Consider once more the fowls of the air: On letting Christian language go in the spirit of Jesus (Part 2)

Because the north Norfolk coast is well-known for its astonishingly rich variety of bird-life, spending two weeks in Wells-next-the-Sea inevitably calls one into a contemplation and consideration of the fowls of the air. There are the countless seagulls and over-wintering geese, many ducks and assorted waders, barn owls and marsh harriers, a skylark or two and, in the always sighing pine-woods that run all along that part of the coast we also even heard a night-jar.

(All the photos in this post were taken in Wells last week. Just click on them to enlarge.)

This contemplation and consideration was reinforced in the evenings whist sitting by a warming wood stove because I had taken with me a collection of poems written by a friend, Ed Mooney, called “Postcards Dropped in Flight: In praise of avian companions” (Codhill Press, New Paltz NY, 2006):

To have the sea-breeze waft through the balcony
to greet me as I ascend my stairs
is to bathe in tangible embrace.

For Birds the breeze must be 
like streams for watercraft
sometimes still
sometimes a mettling resistance
or startling joyous ride.

Once housed along the coast
I returned well into dark to find
a convalescent pure-white Gull
nestled in the corner of the landing
where the railing meets the shingles.

It huddled quietly, immobile
protected from the wind
and as its eye latched on mine
moved not an inch.

To enter my sparse quarters
would bring me close enough 
to touch this invalid. 

I would hate to frighten or disturb
a wanderer seeking refuge.

Yet a close approach to turn the bolt
and enter was inevitable.

As we grew accustomed 
to each other’s presence
it occurred to me that one might overestimate
the soul’s fright.
There was no sign of hurt.

Perhaps this sparkling feathered sphere
came as greeting and a comfort.
From when I couldn’t say.
By why rule out auspicious blessings?

Not unexpectedly
yet no less wonderfully
by early morning 
she had passed.

Ed concludes the poem with the final two lines of the following poem by Emily Dickinson (1830–86), number XCVI of “Part One: Life”

MY life closed twice before its close;
  It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
  A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
  As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
  And all we need of hell.

Given my Christian upbringing, it was inevitable that eventually a particular teaching of Jesus should came to mind: ”Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are they not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).

The moment I begin to read or recall this teaching of Jesus’ I am still filled, first of all, with remembered feelings of comfort and trust. But, these days, as I read and think on, I quickly stumble and lose something of this sense.

In the first place there is the issue of the “heavenly Father” mentioned by Jesus whom he depicts as freely providing food to the, apparently, care-free birds. We meet today as a church community in which the majority of members find the existence of a father God vanishingly unlikely to be true. I think it is fair to say there is a general agreement amongst us that, if and when the word ‘God’ is still to be used by us, we cannot use it to refer to some actual existing super-being who is offering the mother of all social-security systems to at least some (but never all) of its subjects.

In the second place Jesus’ teaching does not seem to take into account something we know well today, namely, that birds do not, in fact, have an easy carefree time of it — there is no such thing as a free-lunch, neither for them, nor us, and that being a bird is exceptionally hard work and it is an existence is always fraught with danger. Predators abound, disease and ill-health is ever present and there is the never ending danger of famine. The birds might, at times, look to us like they are having the life of Riley but today we know this is an unrealistically romantic view of the way things are. The convalescent pure-white gull of which Ed Mooney speaks in his poem reveals this in a reflective and moving way as the bird’s hard life comes to a quiet end on the the sea-side apartment's balcony.

Lastly, in this age when we know human beings are not in any way the absolute centre of all creation — whether on earth or in the universe — the idea that we are, somehow, of more value than the birds seems now to be both deluded and morally offensive. Again, as Ed suggests in his poem, we are today increasingly minded to see their presence of great, intrinsic value, and that they bring with them or, perhaps better, are themselves, “auspicious blessings”.

