"Hold tight and pretend it's a plan” Epiphany Sunday – In praise of the ad hoc

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Hold tight and pretend it's a plan - Epiphany Sunday 2012 - In praise of the ad hoc

Today is Epiphany Sunday and the Greek word "epiphany" (epiphaneia) means "manifestation" or "striking appearance." Today I'm going to be speaking about this in terms of how things "show-up" or "shine" for us as having meaning and worth giving our life a sense of purpose and wholeness.

In the Western Christian tradition the feast of Epiphany is on the 6th January - the twelfth night after Christmas - but it is often moved to the nearest Sunday and it's the day upon which we remember the Magi's visit to Jesus' cribside in which this child first "shows-up" or "shines" as "God with us", Emmanuel, to a wider world beyond Jesus' own Jewish circles.

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

You may wish to say at this point that, since this story is only a fiction, this is all irrelevant by-the-by stuff. But the story need not be taken as being historically "real" - indeed it almost certainly isn't - for us clearly to see that it has an *effective* reality because it has influenced and shaped, and continues to influence and shape, our own culture. As I mentioned last week, given 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' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9) whenever we explore the story in a religious setting we are required as a necessity requires to find an interpretation of it that makes it intelligible to us in a way which can help usefully to illuminate what it means to be the kind people we are, here and now in our pluralist, secular world. I offer this Epiphany address to you today because I think the story can still do this.

(Excursus: I need to add here that this address tries to speak about how to find the truth of your life - what it is to be you in the world. Although there are many overlaps and points of intersection with the scientific task of finding truths about the universe (where universe is understood to be the sum of things and entities) I am not talking about this here. When I talk about risk below I also need to be clear that I am not talking about it as mere bravado but the kind of risks we need to take which move us away from mere rule following and towards authentic living.)

This address began whilst watching the recent Dr Who Christmas Special. I was suddenly struck by something the Doctor said when he was forced to act in an improvised way. As the building he and his companions were in suddenly and unexpectedly turns out to be a spaceship and begins to take-off, his companions shout over the noise the question of what they are to do. The Doctor replies, "Hold tight and pretend it's a plan."

Although there are times and situations when pretending there exists a plan when you actually haven't got one is an example of, at best, hubris and, at worst, delusion, consciously stating this openly at the outset, as the Doctor does here, is quite a different matter. In fact openly recognising that you need to be prepared and able to improvise ad hoc responses to the unexpected showing-up of certain things and events can still be to follow a plan but in very special, nuanced and skillful way. The phrase "ad hoc", by the way, means literally "for this" - i.e. for this situation and not another.

My own embodied understanding of what this entails comes, understandably for me, from being a jazz musician. When you begin to learn to play jazz you do so within an always-already given world with all its echoes, aural resources and messages from the past and other cultures. Once jazz began to show up as one possible way of expressing oneself as a musician it developed a self-understanding that includes certain initial rules that are required to be followed just to get a player going in the first place - they include arpeggios, scales, phrases etc. etc.. I explored some elements of this necessary structure with you during Advent. But these rules of jazz get you going only by ignoring details - details such as the complexity or simplicity of the music you are currently trying to play, the weaknesses and strengths of your own playing and knowledge as well as that of the other players around you, the differences in distance between players, the making of mistakes or the inspired creation of a new melody or rhythm, the acoustic of the room, the attentiveness or otherwise of the audience, the temperature in, or even the colour of, the room and countless other factors that go to create this particular, unique playing situation rather than another. As the philosopher Mark Wrathall points out, 'What anyone who's very skilled in a domain knows is that being very skilled means responding not just in general terms to a situation but responding very specifically to what the situation demands' (from the film Being in the World) Sometimes - and more often than good players realise - we intuitively understand that to be authentic, really to live and play, we have to start taking risks and doing something that the rules haven't told us about. On the same topic another philosopher (from the same film), Hubert Dreyfus, notes that:

'Risk is absolutely essential in becoming a master [and] in acquiring any skills at all because you have to leave the rules behind and stop doing what one generally does, doing the standard thing, [so you can] push out into your own experience of the world.'   

It is important to see that, although it is true that without leaving behind the rules you will never be able to push out into your own experience of the world, this possibility that we can push out into an authentic experience of the world only comes about because we are always already in a world of practices (which includes rules) and this is always-already a pre-requisite for getting us going in the first place.

For our Western European and North American culture one major horizon in which we always-already are and whose echoes, messages from the past and linguistic resources we are always-already shaped by and which get us going in the world in the first place is the Christian story.

The question has always been is how to use our story (stories) - which gives us so many of our cultural rules - how to use this story (stories) to help us push out healthily and creatively into our own, authentic experience of the world. (In cultures other than our own, of course, the basic story will be different to ours - but we are here and not there.)

Well, one thing that I think can clearly be seen in the Epiphany story is a powerful reminder that our own present secular culture's present-day shape is only possible because it contains within it a strong memory of the foundational importance of just such ad hoc, risk-taking pushings out into the world. Let's now turn directly to the story.

Within the Magi's own pre-scientific worldview the appearance of a new star in the heavens would, we may legitimately imagine, have had some kind of rule-based meaning capable of being attached to it. The story makes it clear that it signified to them that an important king was to be born in 'that' general direction over which the star was presumed to stand.

