Originally published at Covenant, October 22, 2015.
According to Peter Mathiessen (channeling the great Africanist, G.W.B. Huntingford), the San people of southern Africa speak of a former time when “wild animals spoke with men, and all were friends.”
Through the millennia of Bantu expansion, the San have been dispossessed by their neighbors’ need for arable land and pasture for their animals. The San, being hunter-gatherers, can live almost anywhere and so have wound up in arid corners of the Kalahari and such places no one else wants. Whig history has taken a dim view of the San predilection for communion with creation’s primary realties, and they continue to be pressed by various government-mandated modernization schemes. San hunters have lately found themselves hauled into court for violations of Botswana’s hamfisted and counter productive all-out ban on hunting since 2012 — i.e. for doing what they have done for more than forty thousand years. Genetic studies have shown that the San carry among the oldest Y-chromosome haplogroups to have diverged from the trunk of humanity’s genetic family tree.
Herein lies an intimation of prelapsarian innocence, of a time when the self as world-limit evinced a porousness now lost, when the sound of the Lord God could be heard in the garden in the cool of the day. I once heard Allen Savory say that, whoever you are, when you come to Africa you are coming home, because mankind was born there. I have known others to express feeling this strongly when they first visited the Holy Land, where man was reborn from above in the City of David, the very crossroads where the human family had come up from the south and turned from itself to go east and north, to fill the earth and subdue it.
When I was an undergraduate, studying Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, I became enamored of “Russell’s Paradox,” a presumed problem in the foundations of mathematics and naïve set theory, around which much work was being done in Bertrand Russell’s day, by Russell himself and by such luminaries as Gottlob Frege and Georg Cantor. Russell’s Paradox, in brief, notes that in order for the “set of all sets not members of themselves” to be a member of itself, it has to not be a member of itself. If it is, then it isn’t; and if it isn’t, then it is.
Dimly following the contours of Wittgenstein’s argument, I intuited that there was an analogy to the paradox in spiritual experience, and that the resolution of this analogous, spiritual paradox, was one way of construing the work of God in the person of Christ. The spiritual problem was eloquently and famously expressed by Augustine in the opening passages of his Confessions, where he asks God: “How can I call upon you to come to me? And where would you come from?”
To begin with — and this is where Wittgenstein’s early work is useful — there is a strong connection between systems of mathematics on the one hand and human language (“How can I call upon you?”) on the other. And insofar as spiritual experience operates most fundamentally on a plane transcending language, the very possibility of such fundamental spiritual experience entails a resolution of the problem. Over the course of his career, Wittgenstein himself seems also to have intuited this connection. In his “Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics,” he refers to philosophical problems as a “sickness,” and suggests that the remedy is only possible through “a changed mode of thought and life” — perhaps what Christians call “metanoia,” “repentance.” In an even more remarkable passage from his diaries (later translated and published under the title “Culture and Value”), Wittgenstein writes:
I read: “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” — And it is true: I cannot call him Lord; because that says nothing to me. I could call him “the paragon,” “God” even — or rather, I can understand it when he is called thus; but I cannot utter the word “Lord” with meaning. Because I do not believe that he will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me. And it could say something to me, only if I lived completelydifferently.
By way of reformulating the problem, one might ask: how can a man know himself when his self subsists at the very limit of his world and his experience, like the eye’s relation to the visual field? In order to know ourselves as we are, it is necessary that we should get behind or outside of ourselves. Just so, to know the transcendent God we must learn to look upward, toward what is beyond the limit — the limit constituted by our very selves — beyond the limit of this world, beyond the limit within which thought and language and sense-perception all operate.
In the opening verses of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot circled around the problem:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
the world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
William James likewise intuited something of the problem, or swam in it, or addressed it obliquely, as in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Simply to raise the question of “varieties” of religious experience is to raise the question of heterogeneous domains of discourse. One is, as such, cutting below the level of languages, so distinctive in their variety. Thus at their core, where their commonality lies, there is the experience, by definition, of the ineffable, the experience of what is somehow below (or above or beyond) the variegation of language, beyond the “region of dissimilitude.”
Denys the Carthusian was told to give up writing because it is the job of monks to weep, not to teach. It is perhaps no coincidence that this transpired in the context of the rise of the universities, made possible by the rapid urbanization of Europe, a process which we see reaching a crescendo, now on a global scale, just in our own day. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the American South saw more people living in cities than in the countryside. Indeed it seems harder to love in cities, where we spend our time ever more radically self-limited, staring into smartphones, even our transient relationships with checkout clerks increasingly mediated by screens and keypads. It gets harder and harder for us to break through our self-limits, our limits as selves, and to commune with what is above and beyond (in illa quae ultra sunt), and thus to engage in a more integrated way with what is within and below. It has perhaps been impossible for a long time.
Kierkegaard responded sharply to Gotthold Lessing’s complaint about being unable to leap across the “ugly, broad ditch” separating time and eternity. Kierkegaard said,
Leaping means to belong essentially to the earth and to respect the law of gravity so that the leap is merely the momentary, but flying means to be set free from telluric conditions, something that is reserved exclusively for winged creatures.
On my most recent visit to Africa, the shepherd trees were flowering, filling the air with their trademark, slightly acrid sweetness. Like those of mankind, the shepherd tree’s roots go deep into the African soil. In 1974 a specimen was found in the central Kalahari with a root depth of 68 meters. The San know how to get water from old hollow trunks, water brought up from the depths by the tree’s roots. I saw among the trees a herd of rhinoceros whose horns had been removed by the stewards of that particular land after six had been lost to poachers over the course of a few short years — a bleak manifestation of how ignorance can collude with “free” markets to create an ecological crisis on the other side of the world. (In East Asia, rhino horn is thought to be an aphrodisiac.) The rhinos looked ridiculous, but they were alive.
I thought how that landscape is an icon of our predicament. The insularity of humanity, the impermeable boundaries of our selfhoods, of our discourses and desires; it is all a great conspiracy of alienation — from the land, from the plant and animal kingdoms over which we have been set as stewards, from one another, and from our own selves. We have lost the ability to speak and understand the language of creation. It is lost in our flight from one another, in the radical heterogeneity of our crazy little identities and discourses. In Laudato Si Pope Francis wrote precisely in such terms: “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
On my flight home from Africa, as we began our final approach, I looked out on a land divided and conquered by agriculture, giving way to the vast murdered prairie of Northeast Texas. I thought of W.H. Auden:
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
I would be returning to my church’s feast of title, Holy Cross Day, the commemoration of that “most impossible possible” (Derrida), the flowering of life from the tree of death, set up at the axis mundi, the great crossroads of the human family. I thought of its root structure cracking the hard mantle of human pride, creating an oasis of living water in the midst of all this aridity. I thought of how urgent it is for us to learn again to weep and to speak — and to hear again the alien voices of our own fragmented humanity, to hear and to conduct the earth’s own weeping, murmuring, singing.
Through the polycarbonate resin of the plane’s window I silently exhorted the silent land below me: Benedicite omnia opera Domini, Domino. “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.”