2005 – Furthering Our Humanity

Restoring Justice, Truth And Compassion To Australia’s Agenda: FURTHERING OUR HUMANITY.

by

Veronica Brady

The Tasmanian Peace Trust 2005 Lecture

The William Oats and Honora Deane Memorial Lectures 2005

Held at the Sir Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania, Hobart

Sunday 21st August 2005

and

University of Tasmania, Launceston

Thursday 18th August 2005

Our title is certainly a challenging one. We live in very troubled times, afflicted not only with wars and rumours of wars but also with a great poverty of thought and morals and thus of truth, and justice and -compassion. But always there is hope – someone has called it ‘that long distance runner’- for those of us who believe in life. So let me begin by sharing with you a poem by Stephen Spender which someone recently sent me.

SIGNED WITH THEIR HONOUR

I think continuously of those who were truly great.

Who, from (he womb, remembered the world’s history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to feet in song.

And who hoarded from the spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth;

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light,

Nor its grave evening demand for love;

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields

See how these names arc feted by the waving grass,

And by the streamers of while cloud.

And whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while towards the sun,

And left the vivid air signet! with their honour.

Our culture is preoccupied with the future which today seems pretty bleak. But the poem invokes the memory of all those who throughout history, listening to the promptings of truth, justice and compassion, have refused, to accept that violence and fear should have the last word and have ‘fought for life’, wearing at their hearts ‘the fire’s centre’, the vision of a ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’ (1), inspiring their hope for the increase of life rather than of violence and death, and keeping alive the dream of ‘that of God in every person’, as the Quaker tradition puts il, and of the beauty of the universe, the waving grass, the streamers of white cloud and ‘whispers of wind in the listening sky’.

To many, perhaps most, people today, and certainly to most of our leaders, this may seem mere romanticism. For them from the Big Bang onwards, violence, it seems, has been the law of life. Everything depends on what we mean by violence, which is essentially a matter of energy. The question is to distinguish between destructive and creative energy, and I want to suggest therefore that it is the peace makers, those who work for justice, truth and compassion, for increase of life, not the war makers, who live by the logic of the universe and are working to fulfill its purposes. As the poem implies, they draw their strength from its creative energies, the fire in which life began, the waters breaking through rocks and spawning life, wind and cloud, the fruitfulness of the seasons, and so on. ‘Clothed from head to feet in song’, they respond to love, to ‘the essential delight of the blood’, to love, refusing to

…allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

This may sound merely rhetorical. In fact, however, it rests on a view of reality close to that of contemporary science and is thus far more realistic than our current world view since it understands that we human beings are part of the fabric of life, receiving from and giving to the energies flowing through it, and not, as our present culture sees it, the solitary masters of creation determined to use it for our own selfish ends. The World Education Forum, as you know, works to promote ‘a harmonious world community’ and what I have been saying confirms the importance of this goal. We are heading in the wrong direction because we have lost sight of this vision of ‘those who were truly great’ who kept faith with life rather than death.

Our problem, that is to say, lies not outside us but within ourselves, in our failure to address the three great questions proposed by Emmanuel Kant: What can I believe? What may I hope for? What must I do? To answer them education is crucial, one however which will take us outside the narrow frame of our technological culture, concern itself with ‘realities at present unseen’, the intangibles which justify belief in truth, justice and compassion and enable us to reimagine the world, feel ourselves into the mystery of other lives and of the universe, and by reimagining it help to remake it.

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagination is ‘the living power and primary agent of all human perception… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ (2), and there is no doubt, I think, that the shape and state of the world we live in tends to reflect the way we imagine it. This is the point made in the recent novel, Marianne Wiggins’, Evidence Of Things Unseen. But I also want to discuss the book because it is about the use and abuse of power, in this case nuclear power which could destroy humanity if used for warlike purposes. As the title suggests, it depends on the discovery of the previously unknown element plutonium, ‘just off the edge of human vision at the boundaries of the human spectrum’ (3). What was crucial, however, was the use to which it was put, the making of the first atomic bombs.

