This paper was presented at the NZ SOFN Conference August 23, 1996.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference. I have never been associated with a Sea of Faith event before and I know little about you. I know that you derive a kind of founding identity from such great names as Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering and Jack Spong, but having said that I know enough about the writings of each of these men to know that they do not, in all respects, sit entirely comfortably with each other. So I set about paddling in the shallows of your writings to see if I could find some more insights, trying to hear what you were saying, so I could know something of who I was speaking to. I very soon found myself in very deep water, not diving, but sinking, not waving but drowning.
I began with some addresses from previous conferences. The water was cool and refreshing to begin with, but to tell the truth, I've been wondering just why you asked me to speak to you. For I found it hard to see just where I fitted in beyond the rather basic point that I am human and that I am known to be engaged in the spiritual quest, whatever that might mean.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that, and what I don't mean.
In much that I have read I sense a group of people seeking a common identity. I noted that you shied off identifying a common purpose, but that you have a determination to respect the values and beliefs, whether present or absent, in each other. I suspected that the real thing that you had in common was attending conferences such as this. But like most groups in search of identity it is important for you to define yourselves by what you are not, and you are very clearly not rooted in the credal church.
I noted too that Don Cupitt lamented that even 'the well known philosopher of religion, John Hick, will go almost all the way with me in admitting the human and historically evolved character of all religious language.... but he still clings fiercely to that tiny speck of objectivity...out there'. Was this I wondered, this rejection of the objective out there reality, one of the basic tenets of Sea of Faith, a defining fundamental perhaps, a credal non-realism? I wondered.
So, you can see, I have a strong sense of being outside of your range, so to speak. For, I am, profoundly and convincedly part of the credal church, and I would have to say that, although I do acknowledge some of the sins of such a church as I have seen them listed in your confessional manuals, for the most part I scarcely recognise what you are talking about. It simply isn't the church that I know. So I have struggled, in preparing this address, to find the ground that we have in common, the language that we might share. I trust you will forgive me if, and where, I miss communication.
I want to return to the question of realism or non-realism, which appears to be a focal point in your discussions, for it is a question that profoundly troubles me. It seems to rest on a dualism of thought, and hence division, on a need to define what is by what is not. Furthermore, the identification of non-realism seems, as I read it in some of your writings, to link up with a position that claims that what is known and knowable is all there is, and this is defined in terms of scientific rationalism, that is, real in human terms. Perhaps like so many others who have diagnosed and attempted to cure the dualistic disease, you have promptly contracted another form of it.
I have two particular problems with this view of non-realism. The first is that as I read some of the populist commentaries on contemporary science, most noticeably the new physics, there is a very great deal that is not known, and even more disturbing for people who like their world to be ordered is the known unpredictability of much that is there described. In this quantum world, and therefore in the world in which we inhabit, there is no divine clock-maker adjusting the commands and mechanisms by which we live with boring predicability. Rather there is a dice-thrower, a gambler in charge. Such an image suggests a very great deal about human responsibility; firstly it tells us that the actions and reactions of human beings, whether they are random or consistent, are part of the creative process and that there is room for movement and response deriving from human responsibility; secondly, and conversely, it tells us that the fate of the universe is not entirely, or even substantially, in our hands, for if the connections of control are too diffuse and unpredictable for there to be any one source of control, then they are far too diffuse for that control to be unequivocally in human hands. So there is a risk at the heart of our creation, and we are part of that. Chaos theory is, strangely enough, more compatible with the Christian faith than with the tenets of Sea of Faith.
My second difficulty comes from the sense of absoluteness about the term real, when used in reference to the humanly known. It sounds very firm and indisputable, even, dare I say it very objective. I think the difficulty is that it implies a universalism, real for all people, at all times and in all places. In this post-modernist world there is no such thing as the 'view from nowhere'2. The question must always be asked whose reality, and it is then that questions of social location, ethnicity, gender, power and generation come to the fore.
