Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 8 February 2010

UCL One World Week

Reflections on Culture and Conversation at London's Global University

I'm pleased to see that UCL One World Week is coming back again. Posted below is a slightly edited version of a paper written about last year's One World Week as part of the final year of my BA in Contextual Theology.

UCL One World Week, 2 February to 8 February 2009

UCL One World Week[1] is a joint initiative of UCL and UCL Union (the students’ union), and is part of UCL’s Global Citizenship Agenda[2]. It first ran in 2008, has been repeated this year and looks set to become an annual event. It is billed as “an exciting and thought provoking series of events celebrating diversity and enhancing the sense of community on campus at UCL… based around the key themes of gender, sexuality, culture, religion, our environment and our unique abilities”.

One World Week this year featured 52 separate events including an international market with a difference (products entirely from the developing world); music, drama and films from around the world; lectures; a charities and NGOs careers fair and volunteers showcase; fitness events; fairtrade stalls; events hosted by Muslims, Sikhs and Christians; events focussing on women’s issues; gay and lesbian events; events focussing on conservation, biodiversity and global citizenship; and a “One World Fayre” with stalls offering regional food and information about culture, faith and diversity. The Anglican chaplaincy was one of the participants.

The aims of One World Week offer something of a contrast to the Global Citizenship Agenda itself, which is described on UCL’s website as:

A process which aims to produce graduates who are:

• Critical and creative thinkers
• Ambitious – but also idealistic and committed to ethical behaviour
• Aware of the intellectual and social value of culture difference
• Entrepreneurs with the ability to innovate
• Willing to assume leadership roles: in the family, the community and the workplace
• Highly employable and ready to embrace professional mobility.

This does not immediately look very promising in terms of community: here the person seems reduced to product, and it is assumed that everyone will be winners, high-flyers and leaders. It could, to employ some hyperbole, be the aims of a finishing school for benign dictators. To be fair, it is of course the corporate statement of a highly selective institution which aims at excellence, and doubtless there is funding coming in somewhere that depends on producing statements of this kind. But is turning out a successful product really the most important human thing that happens in the lives of young people in a university? The agenda of One World Week in fact suggests something quite different, and more hopeful, which this study will seek to explore.

The week’s activities were aimed at both encountering and celebrating diversity, and in particular the diverse cultures and communities represented in London and within UCL. Many of the events therefore took the form of, or encouraged, story-telling and conversation. Films, music, debates, dance, all were about expressing what it is like to be a person who belongs to a particular community, in a way that was intelligible to someone identifying with a different community. It was about enabling recognition across the boundaries of difference.

This is in many ways a risky activity; difference makes for anxiety; to dare to speak is to risk being misunderstood; to dare to listen is to risk being changed. When (for instance) a Pakistani Muslim stall finds itself next to a Gay and Lesbian students’ stall many kinds of conversations become possible that might not otherwise have happened, and possibilities of transformation open up. For example, the assumptions and prejudices of either party may be brought into an arena of dialogue where they may be challenged and undermined; more than this, they may find that each has an experience of being strangers in the strange land of a dominant culture which does not share their aspirations and ideals, experiences that may, perhaps, be translatable into a kind of commonality and recognition through which the “One World” of the week’s title may become known in a new way. Alternatively, the mutual engagement may uncover rivalry, reinforce prejudice and engender hostility. Any of this may happen. Whether any of it does cannot be determined in the abstract but only by making the attempt at conversation and taking its risks.

There is much here that connects with the Christian understanding of transformation: human identity, relationality, charity, and the quest for the “self”, are all implicit in the kinds of dialogue that might arise. Firstly, the kinds of conversation that might happen in One World Week may be more than usually open to the possibility of finding their purpose in themselves rather than in some object external to the conversation. Their point is encountering the other, not getting something done. Students and staff are invited to speak with one another in ways which, for once, do not have to do with teaching programmes, research, or other outcome-oriented activities.

This is the kind of conversation that Ursula le Guin calls the “mother tongue”, and distinguishes from the “father tongue” in which dialogue is a means to an end other than itself, such as seeking empirical knowledge or issuing instructions[4]. The “father tongue” aspires to objectivity, and tends to require no response other than assent. The “mother tongue” is intrinsically conversational, subjective, and even “pointless”; saying “good morning” is neither an objective observation of what the morning is like, nor an instruction; it is a social ritual which expresses recognition, bonding and cohesion.

