The 'right word' but not 'the word'


Reading: John 1:1-14

Along with the philosopher James C. Edwards I think a key important fact of life for many of us as late twentieth and early twenty-first century Western European and North American intellectuals is that ‘full Pathos, full belief, comes only with intellectual or artistic inevitability’ (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996 p. 231)

Consequently, it seems to me that one of the chief tasks we have as a modern church community is to try to articulate in what might consist this intellectual and artistic inevitability and then to explore ways by which we may fruitfully and healthily hold them together so as to embody the full belief that flows from them in a way appropriate to our own time and place. We need to do this so we can move away from merely holding theories about what might be an appropriate religious life – which we are very good at – and back into living an appropriately committed religious life – which we are not so good at. We’ll begin with a consideration of what might be meant by ‘intellectual inevitability’ because it can be dealt with amongst ourselves reasonably briefly. (We’ll have to spend a little more time with artistic inevitability for reasons that will become clear).

For us intellectually inevitable full belief comes most powerfully to us through to the disciplines of the natural sciences and their many wondrous, visible and often obviously practical results. Our full belief comes, not because all of the results of the natural sciences are always and forever true, but because we know that scientists are always checking their findings against what is ‘over there’ (i.e. what we call the physical universe). Because the universe itself calls them to account the genuine scientist always feels herself to be firmly under the discipline of truth and she knows that ‘whatever she is doing she must get it right, must do it right. She is not, in the first instance, in the business of satisfying herself, and she can’t change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful’ (ibid. p. 224).

Thanks to the clear trustworthiness of this process and the many practical successes of scientific endeavour the universe now appears, shows up, or shines for us in countless scientific ways and, with full belief and a clean heart, we live in the light of science (see note 1 below).

However, we not only encounter the ‘universe’ as scientists but also commingle imaginatively with a ‘world’ (see note 2 below).  Along with the intellectual inevitability of the natural sciences, there is also what we can call artistic inevitability. But here we’re not as clear as we are in the natural sciences about what we mean by this ‘inevitability’ and, consequently, it becomes hard for us to know what it might be to live out of it with full belief and a clean heart.

To help reveal this we firstly need to consider the artistic process as it is actually experienced by us. In this address I’ll simply stick with writing because at some time or other we’ve all probably tried to write a piece of fiction or a poem. (As I do this it is important to remember that what I say applies equally to the other arts.)

Whenever you sit down to write a story or a poem you quickly discover, as one does in the sciences, that this activity is not merely about satisfying yourself or being able to change the rules in order to make your attempts at whatever you are trying to do more successful. To be sure some of the difficulties you will face in writing have to do with the (real or perceived) need to conform to certain rules of grammar or style, but here I’m not referring to these straightforward technical and stylistic matters. Instead I’m concerned with those moments when, even when the grammar and style of what you have produced is correct and appropriate, you simply know that what you have written is just not right. You realise that you have no choice but to continue to seek just the right word and, in this often difficult seeking, you come face to face with the recognition that you ‘must get it right, must do it right’ and this feels very much like what a scientist is doing when they are checking their results against what is ‘over there’. If and when the right word comes, it comes with the power of artistic inevitability – you know in a very particular way that this is the right word. You have said what you felt you and the ‘over there’ (the world) called you to say.

However, thanks to the intellectual inevitability and full belief we get from the natural sciences very few of us really think that the ‘over there’ of the artist is the same ‘over there’ of the scientist. Unlike the ‘over there’ of science which can continually be referred back to check the accuracy of one’s results and theories, the ‘over there’ of the artist cannot. Consequently, despite my earlier words, there easily creeps back into our minds the thought that, in the end, an artist really is only in the business of satisfying herself and that she can, and sometimes does, change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful. To claim that the ‘right’ word she finds as coming with ‘artistic inevitability’ and also to claim that we can act out of it with full belief and a clean heart seems, well, at best a nice idea and, at worst, mere flabby nonsense. But I don’t think so.

Though in a moment I’m going to bring the scientist and the artist back together, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, an artist is doing something very different from the scientist – we are not relying on her to reveal to us the structure of the physical universe or ensure that buildings or aeroplanes stay up where they belong. But in another way the artist and a scientist are doing something similar which, as I have said, is the need constantly to be revising and checking their results against an ‘over there’. However, the ‘over there’ of the artist is the world as it is marvellously appearing, showing up, or shining for us now it is not the discoverable, repeatedly testable ‘over there’ of the physical world. To illustrate what I mean I return to a wonderfully concise everyday example offered us by the poet Lucretius that I have used before:

A puddle of water no deeper than a single finger-breadth, which lies between the stones on a paved street, offers us a view beneath the earth to a depth as vast as the high gaping mouth (hiatus) of heaven stretches above the earth, so that you seem to look down on the clouds and the heaven, and you discern bodies hidden in the sky beneath the earth, marvellously (mirande) (De Rerum Natura Book 4:414-419 trans. W. H. D. Rouse, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press).