And so we begin to wonder if, even if we understand the term 'real' to mean known or knowable, any one person, or group, or church or religious movement can claim that reality, for reality can only be known from our own turangawaewae, the place where we stand. I suggest that you have the same problem that anyone has who tries to claim or proclaim truth. We think it is a new question, but here, I am reminded of Pilate, 'What is truth?' (John 18:38)
So let's have another look at this non-realism, or as I prefer to think of it, another dimension of reality, that 'other reality'. I want to ask whether even if religious language is human and historically evolved, it is really all we have? Does not to say that limit us to cognitive ways of knowing, all very heady, very intellectual. What of the heart, the emotions, what of the raw edges of our being, what motivates us, what drives us beyond the world of our own limited vocabulary?
For all peoples at all times have been aware of this other dimension of reality. And have dealt with it in different ways. And we can see it in different ways, all of which derive centrally from what it means to be a human being. And we reach out for it in many different ways. It is human to reach beyond our limitations.
To start with, we are people with a sense of history, with a sense of life, reaching beyond our own life. We know that we are part of a continuum of time, part of a long story, and we need, for our own health to know that story. And families and families of families, societies and groupings within society, will rehearse that story, and whether or not it has objective truth is not the point. It explains, it seeks to account for reality as it is presently experienced.
Let me give you an example, albeit personal and so limited in reference, but real enough. Over thirty years ago now, I came to this country, newly married to a New Zealander who had been studying in England. My newly acquired family made me very welcome here. And then began the stories, the stories they told me to help me understand this new and very different world that I had committed myself to, stories that began the process of grafting my story onto their story, and their way of relating to my experience. In particular, there are two stories, which I shall describe the outlines of briefly, but which were filled in by any number of incidents; firstly, there was the great DEPRESSION that was perceived as being so formative in the early lives of my in-laws, and then there was the HORI, the Maori who lived up the Wanganui river at an inaccessible distance, and who were all called Hori and who were all semi-noble savages.
As a young new-comer to this country, I lapped it all up; it was really helpful to me to get a sense of how my new family saw there relation to the time continuum of this country. It didn't take me long to discover my own critical perspective on these stories, but that was when I found my turangawaewae, my own place to stand and I had become part of the story.
The point about all this is that there is in all of us a natural curiosity to discover the stories that explain and account for what we presently experience. And as we do so we begin to enter, in imagination, into experiences that are not immediately real, our spirits are stretched, new emotional responses are demanded. Such stories are places where the human spirit grows. Some such stories have acquired the status of religion, which says more about the respect, or lack of it in which they are held, than it does about the stories themselves. Others are much more humble and scarcely edifying like those my in-laws spun to me. But they all point to the common human experience that we have significance beyond our own birth and our own death, and it is a significance over which we have very little control ourselves.
And too we reach out beyond the limitations of language. Our use of language is constantly marked by strain, straining, stretching to express the more that we know lies beyond our words. Poetry is a testimony to that, the search for the space between words, for the uncapturable, inexpressible, only to be hinted at the substance that lies behind our words. We see the limits of words only too easily when we try to use words to tie down reality, to make laws, to write doctrine: they all fail. Human relating and the human spiritual quest defies the limits of our language, and we belittle our humanity if we in turn limit ourselves to our language. So then, I believe that most religious traditions have diminished the sheer wonder of their faith by succumbing to the urge to reduce them to words. Language divides us into fragments, segments the universe, does not explain it or explore it. My search is for the wholeness beyond the limits of our language.
So we turn, like all human societies have done, to art, which can range from primitive rock drawings to great architecture, and reach beyond the range of human movement. In poetry, in art, in music, we push beyond the boundaries of the easily accessible, when our own emotional responses are stretched, when we are moved. There are times when we touch ecstasy. Yes, there is a language of art that reaches beyond the limits of our language, that draws us into experience that words cannot touch, and we become, as the saying goes, lost for words.
This is not an experience of the elite, those schooled in the language of great art. It is common, and always has been for humankind to seek to stretch their range of emotional experience. And neither does it always tend towards the great and the noble. All too often the experience is sought by way drugs, pornographic sex, violence and destruction. I'll return to this later.
We also reach beyond the known, the familiar and the obvious when we are searching to make sense of the senseless. All religious typologies that I am remotely familiar with have sought to understand human suffering, especially that which seems pointless or even gratuitous.
