“Firm ground is not available ground” — why building one’s religion and philosophy on sand rather than rock might actually be a very good idea

Atop a sand dune on the beach at Wells-next-the-Sea

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Wittgenstein famously warned against letting words “go on holiday” (PI 38). By this, he meant allowing words to say things outside the immediate context in which they were actually being used for this or that  situation. The reason for his concern was that he had begun to see how so many philosophical problems only arose when we succumbed to this temptation. To illustrate this let’s briefly consider Jesus’ teaching found at Luke 6:46-49 (see also Matthew 7:24–27) often called the “Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders”. 

Jesus begins by asking his audience a rhetorical question, namely, why, although they claimed to value him as a wise teacher, they then didn’t put his teaching into practice? He then proceeds to tell a story about what he thought those who had heard his words and were putting them into practice were like:

“They are like the person who, in building a house, dug deeply and laid the foundation on a rock. When a flood arose, the torrent rushed against the house, but failed to shake it because of its solid foundation. 0n the other hand, anyone who has heard my words, but has not put them into practice, is like the person who built a house on sand, without any foundation. When the torrent rushed upon it, the house immediately collapsed and was completely destroyed.” (Luke 6:46-49, Inclusive New Testament, Priests for Equality, 1994)

As the gospel writers present him to us Jesus was clearly a teacher capable of uttering the most memorable, sparkling and striking parables ever known but, alas, this one is not amongst them. What we have here is a straightforward example of commonsense wisdom. Jesus, confident that what he is teaching is good and solid stuff, chooses to illustrate what he thinks are the consequences, good and bad, of following or not following his words, by employing a conventional metaphor that almost everyone could understand. In the context Jesus employs it’s a metaphor that is really rather unremarkable. For, even today, with our advanced engineering techniques and materials, it remains prosaically true that if a building’s foundation sits on soft or filled-in sandy soil, the whole building is always in danger of collapsing.

Now, although we may agree or disagree that Jesus is correct in believing the great worth of his own teaching and the value of building an ethical practice upon it, what we can all agree upon is the appropriateness of his everyday metaphor if, and this is vitally important, if we don’t let the words of the metaphor go on holiday. When they stay at home in this world we can say with confidence that building on sound foundations (aka rock) is good; building on infirm foundations (aka sand) is bad. 

But the trouble is that within Christian circles Jesus was very early on transformed from being a wise, human teacher — a rabbi — into very God of very God and it was this process that allowed the words of the Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders to pack for what has now become an extended, two-millennia long holiday which allowed an interpretation of the parable to develop that turns out to be highly misleading about what seems to us today to be the fundamental nature of things. 

For the Christian believer, once Jesus had become God, Jesus became the very foundation of everything that ever was, is, or will be. Reading this parable with this belief in mind, Jesus’ metaphor became not simply a straightforward, everyday one rooted in the practical knowledge of in what consisted the best foundation for an actual building or a certain kind of ethical practice but, instead, it became a metaphysical metaphor about the ultimate nature of things. In short, the parable began to be understood in Christian circles as saying that ultimate reality — whether God or Jesus, Jesus or God — was also to be thought of as being rock-like, super-stable, eternal, fixed, immovable, unmovable, static and so on. As the author of the Epistle of James has it, when it came to ultimate reality there was to be in it “no alternation or shadow of change” (James 1:17).

By extension, of course, the quickly developing and overlapping early-Christian communities which eventually became the highly plural and complex entity known as “the Christian Church”, that took on the mantle of rock via the story of Jesus’ renaming of Simon the son of Jonah as Simon Peter, where the name “Peter” is derived from the Greek word for rock, “petros”. You will recall that in Matthew 16 Jesus is made to say that “on this rock (petra)” he would build his church which even the “gates of Hades” would not overcome. It was to Peter that Matthew has Jesus give the keys of the kingdom of heaven saying “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13–19). In consequence, the Church’s authority over all things on earth came to be thought of as eternally secure and “rock-like” because it was believed to have been built on the firm, eternal foundation of the metaphysical rock of God and Jesus, Jesus and God.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that, once the words of Jesus’ parable had gone on holiday in this fashion, the Christian mind found it impossible to take seriously the idea that upon the ever-shifting, transient, sand-like nature of our natural world any decent, self-respecting philosophy and/or religion could ever be built.

However, as the two millennia have unfolded since the foundation of the Christian Church, alongside the now widespread loss of belief in God, and Jesus as God, in our European and North American culture, and thanks to the discoveries of the natural sciences, there has come an increasingly widespread recognition of the truth, pithily noted by the Roman poet Lucretius, that ‘omnia migrant’ (DRN 5.830), everything, but everything, moves. 

