Constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected

The River Cam flowing beside Grantchester Meadows last week 

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 


We find ourselves living in an age when we are coming to know ever more clearly that everything moves and that what it is to be anything at all is to be something in motion

Although this realisation feels very modern, the idea that movement is a fundamental or foundational aspect of the nature of things was first proposed some two-thousand-five-hundred years ago by Heraclitus of Ephesus who insisted that “everything flows” (panta rhei), that all things are in “flux” and, therefore, are always-already “becoming.” Today, he is best remembered for the famous saying preserved by Plutarch: 

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river” (B91[a]).

But, despite it’s great age, this way of understanding of how the world is can pose a real challenge to many religious people because it cuts so strongly against the long-held and dominant idea within our culture that what is foundational and of the greatest value must be something immortal and immutable. So, for example, in the Christian tradition we read in the Epistle of James (1:17) that:   

“Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, descending from the Father of the Luminaries, with whom there is no alternation or shadow of change.”       

To be told — and now often also regularly and clearly shown — that the world is how it is because of, and not despite, alteration and change can, understandably, be a disturbing and dizzying experience to some people. To such people it can seem that, not only is it no longer possible to step twice into the same river, but it is not possible to step twice into anything at all. But, at the everyday level, we know this is simply not true, it is perfectly possible to step into the same river twice, just ask anyone who swims regularly in the River Cam, every day, there it is, ready to be swum in. So, given this, was Heraclitus wrong? 

Well, in order to answer this question properly we need to know that another version of his famous saying was preserved by Cleanthes who suggests that what Heraclitus actually said was this: 

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same, other and other waters flow” (B12). 

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 been in so far as it remains something consisting of moving and changing waters. What is true of the river can, therefore, by extension, also be said to be true of the universe as a whole, because the universe can only continue to exist over time as the same universe it has always been in so far as it remains something that consists of ever moving, changing, intra-acting and metamorphosing things. To return to the river, as the contemporary philosopher, Daniel W. Graham, notes (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.” Consequently, Graham goes on to say,

“[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.”

Finally, as Graham 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).”

This way of understanding the world, in which constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connectedhas many scientific, political, ecological and financial consequences that, were they followed through properly, would radically transform our way of being-in-the-world in all kinds of healthy ways. But, today, all I’ll say is that if we want truly to live as genuinely twenty-first century religious people then, whenever we talk about God or, if you prefer, the Ground of Being, then we must abandon our old language about God as some eternal and immutable being without any alternation or shadow of change and, instead, only speak in terms of motion, change, newness, process and event (see, for example, HERE and HERE). 

Despite what we once thought, we are today beginning better to understand that it is only such an ever-moving, groundless Ground of Being that has ever been able to provide the constancy needed for anything to exist at all.