God as citizen and the kingdom of Heaven made a Republic - A New Year Meditation
But, as some of you will have noticed I said only that this is a "potentially" helpful cultural practice because it can also be played out an unhelpful way not least of all because there also exists for our culture such a thing as nostalgia for the future.
The Greek word "nóstos" means "returning home" and álgos means "pain" or "ache" and we can experience this apparently paradoxical phenomenon of nostalgia for the future because our culture has developed over many centuries a strong and deeply problematic belief that at the back of everything there must exist some discoverable immutable true metaphysical reality out of which everything has come (Alpha) and to which everything will return (Omega). Given this idea it is not surprising that at stressful and chaotic times in our personal and/or corporate lives there arises an ache for a return to this presumed stable, underlying, eternal and immutable truth. And please be very aware that there exist both theistic and atheistic versions of this nostalgia for the future and both are today strongly at play notably in various religious fundamentalisms, nationalisms and also in so-called the "new atheism" and various other scientisms. In the end it matters not whether a person labels their eternal and immutable metaphysical truth blood, soil, God or 'natural' laws but only that such purveyors of nostalgia for the future believe they already know in what its perfection consists and are all too often prepared to act unilaterally and undemocratically upon it.
Anyway, when at this time of year we come to view our personal and corporate lives and see before us the considerable mending that needs to be done, it is not surprising that there arises within us an overwhelming ache for change. But the trouble is that this intense aching for some better way of being in the world so often causes us to heed our culture's shouted bad advice to seek our mending by accepting that there exists, and can be known before-hand, a perfect state of affairs.
It's worth noting that, at the personal level on January 1st, countless oppressive and totalitarian plans for perfection are hatched involving dieting, fitness, reading lists, this and million thats. At more macro levels countless oppressive and totalitarian religious and non-religious political plans are also hatched with similar aims, namely the creation of the pre-imagined more perfect and stable society.
Given this temptation how might it be possible to articulate, right here and now, a vision for a better, fairer and more just future world but which doesn't fall into this same trap - i.e. that of thinking we who envision it already know what the desired outcome is to be like?
Well, I believe one possibility we should explore in our liberal democracies is directly related to what I said in my address given on Christmas Day. I suggested there that the Nativity - the story of the incarnation of God, of God becoming human and dwelling amongst us - can be understood as an attempt to point, not to a perfect individual Divine being who has come into the world in a particular and definitive way imposing a finished conception of perfection on all - but, instead, to a whole new liberating style of being-in-the-world which disclosed an understanding of God/the divine as ongoing, self-emptying, self-giving *event*. It is a story which discloses a conception of God (and, therefore, of hope), not like that which undergirded the gods of old who were merely expressions of totalitarian power, dominion and violence, but as the lived, vulnerable life of loving service in which are blessed and have a voice the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake. It is to this radically new style of being-in-the-world that I find I am trying to point towards when I say of the Christ-child in the crib - 'Look, that is what I mean by God.'
It is with this hopeful but deliberately weak theology in mind (Il pensiero debole) that I would like to consider our Biblical readings both of which have been culturally influential on the ways we imagine how the new will come.
(Click on the links below to read the short passages.)
In the case of Revelation its author, John of Patmos, believes that the new and better life and world can be (in fact has been) articulated beforehand and is capable of appearing from on high (which includes the 'high' realms of theory) already fully formed and utterly independent from the old life and world which will, or so John believes, simply have passed away (in either cultural or material relevance). Although he doesn't say this explicitly I think we can take it that for him the old world (paradigm) feels to him as a wilderness because finds it no longer capable of bringing forth and sustaining in him a sense of deep and fulfilling meaning and worth. It is good for nothing and must, therefore, be done away with. Things are so bad, so unfruitful, that he cannot conceive how what he sees as the corrupt material (which includes ideas and stories) of this world could ever be the same material out of which a city of God could be built and so he hopes for an Omega which is, in truth, nothing less than the Alpha that he believes always was and which, more worryingly, he thinks he already knows all about.
