OWL AND PUSSYCAT written by David Cowles

No, our title does not refer to a pub in London…though if it did, I would certainly be having a pint there. Rather it refers to a poem (The Owl and the Pussy-cat) written by nineteenth century poet, Edmund Lear, a man more famous in nursery schools than in universities.

Edmund Lear is identified as an author of “nonsense” poems and stories, a charge he readily accepts. How could he not? His collected works include such titles as Nonsense Songs & Stories and The Book of Nonsense.

Most critics have been content to accept Lear’s self-identification at face value. But what if there is something more going on here?
Consider the case of St. Paul. In his First Letter to Corinthians, he writes:

“The message of the cross is foolishness…It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

But he also writes, “Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature…we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”

Is it possible that something similar could be going on in the case of Edward Lear? Could there be wisdom ‘hidden’ in his apparent nonsense. And if so, what deeper meaning might lie beneath the surface of his work?

Let’s take a closer look at The Owl and the Pussy-cat, by far Lear’s most famous work. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety:

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, they took some honey, and plenty of money wrapped up in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above and sang to a small guitar, “O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, what a beautiful Pussy you are, you are, you are! What a beautiful Pussy you are!

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl! How charmingly sweet you sing! Oh let us be married, too long we have tarried: But what shall we do for a ring?”

 They sailed away for a year and a day to the land where the Bong-tree grows, and there in the wood, a Piggy-wig stood, with a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose, with a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.” So they took it away, and were married next day by the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon; and hand in hand on the edge of the sand, they danced in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon.

No prosecutor worth his salt would have a moment’s difficulty making a prime facie case for nonsense here. The defense on the other hand, contending that there is method in this madness, certainly has its work cut out for it. But let’s give it a go!

Our argument rests on the very first line…and on the title itself. An owl and a pussy-cat, indeed! Tales of animosity between birds and cats permeate all of literature right down to Sylvester and Tweety. The notion that an owl and a pussy-cat could peacefully co-exist, much less fall in love, seems absurd. Yet it is the premise of this poem.

Oddly though, this juxtaposition is reminiscent of another story told 2500 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah:

“Then the wolf will be the guest of the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.”

Isaiah’s imagery introduces the Messiah, and with the Messiah, the eschaton, Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. Is Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat also an eschatological poem and if so is Lear’s vision of the eschaton the same as Isaiah’s?

To answer these questions we need to look more deeply into Lear’s poem; after all, owl and pussy-cat could have been chosen precisely for the absurdity of the image. If we believe that a deeper wisdom may be hidden beneath the apparent nonsense, we still have a long way to go to make our case.

There are in all 10 eschatological elements in this poem. The first, of course, is the choice of heroes (see above). Beyond that…

Wisdom: Out of all the animals Lear could have picked, owls and cats are arguably the two most commonly associated with wisdom (“wise old owl”, the Sphinx, etc.). In Isaiah and in Paul, wisdom is a crucial element of the eschatological imagery.

Isaiah writes of the Messiah, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding…” And of the eschaton he writes, “…The earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.”

Paul is speaking of the same Messiah when he writes, “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption.”

The choice of an owl and a pussy-cat as the heroes of this adventure takes on a second level of significance. Not only does their voyage represent the reconciliation of all conflict but it also represents the triumph of universal wisdom that must accompany the eschaton.

Honey: For food on the trip, the owl and the pussy-cat choose honey, something that neither species eats. In fact, both owls and cats are carnivorous predators; why would they take honey and only honey on their voyage? Again, we turn to Isaiah: “…The lion shall eat hay like the ox.” A change of diet can indicate a change of character.

But there is yet another way to read this. Just as owls and cats are archetypes of conflict and just as owls and cats are archetypes of wisdom, so honey is the archetypical spiritual food (“nectar of the gods”). In his reading then, the ‘honey’ is not a dietary item at all.

