Wikipedia tells me that this picture, was taken by Bill Anders in 1968. But of course he took it with a camera through the windows of a spaceship. I mean that the picture was not just Bill’s picture but was the product of a collective effort. It is copyright to NASA not to Bill. Now we have robot craft taking pictures of the Earth from space, pictures of the surface of Mars and even moving pictures on the Internet of the state of the roads near you so that you can plan your journey without getting out of bed. Bill only saw the Earth from space with the aid of mediating technology. Mediating technology enables us all to see many things. We do not need to be physically present in order to really see the red rocks of Mars or the dust clouds of the centre of the galaxy or, indeed, the traffic on nearby roads.
When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon I was 9 years old visiting relatives in Africa, camping with them and others in a large game reserve. There was a fire in the middle of the campsite. The moon was bright. The camp-site was fringed with trees and behind them a darkness from which came animal noises, mostly monkeys calling to each other. Around the fire I noticed a certain excitement and people pointing at the moon. An adult explained to me that men were walking on the moon. I was amazed. The people around the fire were of different genders and from different ethnic groups. None were American. Their excitement was not about an achievement by NASA or by the USA, but about something that, at that moment at least, everyone seemed to share. The feeling that we, the human race as a whole, had stepped outside of our home planet and looked back at ourselves. Whenever I see a picture of the Earth from space I get an echo of that feeling. The feeling that this is not just about an individual seeing something but it is more of a collective kind of seeing. Something that ‘we’ see, not just ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘him’ or ‘her’ but all of us.
An apple in an apple tree
Colour first appeared when we were in trees looking for fruit to eat. Being able to distinguish the fruit from the leaves and branches around it had an evolutionary advantage. The few mutant apes who could see in colour therefore had more babies that those who could only see black and white. Whenever I look at brightly coloured fruit in a tree I recall what I have learnt about the history of colour perception and I feel a part of something much bigger than myself. I realise that my vision is not just personal but collective, connecting me to a long line of ancestors all the way back to the original apes who, for the first time, climbing through the trees, were able to see fruit coloured red or orange or yellow, standing out from the leaves.
What is a 'dialogic' self?
When we speak within a dialogue we have to use words already spoken and shaped by others, words with a history and meaning that we cannot control. Paradoxically, when we affirm our unique identity as a voice within a dialogue, when we say ‘I’, we are also affirming the dialogic space within which we speak and without which we would not be able to speak. We are affirming a shared history and culture.
In a dialogue identity as ‘I’ and identity as ‘we’ are intermingled. When I listen to you and respond out of that listening and you listen back then, even if there was no sense of ‘we’ there in the first place a sense of ‘we’ is brought into being.
So why 'Christmas'?
Christ is famous for claiming to be God, a claim that got him executed. But what does this mean? ‘I am in the father and the father is in me’ (John 14:11) he reportedly said but there is still clearly some distinction to be made between him and God at times because he also said he did not teach on his own authority but on that of God (John 7:16) and he asked people not to call him good since there is only one who is good (Luke 18:19). In a parable much quoted at Christmas he says: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25: 35-40). He added that ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ So is Christ here claiming to be everyone? Not so much ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ as ‘I am in everyone and everyone is in me’?
Yes I think that he is claiming that. And not only everyone but also everything. After all if the people did not sing out then the stones themselves would sing (Luke 19:40). For me this interpretation also comes out clearly when he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:43-48). It is our enemies that define the limits of ourselves. Our enemies are the people outside of the dialogue. Love is the experience of unity across an apparent gap of difference. Jesus’s call to love your enemies is therefore also a call to refuse to recognise any limits to the dialogic space and so any limits to the self.
Self can be limited by our socially conditioned imaginations to being all about my body or your body, my tribe or your tribe. These different ways in which we are taught to imagine the self have consequences. Jesus was offering us a different understanding of self identity, one which could, he claimed, ‘set us free’. It is not so much a self-identity as a dying to the self in order to be re-born as everyone and everything. ("Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”). Maybe there are no separate selves at all and we are all, each one of us, just a temporary aspect of everything engaged in a dance of perspectives, ‘now inside’, ‘now outside’. This is perhaps to take the experience of a dialogic self, a self that identifies with the dialogue as much as with its own voice within the dialogue, and expand this experience to the whole of life. According to this view heaven is not elsewhere but here and now on earth if we allow ourselves to participate fully and freely in something bigger than our various bounded images of the self, for ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:20-21).