The warming fire in Wells
Together, these three things may make it appear to me as if I really need simply to abandon Jesus teaching as a whole as being next to, or perhaps worse than useless. But, before finally consigning it to the waste-bin, in the evening sitting before the warming fire I wanted to turn it over in my mind at least just once more.

For starters throwing it thoughtlessly and finally away doesn’t feel right primarily because of the warm feelings I experience that I mentioned earlier whenever I begin to read or recall this passage. I’d miss that warmth and comfort and, if there is anything real in this, I’d surely be foolish to let such a support go.

I recalled that before I left for Wells on vacation I had reminded you of Marcus Borg’s feeling that to be a Christian it was enough to take seriously what Jesus took seriously. To this I added some advice I was given about reading Heidegger. Namely, that whenever I was puzzled about what on earth Heidegger was talking about I should try to look to the phenomenon or phenomena he was trying to explore.

This allowed me to ask a question: What was it that Jesus took seriously that we today should be taking seriously? In other words, what everyday, human phenomenon or phenomena might he have been trying to respond to and speak about and get us also in our own age and context to respond to and speak about? 

I concluded my address by suggesting that we could take seriously what Jesus took seriously without, necessarily, agreeing today with his own localised response. After all, times  and places change and his times are not ours, his understanding of the world is not ours. It seems unreasonable to expect that all of Jesus’ first-century responses to important phenomena are going to be the kind of responses I might want to make in the twenty-first century. But none of this means he hadn’t seen something in this or that phenomenon that I should still be taking seriously.

I began to see that Jesus’ teaching about the fowls of the air was a good example of this.

I imagined Jesus looking around at the crowd assembled round him and seeing there so many people unable fully to be the kind of beings they could be because they were living with so many of their freedoms curtailed, forced to wear around their necks so many heavy yokes, yokes of formal religion, politics and economics in which all power was held, and mostly abused, by only a self-selected few.

Then I imagined myself looking up into the sky to consider the fowls of the air as Jesus asked. What do I see there? Certainly not creatures merely having a free and easy time of it and who are less valuable than me but I do, at the very least, see creatures able fully and freely to be the kind of beings they are without any artifice, self-consciousness or the unnecessary barriers that are the yokes of human religion, politics and economics and I seem them blessedly free of corrupt and/or incompetent leaders.

A close reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus seems to have felt deeply in his heart that, despite the reality of all the humanly-created, freedom-sapping yokes, it was always possible for us to find different, more appropriate human ways of being in the world that could help us fully and freely to flourish in a way analogous to the wild birds above us (and, on another occasion, of course, to the lilies of the field).

It seems not unreasonable to suggest that, as he was beautifully improvising his liberating and revolutionary teaching on some Galilean hillside or plain, Jesus looked up and found an image that, right at that moment, best resonated with this deep feeling in his own heart and one that he hoped he might start in the hearts of his hearers.

The match, it is important to say, may not, indeed need not, have been perfect here. All that counted was whether it was sufficiently close both to his own inner state and to an inner state within his hearers that he hoped to set in sympathetic vibration. So, he offered up a poetic image which he felt gave them just such “an approximation” of his own inner experience — namely that life was underpinned and made possible by deeper and greater reality and power than any solely human reality and power. In so doing Jesus gave it, quite naturally, “the semblance of objective reality” (cf. McGhee, Transformations of the Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice p. 119) — in his case a “heavenly Father.”

The trouble is that it is has always been so easy to lose this sense of semblance and to allow one’s thinking and pondering about these aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism.

The image Jesus used was not intended to be an example of this naive theological realism, one that was to be fixed for ever. No! It seems way more likely that he was simply proceeding as an improvising poet of the spirit and not as some analytic philosopher or theologian. That Jesus’ image of a “heavenly Father” was later fixed and analysed and has, in most church circles, come to be seen as “forever” is, firstly, to observe simply that Jesus clearly struck upon what was, at the time, an extremely attractive and effective chord. Secondly, it is to observe how regrettable and degenerate this fixing was and remains for the spiritual life of those wishing to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.

