The True Rebel never advertises it, He prefers his joy to Missionary Work—An address for the Season of Epiphany

READINGS: The story of the Magi or three wise men Matthew 2:1–12

From Ethics without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life by James C. Edwards (pp. 236-237).

Wittgenstein’s abhorrence of rationality-as-representation is his abhorrence of this whole magical, superstitious, irreligious form of life. It goes much deeper than the pragmatist's rejection of a mistaken and counterproductive conception of knowledge. Wittgenstein's abhorrence is the expression of a religious commitment, it is the expression, that is, of a fundamental and pervasive stance to all that is, a stance which treats the world as a miracle, as an object of love, not of will. The sound human understanding is the mark of such love, for it is a feature of love that it never literalizes any perception; love is always ready to go to go deeper, to see through whatever has already been seen. From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over, no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgment, not control, central. The world is a mystery, a miracle, such an attitude, incommensurable with the impetus to metaphysics in a culture constituted by rationality-as-representation and the will to power, approaches all things as holy, as inexhaustibly deep, unencompassable, manifold, and, strange as it seems, lovely. It is an attitude that could accurately be called a form of worship, if that designation were not so likely to mislead. But it is not an idolatrous worship, for no image is ever confused with a god. Past all necessary but partial images, the world—not the riddle-world of science but the world whose very existence is a miracle—is the holy other. The unknowable Ding-an-sich (thing-in-itself), no longer a philosophical idea as in Kant, has become a religious conception.
          Considering an example or two may perhaps remove some of the darkness from my description of such a religious sensibility. Who responds to the world in the way I have just described? The great poet or, more generally, the great artist comes first to mind. For the poet the world is certainly a miracle, an occasion for wonder not curiosity. The poet's aim is not to understand the world but to acknowledge, to hallow, and to celebrate it. In the attempt to do so, he is constantly raising up and sloughing off a welter of images, for no way of letting something be seen will ever be adequate to his intention. No way of seeing be literalized into the final representation of the reality there before me; rather every image, especially the image of re-presentation itself, must be seen through and replaced with another
          Moreover, the poet's aim is not a manifestation of the will to power. His intention is not to subdue the earth, on the contrary, he wants to be the place where the earth has its own way. As Rilke puts it, the poet is not the one who wills, but who is willing: willing to let the earth rise up in him invisible. And such willingness is not at all narcissistic. The poet is not the maker of meaning; he is not imposing value or significance, nor is he fascinated with his own images, in which what is valuable or significant shows itself. Rather, he wants to be the place where the poem happens. He wants to hollow himself out, to create a space within so as to give the earth the resonance that lets us hear, partially and temporarily, the earth's own song.


Lew Welch (1926-1971?)
The True Rebel never advertises it  
by Lew Welch (1926-1971?) 

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

—o0o—

ADDRESS
The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

It seems reasonable to suggest that there must have been something of the rebel in each of the Magis. After all, in the story—and let's not forget that this is a story not history—the Magi were prepared to leave behind them important, secure roles in their own societies as astrologer priests and to undertake a risky road-trip (something the Beat Poet Welch would certainly have appreciated) simply to see what they might see in this thing which had come to pass in Bethlehem and to risk letting themselves be opened-up to the possibilities for new insight and understanding it might afford them. What we do not find is any example of them being interested in advertising their rebelliousness. Instead, and touchingly I think, the gospel writer only tells us of the Magi's joy and desire to acknowledge the worth in the child they came to see.

It also seems worthy of note that, despite the fact they were Zoroastrian priests, they did not seem to have been driven by any missionary zeal at all—they were not out to tell the world about themselves but only to open themselves up to the possibility that in this event the world might be able to say something new and of note to them. Their quiet, hidden rebelliousness is seen in this clear abandonment of the usual, attention grabbing priestly way of proceeding; they may have known lots of stuff and been given authority by their tradition but, like Socrates a few centuries earlier, at heart they seem to have understood that only true wisdom is in knowing one knows very little indeed and that a person must, at all times, remain radically open to new insights, new knowledge and new possibilities for life. In their actions it seems to me to be clear that, to refer back to our reading from James C. Edwards, sheer acknowledgement was central, not control.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

People who, like the Magi and (at times) Lew Welch, manifest such a joyous attitude and who value radical openness to future possibility are, naturally, going to be highly suspicious of all things bureaucratic—this attitude forms a central part of their overall rebelliousness. However, as many of us know to our cost, many churches are, and much of religion is, all too often painfully bureaucratic.

However it's important to realize that Welch's second stanza is not totally dismissive of the potential importance of Church but in it he is, instead, making a rather more subtle point by using the example of the Post Office. To understand what he's on about  it's helpful to know that Welch was a great letter writer and his collected letters in two volumes entitled 'I Remain' form a very moving account of what it felt like to be a poet struggling with both inner personal demons and the indifference shown by his own society to his work and vision. Welch's letters helped him work through difficult questions about life, to trial some of his poetry, and they also allowed him to be supported, often quite beautifully, by some of his friends. In other words Welch was acutely aware how much he owed and needed the Post Office because it was this institution which helped facilitate such a vital, creative, life-giving exchange. But even as he knew how important the Post Office was to him he also knew that it was not, in itself, the centre of his interest.