On the other hand the prophet Isaiah feels that a new city of God will come about, not already fully formed from outside our world, but only in and through the material of our present and always unfolding world. It is brought into being whenever we are prepared to take our world's available material and then work hard to reshape, re-order and reinterpret it such a way that a new route towards a city of God appropriate to our own age and understanding shows up for us - making the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
Isaiah seems to have understood something that, thanks to Nietzsche and Heidegger et. al., our own contemporary culture has become increasingly aware about, as Gianni Vattimo puts it, that our understanding of the world is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others (and others beside us such as other cultures' (cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).
In other words truth for Isaiah consists in working with the stuff of this world to disclose through collective interpretation a radically open highway along which a weak and vulnerable God will walk with his people (his children and, after Jesus, also his brothers and sisters) are to travel together in unfolding relationship. Such a conversational, dialectic journey is always capable of disclosing new and enlightening possibilities for being and so also new clearings and views that tend towards encouraging democracy rather than demagoguery.
It seems to me highly significant that Isaiah's vision stands at the head of the Gospels and not something like that expressed by John of Patmos.
However, the problem has always to be able to hear within the Christian tradition this quieter kind of call (the still small voice - 1 Kings 19:12) with sufficient force to feel confident in replying, as did Isaiah "Here am I! Send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Alas it remains aware that the louder more demagogic Alpha/Omegaery kinds of Christianity keep shouting their bad advice.
(An aside: It seems to me vital to continue to hold out against this last loud voice (and its new atheistic echo) because the hope found when you read Christianity in the weak, non-metaphysical way I do can finally be discharged and lived fully - a discharge that seems impossible when you keep to a strong, metaphysical understanding of Christianity.)
One person in our contemporary culture who it seems to me has consistently heard this quiet call amidst the shouted bad advice and has been capable of being herself a sounding board so it echoes it back to us in the more everyday language of our contemporary secular, pluralist culture is Mary Oliver. Here is her poem, The Journey (New and Selected Poems Vol. 1):
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Her poem recognises the strength of the weak call which is directed at each individual - for, in a true democracy there can be no mass co-coercion. But this individual call to mend your 'own life' is not the separating, individualistic call of neo-liberal consumerism but a call for us all to stride 'deeper and deeper into the world' and, as I said earlier, to know this world in this deeper way is to be called not into a coercive power-relationship with things and people (who stand apart from us as subjects and objects) but into an ongoing conversational relationship made up of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past and messages from others - including other cultures.
As we, as individuals and as a community standing in the liberal Christian tradition, contemplate at this time of year what we are to do in the coming year I think we can do nothing better than to heed the quiet and blessed still small, weak voice and enter into conversation with the world and each other and, in so doing say 'Hear am I! Send me!'
This is to begin to walk the holy road of democracy which leads to an open and unfolding city of God, both secular and sacred - a city whose creative ways of unfolding in conversation no one can ever fully know - not even God, for in this city God is a citizen like one of us. As we begin to live this way of being in the world we find we are walking towards, not the Kingdom of Heaven but the Republic of Heaven.
Happy New Year citizens.
I also agree that the new atheists are guilty of that yearning for a return to some imagined state of perfection - they often speak of how great the world would be if there was no religion - I shudder to think how they might achieve that goal.
I also like your interpretation of the Nativity story as a self-emptying.
I agree that some of the old Greek and Roman deities were expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - however this was not true of all of them. I can't remember which theologian came up with that idea, but I think it's a lazy reading of pagan mythology, and a failure to note the many historical and cultural shifts in antiquity. The rural deities who were expressions of spirit of place, change, and process were not expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - I'm thinking of Pan, Faunus, Pomona, Vertumnus, Picus, Silvanus, etc. Even city deities (such as Athena) may have been seen as expressions of democracy (though that is admittedly a bit of a stretch).
Apart from that, great blogpost, and I am glad you highlighted the Alpha-et-Omega problem.
Oh, and Happy New Year, and thanks for being thought-provoking as ever!
There's perhaps one thing to say immediately which is that in the things I've been saying over the last two years in particular (and much more explicitly in the past few months) is that I am trying to resist the cultural (western European and North American) temptation to suggest that there is "behind", "underneath" or "at the back" of everything something that is the really real, the real truth, the essence of religion/philosophy etc.. This unitary idea is the problem not least of all because ultimately it is colonialist and tends towards totalitarianism. It's the single biggest problem about traditional monotheisms, scientisms and, I find myself having to say, any form of unitarianism that continues to understand itself in a metaphysical way.
