Exceeding the Human Project:  Ecology and Otherness

In his popular book, Reenchantment: a New Australian Spirituality, David Tacey wrote this about Australian people:

. . .  we have no cosmology to link us spiritually with the world, and our official religious tradition is concerned more with heaven than with earth.  It is hardly surprising, in view of this, that we face the prospect of ecological disaster.

In the face of this crisis he offers a religious solution, a new cosmology, based on what he calls a ‘postmodern animism’:

Myth and cosmology invite us to extend our subjectivity, and to abolish the ‘alien’ character of the world by experiencing it as a living subjectivity.  Then, as Thomas Berry argues, the world is seen as a community of living subjects rather than a collection of objects . . .  We are not expected to terminate our subjective life to encounter an outside world; rather, we are encouraged to dream our dreams outwards into the world, so that our imaginative life is broadened to encompass wider fields of reality.

Tacey has nothing if not the gift for poetry.  But that is his weakness as well.  Far from being ‘postmodern,’ this vision of Tacey’s is thoroughly modern, in a 19th century European sense.  He would slip nicely, I think, into a conversation with William Wordsworth or Percy Shelly, poets of the Romantic movement who conceived the world as a living organism much like ourselves, complete with a material body and a spiritual soul.  The subjectivity he describes has more than a little in common, I suspect, with the philosophical Romanticism of G.W.F. Hegel, who, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, argued for the existence of a world-soul [anima mundi] which comes to consciousness in human beings.  Tacey seems fundamentally unaware of these connections.  Indeed, he seems to believe that the idea of a universal subjectivity has its roots in various kinds of primordial animism, including that of Aboriginal Australians.   Now this is an extremely unlikely proposition.  More likely is that Tacey has projected his European Romanticism onto non-western indigenous cultures, with the result that these others look and sound a lot like the noble savages of 19th century Europe.

The biggest difficult with Romantic modernism (and Tacey is a Romanic modern) is its annihilation of what the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas, calls the ‘Other’.  Romanticism imagines that we may have a mystical intuition of all that is beyond us, that which is ‘Other,’ because it is not really beyond us, it is part of us and part of our consciousness.  On this account, the Other is not really other, it is our deepest identity and self.  But Lévinas traces this apprehension deep into the Platonic heritage of metaphysics that dominates western thinking.  He characterises this thought as a theme without difference or differentiation, an eternal return of the same, without room for the Other who is genuinely other.    In order to escape this ever-vigilant synchrony of human consciousness, Lévinas argues for a thought which is absolutely alterior to human subjectivity.  He locates such a thing in the French thinker, Rene Descartes.  Specifically, Lévinas takes the French master’s idea of the ‘infinite-in-us’ to refer to a thinking which thinks beyond that which the finite consciousness can contain, a thinking which is not reached by the movement of human intentionality, but rather is deposited in the mind by ‘God’.  This deposit, for Lévinas, causes the breakup of that thinking which merely encloses the world in a presence, re/presents it, or brings it back to presence.  It is a thinking of the in-finite in two senses:  a non-finite thought which is found within the finite.  Such an extraordinary state of affairs signifies, for Lévinas, a ‘passivity more passive than passivity’ which comes not from the presence of consciousness, but from the pre-history of consciousness, a passivity which he describes as a radical openness to absolute alterity, an absolute interruption of presence, an interruption so anterior to consciousness, that it survives there only as a ‘trace’ of itself.   The thought of the infinite would thus be ‘older’ than consciousness, an an-archic, pre-originary origin which in fact makes consciousness possible.   Infinity, then, is the Wholly other [tout Autre]  which constitutes and yet overflows conscious being ‘at the same time’.

Lévinas’ project is therefore mapped out as an attempt to think beyond the categories of absolute subjectivity and its manifestation.  Lévinas wishes to rehabilitate the notion of transcendence—not, as in Hegel, as some kind of immanent movement within being itself—but rather as that which is ‘otherwise than being, or beyond essence’.  ‘Transcendence’, he says, ‘is passing over to being’s other, otherwise than being.’   But how is one to do this, if it is possible at all?  The answer lies in Lévinas’ unique attention to that ‘Other’ who, he says, has the capacity to interrupt the eternal re-presentation of the esse because the Other, in his or her incomparable proximity, is the carrier of Infinity.

