‘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.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Dominique Godfrey

This post is third 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.

Beauty as Resistance

Dominique Godfrey

Dom was one of two amazing women that I traveled up to Sydney with last weekend.  I liked her instantly when we met on Friday morning in Fitzroy and by the time we arrived in Sydney I knew we were kindred spirits.  Von Balthasar says that beauty and love work the same way as metaphors for knowledge – both refuse to be controlled by human hands; both are an opportunity of connection with God’s grace.  As such, our projects are very much aligned.

The transcendence of true beauty somehow lords it over us, disengaged by the power of beauty’s magic and mystery.  In Dom’s words:

“when something is interesting, we almost conspire with it. But when it is beautiful it somehow directs us, stands apart from us…
beauty is as ‘tears in the world that reveal a vaster space’ (Simone Weil)…
beauty is a personal experience, but it is not a private one. We desire to communicate and connect around it, to share our experience or encounter…
the universality of beauty does not belong to the object but to the experience…

It sounds like beauty is irresistible!  What then, might it be resisting?

Whilst Dom’s doctorate was in existential philosophy (‘Boredom’ in Heidegger), her initial training was in music, art and drama.  The postmodernism cultural phenomena of the last half century has had no interest in what’s beautiful – preferring instead irony, kitsch, shock or playfulness.  Hal Foster described it as an anti-aesthetic, though Dom explained it’s not so much that Beauty has been banished, but the discourse of Beauty that has been banished from postmodern art.  And if this is the case, it is secularisation that has wielded the whip.  As John Millbank argues, there can be no beauty without God, therefore in a secular world there can be no beauty, only prettiness or something less.  When visual pleasing sights, sounds, people and things are coupled with production or any other kind of purpose, they become what Dom called ‘toxic beauty’.

So, to reintroduce Beauty – not just as a notion, but also as an experience, is to refuse to collude with the secularising impulse of late-capitalist culture.  (These are my words here – the sociologist coming through.)

The discussion after Dom’s paper was really engaging – testimony to her clear presentation and welcoming disposition.  We explored some questions around power and beauty – that an attempt to define what is beautiful and what is not is really an attempt to construct boundaries: to include and exclude.  Perhaps we need to redefine beauty more strictly to emphasise its implicit nature of freedom.  However, wise and beautiful Dominique pointed out, it is not arguing about definitions that draws people into truth and goodness, it is enacting the beautiful and showing-not-telling, so our actions take on poetic form in order to persuade.

I was persuaded; and have committed myself afresh to the subversive pursuit of enacting the beautiful in everything I do.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: John O’Neill

This post is the sixth 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.

Towards the Whole: Exploring Raimon Panikhar’s Cosmotheandric and Ken Wilber’s Integral Visions.

by John O’Neil

Raimon Panikkar and Ken Wilber are more often marginalised in the disciplines of theology and philosophy, criticised for their ‘spiritual’ approaches.  In this conference paper John O’Neill presented their work as they both themselves see it: an expansive project of philosophy that considers knowledge in all it’s forms, not just logical and/or empirical, which is what much Western Philosophy continues to demand.  Here are two quotes John gave us:

“The heart of integral philosophy is primarily a mental activity of co-ordinating elucidating and conceptually integrating all the various modes of being and knowing.  It fully acknowledged the higher modes and is open to the practices and modes of contemplation.  It both includes and is critical of less encompassing approaches eg. in philosophy, psychology, religion and social theory.  it is a theory inseparable from practice, on all levels and all quadrants.”  (Ken Wilber, Eye of the Spirit, p. 309)

“Authentic philosophy is not a speciality, it is the intellectual and contemplative activity of humanity, a conscious involvement in the life of reality, which makes humanity co-responsible with reality itself.  It can be found in basic research as well as in contemplative thinking; it may be cultivated in solitude and in conversation and with both the sciences and humanities.” (Raimon Panikkar, Rhythm of Being, p.20)

