Dwelling in the simple oneness of the four
|Some of my own notes on Heidegger's 'fourfold'|
This address was written after attending a meeting last Thursday between a few members of XR and various members and ministers of half a dozen local churches. The aim was to discuss and then organise a further, public, meeting where people can talk about how their Christian faith informs their environmental activism. I have to confess that this kind of meeting always fills me with dread because I think it would be dishonest of me to attend such meetings without admitting that I, personally, hold very few conventional Christian beliefs and admitting this doesn’t always go down well. I’m glad to say that this didn’t seem to be the case on this occasion. Anyway, as most of you know, I often describe myself as being a Christian atheist but, despite this, I continue to think there remain meaningful — if challenging — ways to talk about how God (or better ‘the divinities’) continues to inform all my own actions in the world including, of course, my personal involvement with XR.
One of the things that has continually occupied my thoughts in the last year is that this time through which we are living really may be, as R.E.M so memorably sang back in 1987, ‘the end of the world as we know it.’
One only needs to read the headlines to become aware there is a great deal of powerful scientific evidence to back this feeling up: fires in the Amazon, ice and glaciers disappearing at an unprecedented rate, larger and more destructive storms, etc., etc.. If one is brave enough to dig deeper into the articles and scientific papers the initial impression only deepens such that, along with many climate scientists, I feel justified in feeling, and sometimes saying out loud, this really is the end of the world as we know it. It is clear, therefore, that, today, our theological and philosophical thinking can only take place at the edge of the world, right on the precipice of what Elizabeth Kolbert has called ‘the sixth extinction’ (Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York: Henry Holt, 2014).
Like many of you I’m sure I often find myself in the ‘in the long, sleepless watches of the night’ standing on that precipice tempted to give myself completely away to despair. Unlike R.E.M, however, I don’t feel fine about the matter.
Now I cannot tell you how you should be dealing with the possibility that we are in end-times but, today, in an initial and very sketchy way, I can tell you how I deal with it and then leave it to you to decide if it is a strategy you might like to explore yourself.
It’s one rooted in Heidegger’s highly allusive, poetic thoughts about the fourfold and so it is with them that we’ll begin:
Martin Heidegger on the ‘fourfold’ found in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (‘Poetry, Language, Thought’, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Collins, 1971, pp. 149-150).
By a primal oneness the four — earth and sky, divinities and mortals — belong together in one.
Earth is the serving bearer, blossoming and fruiting, spreading out in rock and water, rising up into plant and animal. When we say earth, we are already thinking of the other three along with it, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four.
The sky is the vaulting path of the sun, the course of the changing, moon, the wandering glitter of the stars, the year's seasons and their changes, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether. When we say sky, we are already thinking of the other three along with it, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four.
The divinities are the beckoning messengers of the godhead. Out of the holy sway of the godhead, the god appears in his presence or withdraws into his concealment. When we speak of the divinities, we are already thinking of the other three along with them, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four.
The mortals are the human beings. They are called mortals because they can die. To die means to be capable of death as death. Only man dies, and indeed continually, as long as remains on earth, under the sky, before the divinities. When we speak of mortals, we are already thinking of the other three along with them, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four.
This simple oneness of the four we call the fourfold. Mortals are in the fourfold by dwelling.
Dwelling in the simple oneness of the fourSince my teenage years I’ve been fascinated by the multifarious radical religious groups that sprang up during the English Civil War. It was a hard and often apocalyptic time, so apocalyptic in fact that many people thought the end of the world was nigh. What continues to impress me is that, despite believing they were in end-times, so many people found ways to continue to live creative, meaningful and hopeful lives. Central to this achievement was, of course, a firm belief in God or some other conception of divinity. Their belief helped them to feel their primary duty in these last days was, not to throw their hands up in despair and simply give up but, instead, to use well what time was still available to them to purify their theology (i.e. their thinking about how the world is and their place in it) and, simultaneously, to purify their political and social relationships by making some practical, personal, existential decision to commit to this or that form of life. They may well have felt their world would be ending tomorrow but throughout they continued to believe they had a duty, in the here and now, to be living the best and purest form of life possible.