I really like your project of reinterpreting Christian mythology in the way that you do. It's immensely helpful to me, as someone who grew up with less liberal interpretations of these myths.
I would also like to be able to find new meanings in pagan mythology, as people have creatively done over the centuries with Jewish, Christian and pagan stories. Hence my resistance to the idea that pagan deities were all totalitarian symbols.
I think it is possible to draw parallels between, and gain illuminating insights from comparing, different religious traditions, without saying that they are the same or that there is an essential underlying truth which they both fall short of. For instance, it is fruitful to compare Christian contemplative prayer with Buddhist meditation, without saying that they are both imperfect expressions of some lost original. However, I do think that all these practices and ideas are grounded in some actual psychological experience which is common to human beings because we are finite entities in a physical world yearning for epistemological transcendence. I have tried to do something like this in my previous blogpost which was a reflection on a paragraph from your previous blogpost.
When someone actually manages to define satisfactorily what Unitarianism is (see my previous blogposts about whether it's Christian or not), then it might be possible to discuss whether it is still based on that unifying assumption of an underlying lost ur-tradition. I suspect a lot of it is, though.
Re: your point about the "pagan" deities is important. However, I think what you suggest is only true of the conception of the gods held in the Homeric and immediate post Homeric age. Once you get to Aeschylus (especially his Oresteia) you can see the (metaphysical) pull towards an underlying unity get very strong indeed such that it becomes in the Oresteia itself quasi-monotheistic. This conception feeds, of course, into monotheism proper in the Roman period. Dreyfus and Kelly speak interestingly about this in their book "All Things Shining." They want to lure back the Homeric gods in some way (or at least lure back the experience of the world that seems to be being pointed to when the gods are invoked). I certainly concur with that - the trouble is that you can't just revive them but need to look at how something similar might be possible with the material of our own age (back to Isaiah again). Dreyfus and Kelly take as their model Melville's Moby Dick. It's a great model but it seems to me that a more fruitful way is radically to reinterpret the Christian tradition since it is so central to our Western European and North American culture - I include in this, of course, our move towards secular pluralism.
So I embarked on the project (started by others, of course) of luring back the gods (and not just the Homeric ones but others too). I agree there was a tendency towards monotheism (which is also apparent in Hinduism) though whether it's a syncretistic impulse in response to the emergence of monotheisms, or an impulse in polytheistic traditions, I don't know.
For me, when a deity is invoked, something happens that is beyond the personalities of the invoker and invokee. What its precise metaphysical nature is, I couldn't say, but it is a profound experience.
There's also a genuine experience of spirit of place to be had, which you have hinted at in previous posts, and whose particular character results, I think, from the social and spiritual interaction of people and landscape.
(I missed having these conversations!)
Of course :) And it wouldn't work for me as a spiritual practice because I am a witch and a priestess of the moon, and that is my calling. But your radical reinterpretation of Christianity is very healing for me, as mentioned before.
This is why I think religious liberals of all kinds have to stop thinking about being involved in (so-called) unifying structures (theological, philosophical, denominational) and need to concentrate instead on work which encourages the development of a secular society in which everyone learns better and better how to deal with difference and disagreement. Until the God of the philosophers (metaphysics) is well and truly said farewell to, I fear the splendid and healthy conversations such as the one we having will remain rare as hens' teeth.
Ha. Yes, it's taken me three or four years, but I have reached the same conclusion. If one says "articulate a Unitarian theology", no-one wants to do that for fear of excluding others. But by not discussing it, everyone assumes that they are occupying the middle ground of Unitarianism (whether they are Christian or pluralist) and they don't want to give up that position to the other lot. I have come across pluralists who felt threatened by Christians, and vice versa.
I like the paradoxical view of interfaith dialogue that says that neither party should seek to convert the other, but each should be open to being coverted to the other person's point of view. I think our dialogues have something of that character, and we each respect the other person's perspective and experience.