Intersection of the Timeless with Time
Carmelite Symposium, 24-26 May, 2018
“To exist is to be outside”
Jan Morgan & Graeme Garrett
Thank you for your welcome Philip. We are very pleased to be part of this Symposium, ‘The intersection of the timeless with time.’ Our presentation is titled, ‘To exist is to be outside’. It takes the form of a John Clarke/Brian Dawe style exchange – well, that’s aiming high! But at least a nod of acknowledgment and gratitude in their direction. There are three sections, a conversation followed by two interviews, as follows:
On spiritual guides
What time is it?
The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?
1. On Spiritual Guides
G. OK Jan, the typical desert island problem. Suppose you had to choose one person, one writer, to be your spiritual guide now, who would you go for?
J. You mean I’ve only got one. Just one!
G. Yes. One.
J. Anyone? From Eve down?
G. No, no. It’s got to be up to date. Let’s say the last 100 years, max.
J. Why? What’s wrong with Hildegard of Bingen, or Hadewijch of Antwerp?
G. Who the Dickens is Hadewijch of Antwerp?
J. Oh my … Who is Hadewijch of Antwerp?!
G. OK, OK! I’ve got nothing against Hadewijch of Antwerp. Except, when did she live?
J. 13th Century. She was a poet, a mystic, a writer …
G. Well, there you are!
G. In the 13th century. This is now. 21st century. Time matters.
J. Of course time matters.
G. Right. We agree. So the last 100 years.
J. Alright if you must … Jean-Louis Chrétien.
G. Jean-Louis who?
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien.
G. At least I’d heard of Hildegard of Bingen. Who’s Chrétien?
J. A philosopher … theologian … poet. French. Born in Paris, 1952. Fits the time frame nicely.
G. Right! Who is he?
J. Hard to say. A bit of a recluse apparently. But brilliant. Teaches at the Sorbonne. Philosophy. … Phenomenology, I think. This is him … I think! When he was younger.
G. You think!
J. Yep. Anyway if that isn’t him; it’s the way I like to think he should be.
G. Philosophy, you say. … Phenomenology?
G. So … boring.
J. No. Definitely not boring. More … challenging, I’d say.
G. Long winded.
J. Wrong again. Very concise, Chrétien. Look, really thin books, all of them.
G. Airy-fairy. Big foreign words nobody’s ever heard of – heilsgeschichte, formgeschichte, redactiongeschichte … bullsgeschichte.!
J. Well, I’m not saying he’s a push-over. But do you want a push-over as a spiritual guide?
G. No … I suppose not.
J. You need to keep your wits about with Chrétien. But he’s never airy-fairy. You always feel that he’s talking from real life; stuff he knows about from here (indicate guts) not just here (head).
G. Like … what?
J. He writes essays mostly. Short pieces. Bite size you might say.
G. About what?
J. Well, beauty, for example, or prayer, or silence, or hospitality, or call, or praise. Chrétien has an amazing grasp of the way the tradition has thought and felt about these things. … Mind you he’s blokey.
J. Yes! You know: Jeremiah, Plato, Augustine, down to Heidegger, Cassian and Barth. Blokes. Chrétien could do with a good dose of Hildegard, Hadewijch and Mechtild! But I suppose nobody’s perfect!
G. Okay, so he’s not perfect. But, give me one thing you’ve learned from this bloke that’s made a real difference to your life.
J. That’s hard. There’s so much. You’ve got to take Chrétien slowly.
G. Fine. But try. One thing that really matters to you.
J. Hmm … okay … I think that one of the most precious – and, in a way, most uncomfortable – gifts of Chrétien’s work is his understanding of the nature of the spiritual journey.
G. That’s pretty vague.
J. In our dealing with God. … No that’s not the way to put it. … In God’s dealing with us, we need to be open to what Chrétien calls ‘the unheard of’.
G. The unheard of?
G. What do you mean?
J. God … always – always – exceeds us. Exceeds our apprehension. Our understanding. Our speaking.
G. You mean what we think we know, we don’t know? Is that what the ‘unheard of’ means?
J. Yes, but not quite. It’s not that we don’t know anything. Or everything we think we know is wrong. It’s rather that there is always more. We’re always on the way.