And then there is silence, the longing so many have to abandon words to move into the areas of experience where words are superfluous - contemplative prayer.. And not just for INFPs!!
And then too, there is the phenomenon of the inexplicable, like when a butterfly flaps its wings on the equator, and an ice-berg breaks up in the Antarctic, which Rupert Sheldrake describes as morphic resonance.3
The central point is not that everything in the universe, in the wildest imaginings of human experience is knowable and hence tameable, but rather that the very reaching after it is an integral characteristic of our humanity, and we compromise our sense of who we are as human beings if we deny this area of dreaming, this aspect of our humanity.
The question of whether all this lies beyond the bounds of that which is clearly known and knowable and hence 'real' is itself simply a question that illustrates the limits of our language and which shows us the fragmenting nature of language. Where, I would ask, do we draw the boundary of what is realism and what is not? And the fact that the urge to search beyond the limits of human experience and knowledge is such a common human phenomenon suggests that perhaps the reason why 'the churches' (and I quote) reject realism as humanly defined, is that it simply is not real, for almost anyone.
I want now to return to the theme of wholeness, for I think that so far I have been simply skimming the surface of this. It is time now to start diving.
There is a sense in which the search for wholeness is central to all religious questing. If we explore the duality of human and divine, and see the term human as encompassing everything that we know or deem to be knowable, then the term divine begins to encompass everything that we would seek to know. Perhaps this is where your terms 'realism' and 'non-realism' come in. But rather that simply not admitting the 'non-real' area, or the divine, depending on the kind of language that you are using, religious questing seeks the integration of the human and the divine, of the knowable and the unknowable. It is no accident that mystical experience is classically referred to as a kind of knowing.
In Christianity, which I know best, that connecting of the human and the divine is strongly imaged in the events of the incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ. By entering humanity, making that move towards the world of the knowable, the world of reality, the divine, the mystical became infused into creation, became accessible, if somewhat tantalisingly so. In the words of Irenaeus, not the most politically correct person to quote in the present company, 'God became one of us, so that we might become one with God' So all of creation is holy, infused with divinity, so infinitely precious. William Temple said in 1950: 'Christianity is the most materialistic of the world's religion.'4 Divinity is within and we have to dive into this creation, around us and within us if we are to get a glimpse of what it means to be human. As Gerald Manley Hopkins put it, 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God'. ('God's Grandeur')
But we need to cultivate the eyes to see these connections, these wispy threads that weave together the known and the unknown. I personally find the challenge a constant delight, and one which, as with many people leaves me struggling for words. So like others I find poetry the most acceptable approximation. I wrote this one summer recently when on holiday up at Kakanui:
The heron has come early this summer. White, stretched neck, beady-eyed, and straight, straight beak; And North Otago sees and knows the blessing.
Solitary, on the edge, A clear presence among the riff-raff Of dotterels, stilts, gulls and even shags; Sheltered from the wild winds that Beset her Okarito nest. She looks up, away, far, far away; And all the herons that there ever were, And all the herons that there ever will be, Are caught in that steady gaze. And watching from the boundary of her world, I know I have known mystery.
But this mystery, this sacredness deserves to be more accessible and communal than the individual and personal approach of poetry enables. I have found some of Colin McCahon's art helpful in this respect. 5It is part of the task of religion to map the human spiritual quest, to give signposts for the spiritual journey, to touch the deepest longings and urgings of the human heart. And most religions do a reasonable job. The trouble starts when the vision, the way that is so alive and full of promise gets captured, first by words as scriptures are written and creeds debated and demanded, and then by institutionalisation, as that which was fluid and free-flowing becomes codified and rigidified. As the Americans are quoted as saying this is 'routinising the vision'. It's deadly.
And we need the vision, both individually and communally. These are rapidly changing times; we need to be able to address the challenge of living at depth. The important task is to dive inwards into the interior life of the heart and the spirit, to touch the sacred part of the creation that is us and then to make the connections between this interior life and outward social change, and so to continually attempt to build an intermediate realm of culture where inner and outer worlds can meaningfully relate to each other. Wholeness is not a factor of individuals alone in their individualism but it is a factor of our relating to those around us, in close relations, in working relations and in the wider ambit of our society. The churches have traditionally, but never uniquely, seen their task to be one of constructing this intermediate realm, of holding the bridge open, to use another image. It could also quite be part of the task of Sea of Faith.
