There is a deep instinct in most people’s being that they are more connected to the earth, to nature, to other humans, to their ancestors, to animals, etc., than they realise. Protestant Christianity, especially filtered through the Enlightenment paradigm (that is to say, then, most of protestant Christianity), has tried to separate ourselves out as individuals, and has worked hard to strengthen the individualist sense of ourselves, for reasons particularly to do with individual salvation and responsibility. Whilst this is not a heresy, it is a half-truth – i.e. it is precisely half the truth. The communal, the inter-responsible, the collaborative, the “being built into a temple” – this is the other half. Because of our fundamental western Enlightenment stance on life (the post-modern obsession with identity is just another example of western individualism), we have not developed the language of how to think of ourselves as linked across time, across space, with a peaceable understanding of ourselves as part of nature. Some of the post-human movement in philosophy is starting to address these questions. The idea of rhizomes, of a deep subterranean connection between people, has a lot of airtime in that post-human debate and literature, and it is important to listen to. The work of Rosi Braidotti in Utrecht is particularly significant in this field. Christians need to listen to and engage with posthumanist thinkers.
Wendell Berry, whilst remaining firmly on the protestant side of things, in that he sees God and his creation as separate, nevertheless expresses the problem with traditional Christianity brilliantly in two essays: God and Country in the book What are People For (1990), and Christianity and the Survival of Creation in the book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993). Talking of this relationship between faith and land, Berry says:
It is fascinating practically because we are unrelentingly required to honor in all things the relation between the world and its Maker, and because that requirement implies another, equally unrelenting, that we ourselves, as makers, should always honor that greater making; we are required, that is, to study the ways of working well, and those ways are endlessly fascinating.(from God and Country, p.95)
In Berry’s work there is frequently a strong move towards the presence of God in all creation (which bothers some evangelicals as they see it as too animist) as well as (for instance in a lot of his poetry and in the closing chapters of Remembering) a strong awareness of the presence of our ancestors and their intense association with the land. None of this strikes me as unbiblical, because the Old Testament is a far more agrarian book than we give it credit for (and which Ellen Davis has written about wonderfully and in great detail in her Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (2008))
I was thinking about all this stuff because it is part of what I think about a lot anyway, but also because on Tuesday evening there was another presentation in the Cambridge Philosophy Seminars series, co-hosted with the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, this time by Carl Mika, from the University of Waikato, on Māori perspectives on education and the interconnection of things in the world. Thanks to my friend Joan Walton who has an interest in epistemologies of interconnectedness, I went along to this with a great deal of interest, all of which was amply repaid.
Carl began by explaining the formalities of Māori personal introductions, the tribal and sub-tribal loyalties that govern both the present and the past (ancestry that feeds and sustains the present and the future), situating himself in a culture in a way that we rarely do. Māori make up 16.5% of New Zealand’s population, and are organized traditionally into tribal, sub-tribal and family groupings, with acknowledgement of ancestors being fundamental to thought and existence, as they have given to and made possible current and future generations. A perspective on education cannot be divorced from a Māori worldview and language understanding. One of the main problems Carl addressed in the talk was that Māori and English philosophic concepts are nearly untranslatable in each other’s languages.
LAND & PEOPLE: For the Māori, ownership, particularly of land, is a foreign concept. Because land was an ancestor to the people as well, it was hugely important, and was a source of enormous identity conflict when the Crown policy of fragmentation of land during colonisation both conferred ownership rights over the land, enabling it to be bought and sold, and removed the access of the Māori to the land. This is reflected in a western concept of education, where there was a formalisation of boundaries between disciplines rather than the kind of interdisciplinary thought that Māori traditionally had. This was summarised in the concept of tangata whenua – the person as the earth and the earth is the person. Indigenous people are of (and from) the land: no division between the land and the human self exists in traditional Māori thought. The word whenua also means placenta and gives rise to the concept of a nourishing mother earth sustaining the people who live on it.
INTERCONNECTEDNESS: This is best seen from a western perspective in the idea of a holism where things are one. This is intriguing to philosophy, and Māori scholars see this as leading to an interconnectedness of all things. Part of this is the concept of life-force, which all things, human and non-human possess (this is where the animistic aspect of the culture comes into play). Māori philosophy has vast tracts of genealogy, both human and non-human, with everything possessing a life force. How this interconnection is viewed is in one of two ways. Either you have an interconnection between particular things that somehow remain separate (i.e. the interconnection is in the relationship, the space between discrete things) or you see all things as one and you don’t need the interconnecting force because the unity dispenses with it. The former is favoured in current scholarship, but both are possible in Māori thought. The latter is particularly challenging, particularly in a colonised context, because it challenges power by unifying oppressor and oppressed. And of course, with the importance of genealogy and ancestry, it is important to remember that the connectedness includes not just tangible things, but also ancestors.
This interconnection we can see not just as a theoretical concept, but as something political, something carried out. You do find in Māori contexts that the interconnection is acknowledged mainly through the language. Formal Māori settings acknowledge the interconnection in the language without actually articulating the concept of interconnectedness embodied in it. It is richly implied and embedded in the language used.
However, that sense is being slowly lost: there is a strong delineation between the “ceremonial era” of Māori culture and the present day. Now interconnection has to be articulated, lest it stay in the ceremonial era, and all the culture is left with is the fragmentation due to colonisation.