Both Panikkar and Wilber present a challenge to mainstream Western thinking.  They draw on resources across cultures, religions and academic disciplines.  It’s difficult not to read their material as reductionistic, though that is quite contrary to their intention.  Panikkar uses Christian language (plus Hindu, plus Buddhist) to draw his vision, outlining a vision for the Trinity that includes the whole of reality without the dualistic distinction between human and divine.  (Read more at his official website: www.raimon-panikkar.org)  Wilber’s project reads to me more anthropological or maybe it’s just that he is most well known for his evolutionary theory of human development.  (Visit Ken’s website to find out more about him: www.kenwilber.com)

I am by no means well informed about either writer, though Wilber is more familiar to me and I have engaged a little with the Integral Psychology movement.  Both of them differ from my theological project in the way that they engage the ‘particular’ within the universal.  That is, I am seeking a way of affirming my certain knowledge in the uniqueness of Christ, whilst simultaneously affirming my certain knowledge that I do not need to condemn, belittle or even ignore other knowledge which might at first seem to be in competition with the ‘proposition’ that Christ is all.  I have no time for imperialistic Christologies which subsume all other perspectives within my own (eg. Rahner’s ‘anonymous’ Christians’ or the less sophisticated ‘it’s all the same God’).  Nor do I have patience for the arrogant assumption that my knowledge is greater than anyone else.  So, the only ‘logical’ option left to me is some kind of sophisticated pluralism.  Sophisticated, because it is nonsense to speak of a plurality of truths if the only form of knowledge we are willing to consider is propositional.  I want to be able to say that I know myself to be right, whilst being open to the possibility that you also might be right.  This is what my ‘hermeneutic of love’ is trying to achieve – but it only works if there is more than one type of knowledge!

Panikkar and Wilber dabble in the mystical tradition, as do many philosophers who are searching beyond Enlightenment thinking for resources to answer this question.  I find it very interesting, but am not yet sure of how to manage the growing plethora of agnostic mystical approaches to knowledge.  More reading required – at some stage I’ll need to come up with a definition of mysticism for my thesis.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Inja Stracenski

This post is the eighth 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.

The Name of God – Judaism and Hermeneutics: Structure and Meaning of Language  (Inja Stracenski)

Inja is a gorgeous German woman living in Sydney and doing research on the ethics of Spinoza.  She is a Consultant Philosopher, which is interesting in and of itself, and you can view her profile here: .  This hour with Inja  was a fabulous reminder of how language captures meaning, sometimes in a negative sense rather than a positive one.  As discourse around the invisible and ‘inexpressible’ develops, major philosophical assumptions become embedded in the grammar and etymology of its terms which, ironically, become invisible to the speakers of that language.

Inja illustrated this in her paper by examining the words for God found in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament.  In Hebrew language, to name something is to describe it, as opposed to the Greek and Latin predisposition for using words to label.  This is part of a more general dynamic of the Hebrew language to articulate the Hebrew way of relational thinking.  Naming God in Hebrew can in itself be an act of worship, or at least the acknowledgement of who God is, as opposed to an impersonal identification of an object.

Of the different examples Inja gave, I was most intrigued by the Hebrew habit of naming one thing at a time about God.  That is, there are many words employed throughout the Old Testament to (S)he who is beyond us, but only one aspect of God is referred to at any one time.  God is known in the particular, in a great variety of ways.  Western thinking would then seek to systematise this plurality into a single overarching term, but the Hebrew resists this.  I like this way of talking about God.  I can ‘know’ God in the particular, particularly through my experience of the divine, but I actually have no access to the universal – that is God’s domain.

Earlier in the conference program, Inja was sitting in front of me to listen to Tim Chappell’s second lecture on Varieties of Knowledge, at which I asked a question about the epistemology of love.  At the close of the lecture, Inja leaned over her shoulder and quietly mentioned to me that in the shema – ‘love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself’ – the Hebrew word for love there might also be translated ‘knowledge’.  Later in her own paper, she elaborated to say it could even, by extrapolation, mean ‘worship’.  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  Cool.

Rumi was a 13th century Persian Muslim mystic

‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ Conference with keynote speaker Timothy Chappell

Biennial Conference in philosophy, religion and culture, Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5-7th October 2012.

