Not TINA but TATIANA — An advent address to prepare for the celebration of a lower case “c” christmas

The Advent Star now alight in the manse
READINGS: Matthew 3:1-3

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter written to his fiancée from his prison cell in Tegel Prison on December 13th 1943:

Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting — that is of hopefully doing without — will never experience the full blessedness of fulfilment.

From The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Reflection in Journal Form (University of Georgia Press, 1958 [new ed. 1999], pp. 221-222) by Henry Bugbee

[I]n all our doing there seems to be this aspect of learning to make answer and of groping for articulation which may thread us on a central strand of meaning capable of bearing the weight of all the disparate moments of our lives. But we are more or less locked in ourselves and at a loss how to make answer with our lives, to sing a true song. Frenetic questioning is of no avail, restless questing in itself aside from the point; these still suppose a case, however necessary they may be to the discovery of their irrelevance. It is in and out of silence, a deep stillness, that the full honesty of the true human spirit is born — and born to sing in word and deed that demand their own increase. This, this song that each of us must find his own voice to sing, and this alone, can incarnate for him explanation of his life. Its active testimony is the consolidation of belief. True response, then, is from silence, the still center of the human soul, and the corollary to this is patience. For the readiness is all. But patience is not postponement, not falling away from on-goingness; it is the readying to step clean forth (ecstasis), and there ever comes a time when the question sinks home: *when, if not now?* This seems to be what Zen is driving at when it demands, say a word, quick! This present moment.
          Is it not more accurate to say that we participate in creation than that we create? Is not creation as it touches us in what we do an interlocking of the resources with which we act, an interlocking of them with that which firms them and claims them as a province assimilated to incarnation?

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Not TINA but TATIANA — An advent address to prepare for the celebration of a lower case “c” christmas

Over the past few weeks I’ve offered you some interconnected thoughts on why, where- and whenever it turns up, I think we should consider finally letting go of the influential idea that we already know (in fixed and final terms) the ends towards which we believe we are, somehow, inevitably moving.

So, in the run up to Halloween I suggested we should think about letting go of our ideas about all utopian, capital “F” futures in favour of more modest and achievable lowercase “f” futures. Following the example of the contemporary Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi, to do this is gratefully to accept the world’s natural and innate ‘futurability’ which alway allows there to be possible, alternative futures (good and bad, preferable and undesirable) to the ones currently being offered to us by our dominant theologians, philosophers, politicians and economists under the mantra of TINA coined by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “There Is No Alternative.” However, true human freedom from eternal bondage and oppression is found in the world’s natural and innate futurability and, as the Greek economist and writer Yanis Varoufakis has put it, this means we can remind people of the often obscured truth of TATIANA, “That, astonishingly, there is an alternative.”

Then, in our Remembrance Sunday service, I suggested something similar in connection with peace, namely, that we should think about letting go of all ideas about utopian capital “P” Peace in favour of a more modest and achievable lower case “p” peace. Quoting the poem “Making Peace” by the Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov I noted that, lowercase “p” “. . . peace, like a poem, is not there ahead of itself, can’t be imagined before it is made, can’t be known except in the words [and actions] of its making.”

In other words I have been saying that any real, peaceful future (lowercase “p” and “f”) is only to be found inscribed as possible in the world as we find it now and in the decisions we take now — the world is not ahead of us. As you may remember, “Bifo” Berardi also reminds us that the task of creating such a peaceful future always begins with the need patiently to observe “the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows, and seek[ing] for a possibility of order, a possible organization of chaotic material.” Only following such a period of patient waiting can we hope to begin to  “extract fragments from the magma then try to combine them, in an attempt to reverse entropy: intelligent life is this process of local, provisional reversal of entropy.”

Today, on the first Sunday of the season of Advent (or should the world “advent be spelt with a lowercase “a”?) — the season of patient waiting and preparation for christmas — I want to do something similar in connection with capital “C” Christmas and argue for the need to re-learn the ancient art of patient observation of “the magma” in order to create and celebrate from out of the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows an alternative, lower case “c” christmas which, just like a poem, is not there ahead of itself, that can’t be imagined before it is made, that can’t be known except in the words and actions of its making.

We need to do this because there are many problems with capital “C” Christmas and the biggest one for me is that we nearly always come at it as if we already know what (in fixed and final terms) it is towards which we believe we are, somehow, inevitably moving. You see the capital “C” Christmas is another expression of the problematic capital “F” Future which I think we need to let go.

So before, before we go on we should ask what, for us today, is a capital “C” Christmas?. Well, since it is such a complex hodgepodge of medieval Christian theology, Victorian moral family sentimentality and rampant, neoliberal consumerism, it turns out to be a fiendishly complicated thing haunted by spectres of both capital “C” Christmas past and capital “C” Christmas future. Here are just three of the most obvious layers.

Capital “C” Christmas is haunted by the ghosts of our belief that once-upon-a-time, and one day in some hoped-for future age, there was and will be born an incarnation of a supernatural, transcendental God among us or ‘Emmanuel’, the very Messiah, the chosen one of God — a figure who has and/or will save us from our foolish and sinful selves. The Christian Church has, remember, long told us that, as far as it is concerned, to the solution that is Christ (the Messiah) there is no alternative — TINA.

Capital “C” Christmas is also haunted by the ghosts of our belief that once-upon-a-time, and one day in some hoped-for future age, there was and will be the absolutely perfect capital “P” Peaceful gathering of family and close friends in a house warmed by log fires, decked with holly and ivy, graced with a beautiful tree and filled to overflowing with festive food, wine and song. To this one dimensional image of in what must consist the perfect Christmas gathering our culture insists there is no alternative — TINA

Capital “C” Christmas is also haunted by the ghosts of our belief that once-upon-a-time, and one day in some hoped-for future age, there was and will be found the perfect ultimate gift both to be given and received. To this seasonal call to buy, buy, buy our culture also insists there is no alternative — TINA.

