God as citizen and the kingdom of Heaven made a Republic - A New Year Meditation

New Year's Day is a moment when we are enabled by our culture to feel that we are standing on a cusp between what we call the old and the new. It is a potentially helpful cultural practice which can enable us both to review our lives and also to envision and plan what might be for us in the future a better way of being in the world - as Mary Oliver puts it, to find a way to mend our lives. (Her poem The Journey appears below but if you want to read it straight away click here.) The Utopian pull into the not-yet is rarely felt as strongly by our secular culture as it is on this day.

But, as some of you will have noticed I said only that this is a "potentially" helpful cultural practice because it can also be played out an unhelpful way not least of all because there also exists for our culture such a thing as nostalgia for the future.

The Greek word "nóstos" means "returning home" and álgos means "pain" or "ache" and we can experience this apparently paradoxical phenomenon of nostalgia for the future because our culture has developed over many centuries a strong and deeply problematic belief that at the back of everything there must exist some discoverable immutable true metaphysical reality out of which everything has come (Alpha) and to which everything will return (Omega). Given this idea it is not surprising that at stressful and chaotic times in our personal and/or corporate lives there arises an ache for a return to this presumed stable, underlying, eternal and immutable truth. And please be very aware that there exist both theistic and atheistic versions of this nostalgia for the future and both are today strongly at play notably in various religious fundamentalisms, nationalisms and also in so-called the "new atheism" and various other scientisms. In the end it matters not whether a person labels their eternal and immutable metaphysical truth blood, soil, God or 'natural' laws but only that such purveyors of nostalgia for the future believe they already know in what its perfection consists and are all too often prepared to act unilaterally and undemocratically upon it.

Anyway, when at this time of year we come to view our personal and corporate lives and see before us the considerable mending that needs to be done, it is not surprising that there arises within us an overwhelming ache for change. But the trouble is that this intense aching for some better way of being in the world so often causes us to heed our culture's shouted bad advice to seek our mending by accepting that there exists, and can be known before-hand, a perfect state of affairs.

It's worth noting that, at the personal level on January 1st, countless oppressive and totalitarian plans for perfection are hatched involving dieting, fitness, reading lists, this and million thats. At more macro levels countless oppressive and totalitarian religious and non-religious political plans are also hatched with similar aims, namely the creation of the pre-imagined more perfect and stable society.

Given this temptation how might it be possible to articulate, right here and now, a vision for a better, fairer and more just future world but which doesn't fall into this same trap - i.e. that of thinking we who envision it already know what the desired outcome is to be like?

Well, I believe one possibility we should explore in our liberal democracies is directly related to what I said in my address given on Christmas Day. I suggested there that the Nativity - the story of the incarnation of God, of God becoming human and dwelling amongst us - can be understood as an attempt to point, not to a perfect individual Divine being who has come into the world in a particular and definitive way imposing a finished conception of perfection on all - but, instead, to a whole new liberating style of being-in-the-world which disclosed an understanding of God/the divine as ongoing, self-emptying, self-giving *event*. It is a story which discloses a conception of God (and, therefore, of hope), not like that which undergirded the gods of old who were merely expressions of totalitarian power, dominion and violence, but as the lived, vulnerable life of loving service in which are blessed and have a voice the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake. It is to this radically new style of being-in-the-world that I find I am trying to point towards when I say of the Christ-child in the crib - 'Look, that is what I mean by God.'

It is with this hopeful but deliberately weak theology in mind (Il pensiero debole) that I would like to consider our Biblical readings both of which have been culturally influential on the ways we imagine how the new will come.

(Click on the links below to read the short passages.)
Revelation 21:1-6
Isaiah 40:1-5

In the case of Revelation its author, John of Patmos, believes that the new and better life and world can be (in fact has been) articulated beforehand and is capable of appearing from on high (which includes the 'high' realms of theory) already fully formed and utterly independent from the old life and world which will, or so John believes, simply have passed away (in either cultural or material relevance). Although he doesn't say this explicitly I think we can take it that for him the old world (paradigm) feels to him as a wilderness because finds it no longer capable of bringing forth and sustaining in him a sense of deep and fulfilling meaning and worth. It is good for nothing and must, therefore, be done away with. Things are so bad, so unfruitful, that he cannot conceive how what he sees as the corrupt material (which includes ideas and stories) of this world could ever be the same material out of which a city of God could be built and so he hopes for an Omega which is, in truth, nothing less than the Alpha that he believes always was and which, more worryingly, he thinks he already knows all about.

On the other hand the prophet Isaiah feels that a new city of God will come about, not already fully formed from outside our world, but only in and through the material of our present and always unfolding world. It is brought into being whenever we are prepared to take our world's available material and then work hard to reshape, re-order and reinterpret it such a way that a new route towards a city of God appropriate to our own age and understanding shows up for us - making the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

Isaiah seems to have understood something that, thanks to Nietzsche and Heidegger et. al., our own contemporary culture has become increasingly aware about, as Gianni Vattimo puts it, that our understanding of the world is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others (and others beside us such as other cultures' (cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).

In other words truth for Isaiah consists in working with the stuff of this world to disclose through collective interpretation a radically open highway along which a weak and vulnerable God will walk with his people (his children and, after Jesus, also his brothers and sisters) are to travel together in unfolding relationship. Such a conversational, dialectic journey is always capable of disclosing new and enlightening possibilities for being and so also new clearings and views that tend towards encouraging democracy rather than demagoguery.

It seems to me highly significant that Isaiah's vision stands at the head of the Gospels and not something like that expressed by John of Patmos.

However, the problem has always to be able to hear within the Christian tradition this quieter kind of call (the still small voice - 1 Kings 19:12) with sufficient force to feel confident in replying, as did Isaiah "Here am I! Send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Alas it remains aware that the louder more demagogic Alpha/Omegaery kinds of Christianity keep shouting their bad advice.

(An aside: It seems to me vital to continue to hold out against this last loud voice (and its new atheistic echo) because the hope found when you read Christianity in the weak, non-metaphysical way I do can finally be discharged and lived fully - a discharge that seems impossible when you keep to a strong, metaphysical understanding of Christianity.)

One person in our contemporary culture who it seems to me has consistently heard this quiet call amidst the shouted bad advice and has been capable of being herself a sounding board so it echoes it back to us in the more everyday language of our contemporary secular, pluralist culture is Mary Oliver. Here is her poem, The Journey (New and Selected Poems Vol. 1):

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Her poem recognises the strength of the weak call which is directed at each individual - for, in a true democracy there can be no mass co-coercion. But this individual call to mend your 'own life' is not the separating, individualistic call of neo-liberal consumerism but a call for us all to stride 'deeper and deeper into the world' and, as I said earlier, to know this world in this deeper way is to be called not into a coercive power-relationship with things and people (who stand apart from us as subjects and objects) but into an ongoing conversational relationship made up of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past and messages from others - including other cultures.

As we, as individuals and as a community standing in the liberal Christian tradition, contemplate at this time of year what we are to do in the coming year I think we can do nothing better than to heed the quiet and blessed still small, weak voice and enter into conversation with the world and each other and, in so doing say 'Hear am I! Send me!'

This is to begin to walk the holy road of democracy which leads to an open and unfolding city of God, both secular and sacred - a city whose creative ways of unfolding in conversation no one can ever fully know - not even God, for in this city God is a citizen like one of us. As we begin to live this way of being in the world we find we are walking towards, not the Kingdom of Heaven but the Republic of Heaven.

Happy New Year citizens.