By another way - living a meaning-ful life

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page):
By another way - 15 January 2012

Although I deleted them from the final script, in the first draft of last week's address, I originally concluded with a few words about the final verse of our reading for Epiphany Sunday, where the Magi '. . . being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, . . . departed to their own country by another way" (Matthew 2:12). Today I've revisited my concluding words and expanded them into this address.

As I have mentioned a couple of times in the past few weeks, given that in our own age, we can see clearly that our understanding of in what consists for us reality, our world, is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9) one of the echoes that, for me, came into play as I continued to think about the Magi's return by another way, was Robert Frost's very famous poem of 1916, "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It seems important to add to the mix here one message coming from another culture besides our own, namely the Chinese word or concept, of the "Tao" which has become part of our own Western philosophical and religious lexicon (though in a distinctive way not entirely akin to the way it is used and understood in the Chinese context). Although the basic generic, normative meaning of the word Tao is simply "road" or "way", an additional meaning - and the one that I play with today - is "the spirit or quality of mind one is cultivating" (Michael Lafargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY Press, Albany 1992, p. 245).

So, now, within our own cultural horizons and with these echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past and messages coming from others in play around us, what useful lesson might be showing up for us in this short verse found in our culture's great, normative Christian text?

Well, to draw out one important lesson that I see showing up, the first thing I need to do is place before you an insight disclosed very much to our own age. It is as the philosopher Iain Thomson puts it, the feeling that:

'. . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same 'eternal truths' for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us.' (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

This insight is worth remembering, especially at a time when religion is making a return to our civic space and often in some very conservative and reactionary forms.

These religious traditions and their contemporary mirror images, namely certain kinds of atheism and scientism, love to play the two-paths or two-roads game. Down one, they say, lies darkness, down the other lies light; down one lies heaven, down the other lies hell; down one lies truth, down the other lies superstition. N'er the twain shall meet, or so they say.

The Bible is, as we know, caught in the middle of all this but Thompson's words remind us that if we are smart about how we use this great texts of religion we have inherited we can always turn it to good, liberal use. One of my own great heroes, the Marxist and Atheist, Ernst Bloch, pointed out in his book 'Atheism in Christianity' that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same: 'The Bible has always been the Church's bad conscience.' And, as Bloch reminds us, although the Bible has often been used (and is still used) as a cattle prod by the powerful against the weak, 'the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

One of the oppressive and powerful ideas in our culture that we need to strike a counter-blow against is precisely this two path model of life and here's where the biblical story of the Magi comes in.

It struck me last week that, although when the text says the Magi returned 'by another way' it is clear that the author is imagining them to be taking a different actual road home, the linguistic resources available to us enable us to consider the possibility that we may also consider the Magi as undertaking their return by embodying a radically changed *way* of being-in-the-world - by another Tao - namely, the one they saw shining in the Christ-child. What it was that I think we may understand them to have seen you can find in my Christmas Day address. In outline it was to see God not as a powerful *being*, like the Gods of old, but as unfolding event, self-giving Being itself, which in turn enables quieter, weaker, less dogmatic voices to be heard and responded to.

If we lay the weight on this second kind of returning, by embodying a different *way* (Tao) of being in the world, a thought springs to my mind.

When we look back on our own life-path - as we may imagine the Magi doing on their return, what we are commonly tempted to call "taking a different path" at a particular point in our lives, is really to speak with hindsight of a moment/period in our life when we were able to identify that a new way of understanding the world was being disclosed to us. With this disclosure there also came new possibilities and new ways of opening ourselves up to the world. This should help us see that our life-path *never really diverges at any point* (I want to stress this very strongly indeed). Perhaps the best parable I know of living life in this kind of way (Tao) is told by the theologian George Kimmich Beach:

'. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom is growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!' (George Kimmich Beach cited in Walter P. Hertz, 'Redeeming Time', Skinner House Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 99-105).

But, although we may find it relatively easy to see how this is true with regard to a pot, we struggle to see how this is true of our own lives. This is because we have inherited a tradition that really loves two-path thinking. How those of conservative persuasion play this out is different from those of a more liberal persuasion but, make no mistake, both play it out.

