Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back

A couple of weeks ago I was cycling past a chapel in Commercial End, Swaffham Bulbeck and upon its wayside pulpit were some familiar words from the prophet Isaiah: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near" (55:6). (The reading was from Isaiah 55:6-13)

This verse might trigger many thoughts but, as my mind was beginning to turn towards what on earth I might speak about today I naturally heard it resonate in the context of Advent. Advent means, of course, "coming" and in the Christian calendar it refers to the birth of Christ which in the Gospel narratives is understood as nothing less than the appearance of God among or with us. That's the meaning of the Hebrew word "Emmanuel". Advent is, therefore, a time of waiting for such a shining forth of the divine.

We can begin by observing that you cannot seek out a child who has not yet been born; instead you must patiently wait and this basic, incontestable phenomenon is what I am concerned with today and it's important to hold it in mind throughout in case you think I'm drifting into mere theory.

Before I can move on from this observation I need to make another. Mark Wrathall reminds us of an important story for our North Atlantic culture in this excellent précis:

'Since Plato, philosophers of the West have proposed various conceptions of a supreme being that was the ground of existence and intelligibility of all that is. In the works of St. Augustine (and perhaps before), this metaphysical god became identified with the Judeo-Christian creator God. In modernity, however, the philosopher's foundationalist conception of God has become increasingly implausible. The decline of the metaphysical God was perhaps first noted when Pascal declared that the God of the philosophers was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In any event, by the time that Nietzsche announced "the death of God," it was clear that something important had changed in the form of life prevailing in the West. 
Whether Nietzsche's actual diagnosis of the change is right, most contemporary thinkers agree with him that the metaphysical understanding of God is no longer believable. [. . . However] the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology)' (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

With this train of thought in mind we can return to Isaiah's encouragement to 'Seek the Lord while he may be found, [to] call upon him while he is near.' It should be clear that if you have experienced this death of the God of the philosophers - and it is important to admit that I most certainly have - you cannot seek, let alone find, that which is not and so the Lord is not near and cannot be found.

This thought could clearly be interpreted in a profoundly pessimistic way and many people closely involved with religious communities have heard it thus. This is especially true in its liberal Christian forms, such as our own, which for many good and honourable reasons during the seventeenth and eighteenth-century, wholeheartedly adopted the god of the philosophers.

Now, though I do not deny I, too, at times, have heard Nietzsche's words in this very pessimistic way I have for the most part heard them in the positive context that Wrathall offers. Namely, that today, after the death of the God of the philosophers we may well in fact have an opportunity to open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and to encounter the divine and the sacred.

An important thing we must now observe is that the dead god of the philosophers was a god who could be *sought* by us because "he" was in principle a universally available and knowable *object* of human knowledge. Such a god was not a god for whom you must wait but was, instead, one who was, for the most part, to be sought out in a highly active, intellectual ways. That seeking has, for the most part, come to an end.

However, the pre-philosophic God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and for that matter Zeus and the whole Greek pantheon) were gods whom human kind could not seek out through intellectual inquiry. Instead, they were gods who came to us and in their coming shone. The gods/God shone in the deeds of the heroes, heroines and saviours and also in the presence and movements of everything in what, today, we call the "natural world." (There's a real problem with the idea of the "natural world" which I'll just have to leave aside today - but, in brief it is that such usage tends to separate us out from the world and makes nature an object of knowledge in a problematic way.)

Anyway, to encounter these kinds of gods one had no choice but to wait and in consequence one could only seek them - in the strong active sense we used to seek the god of the philosophers - we could only seek them when, in the gods' shining forth, they were clearly near and able to be found. This meant that for our pre-philosophic forebears *waiting* for an absent God had an important and positive purpose in their understanding of the divine.

But, as we know, merely by an act of the will we cannot revive the world (and world-view) of our pre-philosophic forebears (whether of so-called Pagan or Christian persuasion) because the world shows-up to us in radically different ways than it did for them. It is abundantly clear that *our* glimpse of the truth that there is a distinction to be made between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the god of the philosophers is only possible because we are in a time and place that struggles to untangle and comprehend, let alone live fully, either of these views.

Consequently, the only way *we* can proceed is by moving on from where we are today and for me to be able to gesture towards a possible way forward (towards a plausible and attractive contemporary religious faith) we must return now to the phenomenon which roots the season of Advent, namely, that you cannot seek out a child who has not yet been born; instead, you must patiently wait.

But, firstly, why, after the death of the god of the philosophers, might we be willing to take a risk on waiting for something like (and pay attention to the phrase *something like*) the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Wouldn't this at best be just a deranged folly and, at worst, a complete betrayal of our rationalist philosophical tradition? I don't think so - in fact far from it. The contemporary philosopher Iain Thomson (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Graduate Studies in Philosophy at the University of New Mexico) helps us see why:

Life is made most meaningful when you respond to things that are independent of you. This is a point that goes back to Kierkegaard who said that if you think all meaning comes from you then you can just take it back, you're a king without a castle, you're a sovereign of a land of nothing. There has to be something in the world that pushes back, that has some force over you or else you'll never experience anything as really mattering to you. (You can see and hear Thomson offer these words in the following very short trailer for the excellent film Being in the World.)

