Coming to our Senses

A Response to “For the Whole Creation” by Dr Margaret Campbell, Panel Member Growing in Faith

As I read the document For the Whole Creation presented at the 15th Triennial Assembly, I was drawn to the heading “Coming to Our Senses” on the first page. This phrase was chosen for its reference to the biblical story of the Prodigal Son who, realising that he has made some very poor choices, comes to his senses and decides to return home. In the document, the notion of “coming to our senses” is closely associated, with ecological conversion. We, as readers, are encouraged to see “in new ways with new eyes.”

Only weeks after the Assembly gathering, I attended the launch of a book entitled On the Edge: A-Way with the Ocean by Dr Jan Morgan and Rev. Dr Graeme Garrett. Listening to the speakers at this launch, I became aware of significant connections between themes and ideas explored in On the Edge and those outlined in the For the Whole Creation. Common emphases included:

  • listening to the wisdom of Indigenous voices;
  • the problematic approach to the whole creation inherent in some western modes of thinking;
  • the pressing need for people to participate in discourse on climate change;
  • and finally, the call to develop spiritual practices to nurture and sustain us as we respond to the urgent call of the ocean, for the sake of the Earth and for all who call Earth home.

I bought the book, took it home and read it and I can honestly say that On the Edge: A-Way with the Ocean has gently guided me to a place where I am beginning to see the world in a new way. I’d like to share, in what follows, some of what I have discovered within its pages.

Listening to Indigenous voices

The journey at the heart of this book unfolds in the small town of Tathra Beach in Yuin country where Jan and Graeme spend three or four months each year over four years from 2012. In the early stages of their exploration they look to the wisdom of Yuin Aboriginal elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison who writes in his book, My People’s Dreaming: An Aboriginal Elder Speaks on Life, Land, Spirit and Forgiveness (Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009) about “seeing” the land.

“Seeing is so important ... really seeing what the land is telling you.” He continues,

“When I take people [whitefellas] out into the land I say: ‘Let’s watch the land talk to us.’ And you’ll see some jaws drop. But that’s what it’s doin’ – it’s talking to us without a voice. Our land does that all the time; our water does that, our wind. Grandmother Moon, Grandfather Sun do it all the time. They show us things, what’s happening. They are talking to us constantly. And what do we do? We ignore them.”

Listening to the Yuin stories and songs, they open themselves to the possibilities of a “radical shift in perception.” As “outsiders” they feel “hesitant to draw confident conclusions from these stories.” Nevertheless, responding to the generosity of Uncle Max and other indigenous conversation partners, they seek to cultivate a practice of seeing what the sea is telling them. They recount their first attempt:

“The ocean spread out before us, a blue mirror. It was afternoon. The sun behind us cast the shadow of our hunched figures across the lumpy sand. For half an hour we sat, watching and listening with as much sensual openness as we could muster.”

While much of the book is written in one shared “voice,” woven into the text are excerpts from their journals. In one such passage Graeme reflects, “I feel very much on the edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of the land. The edge of my own understanding.” While Graeme and Jan write with humility and candour, their knowledge of philosophy, theology, poetry and art subtly pervades the book.

Western modes of thinking

Discussing the subject/object dualism of western philosophy, these writers make use of the image of a sealed “bell-jar” - a large bell-shaped jar which demonstrates the way sound (when the jar is subjected to increasing vacuum) is dampened then extinguished, such that observers can see but cannot hear a noise-emitting object inside. They recognise that a western world view dampens and limits their ability to relate to the natural world. Seeking to move from the western story of ocean as “object” to “ocean as communicative, sacred space,” they search for cracks in the bell-jar.

They compare Uncle Max’s and David Hume’s differing understandings of the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. The Aboriginal Yuin elder emphasises the kinship of humanity with the other-than-human world, a kinship expressed in the relational language of Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, on the other hand, considers it disrespectful to “project our human qualities onto nature,” as such projection, he would argue, disregards nature’s true otherness.

Having been shaped, to some extent at least, by “mid 20th century western technological consumerism,” they consider themselves to be “stranded somewhere between David Hume and Uncle Max; on the edge.” Both views “seem to hold important wisdom for human interaction with the oceans in our times” and they explore ways they might better appropriate this wisdom.

They also engage with a French philosopher and a northern African theologian whose insights push against the standard narrative of western dualism. French phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien, for example, describes the voice of the sea as a “visible voice” and the sight of the sea as an “audible eye,” while St Augustine of Hippo asks, as he searches for God in his Confessions, questions of “the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them.”

The emerging discourse on climate change

In addition to feeling “on the edge” when it comes to Indigenous understandings of being in the world, both authors realise that as non-scientists they are at a “radical disadvantage” in any attempt to keep abreast of the scientific literature on the ocean. They observe in others a reluctance to talk about climate change and sea damage, recommending, for those interested in making sense of this “eerie, socially constructed silence,” a book by George Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Like the writers of For the Whole Creation who cite the Basis of Union, paragraph 11, Jan and Graeme emphasise “how critical the work and witness of science is” in the shaping of an effective response to the pressing environmental challenges of our day. As a non-scientist myself, I appreciate and commend to others the authors’ endeavours in gathering, processing and presenting scientific information pitched at a level which I can, with some effort, understand.

Wise spiritual practice

In For the Whole Creation, the question is asked, “How may our spiritual and liturgical practices shape [our] actions?” Each day, while living in Tathra, Jan and Graeme spend thirty minutes at the beach. Drawing on a number of ancient meditative traditions, they develop a practice of attending to the ocean, a practice they name “sea see/hearing.” Elements of the practice (place, centering, locating, breathing, chanting, approaching, departing, for example) are outlined and briefly described in shaded grey pages which follow each of the first five chapters of the book.  A “‘feeling of futility,’ or worse, feeling of stupidity … was especially common in the early months of our pilgrimage,” they confess. Persistence has borne much fruit, however; the journal entries attest to moments of insight, joy and wonder alongside feelings of horror, discouragement and grief.

Augustine’s search for God is described, at times, as a bodily experience and, as such, “there is no talk … of an inner or outer realm. The advent of God happens through the arousal of the five senses.”

“The attention required of sea see/hearing is bodily through and though; more like the concentration of a dancer awaiting her entry on stage than a scholar preoccupied with a mathematical problem at the desk,” they explain, in delightfully evocative language.

While their personal perspective favours a theological world view, they choose not to take an exclusively theological stance. I feel privileged and enriched, though, to have read both the theological reflection on the nature of adoration and the authors’ accounts of profound engagement with their own cultural and religious imagery in the final chapter.

A journey worth taking?

Some tough questions are posed in the book’s final pages: “In a time like this, what use are adoration and praise, prostration and kneeling? Will they impact on our economic bottom line?  What of violence against children? These brutalities fill the news and we go sea see/hearing? What’s the point?” Their answers are disarmingly honest. “There is no point. Not in that sense. Sea see/hearing is not a policy. Not an action plan. Not a business strategy. It is a way of seeing and hearing the world.”

This is what Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett offer their readers: a way of seeing and hearing the world. Nothing is prescriptive. They simply share with us their imaginative, scholarly, authentic and accessible musings - their knowing and their unknowing. On the Edge: A-Way with the Ocean is an invitation and encouragement for us, as readers, to move from the edge of our understanding and to come to our senses.