There have been many times in my life when I have envied them their belief in God. I envied them because I live in an age after the death of God — i.e. in a time when fewer and fewer people are able to believe in the reality of God with full pathos and a clean heart. This means that people like me seem definitively to be barred from seeking divine assistance in their task of finding a way to live creative, meaningful and hopeful lives through what we feel may well be our own end times.
However, my long-term engagement with Heidegger’s thinking, especially what he calls the ‘the fourfold’ — earth, sky, our own mortality and the divinities — has offered me a strategy which holds out enough of a promise to keep me going in my moments of despair.
It’s important to note that what follows draws heavily, and gratefully, upon the insightful presentation of the fourfold by Mark Wrathall found in ‘Religion after Metaphysics’ (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
In order to begin we need to be clear what, in existential terms, Heidegger thinks the death of God means for us.
He thinks the death of God is primarily to be understood ‘as the process by which everything is turned into a resource’ (p. 70) — i.e. turned into things that can be drawn upon at will by a person or organization in order to function both as efficiently and effectively as possible. As I’m sure is by now clear to all of us, it is precisely this process that has led us into our own ‘end-times.’ In our modern, neoliberal and capitalist world almost every thing — including ourselves — has become understood as being an infinitely replaceable part of some gigantic organisational machine rather than as something felt to have some kind of unique, intrinsic meaning and worth. It is no accident — and worth pondering upon — that from the late 1950s onwards, Personnel Departments increasingly became called Human Resources.
Now, the old God ‘was important because our practices of devotion to him provided us with a source of meaning and intelligibility’ (p. 71). In other words the old God allowed things to be understood and engaged with as something other than mere resource. Another way of putting this is to say that the old ‘God served as a land and horizon, giving the sensible world a fixed point and reference’ which, in turn, helped determine ‘what was important and what counted as unimportant or trivial’ (p. 71). With the death of [the old] God this horizon was for us wiped away; ‘what we lost was any fixed point of reference for valuing the world’ (p. 71) as something other than mere resource.
Now, at this point, it might look like I’m about to head down a route well-trodden by certain religious leaders which ends in a simplistic clarion call to restore belief in the old God. Well, let me disabuse you of that thought straight away! Like Mark Wrathall, I think we need to be clear that, for us,
‘the loss of God, properly understood, is an apocalyptic event — one that cannot be treated with the same equanimity that we might treat the loss of some mundane object. To own up to the loss of God requires of us that we reach for a new kind of divinity — a divinity that can withstand the loss of the old God’ (p. 70).
At heart, what the old God gave us ‘was a way of being attuned to objects [things]’ not as mere resources but ‘as having a transcendental importance or weightiness’ (p. 71) and, in turn, this means that our
‘search for a new source of divinity . . . becomes a question of finding a mood, a mode of attunement, which will allow things once more to show up as having weight or importance’ (p. 71).
Importantly, of course, it must be a mood and mode of attunement that is appropriate to the death of God for we can’t allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we can merely restore the old God. As wise old Omar Khayyam wrote (1st edition, Stanza 51):
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
OK, let’s for a moment set aside God — or rather the divinities — and briefly turn to the other three elements of the fourfold, namely, earth, sky and our own mortality. As we proceed, you need to be clear that Heidegger thought the fourfold not only conditioned us but also conditioned each other — they are indissolubly bound together and, therefore, each one of them is, in some fashion informed, lighted and made intelligible by the others. We dwell, as Heidegger said, in ‘the simple oneness of the four.’
We resist the tendency to turn everything into mere resources (and mitigate the death of God) when we allow ourselves to be conditioned by the earth. This means incorporating into our daily practices a way of dwelling in which we truly pay attention to the actual earth we find beneath our feet ‘in its own characteristics’, i.e. without the characteristics we so often enforce upon it — especially the characteristic of being merely a resource. It is to encourage a kind of localism, not a nationalistic one, but one which recognises the universal, importance of there being actual, local places and neighbourhoods in which we can truly dwell. We push aside the earth when we attempt to dwell primarily — even wholly — in what the French anthropologist Marc Augé (b. 1935) called ‘non-places’, ‘curious places which are everywhere and nowhere’ such as motorways, hotel rooms, airports or supermarkets. To this I would add the non-place that is cyber-space. These are all places where, for the sake of efficiency in the movement of things purely understood as resource, meaningful relations, history, and identity are erased.
