's ongoing renewal.'

And also that

'It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure' (Ingold p. 3-4).

I'm aware that some people will react strongly against this thought if only because this view seems to remove any possibility of there being a safe homeland or harbour of the spirit which we can attain after the exhausting experience that is the journey of life.

But even with this change of perspective from closed and restricted circumnavigation to the freedom of open-ended 'travel-towards' it is possible to maintain a strong sense of a home, or a safe port to which we are travelling even though it must be one quite unlike that which Goethe - and most of Christianity - envisioned. But to have a hope of attaining this different harbour we need first to break the chains that harness us, rather like an ox, to a circular grindstone in which our life, work and even death really no more than an movement in an endless circle.

We can perhaps best begin to hammer and chisel through the chains that bind by tackling head on the belief that "I am" or that "we are". As Peter Thompson says in his introduction to Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity":

'The "Am" which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis at the end of the journey. In the process of becoming, Nietzsche and Bloch contend, one becomes an "Am" which is not yet visible, not yet complete, nor even conceivable. As Arthur Rimbaud puts it in another context, "Je suis un Autre" (I *is* someone else)' (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiii).

Bloch thought that this and other powerful insights was to be found hiding subversively (and still undischarged) in the Biblical text and he encouraged people to use its stories and myths

'. . . to search for a historical world which can be liberated from its own limitations . . . and which will allow us to pass out of passive and anamnetic circularity into active potentiality' (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiv).

A key story/myth to which Bloch returned again and again is found in Exodus 3. The chapter begins with God speaking to Moses from out of the burning bush saying that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God then continues:

Exodus 3:7-15

In our English Bibles "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" (Hebrew: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎) is generally translated as "I Am that I Am" and it is a name of God which has powerfully contributed to the thought that God's perfection is static - that He is the unchanging harbour from whence we set sail and to which we have hopes we may return. But the tense of the Hebrew, as the Rabbi and Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut points out, 'is not clear; it could mean "I am" or "I will be" (or "I shall be")' (W. Gunther Plaut, "The Torah: A modern commentary", Union of Hebrew Congregations, New York 1981, p. 405).

Bloch wholeheartedly embraces the latter translation of "I will be what I will be" and in so doing begins to unfold a conception of God as change and process rather than timeless and unchanging. He felt that this name - "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" - introduced a way of thinking which 'posits no hereafter or "above", but rather a possible "before-us"' (cited in 'Ernst Bloch' by Vincent Geoghegan, Routledge 1996 p. 85).

Because in Bloch's reading of the Judaeo-Christian myth, God, like us, is always becoming, God no longer lords it "above" us but now walks "with" us on the same journey of becoming - an Exodus from circular captivity to a creative, plural and open-ended freedom. This walking-with-us-liberating kind of God is, of course, most powerfully depicted in our inherited myths and stories in the person of Jesus. The myth of the Resurrection is vital in this story because it is the point at which the baton of divinity is finally passed over to us and we all become part of this divine becoming. In the traditional language of Romans (12:5) it is when 'we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.' It is to say, as Nathan did last week in his address last week, that we can say 'God is in us' and that, therefore, we must 'Live Him'.

This insight is what allows Bloch to say rather strikingly that "Humanity lives everywhere still in pre-history" and that "each and everything is waiting for the creation of a just world." This thought allows him to introduce into play a new conception of in what consists our harbour or home:

'The true Genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it will only start to come about when society and existence become radical, i.e. take themselves by their own roots. The root of history, however, is the labouring, creative human, engaged in reshaping and overcoming given conditions. Once [a person] has grasped this in himself and that which is his, without alienation and based in real democracy, so there will arise in the world something that shines into everyone's childhood, but where no one has yet been: Heimat [home]' (cited in Ernst Bloch, "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xix).

Coming back to the UK after its shocking summer riots and as we face still more social, financial, political and religious instability Bloch's insight serves to remind me, at least, that we are not trapped in some endlessly repeating circle but always gifted with the possibility of creating better ways of being-in-the-world than the ones we have present to us today or have had in the past. In every moment in which we know 'God is in us' and we 'Live Him', acting on the real open-ended possibilities that always lie before us, we experience not only true human freedom but also a genuine foretaste of the home (Heimat) we have not yet reached but which has always shone into everyone's childhood.

Our contemporary society is trapped in all kind of grinding and burdensome circular ways of being (I'm thinking here particularly of the insanities that are neo-liberalism and fundamentalist religion) and we need to awake to the fact that we are the chained oxen who helping to driving them. However, we know things can be better for we still have within the myths and stories of our childhood undischarged visions and foretastes of what a better world could be. But this home (Heimat) is NOT in the past it lies ready-to-hand but latent in the present (no one has been there yet) and continually cries out to us to be released into the world.

God said "I will be what I will be" and he went forth into the world to set his people free. As "God is in us" and in so far as we then "Live Him" and work for this freedom we are saying "We will be what we will be" and will have begun to set our chisels against the chains to free ourselves to travel home.


Robin Edgar said…
"However, we know things can be better for we still have within the myths and stories of our childhood undischarged visions and foretastes of what a better world could be."

For centuries these myths and stories were quite stable but I am not sure if the last few decades worth of youth are all *that* familiar with them. . .

Could be problematic as I am not sure that Sponge Bob et al can replace Mother Goose and Aesop's Fables etc.
Greetings Edgar. You make a good point, thanks - not least of all because in this piece I was talking about our older cultural stories. But Ernst Bloch is an interesting thinker because he was alert to the utopian (hope filled) elements that could be found within much popular culture. Although he personally had a few blind spots (notably jazz and American film) he offers us a way of teasing out undischarged hope from all kinds of cultural products.

Perhaps Sponge Bob won't do (I confess not to knowing it except by name and reputation (though its Wikipedia entry suggests it has promoted certain kinds of tolerance) but in the UK shows like Doctor Who (especially the recent series), and which is incredibly popular, seems to me to be full of utopian elements that one might make more use of.

The criticism I would make (of me - not you!) is that, where it exists, I generally fail to find ways to utilise as much as I should of contemporary popular culture's utopian energy. However, the danger of leaping into popular culture is that one's writing and teaching can quickly come to be highly ephemeral. A sermon is, I know, an ephemeral form (certainly mine are) but it seems to me there is a balance to find. I just haven't found it yet . . .

Warmest wishes,

kbop said…
no harbor
no journey

apart from that, I'm glad you're back.