Epiphany - An alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable

Die heiligen drei Könige  - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

In Eastern traditions of Christianity Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus and, in the Western traditions, the visit of the Magi is remembered. As a feast (i.e. the stories with some very specific theological interpretations as to their meanings attached to them) the Epiphany is first recorded as being celebrated in 361 CE. In both traditions the basic intention of the feast is understood to highlight God's revelation of the divine-self to human-beings through Jesus and, as the Church continued to develop, this was expanded in various ways so as to speak of this same revelation in other times, places and ways. A central Biblical image for this revelation is, of course, light: so we have the well-known ideas that 'the light' is not overcome by darkness; that the windows of heaven are open; that the fruit of light is goodness.

Both traditions have theologically understood the divine-self or light as a revelation or breaking *in* of a supernatural power from a realm different from our everyday world. This relates, of course, to the Christian understanding of the previous two church seasons, namely Advent (when this something is awaited) and Christmas (the moment when this something actually breaks in). Epiphany is the symbolic moment when human-kind recognises that this supernatural breaking in has occurred and the faithful, like the Magi (I'll stick to the Magi today because we are in the West), are to come and adore it. For the believer this is, then, a time when they are simply required, in faith, to bow down before this supernatural power, this Glory of God whose light gives humanity its meaning and worth.

In our present increasingly complex culture this is a story which is often thought to be in conflict with another way by which humanity has come feel it knows the true meaning of the world, namely, via the slow, incremental work of the natural sciences - empirical knowledge is the slowly enlarging pool of light that is lighting up the world. Following on from this idea it is tempting to suggest that whilst the Magi ground their understanding of the world on faith, scientists ground their understanding of the world on empirical knowledge.

In various ways and settings this bi-polar set up has encouraged our culture to promote the often unpleasant (if sometimes shallowly amusing) spectacle of a fight in which in one corner are the theists who, having been excluded from Western public culture and politics for years, are now coming out fighting against what they see as technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism and value-free liberality. In the other corner are the atheists who, shocked at the revival of religion, are coming out fighting against what they see as muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, theocracies and fundamentalist regimes and movements. The Blair/Hitchen's encounter at the end of last year being the most recent high-profile example of this.

As Peter Thompson observes in his excellent introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity":

"We seem to be trapped in a dualistic but essentially static way of thinking about the relationship between religion and science. As Derrida and Vattimo put it. 'We are constantly trying to think the interconnectedness, albeit otherwise, of knowledge and faith, technoscience and religious belief, calculation and the sacrosanct. In the process, however, we have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable" (Introduction to Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009, p. x).(By clicking on this link readers interested in this book can hear a panel discussion about it recently held at Birkbeck College.)

It seems to me that this recognition that we 'have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable' is an insight which can help us begin to find a way out of the pointless and unedifying either/or battle I've just outlined - a battle that is culturally deadening and potentially suicidal. It is culturally deadening because "the dualistic sterility of the "either/or" position" simply "disables our critical faculties and our ability to recognise that the contradictions within a situation carry within them the potential solution of that situation." (ibid. p. x) It becomes suicidal if these battles continue to help set up increasingly violent conflicts between a supposedly Godless set of secular powers on the one hand (those who, it is assumed, live solely by calculation) and, on the other, supposedly God-inspired religious powers (those who, it is assumed, live solely by revealed faith) on the other.

But as much as we may desire it none of us can start in the middle with an already formed synthesis between two apparently contradictory poles, we always have to be moving towards new synthesised positions from one position or another. On balance, I have to say I start with the strongest of sympathies for the scientific position and, though I am acutely aware that science has its own very real problems and can be rather too hubristic at times for my liking, I value highly the fact that it contains within its own self-understanding a remarkable readiness continually to critique and reassess its current positions and findings. It has developed a disciplined way either of working through apparent contradictions to new enlarged understandings or, when it is failing to make much headway it is prepared to remain alert to the fact that there is a problem and that, although it doesn't yet quite know how to proceed, it will keep thinking about and working away at the matter in hand.

But religion - especially in its traditional monotheistic dogmatic forms - clearly isn't at all good at this kind of self-critique and reassessment because in some way it believes (according to its own logic) that it has already had access to (or at least a real glimpse of) the ultimate truth of the world - it has seen in revelation the light, the supernatural all-perfect power that is God. Consequently, I increasingly feel, especially at this moment in time, that there are more dangerous limitations and problems with religion than there are with science. A great deal of religion really does, I think, need to be challenged and one of my duties, especially as an insider myself as a minister of religion, is continually to be prepared to make this challenge so we may end up with some kind of religious way of life related to Christianity that is rather more healthy, vigorous and constructive than we have at the moment.