I’ve spent the past weekend in sunny Sydney at an interdisciplinary conference titled ‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’.   It was a great time of head-thumping words and world-changing notions from philosophers, musicians, artists, theologians, literary academics and biblical scholars.  Today kicks off a series of reddresstheology posts as I reflect upon the jam-packed program of papers.  Apart from two lectures from the main speaker, all sessions involved making a choice between 3 or 4 different papers, which was frustrating when you wanted to be in two places at once but testimony to a dazzling array of interesting people to meet during coffee breaks.  I went to papers on music, beauty, poetry, prose and architecture; continental philosophy, integral psychology and theology of various kinds.    The key note speaker for the conference was Timothy Chappell, a philosopher who heads up an Ethics centre at Open University Ethics Centre in the UK. You can check him out here.  As usual, each post in the series will respond to a different paper.

To kick off, I’ll open with my initial gut response to the weekend: that is, after (too) many years of academic study, I still feel like I do not ‘get’ philosophy!  Sitting in Tim’s lectures (which were very good – well delivered, clear and engaging) made me feel like a first year philosophy student, completely disempowered and disoriented by these intellectual surroundings!  For someone who thinks of herself as a postmodern (or maybe these days post-postmodern) person, I find it puzzling that philosophy often leaves me with a desire for objectivity.  Why should I be persuaded by something that comes entirely from internally created human thought?  It doesn’t feel grounded in reality for me, I want (Lord help me) empirical evidence so that I can ‘observe’ something upon which to reflect!  For me, this is quite a surprising and challenging emotional response.

I wonder what this is about?  Is it a problem with the nature of the discipline or is it a limitation of my overly visual imagination?  Sociologists are often criticised for the empirical credibility of their own discipline and theology is rarely grounded in either quantitative or qualitative research, so if empiricism is really my difficulty, I am vulnerable to being criticised for hypocrisy.  Hence, I’m going with the later of my hypothesis: philosophy is frequently not something you can visualise, and this indeed, was the very theme of the conference – how do we make meaning together about that which cannot be seen and that which is resistant to containment by human language?  However, perhaps this is not just my own personal problem, as some critics of Enlightenment thinking identify the dependence on visual information (including that which we can imagine) as a severely limiting criteria for for knowledge about the inexpressible.  Why would we things existence is limited to that which finite human beings can see?  Why should we think language can only function for that we can be observed?

In Tim’s two lectures he had a philosopher’s go at answering this question.  

The major point that has stuck in my brain from the opening session of the conference is Tim’s passion for complexity: we gain much when we resist the urge to reduce explanations to a single answer.  Comparing early and late thoughts of the twentieth century’s philosophy giant, Wittgenstein. Tim argues that later in life, Wittgenstein began to think of ‘simplicity’ as a relational idea.  A meaning, or explanation, can only be simple in relation to a purpose, that is, in relationship with some other purpose, person or thing.  If we are open to language having more than one purpose, then perhaps there are less things that we will decide cannot be expressed by language.  This is related to Tim’s second lecture in which he proposed that there is a variety of categories of knowledge, and that at times we get into trouble describing the inexpressible because we confuse what type of knowledge it is.  In this midst of this I was reminded that Iris Murdoch proposed love as knowledge, by which she meant ‘paying attention’.

All this reminded me of talking to couples preparing for marriage.  Something I introduce to them for improved communication is the phrase:  ‘answer fact with fact, and feeling with feeling’.  Which I mean, not every word that comes forth from your wife’s lips is a fact to be argued with or a problem to be solved.  Not everything that comes out of your husband’s mouth requires empathic attentiveness!

For those of you interested in the technical terminology, Tim suggested three varieties of knowledge, probably a fourth, and possible a fifth.
Knowledge of the…
1.  – how (Knowledge How)
2.  – what (Propositional Knowledge)
3.  – experience (Experiential Knowledge)
Plus knowledge about
4.  – objects (Objectual Knowledge)
and possibly knowledge from
5.  – other persons (Inter-personal Knowledge)

You can hear him yourself via youtube: Timothy Chappell on Personal Knowledge.

And as if to illustrate this search for knowledge which goes beyond the observable, tomorrow I will blog about the first paper I heard on Saturday morning – expressing the inexpressible through music!