How Nietzsche helps us better prepare to celebrate Advent & Christmas — The bloom and magic of things that are nearest
|The nativity scene in the Cambridge Unitarian Church|
The four-and-a-half century old Unitarian tradition to which I belong has, at times, consciously been able to understand itself as attempting to be a ‘church of the free spirit’ and we, as individual people, have seen ourselves as attempting to become brothers and sisters of the free spirit. For example, the founder of the modern Religious Society of Czech Unitarians, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870–1942) said of it’s building in Prague, 8 Karlova Street:
‘The house is of great historical value. In 1404 it was occupied by a sort of liberal Christian body. They called themselves “Brethren & Sisters of the Free Spirit.” They were accused of laying more stress on a Christian life than articles of faith. They believed more in the “inner light” than the letter of the Bible. Further they did not believe in the Trinity and were accused of pantheistic tendencies. I regard these people as the first Czech Unitarians’ (Norbert Fabián C̆apek: A Spiritual Journey by Richard Henry, Beacon Press, 1999, pp. 195-6).
In these disorientating and unhealthy times this identification as a church, or simply a brother and sisterhood of the free spirit, is something to which I often wish we could consciously return because I think it may help us find a new way forward into a certain kind of genuinely healthy, this-worldly living, the possibility of which this podcast will conclude.
But as a liberal religious tr adition we have rarely articulated, either to ourselves or to others, any relatively clear, basic process through which a person needs to go in order to become a genuinely free spirit.
Well, in this second podcast during the season Advent I want to remind you that the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) offered us one such process, a process which comes in four phases.
We start with (i) the comfort found at the family hearth. Drawing on Nietzsche’s book, ‘Human, All Too-Human’ (subtitled ‘A Book For Free Spirits’) the philosopher Gordon Bearn notes that:
‘Those who will become free spirits do not begin by being sick, but by being healthy, they are in fact bound by “what fetters fastest”: by their dutiful reverence for their elders, their country, their teachers, and for “the holy place where they learned to worship”. They are fettered by all those ideals that warm one to the family hearth. These ideals are normally taken to be of the highest value, and so Nietzsche can write of those who will be free spirits that “their highest moments themselves will fetter them the fastest, lay upon them the most enduring obligations”’ (Gordon Bearn: “Waking to Wonder”, SUNY Press, 1997, p.4).
Advent and Christmas is a season full of many things we have felt to have been of the highest value and which have been celebrated before the family hearth or its modern equivalents, the gas or electric fire. This hearth is the holy place where many of us first learnt to worship, a place where God, or at least the Good, was perceived to be with us. (“God with us” is, by the way, the meaning of the Hebrew title “Emmanuel” that is given to Jesus and most memorably repeated in the well-known carol “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”) Before this hearth, family and friends still gather to exchange gifts, drink, and to eat in convivial ways at the darkest time of the year and, for many of us, Advent and Christmas has been one of our life’s ‘highest moments’ (especially when we were children). This is why, of course, it ‘fetters us the fastest’, that is to say, keeps us captive, and lays upon us an enduring obligation not to let this traditional way of believing and doing things go.
But so much has happened in our own lives and culture over the last two centuries which (ii) has ensured we, our hearths and our holy festival, have succumbed to the sickness of nihilism in which there has been a ‘hateful assault on everything that had seemed so comforting.’ It comes upon most of us at one time or another that this festival is now empty — merely pasteboard and fillagree. The natural sciences and philosophy have quietly been at work persuading many (if not most) of us that the God/gods of old are mere illusions; historical-critical research has persuaded us that the Christmas stories contain, not neutral, objective, historical facts but are, instead, creative, uneven and inconsistent human myths and legends; the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism and, more recently, neoliberalism, have created pressures that have contributed greatly to the fracturing of extended family networks and have simultaneously turned the equal and free-exchange of modest gifts into a multi-billion pound industry concerned, not with exchange, but only with unequal competition for market share and profit; also much of the food and drink we consume in this season has been effected in the same way and, today, we share together not so much the fruits of local fields tended by local farmers but the products of globalised and highly mechanised factory farms whose workers and livestock are utterly unknown to us and about whose welfare we often care little or nothing. All in all, if you are anything like me, these things (and many more besides) have often meant that I have expended most of my energy, not in preparing happily for Christmas, but in warding it off until the very last minute when, utterly exhausted by the defensive effort, I have finally given in to the pressure and spent the twenty-four hours of Christmas Day forced to pretend that all is well and that the old hearth burns as brightly, warmly and meaningfully as it once did.
Sometimes it has felt as if this sickness were going to be one unto death but a real hope, an educated hope (docta spes), has always remained alive deep in my being that there might, just, be a way to move beyond this awful state of affairs to a much better state of being. Thanks to Nietzsche, I have discovered that, if a person is able to survive the long, deep and painful nihilistic assault then, miracle of miracles, it becomes possible (iii) to for us to begin to convalesce. This period of convalescence can be divided into two.
