This is the annual Conference Issue of Sofia and SoF’s conference this year was on the theme of the Other. The magazine contains the three talks of the main speakers, with apologies to the authors when they have had to be abridged. Still on the theme of the Other, we have reviews of two books, one about disabled people by SoF local group convenor for Scotland, Graham Monteith, and one a collection of poems by Peter Campbell, many of which are on the theme of mental illness.
Of the three main speakers, Don Cupitt’s talk on Learning to Live without Identity put a strong case against ‘localism’ for a ‘globalist outlook [that] wants to see a single set of universal laws of reason, laws of nature and moral principles prevailing throughout the whole world. Embracing the whole of humanity, Don Cupitt’s globalist outlook echoes the sheer exhilaration of Paul’s christology,: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ (1Cor. 12:13). ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28). We are ‘one body because we all share the same loaf’ (1Cor. 10:17). In this ‘glorious freedom’ (Rom. 8:21; cf. Gal. 5:1) ‘everything is yours’ (1 Cor. 3:22). Or as Don Cupitt puts it: ‘We can now be anything and everything.’ And: ‘A great tradition eventually comes to belong to all humankind.’
He also puts a strong case against a localism that expresses itself as violent extreme nationalism, citing, among others, the example of Israel: ‘The Return to Israel fulfils Judaism – and then eclipses it, as all the previous old religious values of Judaism disappear into militant nationalist politics.’
Universal human rights and well-being are a noble ideal and nationalism can lower the spirits even on less violent occasions. My heart always sinks a little when I visit the beautiful Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and I see a large notice ‘English Heritage’. Surely as public property, Kenwood House belongs first to Londoners (as Don Cupitt points out, a city of over 200 languages) and then to everybody. In fact, Londoners are very proud of the diversity of their city and warmed to the Mayor’s campaign after the 7/7 bombings: ‘Seven million Londoners. One London.’ Perhaps that is why, despite the fact that any great metropolis can also be a ‘city of dreadful night’, visions of an endtime just society have often been portrayed (in Revelation and elsewhere) as a city, (New Jerusalem, perhaps) or a garden city.
On the other hand, I was greatly cheered up when I visited the ancient Mayan site of Palenque in Mexico and saw a notice ‘Patrimonio de l’Humanidad’: ‘Heritage of Humanity’. The standard translation is ‘World Heritage Site’, which completely dehumanises the idea and is a small illustration of what can be lost in translation.
During the English Revolution of 1649, the Digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote: ‘In the beginning of time the Great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury.’ But then he goes on to say: ‘But not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of Mankind should rule over another.’ A Common Treasury in which ‘everything is everybody’s’ is an inspiring ideal: ‘When the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again ... then this enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare seek a dominion over others , neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth than another.’ But this is not the case at the moment. ‘The truth is, experience shows us that in this work of Community in the Earth and the fruits of the Earth is seen plainly a pitched battle between the Lamb and the Dragon.’ Or, speaking as a Muslim, as the SoF Conference’s first speaker, Attaullah Siddiqui, put it in answer to a questioner: ‘The fact is, you are killing us.’
Today many of the indigenous Mayan descendants of the great civilisation at Palenque are Zapatistas and one of their famous watchwords is ‘for a world with room for many worlds.’ They do want one world (they speak Spanish as well as their native Tojolobal, Tzotzil and Tzeltal) but in it they want people to be free to live in their own way, for as their leader Marcos put it (who, incidentally, posts his communiqués on the internet):
This process of total globalisation (economic, political and cultural) does not mean the inclusion of different societies incorporating their particularities. On the contrary, it implies the imposition of one single way of thinking: that of financial capital. In this war of conquest everything and all of us are subjected to the criterion of the market – anything that opposes it or presents an obstacle will be eliminated. It implies the destruction of humanity as a sociocultural collective and reconstructs it as a market place.
Until we have globalisation with a just society, the dominant culture will always need criticising from below. In agricultural terms it is dangerous to have a monocrop and eliminate all the other strains, because if the monocrop strain becomes diseased, you risk disaster. The excluded Other needs to defend itself and struggle for a place in the world, not counter-domination but, to use a word stressed by Ataullah Siddiqui: participation. Any excluded group, including women, is not usually just ‘granted’ rights: they have to fight for them.
A second reason not to try to eliminate the Other is the poetry of Earth. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for poetry is in xóchitl in cuícatl: ‘flower and song’. As the Maya prophet Chilam Balam de Chumayel said chillingly of the conquistadors:’ They came to make our flowers wither, so that only their flower might live.’ Or as Blake castigated: ‘Planting thy Family alone/destroying all the world beside’. Just as Earth has so many different flowers and birds and animals, it is delightful that it has such an abundance and diversity of cultures and about 6000 languages are spoken on it, most with their own poetries and songs. Each of these has a slightly different ‘take’ on the world and although we can try to translate, often ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’. Many of these cultures and languages are rapidly disappearing and the Earth will be the poorer for it.
In the phrases quoted from Paul’s Letters above, ‘neither slave nor free, neither male nor female’ he is talking about equality ‘in one body, in Christ Jesus’. Fortunately, slavery is supposed to have been abolished since Paul’s time. Of course, women want equal rights in the body politic, as do different groups, ‘Jews and Greeks’. On the other hand do we really want a whole world with ‘neither male nor female’? Doesn’t it add to the spice and pleasure of life to have both men and women (as well as the variety of children generated by sexual reproduction)? And doesn’t the abundance, particularity and diversity of human life, languages and cultures on Earth add greatly to its richness?
The problem remains: is it possible to have both the positive aspects of globalisation, in which ‘everything is everybody’s’, that Don Cupitt argues for so powerfully, and keep the vital positive contributions of the Other, both as offering a critique of the dominant culture and for its sheer wealth of life? And stop killing each other?
As Chaucer put it at the beginning of The Parliament of Fowls: ‘The life so short, the craft so long to lerne.’ At the end of this poem, all the different birds fly away with their mates in a jubilant chorus:
And when this work all brought
was to an ende,
To every fowl Nature gave his make
By even accord, and on their way they wende,
And Lord, the blisse and joye that they make!