One procession - countless lines of becoming

Readings: Joshua 24:1-13 and from Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

(Counterpoint Press, Washington DC 2000,  pp. 151-152)

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge. 


Back in June I introduced you to an idea from the British anthropologist Tim Ingold who said that:

'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 universe] and producer [of the world], traces paths of the world's becoming in the very course of contributing to it's ongoing renewal' ("Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description" p. 12).

This morning I want to bring Ingold's idea together with Wendell Berry's words about procession that we heard in our reading. Berry's words have long seemed to be important and I’ve explored them a little with you before.

They are important because they speak to the key insight that the very possibility of us knowing anything about our world and our place in it is grounded or rooted in always-already being in a procession of some sort or another. It is this procession, of family, church and wider culture and cultures that gifts us a world of intelligibility - a world in which things make sense, have use, worth and  value. As Berry realises this 'living procession through time and place *is* the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed' and 'when the procession ends, so does the knowledge.'

This is why I think that having a clear sense not only of knowing (which is a kind of abstract knowledge about the matter) what it is to belong to a tradition but also an actual confident living or embodiment of a tradition (an embodied knowledge) - in our case a contemporary expression of liberal Christianity, is essential. Of course, I know only too well that tradition is often used simply as an anchor to hold us still when we could, and perhaps should, be moving but we must remember that it is also the only thing that gifts us with references (language) that help us orientate within and creatively deal with the world and bring about changes that we can experience as meaningful and healthy.

But one problem with the word "tradition" is that it seems to imply a wholly static unity and/or shape - something way too fixed. But this is not actually the case because any tradition is in truth an incredibly complex living process which weaves together all our own lines of becoming in a way that is always capable of creating and foregrounding radically new patterns.

In a moment I'm going to use a well known Biblical story to unfold this thought a little further but before we get there we need to be alert to a potential problem with Berry’s image. It is so easy to place in our imaginations Berry's characters one behind the other in a neat line – Berry’s son and grandson walking behind and, before him, once in fact and now in memory, his own father and grandfather. Here we have a version of tradition understood as overly ordered and simple.

But, as any of you who have gone on such family-esque walks will know, for the most part, it is formed of a wildly chaotic gaggle of interweaving lines. Now bunched up, now spread out, now broken up, now regrouped and all stages in-between. Someone notices this and not that, another stops to look at that but passes this by, all before regrouping later in the day in the kitchen for a cup of tea and some cake to recount the day's procession.

I’m quite convinced that Berry is aware of this complexity and his writing as a whole clearly suggest this is the case. The point we need to be clear about is that consciously to be part of a genuine living procession is to be able to notice (from time to time) the ebb and flow, the different speeds and different things noticed by the procession's members, the pushes and the pulls and to see how, despite this, you are still able meaningfully to say your family, your church, your culture *has* traced a certain "single" procession across the landscape.

And this is why I am such a big fan of the Bible, our tradition's central, normative text that tells our religious culture's foundational story of its journey across the landscape during a certain period of its history. But it does this by preserving an incredibly complex weave of traces. When you read it as a whole, as a single book, it preserves the complexity of a chaotic but creative family walk across a landscape. From time to time there have been - and still are attempts to - produce books with titles like "The Unity of . . ." - now fill in the gaps, the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), the Old Testament, the New Testament - whatever. But as anyone who has read all the books that make up the whole text will know this is, thankfully, not possible. The most obvious illustration of this that you will be familiar with is to remind you that we have four gospels, not one, and that the four of them, though they cohere in many places and senses, trace very different lines of becoming to each other. As I have occasionally reminded you - there is even a clear line of becoming that one can trace through the texts which leads in a clearly atheist direction (cf. my address on Christianity in Atheism and the work of Ernst Bloch). But neither this line, nor any other single trace or line of becoming, can speak meaningfully about the whole procession.

Today I'd like to bring before you the story that helped me see this. It is a story which attempts to recount the most famous procession in the Bible, namely the Israelite people's journey which begins in the land beyond the Euphrates, continues for a time in slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and then, after further wanderings in the wilderness, brings them to a time of temporary freedom in the Promised Land across the River Jordan.

In the Book of Joshua, just before his death Joshua delivers a farewell address to the Israelites (23–24) to sum up his people's story so far and to make it as grand and impressive as possible. Make no mistake - this is a greatest hits moment and, like all greatest hits albums you'd be mad to leave off it one of your most famous Number Ones. Now I don't think the author of Joshua was mad so I'm excluding that possibility but, my question to you (and to him were I able to question him), is why on earth did you leave out . . .

Well, did you spot the missing "Number One"?

Well, it is only what has become central to our understanding of in what consists basic human morality - namely the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the ten commandments! It would be harder to imagine a more important event to omit. It's like releasing a Queen Greatest Hits album without having Bohemian Rhapsody on it only on a globally important cultural scale.

My point is not flippant because, as I said a moment ago, you'd be mad to leave off a Greatest Hits album your biggest Number One and I said that I didn't think the writer was mad. No, the rather more striking and helpful conclusion - one that fits the evidence - is that here is a trace, a line of becoming, that simply never had a grand moment of law giving upon a mountain.

I'm too much a product of Christian Humanist and Enlightenment culture not to be interested in what may or may not have been the actual historical events that underlie the complex religious story we inherit and this story hints at the possibility that the giving of the law on Mount Sinai is a creative and wonderful fiction.

But for me, on this occasion at least, this isn't really the most important thing I want to bring before you. What is more interesting today is the glimpse we catch here of the moment when the redactors or editors of the Biblical text as we have it today were - to return to an earlier image - at the end of a day's walk around the kitchen table with tea and cake and trying to tell a story from out of their own records of a single procession. They thankfully let through their hands - and its by far from being the only place on the OT and in the NT remember the Gospels - a reminder that there always were contested versions of what happened on the most famous part of their family's procession across the landscape.

By accident more than by design we have a veritable gaggle of a book. Design would, we know, have liked to tell of a single procession, a single line, a single story and to have imposed upon later history a rigid conception of 'tradition'. It has certainly been tried and there always remains the danger of further attempts.

In our own liberal tradition we have also been tempted to do something similar with the text/s by producing many edited shorter versions only containing the bits we thought were good/right/true - Thomas Jefferson's Bible is one good example as is the early twentieth century publication by the Lindsey Press of the "Golden Treasury of the Bible." We did this because we, too, wanted a simple, single true story - a clear single procession from the "creation" to us.

But this is to fail to see how life (tradition) always actually unfolds and it is to fail to see that by accident we have been gifted with a text that, when we keep it together in its gaggly contradictory completeness and take time to notice this it can remind us, again and again of the countless paths of becoming that make up our (and any) procession. We should keep it close to hand and in our minds precisely because it does *not* cohere and is contradictory. The roots of our liberal approach to life are grounded in this kind of understanding of the Biblical text and when we recognise this it remains a powerful tool for us in our task of promoting understanding between different traditions and beliefs.