The title, ‘evidence of things unseen’, of course, echoes the biblical definition of faith, ‘commitment to realities at present unseen’ (4), suggesting that the real question at issue is one of authority, in effect who is in charge of the world. This is the point made in the prologue, a description of the explosion of the first atom bomb in the deserts of New Mexico in 1945, which implies that this could be seen as a repetition of the original moment of creation, offering a similar choice between good and evil, life and death:

This desert’s name is Trinity. One day the sun rose twice in a single mourning (sic) and Man saw his face reflected on the underside of Heaven. When the first atomic bomb exploded over earth that morning, the entire sky broadcast the news. Creation of the universe, that day, was re-enacted. This time, God was not the only audience. If birth is fission, then the love we make is fusion; and to make an End is nothing more than to realise a Beginning. Because the End is where we start. (5)

Significantly, the desert’s name is Trinity, the name Christians give to the ultimately Mysterious life of God. But here man seems to be claiming the power of life and death and the novel dramatises the choice which now lies before us, the choice between fission, the cleaving and splitting apart which empowered this explosion and could destroy humanity and devastate the planet – the power which seems to enchant governments today – and ‘fusion’, the coming together of love. It is a choice between making an end to life as we know it or making a new beginning based on love.

This brings us back to education, to the importance of learning to understand life as a whole and our place in it, educating the imagination, if you like, and some lines from a poem about cruelty to animals which I learned as a child at school come to mind:

T would ring the bells of heaven The loudest peal for years If parson lost his senses And people came to theirs. And people came to theirs.

The key here is the word ‘senses’. Our present technological culture, I would argue, has lost touch with the senses and thus with the actual world we live in. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, it rests on ‘the exaltation of signs based on denial of the reality of things’ (6) and, I would add, people. We are bemused with fantasies of power and violence. The French sociologist Alexis De Tocqueville described this world in its beginnings in USA in the 1830s:

They owe nothing to anyone, they expect nothing from anyone: they acquire the habit of always considering themselves standing alone and are apt to think they have their whole destiny in their own hands…This [not only makes them] forget their ancestors but hides their descendants and separates them from their contemporaries, throwing them back forever upon themselves alone and threatening to confine them forever in the solitude of their own hearts. (7)

This kind of culture breeds competition, suspicion and aggression and has little place for the mutual trust, respect and sense of purpose which is the basis of civilisation. It is the task of education to offer a critique, but one which is intellectually respectable, not merely emotional or partisan. Learning about the humanities therefore must go hand in hand with learning about the sciences since the goal is to show how, if our present culture is out of tune with the logic of the universe, we may return to it.

Let us consider an example. Over fifty years ago the astronomer Fred Hoyle remarked that once we had seen a photograph of the earth taken from space we would have to think differently about ourselves and our place in the scheme of things since it would be evident that all human beings, whatever our appearance, culture or gender, all the animals, birds, fishes, reptiles and insects, all the plants, the air, the waters and the earth itself, all share the one life on one small and vulnerable planet suspended in infinite space (8).

Throughout history, however, human beings have tended to identify and value ourselves competitively, contrasting ourselves with the ‘tribe’ next door. ‘We’ were the norm and ‘they’ the exception, ‘outsiders’, ‘heathens’, ‘barbarians’ and very often, potential or actual enemies (9). But in the light of the understanding Hoyle proposed and of a world in which technology has made us all inhabitants of a ‘global village’ this no longer matches reality. What this new understanding reveals, in fact, is our interdependence and the danger of ignoring it. The insights of contemporary science underline this, telling us that we are part of the ongoing life of the universe, so that ultimately cooperation is the law of the universe. If we are to survive therefore, we must learn to respect one another and the world which sustains us.

