Moore's Nativity

David Cowles

Nov 30, 2022

“No need to study theology at university… (or) go to Sunday school. It’s all right there in front of us…and Henry Moore helps us see it: Christianity!”

If you want to understand what’s special about the Christian world view, jet 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 nonetheless delivered a statement of Christian theology every bit as powerful and unambiguous as the foundational Nicene Creed.

 

In Moore’s work, mother and child emerge together from an undifferentiated block of marble. It is the emergence of the child who reveals the mother, and it is the emergence of the mother who reveals the child.

 

Neither emerges from the block untethered, solo, without the other. No mother, no child, no child, no mother. The Incarnation is a ‘joint effort’ involving both the human and the divine.

 

Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 - 55) assumes a critical role in Moore’s concept of Nativity. Mother and Child is not your everyday ‘Madonna of the Oxen and the Sheep’. Moore’s marble presents the virgin birth of the Son of God as a violent process in which the pure potentiality of the undifferentiated mass unwinds, albeit stubbornly, to reveal the form hidden within. 

 

Implicit in Moore’s version of the Nativity celebrates the interdependence of the celestial and the terrestrial, the divine and the human, the transcendent and the immanent.

 

Only God, who is Courage per se, would dare to create a truly independent universe, guided by its own ‘free will’ - a universe with a ‘mind of its own’.

With the Incarnation, God puts himself in play to an extent not seen before, even in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally ascribed to Moses).

 

The parents among us know how difficult it can be to give our children the autonomy they need to grow. Not so God: Fiat lux! There…it’s done! We’re emancipated…and we didn’t even have to go to court, much less fight a civil war, to get there.

 

Nor did God have any second thoughts about what he’d done: “He saw that it was good.” The Book of Job makes it clear that God regretted nothing in his creation, not even Behemoth and Leviathan, the mythical monsters of the Old Testament.

 

Nor did it take long for God to reap the harvest of his ‘naïve’ generosity. Lucifer rebelled against him ‘right out of the chute’ and ‘six days later,’ Adam followed suit. 

 

God made the world, but we make our own beds in that world, and for the most part at least, God lets us lie in those beds, undisturbed. God’s game plan lets us suffer the consequences of our actions (or inaction). That’s the price we pay for freedom.

 

In physics, we speak of efficient causation: one billiard ball strikes another, causing the second ball to move in a particular direction with a particular velocity. In metaphysics, we speak of final causation: Amy studied hard so that she would pass the test. In theology, we speak of another type of causation, causa sui (self-causation): God is presumed to be the cause of his own being.

 

But in ontology, on the other hand, we speak of mutual causation, aka ‘bootstrapping’, so evident in Moore’s sculpture. But our modern, Indo-European languages lack the vocabulary and, especially, the syntax needed to facilitate such a conversation.

 

Triune God functions like the three legs of a tripod, working together to ensure the stability of the platform. Vertical ‘transcendence’ supports horizontal ‘immanence’ and vice versa.

 

This is precisely the bee that got into Nietzsche’s bonnet: for him, there is nothing other than the whole (the so-called ‘platform’): nothing outside the whole, nothing beyond the whole and no hierarchy within the whole. Nietzsche was a true ‘ontological democrat’. His world was really and truly flat.  

 

This tripod model supports earlier ontological formulations as well: Aletheia supports Doxa (Parmenides), Noumena supports Phenomena (Kant), etc.

 

Earlier versions of today’s Indo-European languages often included a true ‘second person’ (pronouns) and a true ‘middle voice’ (verbs). A true second-person pronoun, Martin Buber’s “Du” for example, suggests intimate mutuality. This is the syntax of love. There is no subjectivity or objectivity, only reciprocity. This is the relationship between mother and child that Moore captures. 

 

Diagramming a sentence that includes true second-person pronouns and a middle voice verb is challenging.  Second person, middle voice relationships cannot be represented using two arrows pointing in opposite directions. A proper diagram in the context of Christian syntax would consist of a single arrow with two heads, pointing in opposite directions, suggesting that the relationship itself that has ontological priority over the related entities.

 

“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 mutual modification. There is no modifier, no modified, just mutual modification. Lovers are always ‘second persons’, and the process of love itself is ‘middle voice’.

 

Christianity, as I understand it, is entirely concerned with middle voice relationships: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is the two-headed arrow pointing simultaneously toward self (you) and other (your neighbor).

 

The second person and the middle voice need to be at the foundation of any language capable of carrying the Christian message. In the context of Christian theology, the first and third persons and the active/passive voices are ‘degenerate’ cases.

 

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; there is no neighbor without lover.

 

Lover and neighbor are second-person subjects (co-subjects: du-du) of middle voice, verbs. 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 favor in our era is that Christianity’s second person/middle voice ontology cannot be adequately expressed in any contemporary Indo-European language.

 

It’s easy to see the world in subject/object, active/passive terms. This is the syntax of production, construction, manufacture, etc. We have turned our wise and expressive ancient languages into tools to help us organize collective action, develop and deploy technology, and erect structures (“Tower of Babel”).

 

Our language has lost its ability to talk about ultimate things in a way that resonates with our deepest experiences. We have surrendered the ‘love franchise’ to Hallmark, and so, we turn now to painting, sculpture, and musical composition to express our spiritual intuitions. Henry Moore’s Mother and Child does just that!

 

Moore represents Mary in her “Mother of God” avatar. We have heard this epithet so often that we may fail to grasp the incredible import of these simple words: Mother of God! (Mater Dei in Latin.)

 

If God is the “maker of…all things visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed), 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 also 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 and, in my opinion at least, it is not how the world works.

 

In the Christian-world view, God encompasses spacetime. Eternal, God is both the origin of all that will ever be (“Alpha”) and the summation of all that will ever have been (“Omega”). But even more astoundingly, God is also an element, a quantum, in the world itself: W ɛ G ɛ W.

 

God, who made the world, is also ‘made’ by the world via Mary. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God is incarnate in spacetime, the historical universe. He enters the world between the Alpha and the Omega…even though he already includes both the Alpha and the Omega.

 

In Christian topology, it is just as true to say that the part (Christ) contains the whole as it is to say that the whole contains the part (Jesus). Metaphorically, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed (the smallest of all seeds known at that time); historically, Jesus enters the world as a fertilized cell, an embryo, a fetus, a baby, the poor child of dispossessed parents.

 

At the time of his birth, Jesus was literally homeless, a refugee, 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 everything that is.

 

Mary’s ‘Mother of God’ epithet beautifully exemplifies the cosmic process of mutual reck. It is nothing less than this that Henry Moore captures. One good glacé, 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 us…and Henry Moore helps us see it: Christianity!

 

 

Image: Sculpture by Henry Moore (LH 851, St. Paul's Cathedral, London)


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

Have a comment about this ATM essay Join the conversation, and share your thoughts today..