G. Expect the unexpected.
J. Precisely. Chrétien thinks that if we are not prepared to be caught off guard – knocked off balance, as it were – we won’t make much progress in holiness. The person who is on guard, so to speak; the person who sticks to the ideas and commands set out in her usual program of possibilities, ‘will never see anything happen but what they have already seen and will never hear anything but what has already been said.’
G. So, if you travel with Chrétien as a guide, be prepared to meet the unexpected and hear the unheard of!
J. Just so.
G. How does that relate to our situation now?
J. I’m glad you asked me that.
2. What time is it?
G. Our guest this afternoon is the Canberra philosopher Professor Clive Hamilton. Welcome to the Symposium Professor Hamilton.
J. Thank you. Good to be here.
G. Professor Hamilton you’ve written on a range of issues - ecological science, free market economics, consumerism, climate change. And you recently published a new book . . . Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene.
J. That’s right.
G. Sounds ominous; almost threatening.
J. Then it’s a good title.
G. What exactly do you mean by the word ‘Anthropocene’?
J. It’s not my word. It burst into general use around the year 2000, as a geological term indicating a new epoch in Earth history. In the last 23 million years we have moved through four epochs – the Miocene, the Pliocene and the Pleistocene. The Holocene, that’s the immediately previous epoch, began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. This was an epoch of relatively stable climate across the planet. It’s also the period of the development of more recent human civilizations.
G. So what’s changed?
J. We have.
J. Us. Humans. Hence the name. From the Greek. Anthropos – meaning ‘human’; cene – meaning ‘new’. Anthropocene - the new human epoch.
G. But, we’ve been around for 200,000 years, making our presence felt in one way or another!
J. True. But in the last 50 years or so that ‘making our presence felt’ has magnified exponentially.
G. How so? Human beings have always had an impact – on the landscape, rivers, trees, animals. It’s no different now.
J. But that’s the point. It is. Human impact on the world has now reached the level of a planetary force. Like the ocean. Or the air. Or the climate. We are changing the Earth System as a whole; changing ocean, air and climate. And that is new. That’s a rupture in Earth history. Not in Australian history. Or Chinese history. Though it is that, too, of course. But this is global, not local.
G. Rupture’s a pretty violent word, isn’t it? Rupture means breaking or bursting apart. It conjures up trauma to living organs; a spleen is ruptured or an appendix. Damaged. Leading to dysfunction or even death.
J. Precisely. The organic connotations are intentional. Earth Systems are organic, interconnected, living wholes. We have to face the fact that they can be disrupted. Changed in ways that can’t be reversed. Our activity has invaded the operation of ecological systems on a planetary level to such an extent that some people speak seriously of the ‘end of nature’ or ‘the death of nature’.
G. That’s pretty alarming stuff.
J. It is.
G. So what do you mean by ‘Defiant Earth’? Does that have something to do with the ‘rupture’ you talk about?
J. Yes, indeed. You’re right to draw attention to the ‘oddness’ of the language. That’s intentional. I think we are entering a new and largely unmapped era. Everyone’s groping for language to respond. The climate is changing. The ocean is changing. The atmosphere is changing. The land is changing. But how? And where to? We don’t really know. But a lot of the signs are not hopeful from our human perspective.
G. But why ‘defiant earth’? In what way defiant?
J. Remember how we used to talk about ‘mother nature’, or ‘sister earth’ or ‘father sun’; and that we were ‘stewards of nature’ or ‘tenders of the garden.’ Stuff like that.
G. Yes. A touch sentimental perhaps. But its poetry isn’t it?
J. Perhaps. But as I read it, the poetry’s changing.
J. I talk to a lot of people who are grappling with this thing. Scientists, economists, philosophers, even some theologians! And . . . the mood is changing. Earth is changing. We can no longer assume that Nature is a sort of benign backdrop for human ambitions; a passive stage on which we play out our various dramas. Earth is stirring. The empire striking back. So I hear phrases like: ‘an awakening giant’, ‘an ornery beast’, ‘a fractious … monster’, ‘Gaia seeking revenge’. That’s what I mean by ‘defiant earth’. ‘Now when Mother Earth opens her arms it is not to embrace but to crush us.’
