The theologian Karl Barth suggested that the Bible becomes the Word of God when a text “lives” for us. By which he meant that “Aha!” moment when ordinary words and images become suffused with something more than themselves. I’m not sure how that view sits with other views of the nature of the the authority of the Bible. No doubt many learned tomes have been written about this idea. My purpose here is not to discuss theology but to think about Barth’s insight as it might relate to everyday life.
One minute we are struggling to understand something- a computer program, an idea or concept, or a person. then, suddenly, we see the idea and are bemused that it took us so long to grasp. (I vividly recall trying to understand Melanie Klein’s “positions”. I had spent ages struggling with them and they remained opaque. Then, suddenly, at 3:00 am on a night shift, I was reading her work. And it made sense. It was a Barthian moment when the word “became flesh” . Since that moment I have been a Kleinian!)
As a counsellor one waits a long time for incarnations. Moments of revelation and understanding . Which is as it should be. Counselling is not, mostly, about moments of revelation. It is usually a long , slow process of small areas of understanding fitting together to make a whole. Very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle. One aims to find some kind of structure- like the sky- to frame the picture. With this in place all those puzzling homeless pieces make more sense. That strange shape now becomes part of a hand or a foot which its turn gives shape and meaning to the frame.
The work of the Chicago group of therapists, lead by the late Daniel Stern did much work on mother-infant interactions.They watched as a mother played “pass the smile’ with her baby. The baby will smile or gurgle or play in some fashion The attentive mother almost instantly “returns” the gesture to the baby. And so the game goes on. Stern showed that this game is central to healthy emotional development. Its absence is very damaging to the baby. (See Harlow’s monkeys for more work on this.)
My suggestion is that, in this play, mother and baby are alive to and for each other in the same way that Barth saw biblical texts. The same holds true for good clinical work. The therapist is able to give back to his patient the material they have just presented. And so the game is joined and enjoyed. (This game has also to include smiles, wind, dirty nappies, tantrums etc. All are part of the aliveness of the baby.)
I could end this piece at the point and it would read well enough. But I wanted to take it one stage further and suggest that these ” moments of incarnation” might go beyond clinical work. When I was doing my teacher training one lecturer showed us slides of Cheltenham. But of parts of Cheltenham we never usually saw. A chimney pot. A drain pipe. A gargoyle. His point was to teach us to “see”. It’s an exercise I still try to follow today. Walking up my street or driving to work I try to find something I had not previously noticed. Or to see how something usual was transformed. By snow. Or by sunshine. Or by being seen from a perspective not before noticed. that way the common place can become transformed. It lives for me. I hope Barth would approve!