It seems to me that, as a person wishing to do this, a necessary element of my spiritual practice must be to renew and cultivate my “sense of semblance” by trying to recover, through quiet reflection and meditation, something of the conditions in which the mind of Jesus might have been set “in motion [in this case by the birds of the air] towards the idea of a corresponding inner state” (McGhee p.126).

But the problem we have today is that for most of us here the image Jesus’ chose — "the heavenly Father" — to gesture towards this inner state simply doesn’t strike the same chord or set up this same kind of resonance in us as it seemed capable of achieving in his earlier audiences. For complex reasons that I don’t need to rehearse now, it’s an image that within our culture has (alas) by now degenerated into a form of naive theological realism and so it is not surprising that many of us have come to find it uncongenial, unpersuasive and even, at times, morally repellent. For a recent popular expression of just how uncongenial, unpersuasive and morally repellent a resonance is now often set up in us by such an anthropomorphic image of the divine we need go no further than Stephen Fry’s recent interview on RTE television’s The Meaning of Life.

But please keep hold of the thought that the “heavenly Father” image is not, to my mind at any rate, the primary point of Jesus’ teaching at all. We need not keep using this particular image in order to continue to take seriously what Jesus took seriously and to resonate with what might have been his own inner state.

Instead, it seems to me that it was only ever Jesus’ desire to share with others — not his image — but his overwhelming, and ultimately comforting and supportive inner state, that there is always-already a reality and power underpinning everything that is continually gifting the possibility that all things might flourish fully and freely after their own kind. He looked up and saw the birds living such a life after their own kind; he looked down and saw us failing to live such a life after our own kind and this convinced him to try and do something about it.

Later, as I later sat one evening with Susanna on a sand-dune near Wells, in quiet reflection and meditation on the phenomena of the birds of the air and our own human ways of being — in other words, taking what Jesus took seriously — I opened myself to the possibility that my own mind might also be set “in motion [by the birds of the air] towards the idea of a corresponding inner state” (McGhee p.126) — an inner state that gives me confidence that we are underpinned and sustained by a reality and power greater than any reality and power that can be wielded by human kind and which can bring with it intimations of genuine human freedom and fulfilment.

Suddenly, I realised that, in terms of the images I feel compelled to use to pass this inner state to you today, the world of Jesus must seemingly be turned upside down. Looking up, I can only speak of this sustaining reality and power as follows. I find it not in the image of a “heavenly Father”, but in the very image of the fowls of the air themselves who, like angels in our old myths, suddenly seemed to greet me and bring me auspicious blessings of this deeper belonging, freedom and comfort, though, like along with Ed, from whence it comes I couldn’t say. Jesus gestured to a heavenly Father whereas I must gesture towards a mysterious natural source about which I find I can say nothing at all but “before” which I most certainly stand in grateful awe. And then, as I wrote down these last few words, there finally flew into view another of Emily Dickinson's sublime poems:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.

I hope you can see that, even though I personally find it hard any longer to use Jesus’ specific image of a “heavenly Father” the birds may still be bringing me the same auspicious blessings Jesus felt he had received and that he wished to pass on to his hearers, as I wish to pass them on to you. I'm still taking seriously what Jesus took seriously.

For the time being, on this matter, I rest my case and await your own responses.


Anonymous said…
This is a beautiful and moving meditation -- starting with the photos, the blessings, of swirling, gliding birds above the beach, and then sliding a downward breeze to the poetry of Dickinson, and soon having Gospel words remind us of living without affectation (our avian fellows remind us here) -- and that all this meditative breathing intimates the embrace of plenitudes deeper and more profound than any of us can ever hope to wield . . .what a wonderful way to start a new day !
Dear Anon,

Many thanks for your kind words and for taking time to post them. Much appreciated.