Rowan Williams, in Lost Icons, discusses the implications of le Guin’s distinction for what he calls the “social miracle” (borrowing a phrase from historian John Bossy[5]). The “social miracle” is the manifestation or achievement of charity, understood in the ancient sense of the state of Christian love and affection lived socially, which is at the same time the love of God received in society. Daily social rituals, greeting and so on, as well as those times when productive work gives way to festivity, are essential to this embodiment of charity[6]. It is “accessible only by the suspension of rivalry and the equalising of honour or status”[7]. This recalls Josef Pieper’s definition of festivity as “an act that has meaning in itself”; according to Pieper, work and labour are directed to ends outside themselves, to production, but if they are not to be entirely utilitarian and meaningless then times of festivity, which interrupt work, are necessary to give work both its boundary and its social meaning[8]. In both Pieper and Williams, society, festivity and meaning are intertwined. This is rooted in the doctrine of creation, or more precisely of the Creator: the meaning of productive acts such as work is conditional and contingent, depending always on something else; an act cannot be “meaningful in itself” unless it has a reference that lies outside contingency altogether.

When the “social miracle” fails to happen then rivalry goes unchecked, exclusion becomes embedded, and resentment festers. This has an impact beyond the purely social or festive, and corrupts the world of production and political involvement, the discourses of the “father tongue”, as well. As Williams puts it:

More people are excluded from negotiating important decisions and are left with no stake in their social environment – and no language about where they unproblematically and non-negotiably belong, no system of charitable symbols. For the losers in the conflict, there is a stark choice between a… practically unrelieved alienation, and the adoption of some sort of charity-oriented project to take the place of the missing political dimension.[9]

It should be noted that the “charity-oriented project” here is not the “charity” of the social miracle; it is, at best, activities aimed at doing good rather than belonging.

The consequences of its alternative, alienation, can be terrible indeed. UCL has direct experience of this in the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, which took place close by and claimed the life of a staff member[10]. The theologian Oliver Davies was in the area at the time and reflected on its possible meaning in the context of global conflicts and similar events such as 9/11[11]. Davies refers to a “semiotic darkness”, a subversion of signs and meaning which spreads from the event or act itself and engulfs and disorients the society in which it takes place: the attacks were “a performative denial of communication” and “the denial of the possibility of progress within the social: a denial of the view that the world can be made a better place”[12]. Alienation, in the end, seeks to destroy the possibility of the social miracle from which it is excluded. Its power to do so, the power which has undermined so much of our Western self-confidence in social cohesion since 9/11, comes precisely from the impact that the bombings had in the here and now, something which forced attention on the fact that the society which is thereby imperilled exists also in the same here and now. It shattered the illusion of society as some kind of abstraction whose identity could survive by itself when the wreckage of the bombs had been cleared away. “It was a revolutionary act in the world, without purpose, without proposing an alternative, putting the human project itself, or what we know in Islam and Christianity as God’s creation, putting that at risk.”[13]

Davies argues from this a need to engage with theology in a new way, one which is rooted in the world, and has launched with other theologians a new project of “transformation theology” in which incarnation and ascension, Christology and cosmology, are woven together in the Church’s experience and interpretation of the here and now[14].

The concept of “one world”, as Davies notes, is a way of engaging with the concept of “world” in terms of “the community of peoples, who are more closely linked through global networks, gaining in knowledge of each other and interacting more with each other as communications increase in quality and extent”[15]. But this, like other uses of “world” (environment, political and financial organisation, or even “creation”) is paradoxical: it objectifies something which is, first of all, too big to be conceived, and which, secondly, can only be known in any case subjectively. Our own subjectivity is part of the “world” we seek to objectify. Nevertheless, Christian theology is committed to the concept of the world, the totality of everything that is or was or might be, as something created ex nihilo by God[16].

