Wilderness, repentance, self-power and Other-power - Second Sunday in Advent

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and [with] fire: Whose fan [is] in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:1-12 AV)

The story of John the Baptist we have just heard is the set reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for today - the second Sunday of Advent. Although the story is an odd one to us and we can struggle to see how it might be relevant to us I think it is possible to discern two helpful themes from the story that, by the way, connect very closely with the things I spoke about in last Sunday’s address concerning the importance of not going back the way we came and striking off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. The two themes we can see in the story of John the Baptist are that of wilderness and the need to repent.

First of all it is important that John the Baptist begins to preach in the wilderness and not in the midst of a polis (that is to say a city, a city-state and also citizenship and a body of citizens). Living in a polis is to live within the horizons of humanly derived and inherited rules and conceptions about what an individual and collective human life should be like and, even when we are (individually or collectively) in rebellious and counter-cultural mode, these inherited rules and conceptions still frame shape our responses and paths of movement. In short, in a functioning polis we move along already described routes to broadly predetermined destinations.

However, the wilderness - true wilderness that is, not the pseudo, if still beautiful, wilderness found in many National Parks - is, by definition, an environment without such humanly derived and inherited rules, routes, names and destinations. For anything truly to be called wilderness it must in some primal way be to us radically unknown and unknowable. What I want to suggest today is that the city for us can stand for us as a symbol of known and bounded regions of life and thought whilst the wilderness can stand as a symbol of unknown and radically open and unknowable regions. True wildernesses can, in this sense at least, appear in the midst of every polis. OK, but what is the connection between wilderness and the need for repentance?

Well, in every person’s life there come moments when we are forced humbly to admit that, even though we are travelling round and round on familiar and once comforting routes as well as engaging in the usual once comforting political, social or religious practices, we suddenly realise that we are missing some necessary insight or new way of responding to the situation. Disturbingly this recognition, to those not completely self-deceived, is accompanied by an acknowledge that we cannot wholly bring about this insight ourselves precisely because of the limitations of our own current state of knowledge and understanding; we really do not know what to do or begin to know where to go and it is no surprise that this state of being is often described as like being in a wilderness (or darkness). We don’t precisely choose ourselves to go into this wilderness, instead all of a sudden and due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves thrown (geworfen and geworfenheit) into it - our choice (our self-power) at this point is limited to how we respond to this thrownness. (Fittingly, in the Gospel of Mark (1:12) the verb the author chooses to use to describe Jesus’ later entry into the wilderness is ‘ekballo’ - out-thrown whereas the other Gospel writers simply merely speak of the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness.)

So what are we to do when we find ourselves (alone or as a culture) in such a wilderness? One response is simply to continue to use the old rules and practices (of the old polis) to find ourselves once more. Another response is openly to recognise that these old rules and practices are insufficient unto the day and that we may have to repent of them, let them go and create an open space for new, restorative ideas to come into the light, into a clearing in the wilderness. (It is worth knowing that the Greek word lying behind our word ‘repentance’ is metanoia literally meaning "after or behind one’s mind" which can best be expressed as 'thinking differently after'.)

One person who has written eloquently about this experience of being thrown into the wilderness and who responded not by sticking to the old paradigms but with repentance was the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962 - a major philosopher of the Kyoto School) who, during and after the Second World War, looked at all that had happened in his country and the violence and cruelty it had inflicted upon itself and others and he was forced to acknowledge that he did not know all that he needed to know to be a worthy philosopher in this setting and also, shockingly, that the solution to this distress was not in his power. However, as he says:

'At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession - metanoesis (zange) - unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances - I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing'
(quoted in Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p.11).

Writing about this passage (which comes from Hajime's book Philosophy as Metanoetics) the British philosopher Michael McGhee emphasises it was not so much that Hajime 'decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision'. As Hajime realised after his penitent confession - his repentance - that:

'It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me. In my practice of metanoesis, it is metanoesis itself that is seeking its own revelation'
(ibid. p. 11).

The crucial point to grasp here is that Hajime is suggesting that truly new insights come to us in our wildernesses only after we let go of our old ways of thinking, our own 'self-power' (jiriki), and allow an'Other-power' (tariki) to come into play in the clearing we have made. Again Hajime notes:

'This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics, the philosophy of Other-power
' (ibid. p. 11).

It is at the crucial moment of letting go - of admitting we are lost and in a wilderness - that the necessary space/clearing is created for something Other, something new and saving to come over the previously limited horizons of our thoughts and enter into our frame of reference in a fashion that, on further reflection, enables us to make use of it.

In our culture, of course, this Other-power (tariki) has for the most part been called God but importantly, though somewhat in passing today, Other-power (tariki) is a term and concept whose usefulness doesn’t necessarily rely upon belief in any kind of traditional transcendent God (it is a way of speaking about transcendence without transcending). But notice something else too, which is that although the new insight which only comes about in the wilderness is not in one's self-power (jiriki), the Other-power (tariki) which came, could only come in so far are as you had enough self-power (jiriki) truly to admit your inability and lostness in the first place!

This is another way of saying Other-power and self-power are interdependently related - which, if we are minded to continue to use traditional religious language, is to suggest an intimate and structural comminglement between what we have called ourselves and God. In other words this is not grovelling repentance to a transcendent power/God but a way of consciously becoming co-workers with a present, accompanying conception of divinity.

But, even though - like today - we can rationally explore this process of repentance in the wilderness and encourage ourselves to trust to its ultimate efficacy, in itself this is utterly insufficient because it would still be to trust only in our self-power and, therefore, to remain restricted by the limitations of our current ways of thinking.

No! The only way by which we may taste the fruits of this union with Other-power (tariki), with God, is in through a real experience of wilderness and an associated act of repentance in which we truly acknowledge our present limitations and failures and then humbly and faithfully wait and see what comes into the space/clearing created.

John the Baptist and his most famous follower, Jesus of Nazareth, were two such people who trusted to this process - they made a clearing/space (preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight) - and in so doing found a new closeness with God and, as a result, discovered a new and better way of being in the world which helped them to challenge and modify, in some remarkably effective ways, prevailing ways of thought which, in their own time, were threatening the well-being of society.

Now, you might now be asking what consequences this has for us as liberal religious people today? The plain truth is that in so many areas of our lives, economically, ecologically and spiritually, we are discovering that we are in deep trouble. Many of us are beginning to recognise that the solutions which are being put forward to the problems of our age - including many of our own solutions - are merely disguised reworkings of old and thoroughly bankrupt paradigms (sometimes literally so). But of course they are! Unless we stop, admit we are in the wilderness and humbly open ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing God/Other-power (tariki). As we do this we will almost certainly find that that we are not going back the way we came and will be striking off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition.

I am not quite suggesting that, like some latter day John the Baptist, I now take you all down to the end of the road to the River Cam to be baptised, en masse, for the renewal of the forgiveness of sin but I am suggesting that individually and as a community we do need to begin to place at the centre of our religious practice a disciplined but creative and ultimately positive way of repentance or zangedo - a process by which we may always slowly be clearing out old habits and world views and allowing a space so that something not entirely our own can come into view and transform us. This new ‘thing’ is, of course, symbolised in this season and its stories as the Christ Child. But although this new thing can be given a tangible symbolic form what form it actually takes in our time, place and culture will not be clear until it comes.

So my Advent message to you today is simple - it is no more nor any less than that which John the Baptist, Jesus and Tanabe gave in their own times and cultures: "Repent” for only then, in the space/clearing we make, can a better vision of how we might live come to us.