Epiphany — Walking with the three kings between doubtful maximal belief and total secular humanism

Clouds above the manse before this morning's service
The word "epiphany" means "manifestation" or "striking appearance" and the epiphany story — in the western church that is — is associated with the arrival of the Magi. This became for the early Christian community the first occasion on which "Gentiles" (i.e. those outside their own Jewish circles — remember early "Christianity" was a religious movement within Judaism) — recognised Jesus as the manifestation of the "Messiah", the "chosen one of God". By the fourth century this title had been expanded to include the idea that Jesus was, himself, God, the second person of the Trinity. Of course, it was particularly this later, Trintarian, view from which our own family of churches eventually dissented and earned us, in time, the name "Unitarian".

The coming of this transcendent God (in the form of Jesus) who brings with him help, healing and salvation was, and is, perceived by Christians to be of surpassing importance. But for many of us here today the idea that, a) there actually exists a transcendent being and, b) that this being is going to come from a world beyond to bring us help, healing and salvation is an impossible one to hold. We may, at certain times, wish we could so believe but the combined weight of experience and evidence continually mitigates against such a belief.

Consequently, our skepticism seems to cut us off from the transcendent and thus, from help, healing and salvation that is promised by traditional forms of Christianity.

In an important sense this seems to me to be true and we should not be afraid of admitting it. However, closer inspection of the matter reveals that we need not be cut off from transcendence per se but only one kind of it, one we might call  "vertical transcendence" — one that is dependent on a divine being above and a natural world below.

Jerome A. Stone, however, suggests we are not at all cut off from what he calls "horizontal transcendence" — a this worldly, situational and relative transcendence. (As Ernst Bloch put it in a different, Marxist, context, there remains for us the possibility of a "transcending without transcendence".)

Today, using Stone's basic minimalist liberal religious model of transcendence (found in The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion, SUNY Press, 1992) I want to illustrate how we may interpret the Epiphany story fairly straightforwardly and, not vertically, but horizontally. This can, I think, help give us access to a this-worldly understanding of transcendence which, in turn, opens us up to secular sources of help, healing and salvation that, even if they are not identical with, they are at least analogous to that source which is offered by traditional, monotheistic Christianity.

Stone points out that in all traditional monotheisms there is in play a basic triadic model of transcendence. The apex of the triangle is labeled "God", the bottom left point is labeled "grace" and the bottom right point, "law". A transcendent God is experienced in the world sometimes gracefully — giving to us freely, unexpected, and to some extent, unearned, gifts — and also experienced through the demand of either divine law (for example the Ten Commandments) or through some other kind of divine call or command such as was heard by prophets like Isaiah, Amos and Hosea.

Before moving to Stone's own minimalist, secular version of this triadic model it is important to say something about why there is a need for a minimalist version of this.

Stone points out that there are plenty of people in contemporary religious circles who are prepared to make very bold, maximal assertions about the Divine. We all know that, were we to walk into most other churches, synagogues and mosques in most places in the world, we would very quickly find officially expressed maximal assertions concerning the nature of God, whether he is one or three, about his attributes and general character as either loving and/or judgmental and, whether his definitive and binding revelation to us is in the form of a book or a person — Torah, Qur'an or Christ.

However, for reasons I won't rehearse here, there is in the secular world great skepticism about such bold definitive, maximal assertions concerning the transcendent. Stone feels (and I agree with him) that:

"In between [such bold assertions and great skepticism] there is room for an affirmation of a minimal degree of transcendence. If a strong assertion is hard to defend, then perhaps a more cautious and more restrained model will be  better able to answer the doubts of our age while providing the support and prophetic criticism which the [generally monotheistic] traditions have offered. Perhaps a minimal model of transcendence can provide a genuine alternative to the choice between a doubtful maximal model and total secular humanism. If belief in God is abandoned, we are not, as Nietzsche claimed, that if the absence of God is recognised we would be as if unhooked from our sun, condemned to plunge aimlessly in a meaningless universe"
(The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion p. 10).

Stone acknowledges that such a minimal model — which I'm about to introduce — "may not provide a permanently satisfying standpoint for many people" and that, "[p]erhaps it takes a type of maturity to accept the fact that we see as if in a glass darkly." Yet, for all this, I'm in agreement with Stone when he says that for some of us "who are labouring to recover or keep from losing the sense of the transcendent dimension of life [such a] minimal model may provide at least "a temporary campsite in the ascent of the spiritual mountain" and even, for some of us, "a more permanent, if restrained, way of thinking about the transcendent factors in our life" (ibid. p. 10).

