Celebrating Advent without misrepresentation, sentimentalism or parody (and a couple of recommended books)

Today we enter the season of Advent. The English word derives, of course, from the Latin 'adventus' meaning 'coming' which was itself a translation of the Greek word 'parousia' a word commonly used in reference to what became called the 'Second Coming'. Generally within the Christian tradition the season of Advent serves both as a reminder of the Jews' period of waiting for the birth of their Messiah (which, of course, the early Christians thought was Jesus himself - in Greek, remember, the word for Messiah was 'Christ') and also as the waiting that many Christians since then have experienced as they wait for the second coming of Christ at some future defined or undefined date.

So far so etymological, but what useful purpose might be served in continuing to engage with the theme of Advent for a congregation such as this which, for the most part, but perhaps not exclusively (?), not only doesn't expect any kind of literal second coming of a Messiah but which also so radically reinterprets the first so-called 'coming' such that it seems disingenuous to call it a first coming - at least in any literal sense.

The issue with the word 'coming' in this religious context is that for anyone to 'come' there has to be a 'there' from which to come and an associated divine will or desire for that someone to make the journey to 'here'.

But in the radical and skeptical liberal religious tradition to which we belong are any of us *really* able to say there exists a transcendent 'there' (heaven) from which to come and an immanent 'here' (earth) to which God (or God's representative) may arrive?

Secondly there is the matter of the divine will to do this - God's will. However, since most of us here today have theologies which stress the immanence of God then, however we individually come to interpret what the word God might mean, God is always within or among us - NOW. God is not any more present in the past and nor will God be any more present in the future. Consequently, the idea of this God coming to us in any obvious external form at a particular time in the past or the future - as fixed laws, Messiahs, or books - becomes for us a redundant idea.

In Christianity God's particular coming is, of course, perceived to be in the person of Jesus. God intentionally comes to this world in a unique and once-for-all human form to save it; God sends his only son. But for most of us here Jesus is understood as being a wholly human exemplar - even if one gifted with a highly unusual, even unique, insight into how to live most fully in relationship with the Divine.

If anything about Jesus is salvific (and I think there is) it is surely to be found in the way he modeled for us a certain human way of responding to the world. We were inspired by him to develop a way of thinking about the world such that what we call God (who for us once inhabited a place above the natural world), over time, to be better understood in naturalistic terms. That doesn't mean to say that we now see and understand all there is to be seen and understood about this natural world, but it is to say that we are no longer under the sway of fear and superstition of a supernatural principality.

St Paul, famously, of course, said something similar about principalities in Romans 8:38-39 but he left one supernatural principality in place of whom he thought we should remain fearful - namely the one 'true' God who had ousted all other lesser deities. But, as I have already noted, most of us here have developed an understanding of God as being radically present here and now, coursing through every bone and sinue of existence and this is a view which has, in truth, ousted even this last remaining transcendent God of old. We are no longer ruled by God from on high but, because we understand God to dwell wholly in Nature so we too, commingled in Nature, commingle also in God. We are no longer ruled by God and it is better to say something along the lines of we embrace and are embraced by an immanent God - the relationship is one of 'eros' rather than 'nomos', of creative, playful love not law. As Dylan Thomas once so wonderfully put it, 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age'.

So Jesus, even if for us he remains the supreme human exemplar of our relationship with the divine, he no more 'chose' to be born in place, time and culture X than we did. He 'came' into the world as we did - via the green fuse that is Nature naturing.

With regard to a saviour being 'sent' by God this thought also relies upon a belief that a supernatural God intervenes in a very simplistic way in the world by deciding every last event including the placement of people in the world - some to fame and glory, some to happiness, others to grief some to save and some to be saved as well as, of course, some to damnation. So the idea of Jesus being sent to us also no longer holds our imagination in thrall.

Given all this - and more - can we genuinely celebrate the season of Advent in a fashion that doesn't utterly misrepresent or parody it? Shouldn't we just leave it to those who can still believe in the action of a supernatural principality?

At one level the answer should be, I think, a resounding 'Yes!' The concept of a transcendent, tribal ruling God - even when it has been universalised to become the One and Only God - very dangerous (and false). The countless lives lost in countless battles over who has the best, that is to say the True, understanding or revelation of this One God and how 'he' manifests himself in the world bear bloody witness to this. So I think that as a liberal religious community I think we have a duty to continue to try and depose such a God (or conception of God) and 'his' kingdom and effect the necessary revolution that brings God permanently to earth and institute, in Gerrard Winstanley and Philip Pullman's felicitous phrase, a genuine Republic of Heaven in which all created beings and things have a vote - a vote encashed in so far as to the best of their abilities they attempt to fulfill their possible existences through eros - through the creative and playful love of life.

But alone this optimistic view of God and God's immanent relationship with the world fails to take into account our subjective experience of this re-divinised world and an immanent God and it is at this level that some concept of 'Advent' - the idea of something better 'coming' - remains vital to our well-being.