The ability to take up the challenge of living at depth, not just of diving deep, but of ranging slowly and considerately over the sea bed, requires a sense of the sacred. And I think that it is an absolute tragedy that this has so largely departed from the public realm. There is a desperate need in every secular society to 'remake' the sacred, in the sense of restoring our relationship to the sacred. This is a supreme art or craft, the ability to track down the sacred, to revive and restore it, without falling into religious literalism, fundamentalism or dogmatic thinking.
We must not confuse this with a return to universalism; at its best it is highly particular and sees all of creation as infinitely precious:
To see a world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. (Auguries of Innocence)
It is the religious expression of individualism if you like. A 'post-rationalist' and truly post-modern enlightenment must involve a fuller wisdom and a broader grasp of human experience than that which is demarcated by the term real. It must recognise the paradoxical nature of the human condition and understand that humanity and the sacred are reciprocal and interdependent entities. They make and remake each other.
So instead of feeling superior to those in the past who possessed faith in the supra-human, we will need to follow their example to a large extent. We are in difficulty, not because our religious institutions have failed us but because we have lost the art of intuitive perception; we no longer know or remember how to experience, feel, or recognise that which is other than human. We are very sensible, very rationalistic, and we never let ourselves get too near the edge of reality in case we fall over into what might be seen as madness, or an over preoccupation with psychotherapy, or getting religion or whatever.
It is true, I think that we need to develop not pre-modern mysticism but a post-modern spirituality, one that meets the demands of the present in ways that are entirely in accordance with our advanced technical, scientific, and intellectual development. But the sacred is not a stage of human history that we have outgrown - it is a crucial part of human experience that we have misunderstood, partly by attempting to interpret it literally.
If the human ego can learn to live in the presence of the sacred without being overwhelmed by it, then a genuine spirituality can emerge from the creative interaction of humanity and the sacred. This quest means risk, it entails a departure from the boundaries of expectation and normality, it requires a willingness to move to the edge of order, to place our toe into chaos, but it is on the boundary of order and chaos that beauty is born. That is why art is so significant. And the challenge to those of us, both separately and collectively, who hold the sacred as significant in our lives is to go as near to the edge, as near to the power and the mystery and the danger without collapsing into that chaos. There we will live with and in beauty.
I do believe that we need to become less dogmatically human, less confining of our reverence to humanity, and more aware of our identity with the whole of the created world, and experience anew the sacred fount from which all life, including our human life arises.
I talked before of the human tendency to seek reality beyond reality, In that section of my discussion, I talked of some of the less noble ways that people seek the extremities of human experience. Needless to say, I do not think that they have anything to do with the search for the sacred. Rather, violence and destruction is the ultimate price paid by secularism: for that part of us that demands ecstatic experience will take over, but in a wholly negative and brutal way. So, turning now to examples from the Greek expression of sacredness, instead of the controlled rituals of Dionysus, the mythic loosener of rational boundaries, we have the destructive boozing and brawling of Bacchus, a kind of debased or low level form of Dionysus. Many Pakeha New Zealanders deny the sacred, and others have been denied the sacred, but the result is the same: we both become unconscious victims of inferior or unconscious ecstasy. And you will know that ecstasy is also the name of a drug.
'Ecstasy' comes from the root ex statis, to stand outside oneself. If we do not cultivate an other or outside place, a sacred place outside the ego, we will have no place in which to dive, no depths to plum and then inferior ecstasy will invade the body and the ego, destroying both in a horrifying fury, which one can witness late weekend nights outside certain pubs. We either sacrifice our pathetic rationality and get our spiritual and moral lives in order, or else irrationality will sweep over us like a wave of terror.