I have to say, though it still pains me to say it (as all genuine confessions do) that it seems to me that in adopting the God of the philosophers our liberal religious and philosophical traditions ended up by making us kings without castles, sovereigns in a land of nothing. Despite the pain of this recognition we should, however, be profoundly grateful that this same philosophical tradition has realised its mistake and affected a necessary if painful coup in heaven and ending the life of the God of the philosophers.

But in the story of the birth of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God with us, we find a paradigmatic example of what Thomson (and the kind of contemporary philosophy somewhat misnamed as 'Continental  ) talks about - namely, that life is made most meaningful when we respond to things that are independent of us.

Having just spent four days with my wife Susanna's grandson, a year-and-a-half old toddler called Harrison, I'm acutely aware of how children remind us that there is *always* something in the world that pushes back, that has some force over us because we do not control it and which is not merely understandable as physical matter but as something living and meaning-giving - world-making.

As we gaze into a child's eyes we cannot but help experience something as really mattering to us. Harrison's life pushes back at me and that helps me see better what really matters to me and those around me and my life is, in a fundamentally important way, ordered by this pushing back. The story given to me by my culture which helps me notice this in the first place and talk about it with you in a general, corporate way is the Christmas story.

It is vitally important to see and feel, really see and feel, that we could not seek out and choose either of *these* experiences of children which order our lives, give it meaning and make things matter to us. The Christ-child of the Christmas story and Harrison's presence in my life is wholly and mysteriously gifted and, in a real sense, in first encounters I experience the truth of God's words "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" heard by Isaiah.

We can all understand that at the most primordial level these meaning-gifting things simply come to us (as a culture and individuals within a culture) - we had to wait for them - and that they are not merely self-discovered things. They stop us being Kings without castles and sovereigns in a land of nothing, They come, they are present to, and shine for us for a while, and then they withdraw. Sometimes this process is run through in a way that can be seen by a single human being, sometimes it can only be seen by a long lived entire culture. This withdrawal includes, of course, even our once cherished conceptions of the divine.

When meaning-gifting things withdraw - as all things do - we have no choice but to await for that "something" new, that new meaning-gifting creation which shines for us and which by its light shows us clearly what things matter.

In a time, even during a whole epoch of God's death or withdrawal, we continue to need something that reminds us of the purpose of waiting for a shining forth of something meaning-gifting. We need inspiring and colourful examples that help us model good and hopeful waiting practices and the Biblical text is full of these, not least of all in the stories that run up to the birth of Christ.

This is the kind of faithful Advent waiting I would like to encourage among us. It is a faithful waiting for something that is *like* the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, something that is genuinely Christ-like in appearance. Again I draw your attention to "something like".

The key thing is to find ways to wait, intelligent and alert - always looking for a glimmer of a new shining forth of meaning in our own age. The Magi's did just this kind of waiting - the glimmer they caught was the star, the light they found was the Christ-child. Their old paradigm changed to a new one.

What we will eventually see shining is, by definition, not for any of us to say. We must wait and see - and when we do see, find the courage to go.


Anonymous said…
It's probably been said a dozen times before on here, but how can you reasonably and conscientiously remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when you have basically embraced atheism? I'm sure you have a very intellectual, flowery answer but if you no longer experience the call of God - and have adopted a kind of humanism - then you should perhaps walk that path rather than try grafting it to the Christian path.
Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. As you correctly surmise what you ask has been put to me a dozen times before (perhaps more). However, I always value the opportunity to try to answer this kind of question again because it's an important one. I'll have time to pen my reply sometime tomorrow or Friday. Whether or not it proves to be an intellectual, flowery answer you will have to decide though I assure you I will be as honest as I can be. But what I will say here is that I think it is not only possible reasonably and conscientiously to remain something called "a Christian" but also, for me at least (as Wallace Stevens once coined it in 'The Plain Sense of Things), required, as a necessity requires.
Dear Anonymous,

I'm just about to post a full reply to your question as a proper blog post.

Warmest wishes,

Iain Thomson said…
Dear Andrew,

Very nice; I like where you went with that!

With all best wishes,
Dear Iain,

Thanks for your thanks. I'm just reading your 'Heidegger, Art and Postmodernity' book at the moment and enjoying it very much. (A member of the congregation just lent me Watchmen - I've been an American Splendor kind of guy up till now.) The coyote image you used in your acknowledgements particularly resonated with me. Besides the Continental/Analytic thing I'm too 'religious' for many atheists and humanists and I'm too much of an atheist for many religious folk. But, like you, it seems to me there's a borderland that's worth populating somehow.

Warmest wishes,