Love: The love that the owl and the pussy-cat express for one another has an ecstatic quality about it and we know that ecstatic physical love is often a placeholder for spiritual fervor. Consider Solomon’s Song of Songs in Old Testament wisdom literature:

“Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth for your love is better than wine…My lover belongs to me and I to him; he feeds among the lilies…How beautiful you are my friend, how beautiful you are! Your eyes are like doves behind your veil…How beautiful you are, how fair, my love, daughter of delights! Your very form resembles a date-palm, and your breasts, clusters.”

This same connection between ecstatic love and spirituality is found in other traditions as well, most notably that of the Sufis.

(For more on Sufism, read Mary Poppins Sufi Master in this collection of essays.)

Marriage: Pussy says, “O let us be married, too long we have tarried.” In Alfred North Whitehead’s eschatology, the spatiotemporal world is full of conflicts…conflicts that are gradually resolved into contracts and ultimately into harmony. That universal harmonization is the Kingdom of Heaven, the eschaton.

According to this interpretation, ‘tarrying’ symbolizes the period of conflict and ‘marriage’ symbolizes that resolution of that conflict into eternal harmony.

Voyage: And what of the voyage itself? First, it is for ‘a year and a day’, a specific quantity that often symbolizes infinity. And its destination? “The land where the Bong-tree grows.” But there’s just one problem: there’s no such thing as a Bong-tree…and so there is no such land either, at least not in the realm of our experience.

So we seem to be looking at an endless voyage to nowhere. And yet, our voyagers do arrive at their destination. So we may instead be looking at a timeless voyage to somewhere outside the spatiotemporal realm, some place like the Kingdom of Heaven for instance.

Ring: Now attention turns to the matter of the ring. Acquiring the ring was perhaps the purpose of the journey all along (“But what shall we do for a ring?”). But if an ordinary ring is all they wanted, why didn’t they just buy one? After all, they had “plenty of money”. Perhaps the ring they wanted was not available in the spatiotemporal world but only in “the land where the Bong-tree grows”.

In the end, they found their ring of choice on the end of a pig’s nose and they bought it for a mere shilling. What was so special about that ring that it was worth a voyage of a year and a day but cost only a shilling?

Could it be that the ring was actually a Mobius strip, a one sided, 2 dimensional object? A Mobius strip is ‘non-orientable’, a topology in which there is no fixed beginning or end and no fixed orientation. Many eschatological cosmologies, for example Dante’s in the Divine Comedy, include a non-orientable topology.

A Mobius strip has the unique property that allows you to travel around it continuously, always coming back to the starting point; however, each time you return to the starting point, your orientation is reversed.

In the Divine Comedy, Satan appears upside down once Dante begins the trek through Purgatory to Paradise. In St. Paul and perhaps in Edward Lear, it is foolishness/nonsense and wisdom that are opposite orientations.

Spoon: And this piece of speculation brings us to the famous “runcible spoon”. At one time, it was thought that Lear used the word ‘runcible’ solely for its sound quality; it was assumed that he intended it to have no denotative content. But later scholarship has questioned this assumption and has proposed a number of alternative possibilities.

The most widely accepted possibility holds that a runcible spoon is in fact a slotted spoon. If so, that would make it a very poor eating utensil indeed. But that might have been Lear’s point exactly.

Lear uses the word ‘runcible’ elsewhere in his writing, applying it whimsically to a cat and a goose but less whimsically to a wall. What could a spoon and a wall possibly have in common? They could be other non-orientable objects, objects containing a Mobius strip, but this time in three dimensions.

Three dimensional objects that contain a Mobius strip are called ‘Klein Bottles’. In our world of 3 spatial dimensions, Klein Bottles are not physically realizable, but if they were, they could hold no liquid. Why? Because like all non-orientable objects, they are one sided and therefore have no inside or outside.

In this admittedly speculative interpretation, the ‘runcible spoon’ is the three dimensional correlate of the Piggy-wig’s two dimensional ring. It suggests that there is a consistently non-orientable topology in the eschatological kingdom, “the land where the Bong-tree grows”.