In a nutshell (and at the risk of over-simplification - for there is much blurring of boundaries and grey here!) the conservative (religious or secular) person tends to insist on the absolute need to follow the right path. So, if you find, feel or are told you are on the wrong path you must change, you must convert and get on the right track. If you find you have gone by the wrong path then you must retrace your steps and roll back the corruptions - leaving all the old behind in order to arrive at the place where the paths diverged and you can make the necessary change.

The liberal (religious or secular) person tends to be more equivocal. They want to be able to hold open, in principle at least, all possible paths. This is because they know that neither one nor the other is absolutely right nor absolutely wrong but this can mean (often means?) that the choice to follow one path or another diminishes in importance - to echo Frost, the choice *doesn't* make all the difference. In a many liberal's minds most paths are really just as fair as any other and the choice for travelling one rather than another is often based on something as minor and inconsequential as being merely grassy and wanting a little wear.

As a little warning, I've been in the full-time professional ministry for twelve years now and I have seen how for many liberals, especially towards the end of their life, this can result in the feeling that they have never quite lived their life fully, never done what old Thoreau tried to do by going to Walden Pond - 'I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.'

Anyway, on the one hand, conservative positions tend to become narrowly focused, exclusivist and restrictive and, on the other, liberal positions tend to become unfocused, blind to the importance of real difference and, in wanting to keep open the theoretical possibility one could check out the other path at a later date, impossibly vast in reach.

Frost's own relationship with religion was complex and ambivalent - that's one of the reasons I like him. (It's also why I think his poems form a great text of our culture.) But what we can say for sure was that he was well towards the liberal end of the religious and spiritual spectrum. Like us, inherited a two-path tradition of thinking and, in this poem, his genius as a poet is revealed in how subtly and gently he places before us the problem we liberals face and gives us the gentlest hint of a solution appropriate for us in our own age - the solution I've already gestured towards in Beech's parable of the bowl or pitcher.

The body of the poem, the first three verses, explores the flawed liberal dream of being able to hold together in one lived life many *possible* divergent paths. Frost describes them, weighs them evenly and dispassionately, and only then does he say he followed one, but only after he has categorised the first as to be kept "for another day."

Frost's last verse gently reveals that really he knew how silly and wrong this idea was and this is, perhaps, what his sigh reveals:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What makes all the difference, what makes Frost authentically himself and not someone else, is not that there exists in him (as he looks back and sighs) multiple possible paths which he may or may not have taken but that his life-path, like everyone of our life-paths, was always the only road he travelled. It was always going to be the one "less travelled by" because it was his and only his - it was and is, and always will be, genuinely unique.

Frost is reminding us that human freedom does not consist in keeping open endless diverging possible paths but in learning consciously to embrace and embody one's own, single path. (It seems to me that it is only when our own paths are consciously embraced by us like this that they turns into something we might legitimately call a Tao - when our 'path' and our 'life' become one). Our freedom also consists in being awake to the moments when, as we make more refined choices, our path's meaning changes for us and we enter for a moment a clearing where authentic, new, subtle and refined possibilities show up to us. In other words our freedom is not so much in our ability to change the world (we all know we can really change very little about the world) but in our ability to reinterpret it. It is this recognition that helps us discover that, in truth, a truly lived life, rooted in reality itself, is always greater and more meaningful than any text and is always capable of generating meaning-ful possibilities that can radically and creatively reorientate not just ourselves but whole societies and cultures.


RyS said…
Andrew - thanks for your post and for the mp3. Irish and I have just listened to it, though we don't have the benefit of a conversation following!

The reference to the 'two paths' seems a bit stark - one liberal, one conservative. It then transforms into a critique of liberalism as infinitely too many paths, and conservatism as simply right path/wrong path. You then tell us there's just the one path, and that we cannot change the world, merely how we perceive the world. This goes against the reality of the world pushing back, and us reacting (not reactionary) in it. Surely such 'pushing back' is prompting us to interact with the world, and therefore exercise our gifts in order it to change it? And in the process of meeting the demands of this reaction, altering our path in ways which we would not have known we would have chosen? Thus we find us and the world changed by our response to a need that pushes uniquely against us. This affects other people's choices as well. So - is this not a concept of God?
Thanks for your very helpful comments. I've just posted a new post because your gentle pushing drew out from me some stuff I was not expecting . . .

Warmest wishes,