An Advent Sunday meditation—The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace, the Manticore or . . .?

The Advent Star in the Unitarian Manse in Cambridge
READINGS:

Luke 17:20-24

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in “What are Poets For?” (Harpur & Row, 1975, p. 90)

The turning of the age does not take place by some new god, or the old one renewed, bursting into the world from ambush at some time or other. Where would he turn on his return if men had not first prepared an abode for him? How could there ever be for the god an abode fit for a god, if divine radiance did not first begin to shine in everything that is?

The Second Coming (written 1919) by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

—o0o—

Given that the theme chosen by the small group preparing our Congregational Advent Carol Service in a couple of weeks is “darkness into light” it seems appropriate on this first Sunday of Advent to offer you an address which seeks to map out the possibility of just such a movement.

Also I need to begin by noting that throughout this address — except at the very end — I deliberately refer to Christ and not Jesus, i.e. I’m referring to the mythical, poetic and religious figure rather than historical, first-century Jewish teacher and healer Jesus.   

—o0o—  

ADDRESS
An Advent Sunday meditation—The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace, the Manticore or . . .?

Adventus, “Advent”, occurs at the darkest time of the year and it is a time of waiting and preparation. But here in the dark for what is it that are we waiting and preparing? Well, obviously in part it is a waiting and preparation for the day upon which we celebrate the memory of the birth of Christ, the day we now call Christmas Day. But within the Christian tradition as a whole Advent is, by extension, not only a celebration of a past event but also a waiting and preparation for what the faithful believe is to be a “Second Coming”, a “Second Advent”.

To be a Christian in the early years of the first century CE it seems one simply had to believe in the immanent Second Coming of Christ in a quite literal fashion — it was the sine qua none of Christian faith. At the beginning of his ministry St Paul (c. 5CE – c. 67CE) certainly believed in it (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). However, it increasingly came to disturb Paul that, although Christ had not yet returned, some of the faithful around him were beginning to die and that, perhaps, even he was going to die before Christ’s return. In the light of this growing realisation it is perhaps not surprising that he begins to find ways to accept this and so, by default, push the Second Coming further into the future (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:12, 5:1, 8, Philippians 1:21, 23).

But after two millennia of waiting is it any longer reasonable to expect the return of Christ in either literal or even poetic and philosophical terms? Surely, to paraphrase Jim Morrison (1943-1971) of “The Doors” in the song “When the Music’s Over”, we should simply cancel our subscription, not only to the resurrection, but to the millennium as well and boldly say to everyone, “stand down”?

Quite possibly . . .

. . . Yet, for all that, the thought that something new is (or might be) just around the corner, that some new intellectual paradigm, technical fix or saviour is soon to come continues to animate whole swathes of our culture and here we are once again in a church setting celebrating the First Sunday of Advent. Not surprisingly, during the week, I found myself wondering what on earth I might say to you — at least in poetic and secular philosophical terms — that meaningfully deals with the theme of Advent and Second Coming, not as merely the run-up to a jolly (if utterly over-commercialised) winter festival, but as a time of waiting and preparation for some real and, potentially anyway, transformative, healing and salvific event?

Well, one can only begin to speak from the place where one is and, when it comes to thinking about second comings, it is only a matter of time before someone of my generation and education finds Yeats’ famous poem of 1919/1920 hoving darkly into view.

Once it was in my mind I thought it might be interesting to see what, if anything, is currently being written about the poem and I quickly discovered that a company called “Factiva” — a business information and research tool owned by “Dow Jones & Company” (that is to say Rupert Murdoch’s “News Corporation”) which aggregates content from 32,000 licensed and free sources in 28 languages from all over the world — had noticed (or rather its algorithms had noticed) that in the first seven months of 2016 the poem was quoted more often than in any of the preceding 30 years. I have little doubt that these levels of quotation have not diminished at all during the current year.

“Factiva’s” discovery probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to any of us because can any of us deny that at the moment we often feel that things are indeed falling apart and that the centre cannot hold?

Also, can any of us deny that we, too, often feel there is truth to be found in Yeats’ words that today the best all too often lack all conviction, while the worst are nearly always full of passionate intensity?

Now, in the context of Advent, we might be tempted to think that Yeats’ next lines: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand” are speaking of the second coming of Christ about which I’ve just spoken. However, I hope it’s clear that what Yeats sees coming out of the “Spiritus Mundi” — i.e. the “world spirit” which Yeats believed was the universal collective-memory of human kind — is not Christ as the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace but a terrible, violent beast, half lion and half man with a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun upon its face. What Yeats sees coming is nothing less than the Manticore, that mythical monster from the desert lands of Persia and whose name means, quite literally, “man-eater” (from the early Middle Persian “mardya” meaning “man” and “khowr-“ meaning “to eat”). Then, as his terrible vision fades, Yeats concludes:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 
 
Yeats seems strongly to be suggesting that we get the kind of god we prepare for. Given that for two bloody and violent millennia of rocking the cradle in expectation of the promised return of Christ, like a butter churn turning cream into butter, is it any wonder that our Christian culture has succeed in turning the second coming not into that of the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace but into a dreadful Manticore slouching its nightmarish way towards Bethlehem to be born?