Despite the extreme difficulty of eating with a non-orientable utensil, our heroes seem well satisfied with their wedding feast, perhaps another example of ‘spiritual food’.

Dance: And so we come to the final dance: “hand in hand…on the edge of the sand…by the light of the moon”. What a climax! A dance of Sufi dervishes! What better metaphor than dance to symbolize the resolution of all conflict into universal harmony and what better place to dance than at the ‘edge’ of spacetime (the point where spacetime disappears). One cannot help but be reminded of Sandymount Strand in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Moon: And the final dance is by the light of the moon. This takes us back to a much earlier line, at the very outset of the journey, when “the Owl looked up to the stars above”. There is a consistent astronomical element in this poem and elsewhere in eschatological literature.

Hamlet’s Mill (Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend), for example, tracks connections between astronomy and eschatology across multiple cultures and through numerous works of literature.

While some of the arguments above might not appeal to every reader, there can be little doubt that The Owl and the Pussy-cat embodies profound eschatological content. But whether that content was intentional, whether Lear had that message in mind when we wrote the poem, is another matter entirely.

It is our position in this collection of essays that the artist’s intentions are of merely historical significance. A work of art exists independent of the intention of its creator. That does not in any way demean the role of the artist, however. The artist is a lightning rod, channeling the rhythms of the cosmos into a medium (painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, etc…). To possess the sensitivity to capture those rhythms and the integrity to transcribe them faithfully into the medium is a great gift and a great achievement. By comparison, mere intentionality pales and is entirely beside the point.

CORINTHIANS written by David Cowles

In the Bible’s New Testament, 14 letters (or epistles) have traditionally been attributed to Paul of Tarsus, St. Paul. The authenticity of some of these letters is in dispute but scholars agree that 7 of them were almost certainly written by Paul himself.

Of these, one of the most important is Paul’s First Letter to Corinthians, often referred to simply as Corinthians, even though there is a second letter from Paul, of somewhat less theological importance, to the church at Corinth.

Corinthians is also one of the earliest books of the New Testament (perhaps written c. 58 AD) so it reflects Christian theology, Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology during a relatively early period in Christianity’s development.

Finally, it is important to note that Paul wrote this letter while he was in Ephesus, a city in Asia Minor that has played a particularly important role in the history of Western philosophy and theology. The great Heraclitus was a member of Ephesian royal family and the Apostle John is thought to have been the Bishop of Ephesus.

(Another essay in this collection, Ephesus, focuses specifically on the important role this city has played in the intellectual history of the West.)

Just before visiting Ephesus, Paul wrote his Letter to Romans from Corinth. While the doctrines advanced in the two letters are certain consistent, Corinthians represents a profound change in tone. While Romans is focused on sin and the salvific power of Christ’s crucifixion, Corinthians focuses more on Christ’s resurrection, the role of the Spirit and the nature of eternal life. Did Paul’s visit to Ephesus enrich his theology?

Like any ordinary letter, Corinthians is a mixed bag. It contains personal greetings, biographical updates, advice, exhortations, and even a bit of old fashioned gossip. But woven into the fabric of this letter, in between the dominant lacunae, lies a complete systematic theology. Nowhere except in the Gospel of John is Christian theology so completely spelled out.

We proclaim Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God…Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption…

Paul begins by contrasting contemporary notions of wisdom with the image of Jesus on the cross.  In the world’s eyes, Christ on the cross is “foolishness”. But Paul and his followers know differently. Christ crucified is precisely the power and the wisdom of God. How so?

The Greek word translated ‘power’ in this passage does not mean ‘might’; it has more the sense of potentiality, being all that you can be. Christ crucified is God ‘being all that he can be’.