As all lovers know - no matter how strong their underlying relationship is - there are bad days in their relationship as well as good ones - days when, for a multitude of reasons, they disconnect, misunderstand each other's actions or words and so come into wrong relationship.

We know too, for example, that when we are in a buoyant mood or the contingent circumstances of our life are simply lined up in an obviously pleasant way then even the darkest, coldest and rainiest day can feel wonderful. In a depressed mood or simply living with a set of ongoing dreadful contingent circumstances even the sunniest day is felt to be dreadful.

But if our faith in the underlying rightness and completeness of our relationship with God-or-Nature is strong then this can help us to project ourselves poetically forward out of the darkness of the present temporal moment into a time in which our right relationships with each other, with God-or-Nature are restored once again.

The annual journey to the cribside of the Christ-child which we begin again today is a symbolic and poetic expression of a journey back into right relationship. But I think it is important to realise that the nativity isn't precisely about that God coming to us - God's love is always proffered it is always coming to us. Instead Advent is about us choosing (being enabled) in our dark times to dream of that love made visible in our lives (in the Christmas story in a tiny, vulnerable child) and to look to the tiniest glimmer of light we can see (the star) and say to ourselves 'I will in love and faith follow this smallest of lights' so I can again come face to face with the "light of all people" which "shines in the darkness" and which the darkness has never, nor ever will overcome (cf. John 1:4-5).

But this restoring and healing process is not available to those who are not prepared to get their shoes muddy and scuffed up by following that star to the place where, at the darkest time of the year we are assured we will glimpse again the love that sustains the whole world. I encourage us to walk the walk.

So, for all the problems of the season I continue to celebrate Advent but I do it remembering that it is we who must take the first steps to the cribside - it is we who come. But, because what we seek was always, is always, and will always be present in our world we find that along the way we are always met - often even when we are still far off - and at that moment we feel God has, indeed, come to us and we are restored; we are saved from our solipsistic selves by incarnated love - Emmanuel, God with us.


Right - a couple of books which I think are hugely important if you want concise, academically sound and readable expressions of the basic philosophy I support. One is new (and notice of a sequel to it) and one fairly recent.

The first is by Mark Johnston and is called Saving God: Religion after idolatory. Here's the blurb from the publisher's webpage (where you can also download chapter one):

In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms themselves, Johnston shows that much in these traditions must be condemned as false and spiritually debilitating.

A central claim of the book is that supernaturalism is idolatry. If this is right, everything changes; we cannot place our salvation in jeopardy by tying it essentially to the supernatural cosmologies of the ancient Near East. Remarkably, Johnston rehabilitates the ideas of the Fall and of salvation within a naturalistic framework; he then presents a conception of God that both resists idolatry and is wholly consistent with the deliverances of the natural sciences.

Princeton University Press is publishing Saving God in conjunction with Johnston's forthcoming book Surviving Death, which takes up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.

The second is by James C. Edwards and is called The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism.  You can read sizable chunks of it on Google Books but here is the publisher's blurb to tempt you.

A challenge to Western intellectual culture that shows how one might be religious even when traditional religion has lost its credibility and authority.

"The Plain Sense of Things is a wonderfully learned book that has much to teach us about Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, and Stevens. But it is more than that because it includes passages of philosophical reflection that surpass in profundity and clarity some of the famous works it interprets. The book's central question is what it means to accept fully and acknowledge honestly the contingency of whatever there is. James Edwards somehow manages to address this question thoughtfully and intelligibly without resorting to the cant, posturing, and hubris one so often finds these days in other writers who concern themselves with 'nihilism' or 'the death of God.'"- Jeffrey Stout, Princeton University

"This is a book of wisdom that mines the fading of our past religious convictions to show how they might provide a way to go on in what Edwards wonderfully calls 'normal nihilism.'"- Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

What could it mean to be religious in a world where religion no longer retains its former authority? Posing this question for his fellow Western intellectuals who inhabit just such a world, James C. Edwards investigates the loss of religion's traditional power in a culture characterized by what he calls "normal nihilism"-a situation in which one's commitment to a particular set of values is all one really has, and in which traditional religion is only a means of interpretation used to preserve what one most cares about. Recognizing the important historical role of religion in making us the people we are, he seeks to establish a viable understanding of religion without traditional beliefs and within the context of contemporary skepticism.

The Plain Sense of Things is a book more interested in the power of religion than in its truth, and in what happens to that power when the claims to truth slacken their grip.


Anonymous said…
What's wrong with a bit of sentimentality?

Is faith / philosophy all about a cold, intellectual pursuit?
Dear Anon, of course I don't think that faith and philosophy are "all about a cold, intellectual pursuit" BUT neither, to my mind, should they ever be sentimental. Back in 2007 I was thinking a lot about sentimentality and on Remembrance Day I took a direct look at the problem. You can find that address here.

However, here is the most appropriate section:

"In his new book, 'Culture Counts - Faith and feeling in a world besieged' [Roger Scruton] observes that: Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth."

It seems to me that sentimental forms of Christianity are deeply problematic because they are simply not concerned with truth.