But the truth is, year after year (now totalling 2018) the supernatural messiah never comes, the perfect gathering of family and friends never quite occurs — fraught as it always is with hidden or explicit tensions and disappointments of one sort or another including, of course, death and illness — and, lastly it is also negatively affected by the failed attempt to find the perfect, ultimate gift which often puts a further strain on one’s already stretched finances and, even then, the gift eventually given doesn’t quite come up to the mark and the gift received is not quite that for which one had hoped.

Because we are told there is no alternative (TINA), such a capital “C” Christmas, when believed in and doggedly aimed for, always turns out to be an illusion and leads only to either vague or strong disappointments. But, fortunately, we know we live in a world ruled not by TINA, but by TATIANA that reminds us, astonishingly, there is an alternative, namely a lower case “c” christmas. But what would that kind of christmas be like?

Well, to repeat, it seems to me to be something like a poem, it’s a christmas not there ahead of itself, one that can’t be imagined before it is made and which can’t be known except in the words and actions of its making. So we can’t say what it will be like but we can point to some processes that would allow it to come into being.

It is this thought which brings me back to advent because it is only through a process of patient waiting and observation studying “the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows” that we can go on properly to “seek for a possibility of order, a possible organization of chaotic material” — one such possibility that can emerge into modest existence (albeit for just a moment in this and that local community) is, I think, an alternative lowercase “c” christmas.

The first thing patiently to look at and see clearly in the chaotic material of life is that the Advent story as it is recounted in the texts of Matthew and Luke is already deeply problematic because it was written by authors who already believed they knew the capital “C” Christmas towards which all the characters referenced in the story were heading. It is, of course, towards the capital “C” Christ of capital “C” Christmas — the metaphysical saviour from another world who comes with a message to which there is no alternative (TINA). This, of course, only serves to occlude the truth that many other modest, beautiful and creative alternative human possibilities for “salvation” are always already in “the magma” that is “the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, [and] of flows”.

However, notwithstanding the fact that we know the Advent and Christmas story as a whole to be a creative fiction and not an historical truth, let’s imaginatively put ourselves in the shoes of John, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, the Magi and the shepherds as if they were real people. The point is, surely, that they didn’t have a clue about to what and where they were heading. It’s not that something was standing in their way obscuring their view of the destination it’s simply that the world is never there ahead of itself — in this sense there never was a capital “F” future for them to see, despite what the Gospel writers claim. 

The characters in the story were, just as “Bifo” Berardi noted, people like us who must patiently observe “the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows” from out of which they were able to “seek for a possibility of order, a possible organization of chaotic material.” Following this they, and we, can only ever begin by “extract[ing] fragments from the magma” and then trying “to combine them, in an attempt to reverse entropy.” The genuinely first, lowercase “c” christmas story emerged from “the magma” — it was not and never could have been ahead of itself. It think we really should see this as a reminder that there never is a capital “C” Christmas ahead of us and that we must always slowly, carefully and patiently be making an alternative lowercase “c” christmas, locally evoking it into existence, now here, now there, and always already for the first time.

But something important stands firmly in the way of this creative process regularly occurring in our contemporary culture. It is, quite simply, the loss of the ability to wait patiently. This is because, without this skill, there cannot be the necessary, careful, quiet and even silent observation of life’s chaotic material which are the only available materials out of which we can make a new lowercase “f” future, a new lowercase “p” peace and a new lowercase “c” christmas relevant for our own age.

As you heard earlier, the imprisoned German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed this loss of the ability to wait patiently succinctly and startlingly when he frankly acknowledged that “Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten.” What was painfully true in 1943 seems to me to be catastrophically true today.

But, as the American philosopher Henry Bugbee noted, “It is in and out of silence, a deep stillness, that the full honesty of the true human spirit is born — and born to sing in word and deed that demand their own increase.”

With these words we begin to arrive at a sense of in what I think consists the kind of birth (nativity) that can occur in a lowercase “c” christmas. It’s a moment when we and those around us suddenly find our own voices to sing, and it is in this kind of ever newly born choir/community that we find we are incarnating “an explanation of life” which is a thread “of meaning capable of bearing the weight of all the disparate moments of our lives.”  It’s in such a living unfolding community, constantly and consciously being born out of “the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows” that we find a sense of what is meant by the words which begin all our morning services: “Divinity is present everywhere, the whole world is filled with God” and that, astonishingly, there is always an alternative — TATIANA. This ever-unfolding and emerging community will be for us an “active testimony” and “the consolidation of [our] belief” but it is vital to see that all this can only follow on from a patiently engaged in silence in which “readiness is all.”

“But”, as Bugbee insists we remember, “patience is not postponement, not falling away from on-goingness; it is the readying to step clean forth (ecstasis), and there ever comes a time when the question sinks home: when, if not now? This seems to be what Zen is driving at when it demands, say a word, quick! This present moment.”

And so we find ourselves back at this present moment on the first Sunday of Advent.

The lowercase “c” christmas I am recommending we try to evoke into existence and then celebrate here — the only christmas that can to my mind ever be truly achieved and which will never disappoint — is to be found right here, right now in the quality of our patient, careful, quiet, and even silent, observation of life’s chaotic material which, to repeat, are the only available materials out of which we can make a new lowercase alternative “f” future, a new alternative lowercase “p” peace and a new alternative lowercase “c” christmas.

So, be still, for “patience is not postponement, not falling away from on-goingness; it is the readying to step clean forth (ecstasis), and there ever comes a time when the question sinks home: when, if not now?

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