We resist the tendency to turn everything into mere resources (and mitigate the death of God) when we allow ourselves to be conditioned by the sky. This is to allow ourselves to incorporate into our daily practices ‘the peculiar features of the temporal cycles of the heavens, the day and the night, the seasons and the weather, (p. 80). We push aside the sky when, for example,
‘our eating habits demand food on call, out of season, or when our patterns of work, rest, and play make no allowance for times of day and year, or recognise no holy days or festivals’ (p. 81).
We resist the tendency to turn everything into mere resources (and mitigate the death of God) when we allow ourselves to be conditioned by our mortality. This occurs when we incorporate into our daily practices explicit, public acknowledgements of ‘our temporal course on earth — both growth and suffering, health and disease’ (p. 81).
‘We push our mortality aside when we seek immediate gratification without discipline, when we set aside our own local culture, when we try to engineer biologically and pharmacologically an end to all infirmity, including even death’ (p. 81).
And so now, here we are, back with the divinites which have become so problematic and puzzling to so many of us after the death of God.
Heidegger thinks we resist the tendency to turn everything into mere resources (and mitigate the death of God) when we allow ourselves to continue to be conditioned by the divinities. This occurs when
‘we incorporate into our practices a recognition of holy times and holy precincts — perhaps manifested where one experiences the earth as God’s creation, or feels a reverence for holy days or the sanctity of human life’ (p. 81).
For Heidegger — and I confess for me, too — it seems the case that only the experience of the divine (‘only a god can save us’) will serve to awaken us to the terrible flaws of our technological age in which everything has become a resource. As Wrathall observes:
‘The God, Heidegger says, “deranges us” — in the sense that [the God] calls us beyond the existing configuration of objects to see things that shine forth with a kind of holiness (i.e., a dignity and worth that exceeds our will). Heidegger understands receptivity to the sacred as the experience of being beheld — of recognising that there is a kind of intelligibility that we do not ourselves produce’ (p. 83).
I hope this helps you understand that we cannot afford to think that we ourselves can will the absent divinities to reappear among us. If we were able to do this then the divinities would themselves simply show up as merely another resource to used by us willy-nilly for this or that end. Given this, as Wrathall perspicaciously observes, this means that,
‘All we can do is to try to keep alive the practices that will attune us in such a way that we can experience the divine in the world. The only means we have available to this end are the religious practices we have inherited’ (p. 85).
In a church community such as this which is, I hope, fully cognisant and accepting of the death of God in our culture, my job as the minister is primarily to continue to employ the religious practices we have inherited. The hope is that through them we are able to continue to attune ourselves in such a way that we remain open to the possibility of experiencing the divine in the world. What we are doing here is, as Heidegger suggested, not to insist that people have a belief in God — many of us don’t, including myself — but simply and genuinely to be people ‘preparing a readiness, in thinking and poetising, for the appearance of the god.’
In undertaking this task there is, of course, no guarantee that the God will reappear among us but, as should be clear, the God’s reappearance is not, cannot be, something in our power otherwise the God would simply be a resource and this would only serve to pull us back into the destructive world-view from which we are seeking to escape.
I have found that, even as a kind of a/theist, I can still live a creative, meaningful and hopeful life only when I practice a form of life that consciously seeks to dwell in the simple oneness of the four, hourly and daily allowing myself to be conditioned by the earth, the sky, our mortality and the divinities.
Just like people during the English Civil War with their faith in God, I cannot be assured that by dwelling in the simple oneness of the four I can help forestall, or properly prepare for, the end of the world as I know it. However, I am assured that it is a form of life which truly helps me to live well in the here and now, genuinely trying my best to love the earth, the sky, the mortals and the divinities, not as resources to be used up for my own selfish benefit, but as the extraordinary things they are in their own characteristics for all beings. That, surely, is all any individual person can hope to do, in any age and at the end of the world or not.