Embracing and welcoming the figure of the migrant—Being also a meditation on the need to let go of the God of Monotheism and embrace an Ontology of Motion

The Figure of the Migrant by Thomas Nail
Embracing and welcoming the figure of the migrant—Being also a meditation on the need to let go of the God of Monotheism and embrace an Ontology of Motion

As some of you will have seen in the last email from our Church Chairman, Andrew Bethune, one of our members (whom we gratefully share with one of the local Quaker Meetings), kindly alerted us to a local Quaker, online meeting organised last week called ‘Refugees: creating a humane not hostile environment.’

The movement of people caused by war, violence, famine, drought and/or the associated desire for better economic, social, political and religious conditions has always been part of the human experience. In the past, as now, this movement has often created in many people all kinds of fears and problems (real and imagined) and in our own age it is proving to be one of the most powerful drivers behind the rise in (mostly) right-wing, protectionist, nationalisms/racisms across the world which are continuously demonising/othering the figure of the migrant as some kind of abhorrent, hateful, threatening and, perhaps, even demonic, external force threatening the integrity of ‘our borders’ and ‘our identity.’ We all know where this kind of fear, hatred and border- and identity-reinforcing leads and it is no surprise that many of us desire to find effective ways to challenge this and help create for the migrant (and all people) a humane, and not a hostile, environment.

But, at least as I see it, there is a significant, even fundamental obstacle to us creating such an environment, namely, our culture’s inherited understanding of what it is for any thing to be the kind of thing it is. The technical name for the study of this question is ‘ontology’.

Roughly speaking, our inherited ontology (basically a Christian version of Platonism/Neo-Platonism) tells us that all things are created by (or emanate from) one, central, single, static, eternal and immutable source: ‘God’, famously described by the anonymous twelfth-century author of the ‘Liber XXIV philosophorum’ is conceived as being ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’.

But, as I have been pointing out for some considerable time now, for many of us in the world today our understanding of the way the world is and our place in it is now very different to that suggested by our inherited ontology. What nearly all the sciences and humanities are suggesting to us, from quantum/particle physics to anthropology/sociology, is that EVERYTHING is always already in motion and that even the most apparently eternal, static, self-contained things are themselves made up of matter in motion and, in time, they will all unfold themselves infinitely back into the flows, folds and fields of matter out of which they, and all things are continually being made and unmade. In short what it is for anything to be the kind of thing it is, it is to be in motion.

In turn, this means that every apparently solid, long-lasting, even to the point of seeming to be an ‘eternal’ thing, is, in truth, only a metastable material thing (as Lucretius thought, this would be true even of the gods). Here’s how the philosopher Thomas Nail explains metastability in a fashion which also serves to bring us back to the figure of the migrant:

‘A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended’ (Source).

In other words our societies/nations are all created/defined by constantly migrating material flows and NOT created, de novo, out of nothing (ex nihilo) by the fiat of some static, eternal, immutable God/principle/force. All apparently still centres are always and only the metastable consequences of ever-moving flows and not the other way round. This means that our ontology has always been ‘upside down’ — because ever-moving flows are a necessary condition of all apparently still centres. The very possibility of our identities (whether East Anglians, English, British, European, World citizens etc.) depends not on some eternal divine diktat or covenant, but on migrant, material flows — the migrant is what always-already makes us who were are.

I hope you can grasp that this turning ‘upside-down’ of our ontology (from one based on a static, eternal centre to one based on ever-moving material flows that create only metastable centres/circumferences) helps us see clearly that all our societies/nations are themselves metastable consequences of ceaselessly migrating (pedetic) material flows — including, of course, the ceaseless flow of migrating (pedetic) peoples with all their extraordinary material practices, tools, objects and ideas.

Having grasped this very different ontology (an ontology of motion) Nail wants us to see at least two consequences of it for our understanding of the figure of the migrant.

The first is that, as a

‘major constitutive social force throughout history . . . migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially.’ (Source)

This is vital because, again as Nail notes, at the moment

‘we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.”’ (Source)

The second consequence of adopting an ontology of motion is that it can help us see clearly that

‘Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories.’ (Source)

I share with Nail a genuine hope that by consciously adopting an ontology of motion we can try to ‘recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones.’ (Source)

Amen, to that, say I!

In short, for us truly to help create for refugees (and, by extension, all migrants) ‘a humane not hostile environment’, one major (and I would argue essential) thing I think all of us must do, is to begin to let go of our inherited belief in the static, centralising, Platonic/Neo-Platonic God of monotheism and begin consciously to adopt an understanding of world that helps us see that what it is to be anything at all is to be something always-already material and in motion. With such an understanding in our heads, hearts and hands I have some hope that the figure of the migrant will come to be seen by us, not as an object of hatred and fear to be excluded on the other side of a border, but a figure to be embraced and welcomed (although always thoughtfully) into our leaky, entropic circles of belonging (and vice versa, of course) as a beautiful, tangible, material expression of how everything, but everything, in the world comes to be.


Ministering as I do, from within a Christian context (albeit a liberal, highly unorthodox and heretical one and as an atheist myself), I would simply point out that the tradition’s central, material figure, Jesús, was himself a dispossessed and colonised migrant. It seems to me that the Christian tradition, at least when it is shorn of its supernaturalist belief in the God of monotheism, has through the figure of ‘Jesús-the-migrant’ the opportunity to articulate its own — but by no means unique — beautiful, tangible, material expression of how, through motion, everything, but everything, in the world comes to be.