The doctrine of creation is fundamental to Christian epistemology, and implies that what we know is both mediated through our senses and, nonetheless, objectively real. Everything, from the cat on the mat to black holes, has its existence as gratuitous gift founded on the will of God. At the same time, it is as created beings that we perceive and know both ourselves and all other things. A viewpoint outside creation, which is necessarily that either of God or of nothing, is not accessible to us. Intersubjectivity, limitation and contingency are part of our way of knowing. This is the classical epistemology of Christian tradition, as expounded for example by Thomas Aquinas[17]. It differs of course from the stance adopted by RenĂ© Descartes and his philosophical heirs, whose famous “I think therefore I am” established the ego as both the sole objective viewpoint and the only thing that it can objectively know. The consequences of the Cartesian “turn to the subject” have been extensive throughout the West; assumptions that the world “external” to the observer may be illusory and can only be taken on trust, if at all, pervade philosophy, theology[18] and science[19]. In post-modern Cartesian philosophy the objective ego itself is called into question, dissolving the possibility of true knowledge about anything. However, the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein on language and epistemology has provided a counteraction to the Cartesian project. Wittgenstein’s contention that knowledge and language are bound up together, so that knowing is something essentially relational, taking place in a process, has informed the work of many philosophers, as well as theologians who have sought to restate a traditional Christian view of knowledge and the “self”. How I know what “I” am, what my “self” is, is bound up with the process of coming to know what everything is, and who we are as persons in community. It presupposes language and speech as the means by which knowledge is explored. In other words, knowing about creation, about the “one world”, including whatever “I” might be within this world, requires telling stories.

George Steiner, in Real Presences, notes that “human history is the history of meaning”, but that this presupposes an act of trust in the meaning of discourse itself, in logic rooted in Logos, a trust “between word and world” which is the “entrance of man into the city of man”. “Only in the light of that confiding can there be a history of meaning which is, by exact counterpart, a meaning of history.”[20] Nicholas Lash develops this argument: human beings are the speaking part of the world, that is, responsible (able to respond) for and to the world. It is human responsibility to speak the truth, to tell the story, within the world as it is, even “in an almost unbearably dark and complex, almost (it seems, at times) painfully illegible, and hence unutterable, world”[21]. Moreover, the foundational trust required to tell the story, to speak for and of and to the world, is grounded in that which is beyond the story itself, outside the limits of contingency in which we must necessarily speak, and to which, however hesitantly, and at however much risk of being misunderstood, we ascribe the name “God”. As Lash points out, this is indeed far too easily misunderstood, and the holy mystery called “God” substituted by some thing or being spoken of as though it were a contingency within the discourse, an explanation of things (increasingly, an explanation seen as unnecessary) instead of the ground of existence[22]. But, we must speak, we must tell the story anyway, even if we know it can never adequately address what we stumblingly seek to speak about.

This is precisely how the scriptural revelation unfolds: always as story; never as unmediated uninterpreted truths pronounced in abstraction. Even where Jesus speaks, or where prophets deliver “the word of Yahweh”, they do so to others within history in a narrative which itself contains and conditions the message. This pattern of revelation is reflected in the incarnation of the Word, the entering of God into particularity, the knowledge of God revealed through Divine self-emptying and limitation. God as the Absolute and Unconditioned is unknowable; it is not the Word as abstraction, but the Word made flesh, that we know. Of this Romano Guardini says:

What could be more confining than the incarnation? If the Son of God, as St John says, was from all eternity ‘at the bosom of the Father’ but in time ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’, then He certainly confined Himself thereby. If He was staying in Jerusalem He could not say that He was in Nazareth. If He did something on the first day of the week He could not say that it was done on the first day. If He was eating, truth forbade Him to assert that He was sleeping.[23]

These are simple and obvious things to state, yet their implication is profound. This is entirely how revelation happens. We know nothing of God qua God; revelation is mediated through the particularities and limitations of human lives enacted in history, through which the scriptures were formed, and ultimately in one particular historical life which Christians believe to be God’s fullest revelation of God’s self[24]. The Church is the “body of Christ” and so shares in the historicity and limitation of the incarnate Word; the church in fact, is history, is a story, Christ’s presence in the here and now as well as in eternity, the story of salvation being realised in particularity, of persons entering the kingdom of God[25].