It is, however, all too easy to succumb to the temptation to undertake this critique by rushing at the obvious limitations of religion armed only with reason in the hope that by its supposedly "pure" light the fantasy of religion will defeated. But in our culture the evidence is piling up that this is a doomed project. Charging in like this puts up religion's defences and simply encourages it to dig in. Also - in the visceral adrenaline fuelled excitement of the charge and subsequent frustrating fray - one is in danger of feeling (wrongly) that you, the warrior of reason, already have the final answer.

No! The only way to overcome the limitations of religion is to find within religion itself its own dualistic contradictions and encouraging it to work them through into new understandings and new possibilities. As Ernst Bloch said:

"The question here is not of giving the death-blow to fantasy as such, but of destroying and saving the myth in a single dialectical process, by shedding light upon it. What is really swept away is real superstition" (ibid. p. x).

Here we may return to the story of the Magi and shed light upon something going on there that we haven't, perhaps, noticed before and which is swept clear (I hope) from real superstition.

Rather than being a story about how we come to know truth by a direct encounter with a supernatural revelation of truth (which is to be opposed in some way to knowing truth via the achievements of the natural sciences) it seems to me to be a story which speaks rather beautifully of the basic human condition in which we are constantly encountering the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable. It is a story about how, when both are kept together in dialogue it becomes possible to find, live and work our way into a new and enlarged understandings about, and relationships with, the world. Here's how I see it - at least as I write these words on Saturday afternoon.

We can begin by noting that, as astrologers, the Magis were proto-scientific in their outlook. This is simply to say that a central part of the method by which they tried to understand and relate to the world was to engage in careful empirical observation and then to follow it up with complex calculations which, in turn, began to help them predict the movement of the heavens and so their own movement through the world (helping with navigation, the prediction of tides, rainy seasons etc. etc.). The results of their empirical calculations (understood in their own culturally contingent ways) encouraged them to undertake a journey, the destination of which they were able to calculate, namely, the Bethlehem stable in which Jesus was born.

But that is only a third of the story. The second third is that the various experiences they had during the long journey generated by their calculations were always going to be incalculable - they simply could not know whom they were going to meet nor what was going to happen to them.

(In the address at this point I told folk of two people I know who, independently of each other, had calculated to the last degree their driving and hitch-hiking trips across Europe during the 1970s. One of them picked the other up on the road, they fell in love and then got married. Neither of them ended up where they had calculated they would but both of them ended up, thanks in part to the incalculable element of life, in a place perfect for them both.)

In what seems to me to be a stroke of great genius (perhaps unconscious genius) Matthew withholds the final third of the story which is, of course, the kinds of human-beings the Magi became as a result of the meeting between the calculable and incalculable, particularly in the way the story unfolds, at the crib side. All Matthew tells us is that the Magi worship Jesus (i.e. they recognise in him in something worthy or honourable - what that something might be I suggest in the conclusion of this address in a moment), they give their gifts and then, "being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way." That's it - we hear no more of them.

The story can stand for us as a reminder that true openness to the future is not possible if you are only prepared to trust and act upon the calculable and that neither is this openness to the future possible if you are only prepared to trust and act upon the incalculable.

It's hard for me to imagine a better, more beautiful and unsuperstitious story to gesture towards the radical openness to future possibility and change that is always and all the time made possible by the natural alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable. So when at Christmas and the Epiphany we sing 'O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord' may we not understand the Christ-child as being symbolic of this ever-present intersection of the calculable and the incalculable which always draws us in genuine hope towards new possibilities, new insights, new life.

Happy Epiphany to you all.


Anonymous said…
Whilst of course Blair/Hitchens are two very highly profiled characters one must not forget how much they really do have in common, the old cliché of opposite sides of the same coin comes to mind. Whilst they would both agree to disagree over religion I know from empirical evidence that they would agree to agree over the invasion of Iraq and western interventionism in the Middle East. This is of course the point that Terry Eagleton makes when he says,

“I can see why you would hold those religious beliefs, but it’s your politics that really winds me up”

I often think of the journey of the Magi as a journey of falling in love; since pure reason and calculation alone would not be enough to take me on a perilous journey through the desert, I would have to “be willing to risk it all on a single pitch and toss”. It would be faith that carried me through the desert. I think of the bickering and the squabbling they must have had between each other as they overcame obstacles on their journey, but the joy, affirmation, and actualisation of their love when they saw the light of the newly born Jesus.

This is however the point at which I break with the modern orthodox view on the story of the birth. I would rather refer to it as the journey to the birth of Jesus then the birth of Jesus. One could almost say people become dazzled by the light of the birth. Almost as though they are inferior to him and should walk meekly in his shadow. When the real lesson to be learned is in the personal and collective journey to the birth of Jesus and the true light to be shed and shared is on how you got there. That is a real moment of revelation and when your world gets turned upside down, the question is not “what would Jesus do” but “what will I do”.

Dan Cooper