Advent for free-spirits—the bloom and the magic of things that are nearest

A spot of sunlight shining through the trees in Wells-next-the-Sea
READINGS: Luke 2:13-14:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

From “History” by R. W. Emerson. Used as the epigraph to the first edition of Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” (1882):

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. 

Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1886 preface to “Human, All-Too-Human” (1879):

A step further in convalescence: and the free spirit again draws near to life—slowly, to be sure, almost reluctantly, almost mistrustfully. It again grows warmer around him, yellower, as it were; feeling and feeling for others acquire depth, warm breezes of all kinds blow across him. It seems to him as if his eyes are only now open to what is close at hand. He is astonished and sits silent: where had he been? These close and closest things: how changed they seemed! what bloom and magic they have acquired! He looks back gratefully—grateful to his wandering, to his hardness and self-alienation, to his viewing of far distances and bird-like flights in cold heights. What a good thing he had not always stayed “at home,” stayed “under his own roof” like a delicate apathetic loafer! He had been beside himself: no doubt of that. Only now does he see himself—and what surprises he experiences as he does so! What unprecedented shudders! What happiness even in the weariness, the old sickness, the relapses of the convalescent! How he loves to sit sadly still, to spin out patience, to lie in the sun! Who understands as he does the happiness that comes in winter, the spots of sunlight on the wall! They are the most grateful animals in the world, also the most modest, these convalescents and lizards again half turned towards life:—there are some among them who allow no day to pass without hanging a little song of praise on the hem of its departing robe. And, speaking seriously, it is a radical cure for all pessimism (the well-known disease of old idealists and falsehood-mongers) to become ill after the manner of these free spirits, to remain ill a good while, and then grow well (I mean “better”) for a still longer period. It is wisdom, practical wisdom, to prescribe even health for oneself for a long time only in small doses (trans. R.  J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986).


Our four-and-a-half century old church Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian tradition has, at times, consciously been able to understand itself as attempting to be a church of the free spirit and we have seen ourselves as attempting to become children of the free spirit. In these disorientating, unhealthy and uncanny times (“unheimlich” as the Germans would say) this is a self-identification to which I’m minded consciously to return because through it we may best be helped to find a way back to “a great health” — a health with which this address will conclude.

But we have rarely articulated, either to ourselves or to others, any basic schema that can help a person see the process through which they may have to go in order to achieve the status of a genuinely free spirit. Well, this Advent I’m minded to suggest and explore the possibility that Nietzsche gave us one. In what follows I’m following Gordon Bearn’s take on the matter found in his book, “Waking to Wonder”.

A spot of sunlight shining through the trees in Wells-next-the-Sea
Nietzsche’s schema goes through four stages and offers us a genealogy of the free spirit and, whilst Susanna and I were away in Wells (and I was reading and reflecting on the first chapter of Bearn’s book) it struck me that our relationship with the Christmas story was a good and comprehensible way to explore this genealogy. This is because in our complex relationship with Christmas it is clear that many of us have ourselves gone through some of Nietzsche's four phases. So let’s briefly walk through them. (If you want to explore this in more detail the opening chapter is freely available online courtesy of SUNY Press).

We start with (i) The artificial metaphysical comfort of the family hearth. Drawing on Nietzsche's book, "Human, All Too-Human" (subtitled "A Book For Free Spirits") Bearn notes that:

“Those who will become free spirits do not begin by being sick, but by being healthy, they are in fact bound by ‘what fetters fastest’: by their dutiful reverence for their elders, their country, their teachers, and for ‘the holy place where they learned to worship’ (Human, All-Too Human, P par. 3). They are fettered by all those ideals that warm one to the family hearth. These ideals are normally taken to be of the highest value, and so Nietzsche can write of those who will be free spirits that ’their highest moments themselves will fetter them the fastest, lay upon them the most enduring obligations’ (Human, All-Too Human, P par. 3)” (Bearn: “Awakening to Wonder”, p.4). 

Christmas is a season full of countless things we have found to be good and valuable and it is often celebrated around the winter warmth of the family hearth which echoes to the comforting old stories of Emmanuel, the God above who was with us on earth for a short time. Here is the holy place where many of us first learnt to worship. It’s a holy hearth surrounded (in ideal anyway) with gift-giving amongst families and friends gathering to drink and to eat in convivial ways at the darkest time of the year. In so many ways we can say Christmas has been one of our life’s “highest moments” (especially when we were children) and this is why it “fetters us the fastest” and lays upon us an enduring obligation because it feels only natural that such a warm, comforting, ideal celebration binds us to it and we don’t want to let it go.

But so much has happened in our own lives and culture during the last century that (ii) has ensured we, and our holy festival, has succumbed to the sickness of nihilism in which there has been a “hateful assault on everything that had seemed so comforting.” It comes upon most of us at one time or another that this festival is, in truth, empty — merely pasteboard and filigree. The natural sciences and philosophy have quietly been at work and persuaded many of us that the God of old is a mere chimera; historical-critical research has persuaded us that the Christmas stories contain, not neutral, historical facts but are, instead, creative, uneven and inconsistent human myths and legends; the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism have created pressures that have contributed greatly to the fracturing of extended family networks and have simultaneously turned the equal and free-exchange of gifts into a multi-billion pound industry concerned, not with exchange, but only with unequal competition; so much of the food and drink we consume on this day has been effected in the same way and today we share together not so much the fruits of the local fields tended by local farmers but the products of globalised and highly mechanised factory farms whose workers are utterly unknown to us and about whom we often care little or nothing. All in all, if you are anything like me, this (and much more besides) has meant that there have been many times in the past when I have expended most of my energy, not in preparing happily for Christmas, but in warding it off until the very last minute when, utterly exhausted by the defensive effort, I have finally given in to the pressure and spent the twenty-four hours of Christmas Day pretending that all is well.

