Practising our surfing skills for Christmas - An Advent meditation

From an essay entitled "The Republic of Heaven" by Philip Pullman:

We need a myth, we need a story, because it's no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it's reasonable. How much effect would the Bible have had for generations and generations if it had just been a collection of laws and genealogies? What seized the mind and captured the heart were the stories it contains.

Galatians 6:15
For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!

2 Corinthians 5:17
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

From Paul Tillich's sermon "New Being"
If I were asked to sum up the Christian message for our time in two words, I would say with Paul: It is the message of a "New Creation." We have read something of the New Creation in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Let me repeat one of his sentences in the words of an exact translation: If anyone is in union with Christ he is a new being: the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things. Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things. 

We all live in the old state of things, and the question asked of us by our text is whether we also participate in the new state of things. We belong to the Old Creation, and the demand made upon us by Christianity is that we also participate in the New Creation. We have known ourselves in our old being, and we shall ask ourselves in this hour whether we also have experienced something of the New Being in ourselves. 


This morning we enter again into the season of Advent, a time of what should be alert and expectant preparation for a “new creation”, that astonishing moment when a new way of being suddenly breaks into our world. Paul Tillich, as you heard, thought this “new creation” was the Christian message for our times.

But many things in our own age hinders us from entering into this alert and expectant state let alone actually going on to experience ourselves this new creation.

Today, our secular culture tends to view the Advent and Christmas stories, if and when they are viewed at all, as at best picturesque and somewhat old-fashioned tales or, at worst, superstitious and unhealthy fairy stories that really could (should?) be edited out of our cultural memory and replaced with something more reasoned and so more plausible and useful.

Part of the reason this has occurred is because of an important cultural situation that we should take time to notice. With the development of the natural sciences and the associated widespread loss of belief in the reality of another separate, transcendent, divine world - a loss of belief I certainly share in - there slowly developed the idea that we lived in what has often been described as a "closed world." That is to say that, since the natural universe is everything there is, nothing meaningfully can be said to be "outside", or can be said to "transcend", it. More colloquially we may say that our culture has come to feel that there is no such thing as "heaven and earth" there is only "earth".

This, in turn, has encouraged the development of the idea that a "theory of everything" can be worked out by us which would not only fully explain and link together all known physical phenomena but could also predict the outcome of any experiment that, in principle, we might carry out.

It should be obvious that such a cultural background threatens to, and has generally succeeded in, rendering powerless and meaningless any myth or story which seems to be speaking of something new breaking *into* our world from the *outside* - as do, of course, the stories of Advent and Christmas.

When we say the world is "closed" an image that quickly occurs to many, if not most, people is of being inside some kind of hermetically sealed totality. In it's simplest form it's felt as like being on the inside of a gigantic football that has no outside! You might want to nuance that thought by making some appeal to complex non-euclidean geometries in which space-time folds back in on itself in decidedly non-football like ways, but the psychological point I'm trying to make remains, namely, that there is no outside realm from which something new can break into our world. This can feel - and often does to many people - like being trapped and imprisoned in a wholly predetermined world of things and events. This feeling was perhaps no better expressed than by old Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9-10):

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has been already, in the ages before us."

But is this necessarily how the world shows up to us and does this viewpoint adequately speak about our way of being in it? I don't think it does.

In an essay entitled "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) the British anthropologist Tim Ingold says something helpful when he makes a distinction between "surprise" and "astonishment." Here is how he presents surprise:

"Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made."

Ingold then goes on to say:

"By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves them vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity."

To Ingold's mind this latter group of people are best described as those who "ride the crest of the world's continued birth" (Ingold p. 19) and it's from this thought that, today, I derive the image of surfing - surfers are people who quite literally do this.

Before we go on, let's go to one of my favourite teaching aids, Wittgenstein's duck/rabbit picture. What this illustration helps us see is that, without the facts of the world changing, one way of looking at those facts (in this case a squiggly line and dot) will show them up as being a duck. However, another way of looking at those same facts shows them up as a rabbit. It is not that one of them is more or less true to the unchanging facts of the world than the other, it is simply to see and say that the same world can show up to us under very different aspects. It is also vital to see that when you could only see a duck you could have no preconceived idea that a rabbit would suddenly show up and, of course, vice versa. (It’s worth taking some time to decide whether you are surprised or astonished by this . . .)

Now, in the case of the duck/rabbit picture seeing a change from duck to rabbit is, perhaps, not going to make a significant change to your life (though seeing that this aspect change could occur was a very important moment for me). However, it's going to make a great deal of difference to how you feel and act if the basic idea that there is no other, transcendent world is experienced by you as being trapped inside a fixed, football-like world or creatively and joyously riding the crest of the world's continued birth.

To the latter kind of person, insofar as they have learnt how "to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity", something new is always promising to show up to them and they are consequently never surprised, only astonished, when something new and hitherto unimagined does, in fact, suddenly show up. And here we can begin to move back to the Advent and Christmas theme. But we’ll get there via the surfer.

It's not quite right to say that a new, astonishing experience of riding a wave simply breaks *into* the world from *outside* because the surfer, in their actual act of being in the world on their surfboard atop a wave is both the *place* where a new creation astonishingly breaks in and also, as themselves along with the wave, they are an integral *part* of that new creation. I think Brian Wilson naively and beautifully catches something of this in many of his songs and, in "Surfer Girl", it's visible in the line "We could ride the surf together / While our love would grow". It seems to me that Wilson senses that riding a wave together with his girl is both the *place* where their new love astonishingly breaks "in" to the world and also that he, his girl and the wave are simultaneously integral *aspects* of this new and growing love - their new creation together.

Now the seasons of Advent and Christmas are also, surely, very much concerned with the "breaking in" to our world of such a new creation, a new love that astonishingly shows up the world to us in a completely new way such that what we see at the crib-side really feels, can really be said to be, a new creation. Standing by the manger a world of facts which once looked like a duck now looks wholly unexpectedly like a rabbit - or to locate it in imagery this season - the world which looked old, tired and hopeless is suddenly lit up by the light of the Christ-child in such a way that the world is now new, energised and hopeful.

But for the Advent story, if it is to turn into the Christmas story with its moment of astonishing New Creation, must, itself, be surfed by us rather like a wave.

Waves come into the shore endlessly, again and again and one might be tempted to follow Koheleth and say of it "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." But the true surfer knows something different - they know you have to get on the wave together if you are to learn to ride the crest of the world's continued birth.

Advent comes in again and again each year and it is tempting also to say of it "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." But the true surfer of these stories and myths, like Philip Pullman, knows something different. They know you have to inhabit the story together if you are to learn to ride the crest of the world's continued birth.

I feel fairly certain that Pullman would agree with me that, although for many of us today there is no other world, there is *another* world, it is *this* world seen differently. Surfers know this intimately and so, too, do all those who know how to ride the crest of a story's telling.

Only those who are willing creatively to enter the surf or the world of these stories will know directly the astonishing "breaking in" of a new creation that in Wilson's song is symbolised in the growing love between him and his surfer girl and, on Christmas Day, in the story of new creation that has broken into the world in the form of the Christ-child in his manger. They only know it because they are at the right place and, together with all that is happening, they are themselves part of the new creation.

So, today, I invite you to mount your seasonal surfboards (the Advent stories) and for us to catch a wave together. You’ll be astonished if you do.