In the light of this Stone places at the apex of the triangle, not the word God (which brings with it too many maximal theologies) but,instead, the more open and fluid word, "transcendence". For  him the most minimal understanding of transcendence is a situational or relative one and he offers two personal stories of how (horizontal) transcendence is also experienced as being analogous to grace and law. Firstly:

"I remember the day my father died. I was sitting in my apartment feeling rather sad when my daughter, at that time about eight years old, came home from school. When I told her what had happened, she said, "Oh, Dad" and put her arm around me. It was one of the most comforting and supportive moments of my life" (What is religious naturalism? p.4-5)

And, secondly he tells us:

"After Martin Luther King was murdered, some residents both black and white, of the city of Evanston, Illinois organized marches to put pressure on the city council to pass an open housing ordinance. At that time it was perfectly legal in that place to refuse to rent or sell a house to anyone, including Blacks and Jews, because of their race or ethnic origin. Now I was quite busy as a father, breadwinner and graduate student. Yet I felt that this was the right moment to pressure the city council. Also my wife and I felt that this was a way to educate our two children by direct participation in values that we held dear" (What is religious naturalism? p.4-5).

In a short interview (which I have added at the end of this post) Stone movingly re-tells both these stories and explains how they relate to grace and law and thus transcendence.

His daughter's action was graceful; it came from outside Stone's immediate personal situation and her action was received as a gift which was able to help him in a way he could not help himself and which was, for him, healing and salvific. It did not come "vertically" from above or outside the natural world but it did still come from outside his own immediate situation and so it was transcendent in a minimal, relative and "horizontal" sense.

On the other hand his experience in Evanston as part of the Civil Rights Movement was perceived as a command or prophetic call to action, somewhat as the prophet Amos felt the need to respond to God's call: "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). Once again this came from outside his own personal situation but this time it was something that did not bring to him or his family an immediately personal healing, rather it was one which simply required them all to act prophetically in the world justly on behalf of others. Again it was transcendent in a minimal, relative and "horizontal" sense.

So, with this secular model now in place we can turn to the story of the three magi and give it a fairly simple secular interpretation that can still connect meaningfully with traditional, (mono)theistic interpretations.

Let's consider firstly the magi. In this (fictional) narrative we are presented with a picture of Zoroastrian astrologer-priests who receive a call from outside their own immediate situation in the form of a new "star" in the heavens. This star, they discover (Matthew does not tells us how), is related to two old Hebrew prophecies (Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2) which, when combined, say, "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel" (Matthew 2:6). This call, to another land to pay such homage to a foreign child rather than to their own ruler, speaks eloquently of a divine command to enlarge their vision of who might be for them relevant and worthy of the greatest respect. It's a radical enlargement that reverses the polarity of the world from obvious kingly, adult power to the less obvious, weak power of an illegitimate child born in poverty. Does not this call to the Magi to respect the poor and weak over those who currently hold all the power echo Stone's call to racial justice in Evanston?

Now let's turn to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Matthew does not tells us how or why they are in Bethlehem only that they are in  a house (there is no mention of a census, nor of a manger and so, by implication, a stable). We do, however, get the impression that, although they are in all outward terms simply an ordinary family, they find themselves in a difficult, compromising and potentially marginalising situation thanks to their brave and loving decision to stay together and form a family despite the fact that their child is illegitimate. They are, in short, a distressed family in need of comfort and affirmative support.

Then, suddenly, and from outside their own immediate situation, there comes a graceful act of support and comfort in the form of the magi who symbolically validate this unusual family in a powerful way through their three gifts. Does this act of the magi not echo Stone's own daughter's act of graceful comfort as she put her arms around him after his father's death?

Now to some this way of using and learning from the story may be utterly insufficient as it makes no maximal claims about a transcendent God - it simply asserts that we can, and do, find (horizontal) transcendent help, healing and salvation in wholly human and wholly natural acts and events.

However, I have to say that when, "out of the blue", I have been gracefully touched by another person's love and care I have experienced something transcendent that is clearly analogous to the miracle and wonder of God's grace. And I feel impelled to give thanks "to God".

Also, when I have suddenly been called forth out of my own closed world into some kind of pro-active, prophetic action, I have found transcendent meaning and value in something that is clearly analogous to a call from God to act for a just and worthy cause.

My point today, is fairly simple. Transcendence experienced as grace and law remains available to someone like me who can no longer believe in the old model and understanding of God as A BEING (see last week's address), "up there" in another world - I find that transcendent sources of help, healing and salvation are still available to me even as I try to walk the fine line between doubtful maximal models of belief and a total secular humanism.


To see the interview click on the following Youtube link or go to Youtube and search for "Jerome A. Stone Interview"

1 comment