MYSTERY & DARKNESS: Part of the interconnectedness is the mystery and sense that we can never know everything. Carl maintained that mystery has been extinguished through colonisation. The researcher and teacher Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal indicates you can talk about one aspect of the world, but it is the interplay and the connections that are inherent in that, that is amazing to the sight. When Māori talk about “seeing” they are thinking of other worlds and dimensions that cannot be perceived with the senses but which nevertheless constitute our experience. This is important to know, because it represents an important divergence from established western thought. This is often couched in the thought “we do not know the full extent of something, there are aspects beyond our knowledge as equally important as the things as what we see.” Shades here of Wendell Berry’s Way of Ignorance.
And as Royal points out, darkness is also important in the mystery of the world. This is often overlooked in our struggles to be rightly logical, to see an Enlightenment progression from darkness (of ignorance and fear) to light (where true knowledge and understanding dwell). The way that Māori engage with this interconnectedness is seen perhaps most obviously in the struggle to engage rightly with the land, with the environment. A number of solutions have arisen from Māori thought that might offer themselves to the crisis of the environment.
WELLNESS: Wellness is also a fundamental – and fundamentally different from its western perception – quantity in Māori life. It relies entirely on the interconnection of physicality, family, spirituality and emotion (see Mason Durie’s work on Māori health promotion). This interconnectedness also informs philosophical wellness – how to apprehend the world and make sense of it. This philosophical thinking is not free from the idea of wellness. If we cannot think of the world as interconnected, then that has implications for our wellbeing. This then does not become a conceptual or philosophical quandary, but something that impacts on the whole wellbeing of groups of people. This is a widely understood concept among indigenous peoples the world over. How we apprehend the world and how we order it and think of it, it has big implications for spiritual wellbeing. It is also a very strong biblical theme, though as western Christians, busy compartmentalising our lives, we don’t usually see it as such.
Ethics committees don’t really touch on this, but how we interact through thought with objects is also taken to be important in Māori life. We have to bring things into their interconnectedness with each other, protecting the world’s integrity. Māori stories tell about certain characters that engaged with the earth and the created order. Reading them, you’d be aware that they found it very important to engage with phenomena in the environment very respectfully.
INTERCONNECTION & EDUCATION
So where does this interconnection come from, and how does it frame education? Carl spoke of the “entities that conferred interconnection.” He spoke about 5 of these:
Kore/korekore and pouriuri convey a vulnerability. They together inscribe a sense of uncertainty and humility toward the so-called external world. Kore gives rise to the first state of creation. Because the latter is set forth as a genealogy, it sometimes feels as though kore/pouriuri have been left behind, but they are still there, informing Māori life and thought. They continue to influence and impact on the human condition. Pouriuri is becoming increasingly important in scholarship with respect to creative practice, and with artists as well. It indicates a veiled uncertainty about things in the world, a certain low level of vibration going on creating a gloom in which one operates.
Marama is the most compelling of the entities as it is the stage we are in now. Resembling the Enlightenment discourse, it enables us fully to understand everything that has come about. Emerging scholarship of kore/korekore has led to a critique on the emphasis on light, on marama. The focus on marama means we can’t focus on our uncertainty, where a lot of learning takes place.
Papatuanuku signifies entities beyond physicality. It is an important word – papa is both rock and a conceptual foundation, something that nourishes both thought and life. Ranginui is very difficult to translate into English, as English doesn’t have the same concepts. We end up describe things but without the depth of meaning that ranganui carries. Rangi can be a register in which one talks. We tend to use the academic register, but the register you use is as important in how you want to communicate and the audience you are addressing.
UNCERTAINTY & LANGUAGE
The way that this frames education is around the areas of uncertainty and language. Language is a particular problem. In the western tradition, language is subject to the overriding supremacy of human thought. Language means that humanity is the ultimate arbiter of expression. Māori on the other hand assumed that the earth and all that is in it had a language before humans arrived. The way that the west uses language divides up things in the world between what is important and what is not important for human beings. This does not sit well with Māori thought at all. Māori needs – and has – language that enables them to express the identity of something in its constitution in the world. We in the west do not think that, never mind need a word for it. We tend to see things as singular and discrete, and our language describes precisely that. Translating that into Māori alters fundamentally the relationship of that thing to other things, to its interconnectedness and constitution in the world.
Regarding uncertainty, we’re taught from a young age to order things so as to make a clear argument – this doesn’t sit well with Māori thought either. How do we drive toward educational excellence? How do we orient toward reconnection in order to do that, articulating the world so we can keep the world together, rather than constantly classifying and separating? Some scholarship is trying to do that now. But then we have also to ask, how can we articulate a method that destabilises our academic conventions, which are all geared around certainty, proof, discreteness, definition, “clarity”? This might reflect the kore, the vulnerability that we need when being humble about our work and the claims we make in scholarship. We can find ways to destabilise our work while we are working, for instance by mocking ourselves as we go along, not taking ourselves too seriously. Another way is to signal or shade that you dislike certain terms, and critique them through metaphor or humour, depriving them of their ostentation or portentousness, or again, not to engage logically but use metaphor or emotion to refer to an idea rather than carrying it on logically in the western fashion.
This has provoked a lot more thinking in the epistemological sphere. I am at present trying to construct an epistemology that allows for revelation as a source of knowledge and understanding: and if it allows for revelation, than it must also allow for uncertainty. And whilst my theological and spiritual background are far more “orthodox” (in a Christian sense) than the spiritual world of the Maori, I am grateful to have learnt from Carl, because he elucidates some thinking that is reflected in the Old Testament but which never arrived in the evangelical theologies I was raised in.