Christmas Day 2015: Staying close to the bloom and magic of things that are nearest

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church last night after the service
Readings: Luke 2:1-20

From “History” by R. W. Emerson. Used as the epigraph to the first edition of Nietzsche’s “Gay Science” (1879):

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.

The Christians who move on by Cliff Reed, written for an ICUU Executive Committee meeting, Weston, MA, April 2002:

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving behind what cannot be retained:
the creeds written to cement a long dead empire;
the justification for slavery, genocide and witch-burning; the refusal to hear other people’s truth;
an idolised book, a man diminished to a god.

We leave these behind and move on,
not in arrogance, not unaware of tradition’s worth, not creating new bigotries as bad as the old ones,
or so we hope!

We move on,
carrying with us the free and timeless heart of Jesus,
faithful to what was said and done in love for liberty by him, by those who follow him, by those who give his spirit voice and flesh in every time and place.

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving even the name behind, maybe,
a name that Jesus never knew.

We are the Christians who move on,
Seeking and sharing the divine heart in everyone,
as Jesus did.


Address: Staying close to the bloom and magic of things that are nearest

As our opening meditation by the Unitarian minister Cliff Reed (the single most important, personal,  Unitarian influence on me) revealed, for the most part we are a community made up primarily (but not exclusively) of Christians who have moved on.

But there has always been the vexing question how we might best undertake this moving on and being tomorrow what we are not today? As most of you know I strongly resist any attempts to overcome our past by engaging in a process of überwindung, one which seeks to replace Christianity with some new, strong religious structure of whatever kind. This would be simply to stand our old strong religion “on its head” and attempt to lay another strong foundation for yet one more problematic religious structure. May we be saved from this folly.

And so, instead, I have long advocated that we engage in a process of verwindung, that is to say a process of weakening, twisting and reinterpreting our inherited religion so that, eventually, we will come out in a radically different place and, we hope, as gentle and open-hearted and minded free spirits.

To engage in this process of weakening, twisting and reinterpreting is, as Gianni Vattimo said, to be a convalescent from our “metaphysical malady” (cf. Vattimo “Dialogue with Nietzsche”, trans. William McCuaig, New York, Columbia University Press 2006, p. 151).

So, at the beginning of Advent, I introduced you to Nietzsche’s schema of convalescence from our metaphysical malady. This process should be, I think, the primary religious discipline on offer in a free church like this and this means that, as your minister, I am not in the business of helping you to become idealists, pragmatists, existentialists, Christians, sceptics, agnostics, atheists or even Unitarians (whatever that might be) but, instead, only free spirits who dare to encounter (and come to love) reality without mediator or veil.

It seems to me that on Christmas Day we have a perfect opportunity to engage creatively and joyfully in a little bit of verwindung that can greatly help our convalescence and move us just a little closer to the great health of the free spirit.

The Nativity at Night
To do this we’re going to weaken, twist and reinterpret our use of a five-hundred and thirty year-old devotional painting called “The Nativity at Night” (c.1490) by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (click on the picture to enlarge it). It seems that the picture was deliberately painted with a space in the foreground so the observer — today that's you as a convalescent from your “metaphysical malady” — may join the holy family, the angels, shepherds and animals by the crib-side on this happy morn. And it’s to that crib-side that we’ll soon be heading.

But first, let us recall the stages through which Nietzsche’s thinks we must travel before we can become free-spirits.

Remember, Nietzsche thought the journey started with “the hearth health” of our old inherited religious tradition which, even though it once gifted us with things we thought were of the highest value, we have come to know that it “fetters us the fastest”, it keep us captive to old ways and beliefs that simply no longer work for us in this post-modern world.

As we look at this nativity scene this morning most of us here today will be acutely aware we can never again stand before it with the hearth health of either our forebears or that of our naive, childhood years. But, as we look at the picture, most of us will still be capable of feeling some kind of emotional sentimental desire to hold on in some way to the old faith that inspired this painting. We can, perhaps, still feel how easily the old faith might come to fetter us the fastest, indeed, how it still fetters fast so many people in the world today.

But it is the recognition of our own loss of faith in the old hearth health that — whenever it comes — brings on the second phase, one in which we enter a time of profound sickness, the dreadful sickness of nihilism in which there is “the hateful assault on everything that had seemed so comforting.” It's a time when nothing counts, everything seems utterly meaningless and there is only anomie and emptiness. Recalling the depths of our own sickness perhaps there will have been many times when you yourself might have looked upon this depiction of the nativity with a species of disgust, seeing in it merely one more example of the sentimental and coercive propaganda produced by a corrupt and wholly false religion. In this sickness we find ourselves living the kind of life Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) thought most people lived, one of quiet desperation.