Of course, a rationally inclined skeptic like me is immediately going to question the literal truth of Yeats’ dark vision as much as the traditional Christian one expecting a literal return of Christ. As most of you will know Yeats had a life-long interest in spiritualism, occultism, astrology and mysticism — especially that born of a Theosophistically influenced reading of Hinduism — and consequently, in spite of his extraordinary skills as a poet which I admire, his religious beliefs have always left me distinctly queasy and uncomfortable.

But, for all my skepticism, I can only confess that there are many days of the year when I find Yeats’ vision of what any Second Coming will be like much more plausible than the one on offer via traditional Christianity and, try as I like, I cannot quite quell feeling that Yeats has a point and that in these exceptionally difficult times for our planet “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand”.

Given this the question on my mind today is whether any new revelation or Second Coming will turn out to be the literal return of Christ imagined by orthodox Christian faith (in my opinion vanishingly unlikely), the Manticore, perhaps in the form of a Putin, Trump or Kim Jong Un (in my opinion a much more likely prospect), or something else, something more modest, poetic, philosophical, creative, hopeful and life-affirming than either of these two possibilities?

A page from one of my own notebooks laying out "the fourfold".
Given the choices I’ve flagged-up here not surprisingly I choose to conclude this address by briefly concentrating on the possibility of latter, on something modest rooted in one aspect of Heidegger’s idea of “the fourfold” that I introduced you to in the readings, namely, the “divinities”, the “beckoning messengers of the godhead.”

[What follows draws extensively upon James C. Edwards’ “The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism” (Penn State Press, 1997, pp. 172-173)]

However, as we proceed please be aware “it is clear that Heidegger is not identifying divinities with the personified supernatural presences of vulgar religious belief.” Instead they are things like “poems, paintings, works of philosophy, revolutionary political practices, new [illuminating] vocabularies of self-description: in short whatever holds the promise of our healing”, well-being, hope and self-transformation.

So, as your heard in our readings, in Heidegger’s opinion:

The turning of the age does not take place by some new god, or the old one renewed, bursting into the world from ambush at some time or other. Where would he turn on his return if men had not first prepared an abode for him? How could there ever be for the god an abode fit for a god, if divine radiance did not first begin to shine in everything that is? (“What are Poets For?” (Harpur & Row, 1975, p. 90).

What might this passage be taken to mean?

Well, let’s start with his question because in it I find a seed of real Advent hope: “How could there ever be for the god an abode fit for a god, if divine radiance did not first begin to shine in everything that is?’” What Heidegger seems to be suggesting is that there is always-already to be found in everything — but especially some poems, paintings, works of philosophy, revolutionary political practices and new illuminating vocabularies of self-description — the possibility of a divine radiance which would make them abodes fit for a god. And isn’t that pretty much what Jesus was teaching in the passage from Luke (17:20-24) we heard earlier? Aren’t both Jesus and Heidegger suggesting in their related but very different ways suggesting that the kingdom of heaven — which is but one name for the abode of a god — is not something that bursts in like an ambush from outside our world but is instead something already within or among us, something already shining with potential divine radiance?

But glimpses of these modest abodes, these small homes of divine radiance, are rare in this day and age. Partly this is because today we are in such a rush in every realm of life. We have lost the ability to practise the quiet arts of patient philosophical and religious reflection, meditation and slowly unfolding thought and conversation that alone can prepare the ground so, as our second hymn had it, it slowly begins to dawn upon us that “Divinity is around us — never gone / From earth or star / From life or death, from good or even wrong — / In all we are.”

But we also miss glimpses of these modest abodes, these small homes of divine radiance because our culture has all too often in its religious and political thinking and rhetoric come to obsess about destructive, apocalyptic second comings of supernatural saviours or monstrous this-worldly slouching manticores of various kinds.

Personally, I think we simply have to let go of all dreams about such second comings — they are, again in my opinion, profoundly dangerous. But, as we let these dangerous dreams go, I do not think we should at the same time let go of the important possible dream that at times there can be for human kind significant, even globally wide, moments that can meaningfully be called a “turning of the age”.

But the question is always going to be whether any such a turning of the age is going to bring about the advent of a better or worse world? Let’s never forget that there is no natural or supernatural guarantee that any turning of the age will bring about a better world. And this is why it is incumbent upon us at times like Advent patiently to prepare for for a good and fruitful “turning”. And we do this through a careful consideration (or as Mary has it, a treasuring and pondering in our hearts) of certain poems, paintings, works of philosophy, revolutionary political practices and new illuminating vocabularies of self-description and by learning how to wait patiently for insights and still newer possibilities to shine forth from them with which we may both glimpse and come to build a better world, one genuinely moving from darkness into light. It is by this method that we may still have real hopes of bringing forth, not so much another world, but this world seen differently, a world which has the chance at last to be a truly fitting abode for a god, a real Kingdom of Peace and Goodwill for all humankind.

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