Not “ascension” but a mingling in the weather-world?—An Ascension Sunday Address

The weather-world, Cambridge, Ascension Sunday morning . . .

The Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6-10)

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

From The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia (Polity, 2019, p. 94 emphasis in the original)

The sky is not what is above. The sky is everywhere: it is the space and the reality of mixture and movement, the definitive horizon starting from which everything has to draw itself. There is nothing but sky, everywhere; and everything, even our planet and what it hosts, is but a condensed portion of this celestial, infinite, and universal matter. Everything that happens is a celestial event, everything that occurs is a divine fact. God is no longer elsewhere, he coincides with the reality of forms and accidents. Plants have made a perpetual devotion to the sky, to what takes place in the sky, and all this while being firmly rooted in the Earth. This means that, thanks to the plants, Life is no longer a purely chemical fact but especially an astrological one.
     To assert a material continuity between the Earth and the rest of the universe means to change the idea itself of the Earth. The earth is a celestial body, and everything in it is sky. The human world is not the exception in a nonhuman universe; our existence, our gestures, our culture, our language, our appearances are celestial.


Not “ascension” but a mingling in the weather-world?—An Ascension Sunday Address

Last week I spoke about how powerful are the pictures which shape the way we think about how the world is and our own place (and the place of all things/entities) in it. These pictures help, of course, to deliver up to us many things which go under the heading of “common sense” — the way world “simply” works. But, as I was cautioning in the illustration of tying a rope around the world, what works as a “common sense” picture in one context does not, necessarily, work in another and they can come seriously to mislead us.

With this thought in mind once again let's begin this Ascension Sunday Address by considering the picture that held sway in first century of the CE upon which Luke drew in the telling of his story (see illustration on the right). Although educated people at the time knew about Ptolomeic astronomy (i.e. the theory that the Sun, Moon, stars and planets orbited the Earth) it was still for most people common sense to picture the world as being a bowl turned upside-down over a flat plate. [See picture on the order of service.] On the inside face of the bowl — the firmament — the stars were fixed and, on the outer side there was water which would, at times, drip down as rain. On the other side of the water was God, Yahweh, in his heaven. Given this picture of how the world is it would have been a fairly comprehensible and plausible (if not entirely straightforward) matter for Jesus to have climbed up Mount Olivet, on which the village of Bethany sits, said a few farewell words to his disciples and then, with a little divine assistance from his heavenly father, to have been lifted up into heaven in only a few minutes or hours. This would be a fairly easy thing to believe were you living with the common sense picture of the cosmology of first century CE Second Temple Judaism alive in your head. If, however, Jesus were to climb Mount Olivet today to ascended into heaven he’d be heading out into a cosmos which,  thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we have discovered is composed of a possible two trillion galaxies each of which contains millions or billions of stars and planetary systems. Two millennia ago were Jesus to have ascended at the speed of light from Mount Olivet — i.e. at about one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second — as we speak, he would still be well inside the Milky Way, the beautiful name we give our own, very, very local, galaxy (the Milky Way galaxy is c. 100,000 light years in diameter we are 25,618 light years from its centre).

Consequently, we cannot fully inhabit the Ascension story in the way its writer and first hearers did because the picture which held them captive no longer holds us captive simply because our current picture of how the world is and our place in it is so radically different.

In the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham
When we realise this, a strong temptation in our overly rational (and in its own technocratic, occasionally scientistic and rather over literalistic) culture is simply to say that the story is, today, utterly redundant and useless. Indeed for many of us, the traditional Christian images of Jesus ascending into the sky leaving only his feet sticking out from some cloud high above us feels like a faintly ludicrous, even comic one (see picture here of the ceiling in one of the chapels at the Anglican Walsingham Shrine) and certainly of no useful value to us in the important matter of helping us understand what kind of lives we should be living.

Of course, the story used to have this practical rôle because (at the very least) it was was originally told as some kind of proof that Jesus was God’s only son. Believing this was important to developing Christian communities because it served to encourage potential followers of Jesus fully to commit to his teachings and, by default, also to the teachings and authority of the community which increasingly claimed to be standing in Jesus’ stead. But today, in an environment in which the reality of the ancient Hebraic cosmological picture and its associated God has become for most of us impossible to hold, the need for such any such “proof” has simply evaporated. The story of the Ascension now no longer seems to have any use at all and has become, at best, an orphan story — or, to use a Wittgensteinian image, it is a “handle” which, although it can still be turned, now longer connects to any practical “machinery”.

But, to my way of thinking, that approach simply speaks of a failure of imagination. As the philosopher Iain Thomson reminds us,

. . . 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).

By any reasonable measure the Biblical texts do together form a great text and so I want to ask today whether there might be another way of interpreting the Ascension story in our own age? — of reorientating the sense of the work that previously guided us.