As many of us are aware, our own age as a whole still seems dangerously and deeply mired in this nihilistic mood.  But for those of us who come to understand this sickness as necessary (because it so effectively breaks the fetters that once bound us and is, therefore, radically freeing and transformative) then we are able slowly to begin to enter into a period of real convalescence which has two phases — one cool, one warm.

The first, cool phase, is one of detachment where:

“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 [also] 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).

And not the mood of the (convalescent) scientist only, but also that of the (convalescent) art critic, historical, critical theologian, philosopher and social anthropologist. We no longer hate the picture but can lnow ook upon it cooly, as if from a great and chilly height, seeing it a fine example of, say, Early Netherlandish painting. We can admire from a distance the painter’s technique and his imaginative use of an old legend about the mystic Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373) who “saw the child in [the Virgin’s] womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it.”

In this cool phase of convalescence we do not, of course  believe this story for one minute, indeed we look upon it with a species of tender contempt, but the point is we can begin to look upon once more.

The warm, second phase, is one in which we recognise that if our convalescence is to continue then we must find ways to come back to earth “where the sun warms.” In our readings you heard once again how Nietzsche in his book, “Human, All-Too Human”, beautifully puts this descent to earth.

Warming up, you can now stand before the picture in a very different way. Yes, you remain grateful for the important and vital insights gained in your earlier chillier phase of convalescence but, as you look again at the faces in the painting, feeling and feeling for others acquires depth, and warm breezes of all kinds blow across you. It seems to you as if your eyes are only now open to what is close at hand. You are astonished and sit silent: where had you been? “These close and closest things: how changed they seemed! what bloom and magic they have acquired!”

But is this warmth, this bloom and magic, not merely an indication of a return to the old hearth heath? Not at all because you cannot undo the transformative sickness of nihilism you have gone through; neither can you throw away the chilly detached knowledge you gained in the first period of your convalescence. You are a changed creature, one only just beginning to warm up to life and health again.  

These moments of warmth before the painting are, at first, short lived. Chilly but tender contempt will from time to time assuredly return. It may also be that, like malaria, the hateful sickness of nihilism will return now and then, laying you low for weeks at a time. However, you are genuinely convalescing now and you notice that the occasional moments of warm sunlight come more frequently than they used to. This gives you real hope that, in time, you may slowly be led into the “great health”, a state in which, as Emerson put it (and which Nietzsche quoted on the title page of the first edition of “The 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).

You also begin to see on your best days you are now able to live “as neighbour to precisely the things that the metaphysical tradition only found valuable as indictors of another metaphysical world” (Bearn: “Awakening to Wonder”, p. 32).

And with this insight in mind, we are finally ready to come today, to this crib side.

The tragedy of Christianity is that around its old hearth the Christ-child became precisely this, a mere “indictor of another metaphysical world.” Our old religion still encourages us, not to rest our eyes upon the face of that real, little human child nearest to us in the crib, but only to see through the child’s surface to what we were told was a more valuable kind of being than our own, namely God, and through to a more valuable world than our own, namely heaven. But you are now cured — or at least very nearly cured — of this metaphysical malady.

You, a free spirit in the making, can now see something different because you no longer feel the need to look through the child to an imaginary being and world but are able to stop on the child’s beautiful human surface and rest in the warm bloom and the magic of its simple, yet astonishing presence before you. You begin to understand that the rays of light emanating from Jesus are not from another world but are the natural rays of light which help us see, not another world, but this world seen differently, one in which we are able to recognise warm bloom and the magic, not only of the child, but of the countless other little things that are nearest to us today: human friendship and companionship, a shared look, touch, word and song, a shared meal and drink. As a free spirit in the making all these things also become simple, yet utterly astonishing presences for which one is almost overcome with astonishment and gratitude — the astonishment and gratitude that there is something not nothing.

We begin to see, as Heidegger saw, that “When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: the world holds forth” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8). And this in turn reveals to us a startling and hopeful truth, beautifully summed up by Thomas Sheehan, that “there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning” (ibid. p. 8).

We begin to understand that we don’t need another metaphysical world properly to celebrate Christmas and for it to be filled with meaning, all that is required is that we see this world differently and have the courage to remain with these close and closest things, things that have acquired for us such bloom and magic.

On this Christmas morn I hope we can all say along with Nietzsche, “Who understands as [we do] the happiness that comes in winter, the spots of sunlight on the wall!” And may we rest together in the warmth of this day as “the most grateful animals in the world” and also “the most modest”, we free-spirits in the making, we “convalescents and lizards”.

Happy Christmas to you all.