[T]hink of a situation which you know for certain that the little puddle there in the street at which you look down is no more than a finger’s depth and yet you can, if the light is right, stare down into the water and see on the surface an image as deep and high as the clouds far, far above you as if that puddle were  some small ocean (De Rerum Natura trans. David R. Slavitt, University of California Press, 2008 p. 154 - I am a huge fan of David Slavitt's modern translation and, indeed, all of his translations are worth exploring).

Lucretius’ genius is his ability always to be both a scientist and an artist and in a way few others have been as such he is capable of experiencing (and expressing to an audience) the reflection of the sky in the puddle as ‘an appearance of nature and as an index to the wondrous truths of physics’ (John I. Porter, ‘Lucretius and the Sublime’ in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius’, ed Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, Cambridge University Press 2007, p. 173. Emphasis mine).

Lucretius knows that the weather will change, blue skies will turn to grey and, in consequence, the puddle’s appearance will also change. He knows, too, that our circumstances and moods change and that a blue or grey sky reflected marvellously in a puddle has the ability to alter our moods and thoughts in all kinds of ways and bring forth from our imagination all kinds of poetic images that are available to our own culture – whether of the gods, the bright Olympian heights or the dark and gloomy reaches of Acheron. Lucretius knows, with artistic inevitability, that these kinds of images arise in the human imagination and that the discipline of the poet is to answer these ‘over theres’ by finding and using just the right word to acknowledge and explore them in appropriate and helpful ways.  But as a scientist he also always knows, with intellectual inevitability, that these images, these appearances and shinings of the world are possible only because of the ‘over there’ of the constant and testable natural laws governing the puddle’s physical form.

Lucretius’ great genius is always to be indexing together intellectual and artistic inevitability (and a certain understanding of reality and appearance) in an extraordinarily powerful and healthy way – encouraging us to pursue both the poetic arts and what we call today the natural sciences. It is this skill at indexing them together that increasingly makes me think that Lucretius provides the basic model, the basic way of being-in-the-world that we, who value both the arts and the sciences, are desperately seeking.

We know that the disciplines of the natural sciences require that the scientist checks and revises their results in the light of changed knowledge and circumstances. But the true artist (who can be, has been and should more and more be a scientist – or genuinely knowledgeable of science’s methods) always knows they must do something similar because no matter how ‘good and true a poem may be, there is always call for more such poems’. They understand appearances always change and there is a constant need for each generation to speak of the world as it is showing up, shining, for them and this is why we continue to write stories and poems even though before us have gone countless writers of unsurpassable greatness. (We only keep and continue to use the old poems and texts because and insofar as they still, now and then, in certain circumstances, speak to us the right word for this moment now.) The crucial point to see here is that although there is ‘the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only [we] can hear it)’, in the end ‘it is the word properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next.’ And, as the philosopher James C. Edwards powerfully put it, ‘It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers’ (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996 p. 234)

This address was framed by a reading of the Prologue to the Gospel of John. Once we took it most surely to refer to the Word of the Lord or later, perhaps. the Word of some philosophical Absolute whether it was that espoused by Plato, Spinoza or Hegel. But today I offer it back to you as a reminder that although, yes, in the beginning was the ‘word’ – for without it neither you nor I could begin to speak with each other of the wondrous or dark ways the world is appearing or shining for us as scientists and artists – we know that no word is the last word, not in science nor in the arts. However, whenever the word comes to us through processes we can trust it  strikes us in a fashion strong enough to live out of it, although always provisionally, with full (i.e. appropriate) belief and a clean heart.

*****

Note 1. It is a light which reveals to us many things like that the earth is about four-and-half billion years old, that the physical universe is between thirteen and fourteen billion years old, that the biodiversity of life evolves by means of mutations, genetic drift and natural selection or that the earth revolves around the sun and our solar-system is not the centre of the universe. Science has lit up, too, many materials and protocols which, for example, help us build bridges and buildings in ways such that they don’t fall down willy-nilly. None of this means things won’t break down, theories won’t change, new things won’t be discovered but it does mean we have an intellectually inevitable full belief in the scientific process as a whole.

Note 2. Cf. Heidegger’s discussion (Being and Time (trans. John Maquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1973) of the four kinds of 'world' on p. 93 (p. 64-65 of the German) where Hubert Dreyfus helpfully points out the first two are really talking about the ‘universe’ of entities whilst the second two are talking about ‘worlds’ – i.e. the worlds of physics, the business world, the artistic world etc..

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