It follows that education needs to provide a comprehensive and coherent account of reality, not merely a way to success and power in our present culture. As I have been suggesting, the sciences and humanities complement one another in this account. The humanities, the arts, philosophy and religion in particular, are interested in what is unseen, imaginative realities. But contemporary science, as Wiggins suggests, is also concerned wifrTthis kind of reality, speaking increasingly and with increasing respect of what is unseen and beyond the reach of mere reason. In this way both areas of knowledge combine to create a sense of wonder and undercut the simple-minded materialism and utilitarianism of our culture.

Similarly the wisdom of the past and of other cultures takes us beyond its arrogant frame, reminding us of the need to respect and learn from difference but also that history is not just the story of the ‘winners’. In fact the story of the ‘losers’ may have more to teach us since, throwing light on past injustices, it not only calls for our compassion but also tells us that so long as people continue to suffer from injustice and cruelty or their sufferings are taken for granted or ignored, civilization has not been properly achieved. One way of defining tradition, someone has said, is as ‘running errands for the dead’.

In this respect, William James makes a significant point. Looking truthfully at the past and taking responsibility for it can be uncomfortable: consider, for example, our Prime Minister’s rejection of what he calls the ‘Black Armband School of History’. But James points out that ‘the method of averting one’s attention from evil and living simply in the light of the good [or Relaxed and comfortably’, as our Mr Howard would have it] is splendid as long as it will work…[But] the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality’ and therefore need consideration. In fact, James argues that they may be ‘the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deeper levels of truth’ (10).

We also have much to learn from the wisdom of the past and to bring it to bear on the present. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, is about a man searching for his place in the universe and discovering that it is governed by love – a vision we badly need to recall today with which many contemporary scientists would agree. A passage in the Purgatorio, for instance, suggests the crucial importance of generosity:

…[The more there are who would say ‘ours’,

so much the greater is the good possessed

by each — so much more love burns in that cloister. (11)

Many other cultures would agree, including the Aboriginal cultures of this country, the oldest living cultures on earth from whom we have much to learn. The late Bill Neidjie, a distinguished Kakadu elder, for example, put it this way:

Listen carefully this, you can hear me.

I’m telling you because earth just like mother

and father or brother of you.

That tree, same thing.

Your body, my body I suppose.

I’m same as you…as anyone. (12)

Compare this with our individualistic and competitive culture of *such a War as is of Every Man against every man’, as Thomas Hobbes described it. He also pointed to its origins. This kind of society arises, he says, when ‘men live without a common power to keep them all in awe’ (13). True, the authority he had in mind was that of a monarch. But that is not the point, which is that if we arc to live successfully we need to acknowledge powers beyond ourselves which we must respect and to which we owe obedience. Obedience in fact is the key, since the word derives from the Latin •audirc’. to listen. Instead of imposing ourselves we need to listen, give attention to what the world and other human beings are saying to us.

This returns us to the question of truth, to the nature of reality, which is surely the task of education. The kind of listening we have been discussing is crucial for human relationships and thus for civili⁄ed living. But it is also crucial to learning about the world.

Attentiveness. intuition and imagination are essential to scientific discovery since, as we now understand. Space⁄ Time is an energy medium, so that to learn from as well as about it we need lo be in tune with and respect it. and thus ‘create and carry fields of order through an enigmatic cosmos*, involving it m our judgements and action, as Stanley Perkowitz puts it (14). Scientific and poetic understanding thus have much in common. But the idea implicit here that human consciousness may a’prescnt the point towards which creation as a whole has been moving makes moral understanding the centre of all understanding since, as Wiggins” account suggests, the power we have now assumed makes it possible to destroy ourselves. As John Polkinghorne says, there ought to be a ‘humility theologv (15) But all our knowledge should rest on a proper understanding of our place in the universe. $<> too. I submit, should our politics and economics.

