Olympia Brown's "Great Lesson" - A Remembrance Sunday Meditation

Olympia Brown (1835-1926)
Readings:  Some words of Olympia Brown (1835-1926) - "The Great Lesson" 

We can never make the world safe by fighting. Every nation must learn that the people of all nations are children of God, and must share the wealth of the world. You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must ever teach the great lesson.

Daniel 5:1-12

Fabulae 143 from the 2nd century BCE Roman mythographer Hyginus:

Men for many centuries before lived without town or laws, speaking one tongue under the rule of Jove [Zeus]. But after Mercurius [Hermes] had explained [or created] the languages of men (whence he is called ermeneutes, ‘interpreter’, for Mercurius in Greek is called Ermes; he too, divided the nations), then discord arose among mortals, which was not pleasing to Jove [Zeus].

From A dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an inquirer by Martin Heidegger

Interpreter: [. . .] The expression “hermeneutic” derives from the Greek verb hermeneuein. That verb is related to the noun hermeneus, which is referable to the name of the god Hermes by a playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science. Hermes is the divine messenger. He brings the message of destiny; hermeneuein is that exposition which brings tidings because it can listen to a message. Such exposition becomes an interpretation of what has been said earlier by the poets who, according to Socrates in Plato's Ion (534e), hermenes eisin ton theon - "are interpreters of the gods."

Japanese: I am very fond of this short Platonic dialogue. In the passage you have in mind, Socrates carries the affinities even further by surmising that the rhapsodes* are those who bear the tidings of the poets' word.

Interpreter: All this makes it dear that hermeneutics means not, just the interpretation but even before it, the bearing of message and tidings.
* A rhapsode was a performer of epic poetrry 


Old College, Sandhurst
In November 2007 I found myself chairing a NATO sponsored conference at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst on the subject of "Engaging with religion for building peace: The Experience of Afghanistan and Iraq".

The plenary sessions of the conference took place in the main ceremonial hall of the Old College and the day began with a "keynote speech" given by Lieutenant-General Lamb, at the time Commander of the Field Army at Land Command. After introducing him and sitting down to listen, I vividly recall why I then completely failed to hear the first minute or so of what he said.

To his right, was one of the many large stained-glass memorial windows in the hall and, as bright sunlight briefly streamed through it on that grey November day, the name "Waziristan" was suddenly shining down upon me and the Lt General in a fashion not unlike the sudden appearance of "mene, mene, tekel, parsin" on the wall of King Belshazzar's palace (see Daniel 5:1-12 and Daniel 5:20-30). It was, I felt, a word - or better, an event - that required interpretation. What did it mean?

Now if, like me, you do not have a belief in any kind of supernatural personal, interventionist god or gods, you might be tempted to say it meant nothing - it was, after all, just a coincidence of natural, contingent facts. But does that do real justice to the experienced phenomenon? Was it really possible to say that the word "Waziristan" now shining down upon me and the Lieutenant-General at this conference, right at *that* moment with me, in the role of chairman, really meant nothing?

I don't think so because, whenever striking events like this occur (and whether you want to accord them a natural or a supernatural cause) we are all, suddenly and wholly unexpectedly, thrown into the world in an active, interpretative mode. In that kind of situation there no longer exists any neutral, unadorned, natural and historical facts because we find ourselves actively living, moving and having our very being amongst them. When that happens we have no choice but to try and find in that complex activity some kind of a way to move forward, some kind of meaning and intelligibility. We have to interpret what is going on and ask whether in this event there are any tidings that take us to a new understanding, even to a whole new way of being in the world. (Don't forget the straightforward power of chance events - of whatever kind - as MacMillan is claimed to have said when asked what he feared most of all, "Events, dear boy, events.")

My interpretation began with some facts, or at least the few facts I thought I knew because I did not, of course, have recourse at that moment to an encyclopaedia. I knew that Waziristan was a remote province in Northern Pakistan and had played a part in three costly Anglo-Afghan conflicts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1839-1842, 1878-1880 and 1919). I also vaguely remembered the Flashman novels were set during the first of these and that Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes' companion, had been injured in the second of them. I certainly knew enough about the contemporary history of the region to know Waziristan shared a border with Afghanistan and that, after the allied invasion in 2001, many Taliban fighters escaped there. It is this fact, of course, that provides the United States with a reason for their current, highly controversial, drone strikes in the region.

I was also quickly becoming aware of the general dark irony that a highly relevant word was shining down upon us from window which memorialised former campaigns fought in the very same region that was about to be addressed by the conference.

For me, who for all kinds of religious and political reasons opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, this word, this event, was silently interpreted such to bring forth the following headline message: "We have tried to conquer and suppress this region by military means since the early 1800s and we have failed, even unto this very day. So let's stop it now. We must change our outdated imperialist attitudes and foreign policy now!"

But this was, nor is, the only possible interpretation of what the word might mean and it was immediately obvious to me that the Lieutenant-General, had he been aware of the event, of the word or message  "Waziristan" now shining down upon him (and I do not believe he was so aware), he would be likely to interpret it differently. Perhaps the message he heard would be connected with the need felt by every serving soldier to remain loyal in the present fight both to his comrades and to the sacrifice, honour and memory of his predecessors who had lived and died that region in the service of King/Queen and Country.