G. Hmmm … I think I can see why you speak of rupture! This knocks us of balance. This radically shifts our program of possibilities. This takes us well into the realm of the unheard of.
J. Which reminds me of …
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien!
3. The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?
J. Professor Jean-Louis Chrétien it’s good to have you with us. Welcome to the Symposium!
G. Happy to be here, Jan.
J. We’ve just been talking with Clive Hamilton, particularly about his ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Is that a concern of yours also?
G. Of course. It’s a concern for everyone. I don’t use the word myself – I’m a bit tentative about its meaning, but not its practical implications.
J. We’ve invited you here because we’re interested in whether you think this issue touches the spiritual life, the life of faith.
G. My first response is ‘of course; how could it not?’ Urgent new questions face us. We are changing the way Earth, our home, functions. Many of those changes are going in directions that are not promising for us. Look at your Great Barrier Reef.
J. The Great Barrier Reef? What does the Great Barrier Reef have to do with God? Or anyway, with my walk with God?
G. We need to pay attention to what I describe as ‘the call of the world’, which includes the call of the Barrier Reef.
J. I don’t quite know what you mean by that. What is the call of the Barrier Reef?
G. That’s not for me to say. That’s for you Australians to say. This is where you live. You need to listen; listen for the unheard of that is speaking in the world. Look out for the unseen, which is manifesting itself all around.
J. But what has all this to do with God?
G. Let me put it this way.We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God. If the offering of ourselves to God is possible – and I believe it is, of course – it necessarily includes all those far horizons from which we come into our own. The sky, the sea, the air, the mountains, the rivers – the Great Barrier Reef! All the embracing, life-giving Earth in which we live and move and have our being. ‘To exist’ as human beings – to exist coram deo – before God – ‘is to be outside’.
J. Wait a bit, you’re going too fast. You said ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God’.
J. That’s kind of violent imagery isn’t it? Cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God!
G. It is. This is a critical issue. For people of faith. But not only them. To try to offer ourselves to God – which is one way of describing the spiritual life – to try to offer ourselves to God without bringing with that offering, the world – the world of birds and trees, morning light and evening darkness, sea and land, sky and cloud, ant and koala bear – is to pull apart – I deliberately use the word ‘tear’ – something that belongs essentially and inextricably together.
J. Do you think we do this? Tear ourselves away from the world to seek God?
G. Yes, I think we do. The spiritual journey is often understood as a journey inward, away from the physical world; a journey to seek God in the soul or heart. Or as a journey upward, a lifting of our spirits heavenward, away from time of Earth into the eternity of the divine spirit. Even if we go on to add that it is also journey outward in love to the neighbor; this still is too limited in my view.
J. Can you say a bit more about that?
G. I said a moment ago that to exist is to be outside. I mean, to exist is to be in the world. The world is where God has placed us. The world is the dwelling place God has given us. How can we imagine that tearing ourselves away from this God-given-life-world will somehow enhance our communion with its Creator? The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Here.
J. Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of the world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, in our dealings with the one he called ‘Father’, we need to ‘look at the birds of the air’, and ‘consider the lilies of the field’? Is that what you are saying?
G. Yes, pretty much. But it’s not just a matter of a few lines of poetry and a scattering of well-known biblical texts. It goes deeper than that.
J. In what way?
G. It has to do with the nature of God; with who God is and how God acts. ‘In the [story] of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis we see brought into play, so that the game of the world can [actually] be played, a word and a gaze – and they are inseparable.’
J. I’m not quite with you. What word? Which gaze?
G. You remember how the story starts. ‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep … Then God said – you see there it is, the word – then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.’ Then it goes on: ‘And God saw – there it is, the gaze – and God saw that the light was good.’
J. Okay, God said; God saw. But where to from there?
G. That linguistic pattern is repeated throughout the story. And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters …’ And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’; and God said, ‘Let us make humankind …’. And it was so. But this divine speaking is accompanied all along by a divine looking. ‘And God saw it was good,’ says the text. And ‘God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ Repeatedly. The word and gaze – of God. Both lie at the very origin of the world.