But an education which opens, up these long perspectives is also an education which makes for hope. From the Big Bang onwards, violence has been an essential part of the cosmic story. Stars and whole solar systems become waste lands, and so on. But that is only one side of the story. From that process new and richer life is constantly emerging and moving! towards increasing complexity and creativity so that, as James Studer says, ‘the present material universe is but a mere shadow of the potential in meaning and quality’ implicit in life as it evolves (16). The question facing us then is whether these energies are being used to further life or death. We must choose to move beyond our narrow interests and desire for power, accept that our understanding is not the measure of all reality and live in tune with a universe which is much more mysterious, ‘more open, more subtle and more supple in its character’ (17) than we had previously thought – a universe whose unifying theme, as George Ellis argues, is the “Love that moves the sun and other stars’ in ‘whose will is our peace’ (18).

At the same time we need to understand that it is a difficult love The world’s great religions have always insisted on this, though it is true that today many who call themselves religious seem to use it as a means to sell satisfaction and power. But quantum physics also points to this difficulty and to the precarunisness of human knowledge, telling us that the universe works by a ‘kind of orderly disorder’ (19), an order which may appear paradoxical and even tragic. Nothing lives for itself alone. Generosity in that sense is the law of life.

Everything that exists is part ot a whole which generates further life, even if it does so in painful ways. In The Gospel according to John, for example, on the eve of his death Jesus tells his followers that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (20). The fruitfulness of the universe depends on a balance between loss and gain, order and openness, giving and receiving.

The best kind of education therefore will teach patience and open out this long view which opens the way to hope, the long distance runner.” Our present relentless pursuit of individual or merely sectional or national interest, the desire to ‘win’, get rich, famous and beautiful at all costs, defies the immensely and patiently long term logic of the universe. As Polkinghorne reminds us, ‘the universe required ten billion years of evolution before life was even possible’ (21). We must be confident that it we play our part, the life, not the death of humanity will prevail.

This returns us to the question of peace, perhaps the most urgent one we face. Our present culture of war and violence is not only unsustainable but also stupid since it threatens our life as a species. The logic of existence, as we have been arguing, is interdependence. Care and respect for one another and for life as a whole is not, as the ‘hard- (but actually soft-) headed’ say, sentimental, since it is to commit ourselves to the ongoing current of life, to wear at our hearts’ centre the fire of creation. As Spender has it, ‘born of the sun ‘, we are part of the unfolding drama of creation, travelling ‘a short while towards the sun’.

Veronica Brady

University of Western Australia

REFERENCES

  1. Dante Alighicri, The Divine Comedy. Parodiso, XXXIII. 145. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, New York. Bantam Books, 1984.
  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, chapter XIII. In M H Abrams et al (eds) The Norm Anthology OfKngiish Literature, II, New York, 1965, 238.
  3. Marianne Wiggins, Evidence Of Things Unseen. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2004. 9.
  4. Hebrews, 11-1
  5. Wigfiins,3
  6. Jean Baudrillard, Revenge Of The Crystal: Selected Writings On The Modern Object And Its Destiny, 1%H-1983. Sydney, Pluto Press, 1990,63
  7. Alexis De Tticqueville, Democracy In America. Edited and abridged by Richard Heffner. New York, Times Mirror Books, 1956, 194.
  8. Quoted in Beatrice Bruteau, ‘Global Spirituality And The Integration Of East And West’, Cross Currents, XXXV, 2-3, Summer⁄Fall, 1985, 190.
  9. Ibid
  10. William James, The Will To Believe, And other Essays In Papular Philosophy. Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press, 1979, 163.
  11. Purgatorio , XV. 55-S8.
  12. Bill Neidjie, Story About Feeling. Edited by Keith Taylor. Broome, Magabala Books, 1989,
  13. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. In M H Abrams et al eds, The Norton Anthology Of English Literature. I, 1986.
  14. Quoted in James Studer, ‘Consciousness And Reality: Our Entry Into Creation’, Cross Currents. 48,I, Spring 1998,31.
  15. John Polinghore, ‘Kenotic Creation And Divine Action⁄ In John Polkinghome (ed) The Work Of Love: Creation As Kenosis. Grand Rapids Michigan. W B W Eerdmans. 2001, 103.
  16. Studer,28.
  17. Lyndon Harriss, ‘Divine Action: An Interview Wiih John Polkinghome’, Cross Currents, 48, I, Spring 1998,9.
  18. George Ellis. ‘Kenosis As Unifying Theme For Life And Cosmology.’ In Polkinghome, 107-26.
  19. Polkinghorne, ibid., 99.
  20. John, 12,24
  21. Lyndon Harris, 8.