One common way the Ascension story has been reinterpreted in liberal circles is to spiritualise it by claiming the story should be taken as a metaphor about the human spirit or soul’s journey to god that takes place once it has let go of the physical world. If your picture of how the world is and our place in it is one which divides reality up into distinct (Cartesian) realms of spirit and matter then this kind of reading is possible but, because my picture of how the world is and our place in it is by now thoroughly Lucretian, i.e. a species of what’s called the new materialism, I’m afraid I can’t do that for you today because world doesn't seem to me to be divided up in this fashion. As you know, for me (and the general current scientific consensus) it’s a complex mixture, all of which is reliant upon the folds, flows and fields of matter/energy. If you’d like a full-blown spiritualised reading of the story you’ll need to invite another speaker to give next year’s Ascension Sunday address. Naturally, I’m happy for for that to happen should you wish . . . even though I may well (conversationally and gently) push against that speaker’s take on things.

Anyway, given that I, personally, find such a spiritualised reading impossible, what might a new-materialist reading of the story offer us?

Well, what if the story could be taken by us, not to be about how a individual person (whether Jesus or anyone else) who lives upon the earth can find a way to move from the surface of the earth to the surface of another place called “heaven” (in either physical or spiritual forms) but, instead, was a story that could help us understand how we — where and however we are — are always-already mingling with the flows, folds and fields that make up our whole world? It’s a picture which I think better accords with current natural and social scientific understandings of how the world is and our place in it and it’s certainly a picture which can, I think, helpfully inform a more ecologically informed and friendly way of being in the world.

We may usefully begin, I think, with an observation made by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote:

As I contemplate the blue of the sky I am not set over against as an acosmic subject; ... I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, ... I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, ... my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue (cited in Ingold, Tim: Earth, sky, wind, and weather, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), S19-S38, 2007 p. S.28).

As Ingold notes “[i]t is one thing ... to think about land and weather; it’s “quite another to think in them (ibid. p. S.29, emphasis in the original). Lying on our backs on some soft grassy knoll amidst early summer meadow flowers and fragrant cow-parsley on a sunny afternoon, looking up into the blue sky is this not a sensation we have all shared at one time or another?

So, what might change in our thinking about the Ascension were we to do it in the open? (I should add that I did, in fact, write this address in the open). This kind of question has been asked by the wonderful British anthropologist Tim Ingold who in his own work has become concerned “to establish what it means to be ‘in the open’.” And that

Instead of thinking of the inhabited world as composed of mutually exclusive hemispheres of sky and earth, separated by the ground, we need to attend . . . to the fluxes of wind and weather. To feel the air and walk on the ground is not to make external, tactile contact with our surroundings but to mingle with them. In this mingling, as we live and breathe, the wind, light and moisture of the sky bind with the substances of the earth in the continual forging of a way through the tangle of lifelines that comprise the land (ibid. p. S.115)

For Ingold, “to inhabit the open is not to be stranded on the outer surface of the earth but to be caught up in the substantial flows and aerial fluxes” of what he calls “the weather-world” ((ibid. p. S.96). Again, to cite Merleau-Ponty, Ingold asks what would happen were we to acknowledge the open world of the earth and sky not as the object but as the very ‘homeland of our thoughts’ (ibid. p. S.29)?

We might, perhaps, come to sense that “life is not in things; rather, things are in life, caught up in a current of continual generation (ibid. p. S.29, emphasis in the original)”. We might find ourselves and all other things restored “to the movements that gave rise to them” (ibid. p. S.29). We might also sense that “in the open world there are no inside and outsides, only comings and goings” (ibid. p. S.29).

All this brings me back to the work of Emanuele Coccia whose quite beautiful, astonishing and provocative philosophical meditation on the life of plants has so captivated me in the last couple of months. You will recall from our reading (see above) that for Coccia, the sky is everywhere and “it is the space and the reality of mixture and movement, the definitive horizon starting from which everything has to draw itself.”

Note that in this new-materialist picture of the world everything is not drawn (i.e. made or created) from the point of view of a static heaven or god (eternal blueprints, if you like) but from the ever moving point of view of being oneself a creative line of movement entangled in an infinite knotwork  of ceaselessly creative flows, folds and fields (active footprints, if you like).

Coccia thinks a picture we might employ to help us better understand what it is to be the kind of creatures we are in this new way of seeing (and being in) the world is the plant. Like them he thinks we should begin to make “a perpetual devotion to the sky, to what takes place in the sky, and all . . . while being firmly rooted in the Earth.”

The disciples looked up into heaven in the hope that they would leave the earth and join Jesus in heaven. Plants, however, look up at the sun and the sky in order to join them once again with the earth to make everything the sky, i.e. a celestial matter. As Coccia puts it, plants help us see that

Everything that happens is a celestial event, everything that occurs is a divine fact. God is no longer elsewhere, he coincides with the reality of forms and accidents.

So this Ascension Sunday may I take the risk of suggesting we try to live a lot more like plants and a lot less like a disciples of a divine God-Man. What might happen to us were we able to let the old picture of the world go which is keeping us captive to the belief that we are a separate beings walking on this world waiting only to be taken away from it to go to some other, more perfect place and, instead, take the Ascension story as an encouragement to free ourselves to enter joyously into the ever-moving and ever-open weather world, letting ourselves play a creative part in bringing heaven and earth back together by knowingly commingling with the flows, folds and fields of nature doing what nature always does (natura naturans).