Creation is a neat trick but God’s defining ‘power’ is Incarnation, the ability to turn himself inside out (metaphorically speaking), to be a tiny quantum (Jesus) in the history of the universe as well as the eternal summation of that universe. Later we will see that in Paul’s theology God is ultimately “all in all”. ‘Being all in all’ qualifies as ‘being all that you can be’ and Christ crucified is the image of that ‘power’.

And wisdom? Everyone knows there is a big difference between being ‘wise’ and being smart, knowledgeable, talented, clever, etc… The later adjectives each denote attributes but wisdom is something else. It is more of a verb. Wisdom is something you do.

Wisdom is you being aware of the world and of yourself and of yourself in the world and of yourself being aware of the world, all at the same time. When you are wise, you understand the ecology of the moment. You are neither pure subject nor pure object. You are perceiver, perceiver perceived and perceived perceiving.

And God’s wisdom is his ability to perceive himself through Christ. God is the perceiver perceived and the perceived perceiving. That is wisdom and wisdom entails righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Through wisdom, one comes to know what is right (‘righteousness’), one comes to live what is right (‘sanctification’) and ultimately one comes to be what is right (‘redemption’). This is why Solomon, the wisest of men, asked God for one gift only, Wisdom, trusting that all else would follow.

We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory…But as it is written, “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him…”

Wisdom and therefore ultimately redemption are not accidents. They are fundamental to the structure of our world. They permeate time and space…and they transcend it.

This God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God…We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God so that we may understand the things freely given us by God…For “who has known the mind of the Lord so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ…Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

How is it that God can perform the miracle of Incarnation? Or to put it more accurately, how is it that God is the miracle of Incarnation. The Nicene Creed tells us it is “by the Holy Spirit”, and Paul agrees. (Or perhaps we should say that the Council of Nicaea agrees with Paul.)

The Spirit scrutinizes everything. In Romans, the same verb is translated as “searches”. The Spirit searches the depths of God. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father.

But although the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed), the gift of the Spirit is most certainly not limited to the Father and the Son. Paul tells us that the Spirit dwells in each of us. And because we have received the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in us, we have the mind of Christ; and so we too know the depths of God.

And do we dare counsel God? We most certainly do! And we do so whenever we pray, whether formally and intentionally or unintentionally and informally. But to what end?

I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth…we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building…So let no one boast about human beings for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you and you to Christ and Christ to God.

We have a role in this cosmic scheme and it’s not an accidental one. Everything belongs to us and we belong to Christ and Christ to God.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ…whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him…Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own.

We belong to Christ, more than that we are members of Christ, and not just spiritually but bodily. In fact, it is because our bodies are members of Christ that the selfsame Spirit that dwells in Christ dwells in us. Paul’s theology is just as Materialist as anything Karl Marx ever wrote. There is no wimpy bourgeois idealism here!

In fact, Paul’s philosophy might best be described as Christian Materialism and all other materialisms, Scientific Materialism, Historical Materialism, even Dialectical Materialism are embedded in it. How so? Because Christian Materialism is an effort, and in my view a successful effort, to explain how the cosmos works at the most fundamental, and therefore at the most general, level.

Because we are members of Christ, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. In fact, we are integral parts of the cosmic symphony. Everything belongs to us but we in turn belong to everything; we are not alone, we are not our own.

If one loves God, one is known by him…

Because we have received the Spirit, we have the mind of Christ and thereby know the deep things of God. But love is a two way street. Just as the Spirit scrutinizes the deep things of God, so the Spirit scrutinizes us. We know the deep things of God but God knows us as well. The Spirit is reciprocity and mutuality.

(Another essay in this collection, Love…Actually, explores the phenomenon of love and concludes that it is a reciprocal relationship that involves mutual knowledge.)

For us there is one God, the father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.

God, the father, is the source and goal of all that is, including us; but it is through Christ that all things (ourselves included) actually come to be and actually are.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Christianity is a Materialist Theology and nothing makes that point more clearly than Eucharist. Eucharist is not Christ symbolically or metaphorically; it is Christ materially, physically, bodily.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit…But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wished. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body.

