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Quaker Theology #12 Fall-Winter 2005-2006

The Angel of History, the Storm of Progress, And the Order of the Soul

Keith Helmuth

He who fights the future has a dangerous enemy. The future is not; it borrows its strength from the man himself, and when it has tricked him out of this, then it appears outside of him as the enemy he must meet.

– attributed to Soren Kierkegaard

Anyone who has felt a baby being born, or had a whale come up under a boat, understands that ideas are no big deal. Ideas come and go, like rain in a ditch at the side of the road. It is a defining aspect of modernity to treat ideas as matters of utmost importance. Within that importance, however, the immanence of earth has lost its significance.(1)

– Raymond Rogers

Those who formulate policy should recognize that if humans pit themselves against the fundamental dynamics of cosmic nature , they are certain to lose. . . . It might be argued that war and civil disorder are presently the greatest threats to the human future. One need not minimize their dangers to also recognize that attrition of the Earth’s biosphere and life support systems could continue unobtrusively under conditions of peace until a point is reached at which environmental disintegration led to societal disintegration.(2)

– Lynton Keith Caldwell

Over the Amazon with the Storm of Progress

A year ago this past January, under the light of the full moon, I looked from the window of a jetliner over a vast expanse of the Amazon watershed. I saw the large, slowly winding main trunk of the great river gradually disappearing into the eastern horizon. Just ahead I saw the confluence of a large tributary which had begun its multi-stream course on the flanks of the northern Andes. Closer at hand, and just below, another major watercourse curled into view from under the body of the plane, and meandered for some distance on a northward course before it, too, merged into the main body of the Amazon River.

I was not prepared for this view. I was transfixed for an hour, taking in the slow rolling scene of the slow rolling rivers and the vast forest of this still largely intact upper basin region. I knew the route and had followed the flight path monitor closely on the overnight trip to Buenos Aries two weeks earlier. But two weeks earlier there had been cloud cover, no moonlight, and I was sitting on the side facing the Andes.

Looking far to the east I could see clusters of lights at points along the river bank signaling human settlements. Scanning closer as we came directly over the course of the river, I could also see much smaller clusters of lights coming farther up stream. A few lights were also dotted here and there on small tributaries now visible. These settlements rose up in my mind’s eye: A fishing village here, rubber tappers there, hunters, loggers, mineral prospectors, plant researchers, and diesel generators pushing like demons ever deeper into the biotic integrity of the land. Indigenous peoples, nomadic resource raiders, and bio-pirates all mixed up on the leading edge of the great storm of progress.

Then the scene changed. Coming even with the great river, and looking to the land flowing north and east, I began to see rectangular outlines and distinctly different shadings in variegated blocks. Between them and through them ran arrow-straight lines of a much lighter hue. Roads through the forest, and whole tracts of forest gone.

I have seen a lot of clear-cut forest land close-up, but from 36,000 feet the vast scale of this destruction was stunning. When I was earlier looking down on forest land yet intact, I thought hard about the communities of life that are tucked into every nook and cranny of this region. Now, those of nocturnal habit would be out. Later, with the sunrise, another group of residents, adapted differently, would employ their life skills to good effect. With the clear cutting, this fabric of life is blasted, smashed to smithereens. With clear cutting, the storm of progress has truly mounted to hurricane force.

Lifting my eyes to gaze one last time over the whole panorama rolling out to the horizon, another story of this land came into view. Fire. Faint to the southeast, a few smudges of orange flame and hanging smoke. But then east and north, more fires, some small, some very large, considering the distance at which I was seeing them.

Another feature of the storm. Fire storms, preparing the way for further progress. The beef industry, the soybean business, all for export, moving in. I slumped back in my seat and heard the lyrics of the lead song on Bruce Cockburn’s album, Big Circumstance. This classic song from 1988 by this Canadian singer-song-writer is titled "If a Tree Falls."

Rain forest
Mist and mystery
Teeming green
Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam -
From Sarawak to Amazonia
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. Hills
Cortege rhythm of falling timber
What kind of currency grows in these new deserts,
These brand new flood plains?

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Does anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on.
Cut and move on.
Take out trees.
Take out wildlife at the rate of a species every single day.
Take out people who have lived with this for 100,000
years.

Inject a billion burgers worth of beef –
grain eaters, methane dispensers
Through thinning ozone,
waves fall on wrinkled earth
gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars.
Speak of a drowning –
but this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
where wild things have to go
to disappear
forever.

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Does anybody hear the forest fall?

At a certain point in our lives it is important to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood. We can call this knowledge the wisdom of the soul. Coming to this knowledge is not a matter of chronological age. It is a matter of a certain kind of experience of the world. And the earlier in life we come to this experience, the greater our chances of living within the order of the soul.