Following the star in the way one is forced to follow a star when one is on the surface of a world (whether thought to be flat or spherical) they go, quite naturally, to a local seat of power lying in the *general* direction of the star. Not unreasonably we may again imagine that they go there first of all because the Magi's cultural rules would be likely to say to them that the birth of a new king would 'naturally' take place in such a setting of earthly power.

As we know this was far from being the case and when the earthly King they visited, King Herod, heard their news he was much 'troubled'.

Not finding the new born King in this royal court the ad hoc solution which slowly began to attune the Magi to the finer details of the actual situation they found themselves in was in part provided by listening to and taking seriously the local chief priests and scribes opinion that the birth would have taken place 'In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet' (see Micah 5:2). The Magi were now clearly taking risks for these priests and scribes were not their priests and scribes and the prophecy was not one given by their own prophets. We see here the Magi beginning to push out beyond the rules into their own experience of the world. Leaving Herod's palace we may imagine them telling each other to hold tight to their camels' reins and say to themselves that this was still part of their plan.

On arriving and seeing the poverty and meanness of Jesus' birthplace must have made them question very strongly whether they were in fact in the right place - right, that is, according to their prior rules and expectations. I can imagine some serious arguing and ad hoc theorising going on between them about whether they should indeed hand over their valuable gifts to the care of Jesus' poor and considerably less than royal parents. You will remember the Monty Python team in "A Life of Brian" brilliantly imagine the Magi arriving in Bethlehem only to go firstly to the wrong stable in which Brian has just been born. It is only when they leave that they see further down the street a celestial light shining from inside another stable that they realise their mistake and they go back in and wrench their valuable gifts away from Brian's hapless mother. The Python team touch here what seems to me to be a psychological truth which is that, in matters to do with the truth of one's own life, there is always doubt and uncertainty which simply following rules won't help resolve.

However, what the story tells us is that as they actually stand by the cribside and look down at this particular baby (not just a generalised conception of all babies - i.e. a Platonic baby) they saw something that made them take yet another risk and push even further into their own experience of the world in a fashion that went way beyond the generality of their own learned rules. Their gifts originally signified for them the kind of kingship they already knew about but, in that moment then, their understanding underwent a radical reinterpretation and began to shine or show-up for them very differently indeed. You will recall that on Christmas Day I suggested that we might understand what they saw as they gathered around the crib that day was a new vulnerable, self-giving way of being in the world show-up and shine in that child. This opened up for them a wholly new and authentic possibilities of how to be in the world. In the giving up and letting go of their valuable gifts we see the Magi at the moment they choose to respond very specifically to what that situation - and only that situation - seemed to demand of them, namely, to honour and embrace in this risky, ad hoc fashion the new way of being-in-the-world which they felt was now shining before them.

With these thoughts in mind I'll come to rest today with a point made by the poet W. B. Yeats in a letter he wrote just before he died in 1939:

'It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put it all in a phrase I say, "Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it." I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence' (William Butler Yeats Letter of 4th January 1939 to a woman friend in "The Life of W. B. Yeats" by Terence Brown, Blackwell, Oxford 2001 p.376).

In the actions of the Magi the Epiphany story contains a powerful reminder to our culture that the truth and meaning we seek as human beings can only be found whenever we are prepared to leave behind our abstract theories and rules about how to live and instead learn to take risks in order to push deeper into our own experience of the world. Whenever we do this then, in all kinds of creative ad hoc ways, we begin to learn what it is, not to know truth and meaning, but to embody them. Only then will we have begun to push out into our own experience of the world and finally have the abundant life Jesus promised was possible for all people.


After the address we heard the second of Valentin Silvestrov's pieces called Stille Musik which can be found on the CD Bagatellen Und Serenaden. I chose it for two reasons, The first is I adore his music and it has been accompanying much of my thinking over the Advent and Christmas season and, secondly, because his own compositional philosophy led him to say: "I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists." This seemed to resonate powerfully with the thinking of Gianni Vattimo's which I mention above and in other places on this blog. If you do a search on Youtube for: Silvestrov Stille Musik you'll find it there. For some reason I can't embed a link to it from here. Enjoy.


Yewtree said…
Yes I really enjoyed the Doctor Who Christmas special. It was deeply comforting.

I like the quote from W B Yeats about embodied knowing. This keeps coming up for me in different contexts. Recently I have made some really major decisions which started as overwhelming bodily awareness before they became a rational(ised) decision.

I also like the idea of making it up as you go along in response to the situation as it emerges - it's generally my modus operandi...

You might also enjoy Malcolm Guite's Epiphany poems - he makes use of complex imagery and metre. I've been enjoying them so far...
Greetings once more. Thanks again for the comments and a pointer to Malcolm's Epiphany poems. I'm not sure if you know but if you click on the link below or on the right hand side of this blog you'll find a few performances of one of the bands I'm in that we did with Malcolm a couple of years ago at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My favourite poem remains "Saying the Names" which is there - in a couple of versions I think. There are also a couple of performances with Ruth Padel up there.

Yewtree said…
I'll check it out - getting broadband and a landline installed tomorrow (at last!)

I thought you might already know each other, both being in Cambridge.

Oh yes, Saying the Names is beuatiful isn't it? There are some lovely phrases and images in it. Good alliteration too.