We belong to Christ; but we do not just belong, we are members of Christ, and not members as elements of a set are members or as associates in a club are members. We are members of Christ as parts of his body.

Now it is the nature of a body that it has many parts and each of those parts makes a unique contribution to the overall functioning of the body. So each of us has a unique set of gifts and each of us has a unique role to play in the community that it Christ’s body.

Now the body is not a single part but many…God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be?

Christianity is not only Materialist, it is also Pluralist. As Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying, “Universe is plural and at minimum two.” Was he paraphrasing Paul? “If they were all one part, where would the body be?”  The phenomenon of Christ, incarnate, crucified and glorified is a bodily phenomenon and as Paul points out, a body by definition must have multiple members.

There are many parts, yet one body…But God has so constructed the body…that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.

Again, by definition, the body is both one and many. But that’s just the beginning. These parts do not just relate to the body entire; they also relate to (have concern for) one another. They relate not just to the whole but to each and every part. In fact, it is through that relationship, that concern that the body itself is.

The earliest Western philosopher, Anaximander, held precisely this view. He believed that it was as a result of mutual concern (“reck”) among parts that the whole came to be; but he further believed that it was the whole that gave real existence to each of the parts.

20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, shared this view. In his “Philosophy of Organism” each part (‘actual entity’) is its relationship (‘prehension’) to every other part and each such part is ultimately in relation to the whole (‘the consequent nature of God’).

If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body and individually parts of it.

The phenomenon of the Incarnation is repeated in each of us. Earlier we learned that through Incarnation, God is both quantum and totality; now we learn, “So are we!” In one sense, we individual parts of Christ’s body but in another sense each of us is that body.

To use Whitehead’s language, God does not just prehend us into his whole, we prehend God into our own whole.

According to Anaximander, the whole exists because of the parts but the parts in turn exist because of the whole. Every event has three unique ‘moments’ or ‘aspects’…but each of those moments is the event itself.

Likewise, in Trinitarian theology, there are three persons in God but each of those persons is God.

If there is no resurrection of the dead then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching and empty too your faith…if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain…Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

“If the dead are not raised” (i.e. if physical existence is not eternal), then neither we nor Christ are raised. Once again, we share ontological status with Christ, our brother. If one rises, all rise; otherwise, none rise. But since we are members of Christ’s body and indeed Christ’s body itself, if Christ rises we inevitably must rise with him.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ all shall be brought to life, but each one in proper order; Christ the firstfruits; then at this coming, those who belong to Christ…

Christ has been resurrected and so as members of his body we too will be resurrected.

Then comes the end when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…The last enemy to be destroyed is death for he subjected everything under his feet…When everything is subjected to him, then the Son will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

Alfred North Whitehead believed that this was the pivotal line in all scripture. But in another sense, it is merely a restatement of a much earlier idea: “Everything belongs to you and you to Christ and Christ to God.” But in this later version, Paul goes one step further and points out explicitly that God is ultimately ‘all in all’.

This is certainly the climax of Corinthians. But Paul goes on to give us a deeper understanding of his view of resurrection:

What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be but a bare kernel…So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible…It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.

Another pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, posited a realm of “Truth” (Aletheia) and a realm of “Appearance” (Doxa). My understanding of Parmenides is that these two realms are complimentary; only by existing in both realms does anything actually exist.

Paul’s view is similar. Only by living and dying in the spatiotemporal world can we be resurrected in an eternal world. It goes deeper than that: living and dying in the spatiotemporal world (Doxa) is being resurrected in the eternal world (Aletheia).

Resurrection is physical and material but it is not ‘natural’. The resurrected body is different from the natural body.  The natural body, for example, is ‘corruptible’ while the resurrected body is ‘incorruptible’. The resurrected body is ‘spiritual’, not ‘natural’, but none the less physical.

From here on, I will let Paul speak for himself:

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?”…But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.