If you want to understand what’s special about the Christian world view, travel to London and visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Just to the left of the high altar stands one of Henry Moore’s final works, Mother and Child. One of the 20th century’s greatest sculptors and a self-professed non-believer, Moore has delivered a statement of Christian theology every bit as powerful and unambiguous as the Nicene Creed.
In Moore’s work, mother and child emerge together from a single, undifferentiated block of marble. It is the emergence of the child that allows the mother’s form to appear and the emergence of the mother that allows the child’s form to appear. Neither can emerge from the block without the other. No child no mother, no mother no child. Neither pre-exists; they are simultaneous products of a process of mutually causation sometimes referred to a “bootstrapping”.
Moore also makes it clear that this mutual causation is not a matter of passive co-existence. The marble speaks of an almost violent process through which the undifferentiated potentiality of mass unwinds as mother and child come to be.
To explore this process further, walk across the Thames and visit the Tate Modern. Take a look at Naum Gabo’s Stone with a Collar. Gabo, a contemporary of Moore’s, shows us the same process but at a much earlier stage. In Gabo’s work, mass is just beginning to unravel, its ultimate content has not yet begun to take shape.
We are all familiar with Efficient Causation (one billiard ball strikes another causing the second ball to move) and Final Causation (I studied in order to graduate, graduation being studying’s final cause). In theology, we speak of another type of causation, Causa Sui (self-causation), most often in the context of God (who is presumed to be the cause of his own being). But we have no simple, universally recognized term for the notion of Mutual Causation.
Yet Moore’s sculpture expresses this idea clearly and instantaneously. Why can’t we express this vision of reality in verbal language? It turns out we could…once. Earlier versions of some Indo-European languages included true second person pronouns and middle voice verbs.
A true second person pronoun, Martin Buber’s “Du”, suggests a situation of intimate mutuality. It is the syntax of love. There is no subjectivity or objectivity; only mutuality and instantaneous reciprocity. This is the relationship of mother and child in Moore’s sculpture.
Of course, our contemporary languages do sport second person pronouns (“you”) but these forms have lost their distinctive meaning. Our “you” is simply another version of he/she/it. It identifies a particular referent but, unlike the first person pronoun (“I/we”), it says nothing distinctive about the relationship between that referent and the referrer.
Diagramming a relationship in the second person (du-du) would not result in two arrows pointing in opposite directions, suggesting two reciprocating actors. The diagram would consist of a single arrow with two heads pointing in opposite directions, suggesting that it is the relationship itself that has ontologically priority.
“At the foundation is relationship” – Martin Buber, I and Thou.
The middle voice expresses this same reality on the predicate side. A middle voice verb suggests two “subjects” (or you might just as well say two objects) engaged in a continuous process of mutually modification. There is no modifier, no modified, just process. While the subjects of love live in the 2nd person, the process of love lives in the middle voice. Love indeed is the archetypical middle voice activity.
Gabo gives us no hint of what may be emerging from his “stone”. To do so would violate his aesthetic. But if we are to believe Henry Moore, we must assume that Gabo’s emerging forms would also enjoy a 2nd person, middle voice relationship.
The Christian world view is entirely concerned with second person relationships and middle voice processes and it understands cosmos strictly in those terms. The simple commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” exemplifies this. The lover and the loved are one. The lover sees himself in his neighbor. Lover and neighbor form an insoluble dyad. There is no lover without neighbor; it is through the neighbor that the lover emerges. But it is through the lover that the neighbor assumes the role of co-subject (du-du) in a second person, middle voice relationship. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, “they give each other reck” and therefore have being…just like the mother and child in Moore’s masterpiece.
Perhaps the reason that Christianity has fallen out of popular favor as an ontological model is that Christianity’s second person/middle voice ontology cannot be readily expressed in contemporary language. Language and philosophy are intimately related. We have turned our language into a tool to help us organize collective action, develop and deploy technology, and erect structures (think “Tower of Babel”). In the course of this transformation, our language has lost its ability to talk about ultimate things in a way that resonates with our deepest experience.
Perhaps this is why it is more often in paintings, sculptures, musical compositions and poems that we recognize our spiritual intuitions. Gabo, a Russian born sculptor and a leader among artists seeking to found a new aesthetic consistent with the values and perspectives of the Russian Revolution, writes, “I believe art to be the most immediate and most effective of all means of communication between human beings…it is verity itself.”
Let’s explore the theology more deeply. The mother and child theme is a visual expression of Mary’s epithet, “Mother of God”. We have heard this epithet so often that we often fail to grasp the incredible import of these three simple words. Mother of God. If God is “maker of…all things visible and invisible” (as the Nicene Creed tells us), then how could God have a mother? Clearly Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a product of God’s created world (and a rather recent product at that); how could she therefore be God’s mother?
In the language of first and third person pronouns, subjective and objective cases, active and passive voices, efficient and final causes, she could not! But that is not the syntax of Christianity.
In the Christian world view, God stands outside of space and time. Eternal, God is both the origin of all that will ever be (“Alpha”) and summation of all that has ever been (“Omega”). But even more astoundingly, God is also a minimal element, a quanta, in the world itself. Through Incarnation, God enters the space-time continuum, the historical universe, between the Alpha and the Omega…but already containing the Alpha and the Omega within him. In Christian topology, it is just as true to say that the part contains the whole as it is to say that the whole contains the part.
Metaphorically, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed (the smallest of all seeds known to his followers at that time); historically, Jesus enters the world as a baby, the child of poor parents, in the midst of political upheaval. At the time of his birth, and perhaps throughout his early years, he is literally homeless. He is a most unlikely candidate for secular kingship, much less cosmic sovereignty. But just as the mustard seed grows into a tree that shelters all birds, so the baby Jesus “grows” into the parousia which is the ultimate unification of all Being.
In such a world, temporal priority is fundamentally meaningless. Outside of space and time, God and the World are engaged in the process of mutual causation. God supplies the values and the synthetic power; world supplies the concrete content, including extensive relations like space and time.
Therefore, there is no contradiction in the assertion that Mary is both creature of God and mother of God. Indeed, the Mother of God epithet beautifully exemplifies the process of mutual causation and that is the cosmological reality that Henry Moore captures in Mother and Child.
One glace at Mother and Child and you’ve got it. No need to study theology at University; no need to go to Sunday school. It’s all right there in front of you to do with as you choose: Christianity!