‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Cath McKinney

This post is the fourth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

A Sacred Connection: The Essential Encounter Between (M)other and Baby’

by Cath McKinney

At least once a week I work in the postgraduate room at Dalton-McCaughey library, Parkville.  It’s a magical place with amazing women co-creating the world through re-imagining theology, ministry, poetry, biblical interpretation, justice and society.  Cath is my special ‘PhD friend’; the one whom God has given me to walk this particular part of my life journey.  She is spectacular.

As the title of Cath’s paper suggests, she is working at an intersection between psycho/socio-analysis and theology.  Traditional theology deals with the concept of ‘analogy’ – that what can be known about god is known via analogy with god’s creation.  Cath’s work challenges this notion to suggest that any theological insight gleaned from nature, especially human nature, can not actually be severed from the experience itself.  That is the nature of incarnation, that if there is anything to learn about god in nature, then god is actually in that experience, not just like that experience.

Cath is taking the work of Donald Winnicott into a conversation with Christian incarnational theology.  In her paper she presented a ‘working hypothesis’ that

“a newborn child and the Mother, defined as any person who takes up the role of (M)other, reflect the ontological connectedness of God and humankind… [T]he experience of at-one-ness… fundamentally establishes the experience of the infant in the context of God, self and the other.”

Writing ‘(M)other’ is an expression that has developed in feminist theory to include any who take up the role of mothering, female or male, beyond those who have had the biological experience of bearing children.

Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst working in the second half of last century.  Drawing upon his clinical experience with thousands of mothers and infants, Winnicott developed observations about their relationship and its impact on the construction of the child’s psychology.

“There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and someone.  There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and the other.  There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and the Mother”

This is not just a human to human relationship however, it is a moment of human-divine connect.  A moment where the imago dei is known by one in the presence of an (M)other.  A moment in which the God of the Universe has included Godself in God’s creation.  A moment of incarnation, prior to The Incarnation, of total God in total man: The Christ. Cath says:

“We enter into this world in ontological connectedness with the creator God as mirrored by our connection with (M)other, and as we do so we experience what is possible on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).”

The Germans have a phrase for this time, which Cath draws upon to strengthen her thesis.  In the postgrad room we’ve wondered out loud why this phrase is not in any published German theology that we know of.

“Heilige-Welt, (Holy-World) [is] a sacred time for the (M)other and the Child, exclusive and unrepeatable… In many cultures this time is acknowledged as vital for the wellbeing of the (M)other and child both physically and psychologically.  I am in no way questioning the importance of this time spent in careful attention to the needs of the (M)other and Child, but I am suggesting that in addition, an ontic reality exists.  The experience of Heilige Welt can serve to remind us, in an ontological sense, that we are created to participate in the world, in relation to one another, and that in thus we arrive as infants fully immersed within this experience of connectedness… It is in these moments, that I am suggesting we receive a glimpse of the Reign of God in our present state and here resides hope and possibility for now.”

There is much more than this in Cath’s paper, but this link that she makes between the experience of infancy and the experience of the divine is worthy of consideration all on it’s own and so I’m going to lay aside the rest.  This is innovative theology in the best sense – drawing upon what we know of the world in order to interpret the Word of God as passed down to us.  For me, this moment of human wholeness tells the same story as the opening chapters of Genesis; that before the drive for knowledge devastated our relationship with God and other humans, we experienced our world as perfection.

Cath’s paper will be published next year in the journal Feminist Theology.

You can learn a little bit more about the Donald Winnicott via wikipedia.

One thought on “‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Cath McKinney

  1. This is amazing and so true that one wonders it has to be said. Like the experience of carer/child oneness, it is obvious to me that emotional experiences which provoke awe and wonder are experiences of God. Whatever is true and beautiful , whether it be an idea, a theorem, physical touch, music, art a garden or a view, is truly an experience of God.

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