J. But what does that mean: a word and a gaze ‘lie at the origin of the world’? How does that throw light on the spiritual journey now?
G. I agree; this talk about ‘and God said …’ ‘and God saw …’ is puzzling. It’s language under strain. By which I mean, it’s a way of trying to give voice to what exceeds the capacity of language to express. It is trying to point to the mysterious eruption of being from non-being; to the primal wellspring of everything – light and dark, water and dry land, trees and flowers, animals and birds, men and women. But this divine speaking and looking is not the action of an observer commenting upon and gazing at a reality independent and over against her. God’s word and gaze are the event – or perhaps better, the advent – of the world.
J. Event, advent? That’s the language of birthing isn’t it? There’s a deep spiritual tradition that speaks of God as Mother, the Creation as a birth, the flesh of the world, her body. But that’s perhaps another conversation.
G. Yes, I’d need to think further about that.
J. Are you saying that the word and the gaze of God, is another way of speaking about the mystery of creation itself?
G. Yes. God’s ‘speaks’ and that primal utterance causes beings to arise from the void and constitutes the world by ordering, differentiating and interconnecting it. God ‘looks’ and that originating gaze brings to bear on creation an affirmation and a blessing, ‘indeed it is very good.’
J. That all seems a bit abstract to me. What are we supposed to do with it?
G. Good question. The word and gaze of God are strictly inimitable. In that sense we can’t ‘do’ anything with them. No human word can call into being what does not exist. No human gaze can bestow goodness on what does not already possess it.
J. Agreed. But . . . ?
G. But nonetheless – and this is the practical meaning of the journey of faith; nonetheless – that is, notwithstanding that inimitable difference, the difference that Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction between heaven and earth’ – nonetheless we are called by God to share in that foundational gaze and engage with that originating word, by whose grace the world stands before God, and we with it.
J. Is that what you’re driving at when you say that ‘to exist is to be outside’?
G. Exactly. To be in the world is already to be in the presence of the word that brings the world into being. It is to be in earshot, if I might put it that way, of the logos, which was in the beginning with God. And that in turn means that our lives, our whole being – body, mind and soul – are a reply, a word spoken in response to the divine, ‘let it be’ that founds the world and us within it.
J. That’s a challenging and deeply inviting thought. We label the world ‘the environment’. You are saying the world is the very speech of God. An address to us. And the spiritual journey is our reply.
J. I am struck by your language about word and gaze, because I am reminded of a mother as she looks into the face of the baby in her arms – her gaze. She looks with a love that in a sense calls the child into being. Without this the child cannot thrive, cannot become. Can you say more about ‘gaze’ in your own thought?
G. As I understand it, (whatever language or imagery we use), to gaze at the world – to attend to the world – is already to be caught up in the gaze of God by which the world is blessed and affirmed. To live in the world is to be in sight of – yes, of course, through a glass darkly – but in sight of that originating ‘behold, it is very good’, that founds the world’s intrinsic dignity. St Augustine, whom I greatly admire, calls it a word and a gaze of love. As you just said!
J. So you are saying that for us to gaze on the world and see it as God’s work means to love the world in its very existence, and to will for it to thrive in its goodness and being.
G. Just so. And for these reasons I say ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.’ The ‘cannot’ here is not a practical limitation. It is an ontological impossibility. Our very being in the world is already a being by the word of God and a being in the gaze of God.
J. I need time to take that in … It is a jolt, unsettling …
And yet I catch a glimpse of something new – another way of being – a homecoming …
A glimpse that seems an amazing gift.
(PAUSE – G waits)
But … now my mind is reeling . . .
If we live in Anthropocene time . . .
I cannot even frame the question . . .
G. Ah! Yes, we face a dumbfounding paradox here – dumbfounding in the sense of making us dumb, robbing us of speech. An impossible possibility. We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.
And yet . . . we often do exactly that.
I believe this is one of the great spiritual challenges for the journey of faith in our time.
J. Thank you Professor Chrétien.