Sometimes it has felt as if this sickness were going to be one unto death but, like Bearn/Nietzsche, a real hope, an educated hope (docta spes), has always remained alive deep in my being and feels there is a way to move beyond this awful state of affairs to a much better state of being. As did Nietzsche, I, too, have discovered that, if you are able survive the long, deep and painful nihilistic assault, miracle of miracles, it becomes possible (iii) to begin to convalesce in two phases.

The first phase is a cool one, one in which Bearn/Nietzsche suggest that “the convalescent lives without any love but also without any hatred. The cooler convalescent — neither dead nor alive — floats above the earth.” This seems to me to describe well the moments I’m sure we have all felt when we are able to detach ourselves from the whole sorry show and we begin to look at the season as if from a great height. As Bearns/Nietzsche says:

“Everything is small. Everything is flat. Nothing matters. This is the mood equally of a scientist sure ours is a world of valueless facts and of those literary characters who float through a world from which they have been estranged and which they look on with a species of tender contempt” (Bearn, p. 8).

I can certainly remember many years of my life spent in this phase in which I have walked through shops and Christmas markets, through family and church gatherings, feeling utterly detached, looking on everything with no love nor any hatred, but certainly with a species of tender, knowing contempt.

However, though this cold phase is necessary to pass through, it is obvious that it can hardly bring full health because, although there is here sunlight — a kind of clear, enlightening light — it is the kind of sunlight found only in the highest and coldest altitudes of detachment. After a while it becomes apparent that if one is to continue convalescing one must come back to earth “where the sun warms.” As you heard earlier, here’s how Niezsche puts this descent in “Human, All-Too Human”:

“It again grows warmer around him, yellower, as it were; feeling and feeling for others acquire depth, warm breezes of all kinds blow across him. It seems to him as if his eyes are only now open to what is *near*. He is astonished and sits silent: where *had* he been? These near and nearest things: how changed they seem! what bloom and magic they have acquired!” (HH I, P par. 5, quoted in Bearn, p. 8).

Coming back down to earth in this warmer phase of convalescence it becomes possible to see and feel amidst the shops and Christmas markets, and in family and church gatherings, “spots of [warming] sunlight” in which begin to appear the “bloom and magic of things that are nearest” (Bearn, p. 14) things that, before, had been obscured from your sight. Warmed in these occasional spots of sunlight one’s eyes begin to open, and one begins to see so many people near at hand trying their hardest to be good, kind and decent human beings despite still being amidst the pasteboard and filigree of the modern, neoliberal world. (Next week I may explore this warm phase of convalescence a little more deeply.)

Lastly, this warmth gives us the hope of entering, (iv), the final phase of great health in which a person is able to live completely and fully in these moments of natural warmth through their life. As Bearns says, “This spirit freed from the tradition that seeks metaphysical comforts is surprised by a new happiness and a new love for all that is delicate. The great health is a life attuned to what is near”. This attitude is seen most clearly expressed in the epigraph by one of our own, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that Nietzsche chose to grace the first edition of his “Gay Science”:

“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine” (Emerson: History).

To draw to a close, we can turn to the expressed traditional aim of the Advent season, namely, the Christ-child in the crib. I hope you can see that for Nietzsche/Bearn “the great health” only comes with “the acceptance of the value of this world, the earth, of the little things that are nearest to us” and in which state we are able to live “as neighbour to precisely the things that the metaphysical tradition only found valuable as indictors of another metaphysical world” (Bearn, p. 32).

But, alas, today we know that the Christ-child of Christianity is simply an “indictor of another metaphysical world” and this means that a free spirit, whether still convalescing in occasional warm spots of sunlight (as I think I am), or ruddy with “the great health” (in which I hope, one-day, to be), will not be seeking to visit the old Christian crib-side. Not at all! The crib-side towards which the free-spirit walks in Advent is that only that which contains living, mortal human children in this world. It was as a reminder of this Advent aim that we sang today the hymn we will sing on Christmas Day, “The Universal Incarnation”, by John Andrew Storey (1935-1997):

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

(You can download a pdf copy of a selection of John Andrew Storey's writing at this link)

Personally, I can see no other way having a genuine hope of achieving the end imagined in the ancient song, “Goodwill to all, and peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), than by bravely letting go of the “old hearth health” offered by Christianity which saw our salvation only in another world and being consciously prepared to suffer the sickness of nihilism that, in turn, encourages us towards a convalescence which promises “the great health” of the free spirit. Only such free-spirits fully understand that the salvation we have long sought in another world is to be found in this world, in “the bloom and the magic of things that are nearest” — not least of all, in our beloved children.