The first convalescence is a cool one, one in which Nietzsche suggests that ‘the convalescent lives without any love but also without any hatred. The cooler convalescent — neither dead nor alive — floats above the earth.’ This seems to me to describe well the moments I’m sure we have all felt when we have been able to detach ourselves from the whole sorry show and begin to look at the season as if from a great height. As Bearn says, in this state:
‘Everything is small. Everything is flat. Nothing matters. This is the mood equally of a scientist sure ours is a world of valueless facts and of those literary characters who float through a world from which they have been estranged and which they look on with a species of tender contempt’ (Bearn, p. 8).
I can certainly remember many years of my life spent in this period of cool convalescence in which I have walked through shops and Christmas markets, through family and church gatherings, feeling utterly detached, looking on everything with no love nor any hatred but, instead, with a species of tender contempt. One way of putting this is to say I began to experience Advent and Christmas as if I were a detached, knowing, cynical historian, sociologist and/or anthropologist, scientist even.
However, though it is absolutely necessary to pass through this period of cool convalescence, it is obvious that it can hardly bring full health because, although there is sunlight to be seen — it’s a kind of clear, enlightening light — it is the kind of light found only in the highest and coldest altitudes of detachment. After a while it becomes apparent that if we wish to continue convalescing (and not merely catch one’s death of cold) we must come back to earth ‘where the sun warms.’ Here’s how Niezsche beautifully puts this return to earth in ‘Human, All-Too Human’:
‘It again grows warmer around him, yellower, as it were; feeling and feeling for others acquire depth, warm breezes of all kinds blow across him. It seems to him as if his eyes are only now open to what is near. He is astonished and sits silent: where had he been? These near and nearest things: how changed they seem! what bloom and magic they have acquired!’ (‘Human, All-Too Human’, Preface, par. 5, quoted in Bearn, p. 8).
Coming back down to earth in this second, warmer, period of convalescence it becomes possible for us to see and feel amidst the shops and Christmas markets and in family and church gatherings, ‘spots of [warming] sunlight’ in which begin to appear the ‘bloom and magic of things that are nearest’ (Bearn, p. 14) things that, before, had been obscured from our sight. Warmed in these occasional spots of sunlight our eyes begin to open, and we begin to see so many people near at hand trying their hardest to be good, kind and decent human beings despite being cast adrift amidst the horrible pasteboard and fillagree that makes up so much of the modern, neoliberal world.
And, lastly, it is these periods of convalescence which gift us with a genuine hope of, at some point, being able to enter into (iv) the final great health in which, as Bearn says, the ‘spirit freed from the tradition that seeks metaphysical comforts is surprised by a new happiness and a new love for all that is delicate. The great health is a life attuned to what is near’.
This attitude is seen most clearly expressed in the epigraph by one of our own Unitarian tradition’s great figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), that Nietzsche chose to grace the first edition of his ‘Gay Science’:
‘To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine’ (Emerson: History).
So, to draw to a close, I can now turn to the traditional Christian focus of the Advent and Christmas season, namely, the Christ-child, the baby Jesus.
From the foregoing I hope you can see that for Nietzsche ‘the great health’ can only come after we have gone through, and slowly recovered and convalesced from, the sickness of nihilism. At that point we are finally able to accept ‘the value of this world, the earth, of the little things that are nearest to us’ and to begin to live ‘as neighbour to precisely the things that the metaphysical tradition only found valuable as indictors of another metaphysical world’ (Bearn, p. 32).
But, alas, most of us are aware that the Christ-child spoken of in orthodox, believing, Christian circles remains firmly an ‘indictor of another metaphysical world’ and this means that a genuine free spirit cannot, with a truly clean heart and full belief (or pathos), celebrate Advent and Christmas in these circles. The Christmas Carol service, and the traditional services held at midnight on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morn, undeniably beautiful though they often are, remain for many of us highly conflicted and deeply uncomfortable events.
But all is not lost for the aspiring Nietzschean free spirit because, thanks to their sickness and their consequent cool and then warm kinds of convalescence, they can now begin to see that the answers to the meaning of life that traditional Christianity has sought for two millennia in another world and its supernatural Christ-child are, in truth, only to be found in the bloom and magic of the things near and nearest to us in this world, most notably and memorably in every new born human child. It is precisely this insight that inspired the twentieth century Unitarian minister and hymn-writer John Andrew Storey (1935-1997) to write a hymn we often sing in our churches during this season. It is called ‘The Universal Incarnation’:
Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child’s birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
‘Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.’
But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.
This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.
Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
‘Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.’
Today I find cannot sing this carol without noticing how it brings me exactly the kind of feelings Nietzsche describes in ‘Human, All-Too Human’: Everything grows warmer around me, yellower, as it were; feeling and feeling for others acquire depth, warm breezes of all kinds blow across me. It seems to me as if my eyes are only now open to what is near. I am astonished and sit silent: where had I been? These near and nearest things: how changed they seem! what bloom and magic they have acquired!