The unsteady rock: Descartes, salamanders, and the Nicene Creed

Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia)

In my last post, I compared saying the Nicene Creed to stepping on unsteady stones across a creek, stepping here and not there, meaning this and not that in an effort not to end up with wet feet and an unsayable creed. One of the tippiest stones for me is the word believe, which for a long time I understood as a sort of thought bubble in the brain in which the creed could be said and remain unspotted from the world. Upon this rock I now place a salamander.

A story in Monday’s Austin American Statesman reported on the multimillion-dollar battle being waged in two Central Texas counties over who will protect the Georgetown salamander and its cousin, the Salado salamander: local authorities or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a story that I suspect will cause some eye rolling among developers, conservationists, scientists, laymen, liberals, and conservatives alike. But here’s the thing: these embryo-like creatures, which live in caves and springs in declining numbers, are bellwethers of water quality for the region. Their skin is so thin their beating hearts are visible, and they absorb any toxins in the water directly into their bodies. Their declining numbers in the face of new development in both counties can be attributed and weighed and argued, but the last word is that our well-being and theirs are inextricably entangled. No one in the story seems to be arguing about that.

On my tippy rock, next to the salamander, I now place a book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, by David Abram, a philosopher, cultural ecologist, and sleight-of-hand magician. This beautiful work is in part about learning to locate ourselves outside ourselves in order, quite literally, to understand ourselves: we cannot separate what we stand on—the Earth in all its history and destiny—from who we are and how we know it. Without this understanding, we cease to know anything, or indeed to be fully human. Yes, yes—I’m off the rock and in the creek. But Abram writes about these contorted philosophical topics with a lyric and embodied clarity, eschewing abstract language. His topic—how we know what we know—has become a signpost on this uneven path toward believing.

As a philosopher, Abram is a phenomenologist, someone who studies human consciousness, particularly as it focuses on direct experience. How do we know that we know something? Descartes famously sought certainty as the baseline for knowledge. When you experienced something through your senses, how could you be sure you weren’t dreaming or mad? What could you stand on to say anything with certainty? Descartes found certainty inside his mind—he thought, therefore he was—and effectively drew a line in the sand between the subjective, autonomous mind and the objective, inert world of things. Descartes was no atheist; he acknowledged that without God there could be no confidence in the reality of the external world. But Descartes’s pronouncement released God to become an idea, cloven from creation, while the primacy of scientific method and mathematical truth became almost inescapable over the next centuries. After Descartes, anyone saying “I believe” more likely believed in a second-tier proposition as it stacked up against scientific rationalism, one that was merely subjective and consequently of little use in the real, objective worlds of science, commerce, and politics.

Abram rejects this split between what we know and how we know it, and he does it by taking us out of our Cartesian heads and back into our sensing bodies. Despite the power and information that the scientific revolution has brought us, we cannot separate our daily lives—even those spent in laboratories—from the ambiguous, pre-conceptual ground of sensory experience. Writes Abram, “The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the ‘realer’ world of quantifiable and measurable scientific ‘facts’,” facts which descend from some impersonal, objective dimension like putti from heaven. Abram does not question the accomplishments of science and technology. He does, however, want to uncover how a blinkered commitment to their processes has left us blind to the subjective, sensuous, sentient life of bodies—all bodies, animal, vegetable, mineral—and the great breathing body of the Earth. To be deaf to the lively ancient and ongoing conversations of the Earth is to be cut off from our own humanity because the perceiver and the perceived are made of the same stuff.

So imagine that you’re sitting outside, watching your cat stalk a lizard climbing a sunflower as a blue jay heckles from a nearby tree. Where is all this happening? Inside your mind? There’s a reliable solidity to this tableau, no matter what Descartes says. Or is it happening “out there,” with no participation from you, the observer? Abram points to another place, what he and other philosophers call the life-world, the world we don’t pay much attention to: the one where the kitchen radio is on and the mail is being delivered and the dogs are sniffing something foul and widgets are being made. This is a collective rather than private space, ever shifting and open-ended and containing the unceasing activity of its innumerable inhabitants. The point of entry into this life-world is the sentient body of each inhabitant. When I watch the cat-drama, perception doesn’t happen just in me or just in the participants; rather, it occurs in the crucible of this communal space, belonging to it and not its individual participants. In this view, the air is no longer empty but bursting with relationship. Nor does perception occur without the literal ground we stand on, which from its depths shapes the life-world in which we dwell. When we elevate ourselves into some objective realm of fact, we’re unable to participate in or even hear the ongoing conversations with the created world that ensure our own full humanity.

Back to my unsteady rock, on which I now place a small gong. Knowing even less about gong design than I do about philosophy, I imagine it looking something like an atom, its dense nuclear heart the place the clapper hits, its reverberations spreading outward, gaining power. I put it on the rock to remind myself of one of the images that first drew me to take seriously the possibility of a Christian life. In A Testament of Devotion Thomas R. Kelly, a mid-twentieth-century Quaker mystic, writes of his own faith journey not as an ascent toward belief but as a descent into the Light:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profound level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings…. Between the two levels is fruitful interplay, but ever the accent must be on the deeper level, where the soul ever dwells in the presence of the Holy One. For the religious man [sic] is bringing all affairs of the first level down into the Light….

Kelly does not leave the Earth behind in his God-ordered life but digs deeper into it, perhaps alluding to the literal fire that burns at its center. Wikipedia tells me that the Earth’s hyper-hot inner core, which was liquid for its first couple of billion of years, has been solid for the second couple of billion, although it is surrounded by the turbulent viscosity of the equally hot outer core. When I say—or preferably sing—the creed, I imagine voices sinking into the light beneath the Earth’s skin, mingling with the wild subsonic frequencies sounding at the core, and then reverberating back into our haunted air and beyond, audible to those listening for them.

So I believe. And when I say “I” I also must say we since “I” can’t be entirely separated from the Body extending through time and space that says it. We believe in the disagreeing fellowship around the necessary salamander, whose name, Eurycea naufragia, means “remnant,” and thus sneaks a prophetic note into the conversation. We believe in God’s love for creation, so profound that the Body of God can never be disengaged from it. We believe that when humanity separates itself from the Body of God, it ceases to be fully human and commits atrocities both willfully and ignorantly. We believe in the gravity of all created things, whose resonance pulls them down toward the singing Light and which carries its cadences back to the surface.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to get across that creek, what with trying not to step on salamanders, knock over gongs, and such.

What we’re reading
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Martin: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

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5 Responses to The unsteady rock: Descartes, salamanders, and the Nicene Creed

  1. Joybells says:

    I am in awe. Insert amazed speechlessness here ->[

    ] to infinity and beyond.

  2. Stephen Kinney says:

    Heather resonates pitch perfect and I believe, and surely WE know, that the Kingdom of God dwells BETWEEN us.

  3. Tom Mason says:

    My head, heart, and soul are reeling; c’est magnifique.

  4. Claire Colombo says:

    Perfect. Thank you, Heather.

  5. Caron Martinez says:

    I do not so much read this now, as it sinks into my skin and soul like water. Heather has gone on now to new spaces, filled with Light and Being, and we are here in this space with our sense of her. My own beloved mother, a spiritual inspiration, a fellow questioner, a best friend, died this week last year, lives still so close to my consciousness, and so my heart is especially vulnerable and open to Heather’s thoughts here. I am operating, consciously and not, on so many of Kelly’s levels—of communication, of song, of despair, of connection. On these levels, in these realities with blurred and overlapping lines, I find comfort.

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