No one knows how long ago this was first intuited as a fundamental or foundational aspect of the nature of things but we can trace it back to at least five hundred years before the birth of Jesus and to the thinking of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Many of you will recall it was Heraclitus who insisted “everything flows” (panta rhei), that all things are in “flux” and, therefore, always-already “becoming”. This idea was summed up most famously in a saying of Heraclitus’ as quoted by Plutarch: “It is not possible to step twice into the same river” (B91[a]). However, some scholars think the more authentic form of the saying has been preserved by Cleanthes which reads: “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow” (B12 — potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei). This is a much more subtle and interesting saying than the popularly remembered one because it helps us see that any river can only continue to exist over time as the same river it has always has been, in so far as it consists of changing waters. As Daniel W. Graham says in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” article on Heraclitus “if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed.” In turn, this means “There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains.” So, Graham continues, 

“[o]ne kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism”. 

As Graham finally observes, on this reading, 

“Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).”

Today, thanks to extraordinary progress made in disciplines such as fundamental particle physics and quantum foundations we are beginning ever more fully to understand this truth and that even the most apparently solid and immutable of things is something always-already dependant on matter-energy in constant motion. In consequence, at the fundamental, foundational level, this means the apparently solid rock of Jesus’ parable is something as constantly in motion as much as is sand.  

So, does this mean Jesus’ parable can now be seen to be wrong-headed? Well, no, not really. Or at least it’s not wrong-headed as long as his words are not taken out of their everyday context and allowed to go on holiday to be used to talk about the fundamental nature of things. In the everyday context, as Jesus wisely if prosaically suggests, one should continue to build on the firmest foundations possible (aka rock) and not upon infirm foundations (aka sand). One important, obvious lesson to learn here is strongly to resist the urge to turn everything that Jesus says into metaphors about the fundamental nature of things and, therefore, to keep the language of Jesus’ teachings firmly where they belong, namely, in the everyday world of practical ethics.

OK. But here’s the interesting thing. Were we tempted to use the words “rock” and “sand” to talk about the fundamental nature of things as the contemporary sciences are now beginning to understand it, for those words to work, we’d have to turn Jesus metaphorical use of them upside down and encourage people to see that the wise person must come to understand that everything is, ultimately, built on moving sand and not static rock. To put this in an apparently paradoxical way the wise, modern person needs to find ways fully to appreciate and live out of the knowledge that everything, but everything rests or depends upon motion!

It is this thought which brings me to a poem that beautifully and accessibly unfolds this idea. It’s called “Dunes” and was written by the twentieth-century American poet A. R. Ammons

Taking root in windy sand

    is not an easy


to go about

    finding a place to stay.

A ditchbank or wood’s-edge

    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though

    something can be started—

a root touch water,

    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise

    on held mounds,

a gesture of building, keeping,

    a trapping

into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

In his poem, Ammons offers us a beautifully succinct, modern parable which reminds us that all our ways of finding a place to stay and be in the world, all our human making and building, whether of actual buildings or of culture in the form of our arts, natural and human sciences, ethics, religion, politics and so on, all of it only occurs because everything is always-already in motion. Firm ground, when understood in the mistaken way our Christian forebears did, is simply something that never has been, is not, and never will be available to us.

However, miracle of miracles, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Ammons and the contemporary sciences show in abundance that in our sand-dune-like-ever-moving-loose-world something can always be started. Roots do touch water, tips do break sand, and following this mounds do rise on held mounds. Across the generations and geography in countless human and non-human gestures, there is building, keeping, and a trapping into shape. We can and do build both buildings and cultures, and, in so doing find a place and a particular way to stay in the world.

But, and this is vital, we need to see clearly that all that is made and all that we make, will in time pass and unfold itself back into fluxing, folding and fielding matter-energy to be reassembled into something different and new. There is no eternal rock, no available, ultimate firm ground upon which to build a definitive, final world, philosophy or religion. Omnia migrant, everything moves. 

Given this, from now on, might we not begin to lead better, more humble and creative lives, were we able fully to understand the implications of being material migrants always-already dwelling on sand-dunes even when, at times, we still recognise the timeless wisdom of building on everyday rock?


If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 24th March at 19.30 GMT.  Link below.

Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church, Evening Conversation

Time: Mar 24, 2021 14:00 London

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Meeting ID: 851 1221 5249

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Here’s the timetable:

19.15-19.30: Arrivals/login

19.30 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer

21:00: Event ends