It seems that at the heart of the story humans tell is the quest for the “soul”, the “self” known through its own engagement in conversation, through encountering the other. It is necessarily something known in time. As Rowan Williams says:

The self lives and moves in, only in, acts of telling – in the time taken to set out and articulate a memory, the time that is a kind of representation (always partial, always skewed) of the time my material and mental life has taken, the time that has brought me here.[26]

The encounter with the other in which the story can be told requires that the other be, precisely, “other”: different; risky; questioning; “the gap between desire and reality”[27] in which I discover that “I cannot fail to be involved in incompletion… no thing completes me”[28]. Instead, the Other which may complete me lies beyond the circles of contingent and self-referential dialogue, beyond rivalry or threat or violence, so wholly Other that it could never be a competitor for the space I might occupy or the story I might tell. “The self that is present to itself and to others without violence or anxiety, the self that might possibly be called a soul, exists in the expectation of grace.”[29] The story in which the soul is engaged invites one, through the process of discovering that nothing else will do, to receive one’s being as unconditional gift. Again, we return to creation, to the necessity in the end of finding some way to speak about God.

The soul, according to Aquinas, is the “form of the body”[30] and “the principle of the acts of life”[31], that which, in substantial union with the body, constitutes a human being[32]. There is no Platonic body/soul dualism here, nor any reduction of the “self” to an insubstantial Cartesian wisp inhabiting the body like a shell[33]. In the light of what has been said above, and without exhausting Aquinas’s meaning, one way of describing the soul might be to say that it is the story of the person. And St Bernard taught that God is the form of the soul[34]: “In those respects in which the soul is unlike God, it is also unlike itself”[35]. The story of the person is grounded in God.

The Christ of the Apocalypse says, “I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it”[36]. The new name is a word pronounced by the Word which is the summation of the story of the person, the name of a person’s unique and irreplaceable existence, of their soul. This name we cannot devise ourselves; it is entirely gift, a word from the Word through whom all things were made, and which does not return fruitless. Fundamentally, the soul, the story of the person, is something called into being, spoken from beyond the circles of merely contingent dialogue[37]. The Christian commentary on all human speaking is that this, in the end, is the transformation we seek: a word rooted in the Word of creation without which all existence is unintelligible.

One World Week is an opportunity for human beings, the “speaking part of creation”, to enter the risky process of conversation, to encounter the other and so discover and seek what they lack, and to discover perhaps that there is a “soul” whose story is not made whole by any contingent other but is grounded in the Other who is beyond and who grounds all our circles of speech. The Church in participating in such engagement may find here, at least, a “preparation for the gospel”, a foundation whose language can understand and interpret the speech of salvation which is the ongoing story of the Church. But because this is, after all, conversation, the Church also is challenged to recognise the ecclesial character of what comes to pass wherever the social miracle is glimpsed, even fleetingly, even through conversations of faiths or cultures quite different from her own.

[1] UCL One World Week 2009

[2] UCL Global Citizenship

[3] UCL: Education for Global Citizenship

[4] U le Guin, “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address”, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Victor Gollancz, 1989, pp 147-160

[5] J Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700, OUP 1985, pp 57-75.

[6] RD Williams, “Charity”, in Lost Icons – Refelections on Cultural Bereavement, T & T Clark, 2000, pp 53-94.

[7] RD Williams, Op. Cit., p 58

[8] J Pieper (R & C Winston, translators), In Tune With the World – a theory of Festivity, St Augustine’s Press, 1999 (but first published 1965), pp 3-21.

[9] RD Williams, Op. Cit., p 71

[10] More recently, a UCL student was convicted of planning terrorist attacks abroad, illustrating that July 7 was not an isolated incident but part of a phenomenon we ignore at our peril

[11] O Davies, “Violence in Bloomsbury: A Theological Challenge”, in International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 8 Number 3 July 2006 252-265

[12] O Davies, “Violence in Bloomsbury: A Theological Challenge”, in International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 8 Number 3 July 2006, 261

[13] O Davies, “Violence in Bloomsbury: A Theological Challenge”, in International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 8 Number 3 July 2006, 263-264

[14] O Davies, PJ Janz & C Sedmak, Transformation Theology – Church in the World, T & T Clark International, 2007. Davies explores something of the same ground as Henri de Lubac’s monumental section on Christianity and History in Catholicism, but not perhaps as convincingly. H de Lubac (LC Sheppard & E Englung OCD, translators), Catholicism – Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, Ignatius Press 1988 (first published Burns & Oates 1950), pp 137-304; see also HU Von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac, Communio/Ignatius Press, 1991, pp 35-43

[15] O Davies, “Lost Heaven”, in O Davies, PJ Janz & C Sedmak, Transformation Theology – Church in the World, T & T Clark International, 2007, p 12

[16] Ibid.