While for Lévinas the Other is always another person, for his most famous student, Jacques Derrida, the Other can be ‘any other’.   I submit that this is the point at which Lévinas becomes especially relevant for a genuinely post-Romantic ecological theology.  If the Other is that which lies beyond the ego and its assimilations, then this Other might also be said to include the materiality of the human body and the non-human world.  As such, both the body and the non-human world have the potential to speak to us of things we cannot understand, assimilate or master.  They can interrupt our incessant self-talk, the techno-scientific language of being and progress, with an anterior language which comes not from ourselves but from God.  For ultimately, as Derrida says, it is only a voice from beyond which can call us to responsibility for this planet of ours.   If the only voice we hear is always assimilable to our own project and projections, then the very idea of responsibility makes no sense.  For responsibility is response-ability, which implies our being addressed in the accusative by someone, or something, both before and other than ourselves.  The world-soul cannot do that because it is not other: it is ourselves writ large in an eternal present.

Would such a theology lead us to a new Cartesian separation of body and soul, humanity and nature?  Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that we can no longer claim mastery over nature; we can no longer claim to be nature become conscious of itself, with all the damage that kind of imperialism has done.  But ‘no’ also, because Nature now returns as the Other who, like God, is before us and around us: the undomesticable horizon in which we live and move and have our being.  Jürgen Moltmann has written what I consider to be the very best kind of ecological theology and Christology in this genuinely Jewish and Christian mode.   Here the cosmos is viewed not an emanation of divine consciousness, but as creation: a definitive hollowing out of divinity such that something genuinely other may come to be in a space which, while supported and sustained by divinity, is free to map out its own path.  In this perspective, the natural world is certainly open to analogy with divinity, but cannot be said to be divine in and of itself.  In connection with the paradigmatic example of Christ’s resurrection, this analogical dynamic suggests that the transfiguration of Christ’s dead body is a beginning point for the transfiguration of all moral life.  Moltmann notes that it is the nature of analogies to work both ways: natural events become parables of resurrection; but resurrection is also prefigured in natural events.  In the second sense, it is then easy to see how both the man, Jesus Christ, and the cycles of nature might be legitimately represented as the trace of God’s appearance in the world as the ‘advance radiance of his Kingdom’.   In all this there is an eschatological reserve, however, for analogical thinking is predicated on an encounter with the radically other, which continually defers, and differs from, our appropriating gaze.  In this sense, neither the non-human world nor the resurrection may be entirely assimilated to our thinking without doing violence.  For they are other.  They  call to us from before and beyond, and we respond.

The most appropriate response to this ‘call’ is what Lévinas calls, in continuity with a fundamentally biblical thinking, ‘hospitality’.   Hospitality is a repeating and imitating of what God did in creation: it is a making room within our own reality for that which is neither ourselves nor our own subjectivity.  It is a welcoming of the other as Other, and therefore the very opposite of that expansion of subjectivity that Tacey proposes.  Meister Eckhart spoke most eloquently of hospitality as Gelazenheit, or ‘resolute letting be’.  Here the movement towards the other is not to understand, or do violence, or seek mastery or control, but simply to welcome and to love in an unconditional manner.  In a profound meditation on the New Testament notion of agape, Jean-Luc Marion recently wrote that love is not a relationship between two ‘I’s, but between two ‘others’ who allow themselves to be summoned to their own individuality—not for the sake of a reconstitution of the ‘I,’ but for the sake of exposing that self in the ecstasy of the other.  So, love is ‘the act of a gaze that renders itself back to another gaze in a common unsubstitutability’.  Here ‘The other appears only if I graciously give him the space in which to appear; and I have at my disposal no other space than my own; I must, then, “take what is mine” (John 16:15), take from myself, in order to open the space where the other may appear’.   For this is the final paradox: the gaze of the other is not seen as an object, but as an invisible which I cannot constitute.   Here, in ecological perspective, nature is allowed to be what it is.  It is not appropriated to the human project by a romantic imagination.  It is loved.  It is welcomed.  It is allowed to be.

Garry Deverell
Feast Day of Mother Theresa of Calcutta
Sept 5, 2002

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