This should serve to remind us that, in analogous way, this church (as a bureaucratic institution) must never become for us the true centre of our interest. Our true centre of interest and concern is the ongoing open and inquiring conversation and radical community it delivers—just as a Post Office delivers letters. But, and what a huge but it is, were this church in its institutional form not actively supported by us as a "delivery organization" then we would be beginning to close down these same opportunities for ongoing open and inquiring conversation and radical community, not only for ourselves but for future generations. I hope it is clear to us all that if we truly value these opportunities but then don't properly support the community by regularly congregating, joining the committee or chipping in regularly to the coffers, then one day we could easily turn up here to find it closed and boarded up or, perhaps even worse (as I mention every now and then), turned over to other uses, whether residential or commercial.

In any case, we can be clear that the Magis are not concerned about the bureaucracy of institutional religion (Church) but something else and to this we now turn . . .

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Although Church may be bureaucracy, Religion is Revelation. In saying this I think Welch is gesturing to the central importance of being directly and fully in the world, open to the Wonder of all the Planets striking all your Only Mind and able to greet reality, like the Magi, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy and finding in it something of great worth and meaning—something worthy of their worship.

Now, don't be frightened here by the word "worship" and think it is only something to do with paying reverence to supernatural divine beings—something I gently try to discourage here. This meaning of worship was first recorded only in about 1300 CE. In truth the word is much older for it is an ancient Anglian or West Saxon word simply meaning something that is worthy of dignity, glory, distinction, honour or renown. We retain this meaning in modern speech when we formally address a Mayor as being "Worshipful".

For the contemporary philosopher James C. Edwards the foregoing is to approach the world, not with the attitude that it is some kind of riddle to be solved but, instead, to approach it with an attitude of what he calls 'loving attention'. As Edwards notes:

"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgement, not control, central" (Ethics without Philosophy by James C. Edwards, p. 236).

Lew Welch certainly practised this kind of "loving attention" and "sound understanding" in his own poetry and we can see it too in the moment the Magi kneel by the crib-side.

Lastly, Welch concludes his poem with what might at first seem to be some contradictory advice.

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

We may turn to a very brief poem by another extraordinary poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), to help us explore this final thought a little more:

Tell the truth but tell it slant — 
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight, 
The Truth's superb surprise
As lightning to Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

It seems to me that Matthew's telling of the story of the Magi, even as we may be sure he is trying to show or reveal to us something he thinks is important about the world, is one undertaken by always keeping something back, guarding it, and he does this by revealing things, not head on, but slant. There is no way to tell their story (any story). Like the best story-tellers Matthew knows, as Edwards noted in our reading, that "no way of letting something be seen will ever be adequate to his intention. No way of seeing can be literalized into the final representation of the reality there before [him or us]."

Here I think it is important to notice that the mystery of the world—for the Magi, Matthew and Lew Welch—is that things are always capable of giving us more than they are—which is to say once again that no story is ever over, no depths are ever fully plumbed and that the world and its beings remain a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Ultimate reality or (capital T) Truth (even if such things exist) is always veiled to us and, therefore, we too must always be guarded about succumbing to the temptation to think that we can ever know it fully as some object of knowledge (rationality-as-representation) and able to speak fully about it. In turn we need to see the value of guarding the sense that at the back of all existence there is a profound mystery about which we cannot speak and, therefore, as Wittgenstein memorably concluded his Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus, we must pass over it in silence.

However, having guarded the mystery as a mystery and passed over it in silence we are then impelled to find helpful, creative, circuitous, poetic, slant ways to speak of how this mystery might still be intuited and gestured towards by us and what it might all mean for us in our everyday life.

What I think Welch's poem and the story of the Magi seem to be gesturing to us is that the ultimate truth of our world and our place in it—one of the things I presume we come here together to seek out —is always something elusive, ineffable (mystical if you like); it is never something fixed but always alive and capable of change and growth right up until the point we leave the banquet of life to allow another guest to take our place at the table of life. We are helped thereby to see that the perennial question about who we are is also not fixed and that the person we will be at the end of our life is not, and never could have been, the one who set off on the journey in the first place.

In short we are helped to discover and come to terms with the fact that we are creatures who are always not yet, always-already traveling like the Magi and who, at our best, prefer joy to missionary work. It is all this which, in turn, is what helps us remain radically open to the possibility of always finding new, creative and loving ways of dealing appropriately with the joys and vicissitudes (personal, religious and political) of the year to come and all the years ahead.

So, in this spirit of open possibility, I wish you all a Happy Epiphanytide and a Happy New Year:

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!

Constantly reveal Them!

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