[17] “It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One” – GK Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas, 1933 ; See, also, e.g., R McInerny, Aquinas, Polity Press, 2004, pp 45-48

[18] Fergus Kerr has an enjoyable run through the main culprits in “The Modern Philosophy of the Self”; F Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp 3-27

[19] The appearance of the Cartesian view in the scientific community is particularly perverse, given that the whole foundation of science rests on the premiss that facts can be objectively known and talked about. Andrew Brown notes just such a view expressed by the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, “Increasingly, those who study the human brain see our experiences, even of our own intentions, as being an illusory commentary on what our brains have already decided to do… Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a means of predicting the behaviour of other people – a belief that actions are the result of conscious intentions.” As Brown comments, “This really is the abolition of man… What I don’t follow, though, is the assumption that at the end of this process you have, in fact, got rid of the messy and troublesome illusion of humanity. All Blakemore has done – if his programme succeeds – is to show that we believe other people exist because this allows us to predict their behaviours. But those are the same grounds on which most scientists believe that anything exists, from atoms to gravity.” (A Brown, Press Column in Church Times, 27 February 2009, p 26).

[20] G Steiner, Real Presences – is there Anything in What We Say?, Faber & Faber, 1989, p 89

[21] N Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence – Reflections on the Question of God, Ashgate, 2004, p 57

[22] N Lash, Op. Cit., pp 1-22

[23] R Guardini (S Lange, translator), The Church of the Lord, Henry Regnery Company, 1966, pp 91-92

[24] See, e.g., H McCabe, “Nobody comes to the Father but by Me”, in God Still Matters, Continuum, 2002, pp 102-106

[25] See, e.g., H de Lubac, “Christianity and History”, in Catholicism (Op. Cit.), pp 137-164. De Lubac argues that Christianity is unique among world religions in offering not escape from contingency and historical limitation but transformation in and through precisely this contingency. God has entered history to redeem history, by virtue of which history “has a certain ontological density and a fecundity” (p 141). Oliver Davies (Transformation Theology, Op. Cit.) emphasises the historical dimension of the economy of salvation, which is indeed a necessary correction to a tendency towards abstraction and dislocation of salvation to past events and/or the eschaton. It is however also important not to lose sight of the transcendent and the necessity of inhabiting paradox and tension when talking about any of this. As de Lubac notes, Christianity asserts both “the transcendent destiny of man and the common destiny of mankind” (p 140, my emphasis)

[26] RD Williams, “Lost Souls”, in Lost Icons, p 144

[27] RD Williams, Op. Cit., p 145

[28] RD Williams, Op. Cit., p 151

[29] RD Williams, Op. Cit., p 175

[30] T Aquinas, St., Summa Theologica, Ia 76

[31] R McInerny, Op. Cit., pp 61-62

[32] See also PJ Glenn, A Tour of the Summa, Tan Books, 1960, pp 60-62

[33] R Pouivet (MS Sherwin, OP, translator), After Wittgenstein, St Thomas, St Augustine’s Press, 2006, p 30

[34] Thomas Merton discusses this doctrine, but does not give his sources: T Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Harvest Edition, 1981 (first published 1953), p 276

[35] Bernard, St., cited in A Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, Chatto & Windus, 1946, online text:

[36] Revelation 2:17 NRSV

[37] “Does not to be a person, if we take the old meaning of the word in a spiritual sense, always mean to have a part to play? Is it not fundamentally to enter upon a relationship with others so as to converge upon a Whole? The summons to personal life is a vocation, that is, a summons to play an eternal role” – H de Lubac, Catholicism (Op. Cit.), p 331, citing St Augustine, “in every creature is inscribed ‘the very perfect prescription of his destiny’, which is ‘not to remain apart from the universal order’”


Jacob said...

Interesting and enjoyable - also introduced me to some further reading. Thanks Matthew.

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