 About Sister Veronica Brady

Veronica Brady is Honorary Senior Fellow in the Department of English. Communications and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia where she taught Tor many years. A former school principal, she is a member of the Loreto Sisters and has sat on state and national hoards including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Library and Information Services of Western Australia, the Older Australians Advisory Committee and other bodies. She has held visiting fellowships in Italy and in the United States at Harvard University and the University of Oregon where, on a Rockefeller Fellowship, she carried out research on “Ecology of the Sacred.”

Her doctorate studies focused on the work of Patrick White and she is a recognised authority on Judith Wnghl, Perhaps her best-known work is “South of My Days; A Biography of Judith Wright”. Her other books include: “The Future People”, “Crucible of Prophets”, “Caught in the Draught’ and “Can These Bones Live?”

The nature and extent of Dr Brady’s public activity are exemplified by three very recent contributions. She was the main speaker at the Hiroshima Commemoration in Perth’s Forrest Square, a keynote speaker at the 5th International Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Grafton, NSW, and at “Two Fires”, a Festival in honour of Judith Wright in Braidwood, Victoria.

The appeal and importance of her message, and Sister Veronica’s versatility, is evidenced by the-range of her activities during her week-long visit to Tasmania. In addition to her major public lectures in Launceston and Hobart, she will lecture and hold tutorials with students in Bachelor of Education, Bachelor of Teaching and Bachelor of Human Movement courses, speak lo anti dialogue with a combined meeting of Grade 11⁄12 students from colleges and schools, and hold workshops open to the public to consider Judith Wright’s discovery of her humanity – “Thinking with the Mind of the Heart” as Desmond Tutu put it.

The Tasmanian Peace Trust, The World Education Forum Tasmania and its partners in this programme, express great appreciation to Sister Veronica for all that she is giving to our community.

About the World Education Forum Tasmania – WEFT

WEFT is the Tasmanian Section of the World Education Fellowship – a worldwide group of independent national sections, formed in 1921.

WEFT believes that education can, and should, be a vital instrument to achieve

  • Community harmony and sustainability
  • International understanding and co-operation
  • The fulfilment of the potential of individuals. The central aims of WEFT are:

The central aims of WEFT are:

  •  To work towards the establishment of a harmonious world community through education;
  • To promote education in the family, the community, in schools and at tertiary level which enhances Individuals’ responsibility and ability to contribute effectively to society and the world community.
  • To offer openness to timely ideas and leadership within the widest concept of education. It can provide individuals, and hopes to generate in them, professional and personal benefit through leadership opportunities.

Membership is open to anyone (or any organisation) in the community who shares concerns in these areas and who has a vision of an equitable society.

WKFT has no political and no religious affiliation or purpose. It enjoys consultative status with UNESCO.

The current Chair of the Australian Forum of WEF.  Profcssor Colin Power (former Deputy Director. UNESCO) sums up WEFTs attitude:

“Quality education directed to the full development of the human personality is a global public good, the key to peace, development, social cohesion and democracy in the 21st Century.”

Enquiries

Southern Tasmania: Tony and Jennifer Poyntcr tony.poynler@education.tas.gov.au
(Vice-Presidcnts South)

or

Miranda Baptist miranda.baplisl@education.las.gov.au
(Hon. Sec. South)

Northern Tasmania: Joy Spence (Hon. Sec.)

or

Christopher Strong (President) csstrong@tpg.com.au

or

Pat Aheran (Vice-President) 6331 6136

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