I was also keenly aware that other members of the international audience - mostly involved in military intelligence and various political think-tanks such as Chatham House - if they had been aware of the event, this word shining down upon their keynote speaker and chairman - they would have brought forth still other headline messages involving amongst other things the need to develop better intelligence gathering methods, counter-insurgency strategies, skills and weapons so as better to control or manage the region in some fashion.

I remember thinking all these things and many more in pretty quick succession and this is why, a) I didn't hear Lieutenant-General Lamb's first few paragraphs and b) why, for reasons I now come to, it seemed as if this event, this single word message was delivered by the god Hermes.

We come to him via the word "hermeneutics". Heidegger, referring to "playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigour of science", understood the origin of the word "hermeneutics" to be found in the god's name. The simple dictionary definition of "hermeneutics" is that it is the theory of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. In short hermeneutics is about how we figure out what texts mean and don't mean - even single word texts like "Waziristan".

What might be the reason popular, playful etymology looks to Hermes? Well, firstly his role in the Pantheon was as the "messenger of the gods". Connected with this role you heard earlier a story from Roman mythographer Hyginus.

Hermes may have dutifully brought the gods' messages to human kind but the language he created for us to receive these messages was, to use a modern idiom, hardly "fit for purpose" - it has always been the case that everyone who heard him heard him say something different. What's more, Hermes was believed to take great pleasure in this state of affairs.

Given that, from time immemorial, humankind has known all words are always-already ambiguous and have the power simultaneously to reveal and/or conceal, it is not surprising that Hermes was thought to make a very suitable, realistic representative figure for the art of interpretation - hermeneutics.

For some reason this week, six years on (I don't know why), I found myself asking once again, what might the word "Waziristan" shining down from that memorial window have meant? Could there be anything like a shared interpretation of this event, this word and memorial which genuinely honoured the difficult diversity of opinion I experienced at the conference?

By following the usual strong methods of interpretation the answer is, I think, no. The usual method relies upon wheeling out some latter-day "Daniel" to interpret to the world the "true", heretofore hidden, meaning of the message. These latter day Daniels are not today called prophets but, instead, expert analysts. But, as we all know, before long, this strong approach quickly generates different communities of interpretation each of whom believe they have brought out the "true" meaning of the message. These different interpretations begin to conflict with each other, further discord is sown between the groups, and the spectre of conflict arises once again. At the conference I certainly saw plenty of examples of this strong, even macho, dynamic and I can honestly say that chairing the plenary sessions with more than their fair-share of very heated exchanges was one of the most challenging and stressful experiences of my public life. Throughout that long day I felt as if Hermes was constantly standing at my shoulder delighting in the scene.

Thinking about this experience during the week (and with the benefit of six further years of  theological/philosophical reflection) I want to suggest today, very tentatively - in the "weak" way offered us by Gianni Vattimo pensiero debole I spoke about a couple of weeks ago - that in Hermes' always highly ambiguous messages we may, in fact, be able to espy some tidings that can form for humankind a modest, unifying message.

Now the word "tidings" is especially important here. It means something like "the announcement of an event". So tidings are not just concerned with the immediate interpretation of this or that word or text - what this or that particular word (such as Waziristan) may or may not mean *now* - but rather tidings concerns our future destiny. Tidings speak of a future event in which our whole way of being-in-the-world is radically changed. So changed, in fact, that if and when it happens it as if a new world has come about - a new creation has come. 

If Heidegger is right then hermeneutics is primarily the difficult art of listening to tidings which speak of some possible future destiny.

I think that, as a culture, we've consistently been looking in the wrong place for the unifying meaning of Hermes' always confusing messages. We've tried to find it lying *behind* the ambiguities of our language in some kind of pure, unitary, eternal, true meaning that only God or the gods and certain prophets and expert analysts have access to. But what if the ambiguity and plurality of meanings found in all our texts is precisely Hermes' message?

In relation to war memorials, what if their very ambiguity is precisely the tidings of our destiny that we need to hear? What if the ambiguity revealed in the conference I chaired is precisely the tidings of our destiny that we need to hear? What would happen if, in our remembrances today, we were deliberately, explicitly, to acknowledge that this kind of ambiguity of meaning is structural and unavoidable in human life and that we are just going to have to find a way to live with this that doesn't involve violent conflict.

If this ambiguity is part of our future destiny then in order to move forward together in peace we must become beings committed to, and comfortable with, the art of endless interpretation, gently solving our differences and creating meaning and community through ongoing conversations - always allowing ambiguity to be, not a problem, but a limitless source of creative energy. You may say this is impracticable, far away, and can never be accomplished but, as Olympia Brown (1835-1926) saw, we can never make the world safe by fighting so what other way is there than the way of interpretative conversation?

Is this the work we are appointed to do? Is the necessity of such a conversation what the word "Waziristan" meant (its "great lesson") as it shone down upon me six years ago? Well, we'll have to talk about that . . .