We can come to this kind of experience in delight, wonder, and awe. We can come to it in agony, anger, and action. Wherever on this spectrum we come to this defining experience, its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with a form, presence, or process of the great world beyond the boundaries of our skin.

The work of artists often moves within this range of experience. Poetry, painting, music and all the other forms and processes that spring to expression in the work of artists, often opens to communion and the order of the soul. The lyrics quoted above run the gamut of this experience. This song and this artist’s presentation of his vision and pain had long since contributed to my image of the Amazon.

My recent, unanticipated experience of the Amazon landscape by moonlight has enlarged my sense of communion, made newly visible to me the order of the soul, and added to my knowledge of what it is that cannot be fully understood but, nevertheless, in our hope for the future, must be communicated among us. I come to this occasion to share some of the images and some of the thinking that keeps me on track in this journey of faith.

On the Ground with the Angel of History

Whenever I have the opportunity to prepare a presentation for a Quaker gathering, I am drawn to ponder on issues pounding hard on the shores of faith. In recent times the range of issues and the force of events have dramatically escalated. Any number of concerns or profoundly challenging events that are daily before us could be the focus of an entire lecture.

Instead of choosing a single theme and focusing in the usual way, I would like here, however, to share with you several probes. A probe, as you may imagine, is a brief foray into a topic that opens it up for further consideration. I will, therefore, be presenting thoughts on several themes with which I have been engaged over the last few years as I have worked to understand the unfolding of the human story, and, in particular, the human-earth relationship.

We are now seeing more and more clearly that there are no single focus issues, and that justice, equity, peace, and the integrity of Creation form a coherent framework of spiritual development, religious responsibility, economic behavior, public policy, and human betterment. In this expanded context, the juxtaposition of a series of probes may be useful. We have a new sense of holistic vision, but specific probes may offer some useful illumination.

You may be wondering about the title of this lecture. I, too, am still wondering about it. It came to me like a kind of large swooping bird that alighted on the page and refused to clear off even when encouraged to do so. I tried several other titles, but the more I looked at this one and the more it looked back at me, the more it seemed to stick, the more it seemed to be right for what I thought I wanted to say.

This will give you an idea of how I work. I have found that writing is not so much a process of recording what I think, as it is a way of discovering new images and new thoughts that would not have come to me had I not set out on the journey of writing. So with the Angel of History as our guide, with the Storm of Progress at full pitch, and with the Order of the Soul struggling to keep its head above the waters of fatalism, I will try to coordinate this exploration in a way that reaches a helpful focus for living into the future.

I am one who takes seriously Kierkegaard’s warning on the danger of fighting the future. I am, however, also convinced that we must choose the future as never before. We must collectively choose, design and create alternatives to the trajectory that is now sweeping us into increasing social violence and ecological degradation. I am looking for a way of life that grows from and sustains the Order of the Soul.

The appearance of such a high flying title does not come, however, out of the blue. Many things we read or hear feed into the images that form our thoughts. And so it was that while pondering this title, I realized it had two primary sources, sources that will help set the stage for what follows.

The first is from philosopher and cultural analyst, Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin was a good friend of the great Swiss painter, Paul Klee. He collected Klee’s work and at one point acquired a painting titled, "Angelus Novus." In the spring of 1940 Benjamin completed a short work called, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in which he wrote the following:

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (3)

The second source of my title is from a song by Leonard Cohen, writer, poet and musician from Montreal. The title song in his album called, The Future, has the following refrain:

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And has overturned the order of the soul.

The references overlap. The "storm of progress" becomes the "blizzard of the world," and that which the angel longs to accomplish – "awakening the dead and making whole what has been smashed" – is beyond his power. The storm has crossed a critical threshold and "has overturned the order of the soul." Such are the apprehensions and the images of the artist, the seer, and the poet.

I take these images seriously because I think it is true, as Marshall McLuhan once said, that "artists are the antenna of the species." And I am further convinced, as Kenneth Boulding, Quaker economist and world systems analyst, has so clearly shown (4), that to understand the processes of life and societal development we must understand the role of the "image," and the way, for humans, a complex inventory of images builds into stories of various kinds, and, frequently into a primal or master story that makes sense of the human situation in the world.

Those of you who know the work of Thomas Berry will see where these thoughts are headed. In thinking about the human situation, he observes that "We are in trouble just now because . . . we are between stories. It’s all a question of story."(5) This may seem like simplistic observation, but once we understand that all knowledge is rooted in images, and that the way images are combined into convincing stories creates behavior, we can see the aptness of Berry’s observation.

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