A living sense of the sacred is in this sense a hot sociopolitical issue: things simply go better in society when a shared cosmology or mythic world view is firmly in place. So many of our social and political problems stem from the loss or absence of a living and sustaining religious vision. The anti-spiritualistic rationalistic temper continues to dominate social and political inquiry. The ethics of individualism, libertarianism, and positivism will not allow researchers to argue in favour of mythic awareness or to point to the necessity of religious experience.
Some examples: a better ecological consciousness and better race relations require deep structural changes in our collective, our national psyche. Both require that we develop a full and vital mythic awareness. In order to improve our environmental sensibility, I believe that we need to develop a deeper, spiritual pact with our land, and be made to feel organically part of it, so that nature is not continually damaged by an imperialistic ego that believes in the illusion of its own separateness.
It is quite common to hear people commending the more overt sense of the sacred that they perceive within Maori society and lamenting its absence within our own. For example, public prayer by Maori, even in Pakeha situations, is much more acceptable than by Pakeha. This more open acknowledgment of the sacred stands as a living reminder of the possibility of the sacred for us all.
I wonder if some of our difficulty is our history in that we are a transplanted society and transplantation is always destabilising, no less in the psychological and spiritual sphere than in other spheres. We have not grafted our sense of our identity onto that which we found here and our own roots are distinctly wobbly. As a society transplants itself from the old to the new world, the delicate and carefully maintained balance between the conscious and the unconscious is disturbed, and our sense of the sacred obscured.
I do not really accept the fashionable and trendy idea that the first Pakehas to come to this country were merely malicious and uncouth invaders of this land, driven by an empty and selfish survival instinct, blind to all that was here before. But we are uncertain, and it is part of our habitual national self-flagellation that we have allowed ourselves to believe and perpetuate this negative image. The time has come to strip away our guilt and to examine the past, not only for blindness, but also for its sacred and archetypal resonances..
Settling this country was not easy, it still is not. It has been necessary to pit ourselves somewhat heroically against nature and still, there is a sense of the land just waiting to rise up and throw us off. Earthquakes are a very present threat, Ruapehu continues to menace, the high country is almost destroyed and there are regular floods and washouts which make us realise how precarious is our relationship with the land. I sometimes wonder if in the bid to transform nature, to mould it, almost literally, to our way of being, we have lost the sense of the spirit in the land. The entire heroic fantasy about subduing nature, conquering Gaia, or controlling Mother Earth is a European fantasy, which can never work in this country. This country demands a different archetypal style, a style that works with nature rather than against it. The very notion that spirit is opposed to matter cannot take root here. Our spiritual mode will have to be ecological, a work with nature, not against nature. Making these connections is the stuff of our salvation. Colin McCahon again.6
Heroism is almost part of our national typology. Perhaps its because we a small country, right at the bottom left hand edge of the earth, and we seem to need a sense of importance for our survival. I was aware last year when once again the small boats were heading valiantly for Muraroa to challenge a big country with a big bomb, that one of the dominant images of New Zealand is of small boats heading across big seas, the waka of the Maori, the tall ships of the Pakeha.
I think we need less heroism and more reverence, less superficiality and more sense of the sacred, less skimming the surface, once over lightly, and more willingness to dive, to touch the depths of the sacred, of the divine in us, and then to surface with those depths intact, and honoured.
The imagery of diving deep and surfacing is significant to me because I am a swimmer, physically that is. I am not a diver, I pass evenly, smoothly and rhythmically over the surface, but it is a time and a place where I touch the depths, where prayer comes easy to me, where many of the connections between my everyday life and the sacred I continually explore are made, and my reflections on it are endless. I finish with this offering:
Gliding through the green darkness, Underwater world of refracted light, Rhythmically marking the throb of living Arm over arm over arm, in even pace: "Hail Mary, full of grace."
Words that connect, draw the threads Between the dark world of water, Of green, grey imagination, Of prayer that distances, retreats, With all the hurt of humankind Now and for ever.
Evenly, steadily, words without words, Stretched after longing, desire of the soul, Shaped within the silent water, Flowing back, filling the space. And was that prayer an illusion?
"Reach on", says God " - through the cool transparency of water, Tears of grace, "Pray for us sinners - now" - and when we drown.