Practising our surfing skills for Advent & Christmas — An Advent meditation on the thought that something new may always be about to appear in our world

READINGS:
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 1955 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.

—o0o—

I’m acutely aware that many, perhaps most of us here today, are entering this season of Advent and Christmas feeling a powerful and debilitating mix of dread and anxiety. Brexit, Trump, unstable financial, economic and political institutions everywhere, Islamist terrorism, the refugee crisis, Syria, a revanchist Russia, Marine le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland, global warming and many other things beside are hanging over us like latter day swords of Damocles.

But, as we begin to approach the season traditionally known to us as one of peace and goodwill toward men in which we await the birth of a new creation, a new hope for humankind in the myth concerning the birth of the Christ-child, we must be careful not to waste the real opportunities presented by this season by burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the dangers and threats we face are not real and present. Let’s be honest with each other and acknowledge they are never going to be properly addressed if, during the next five weeks, we only engage together in mere sentimental, festive whistling in the wind.

Instead, in this season of alert and expectant preparation and waiting for the coming “new creation”, it is surely incumbent upon us to ascertain whether or not our hope that a different world to the one we are currently inhabiting can appear remains in some way real or true (enough). I have written this address believing that this hope is, indeed, true (enough) to help us walk bravely, and even at times joyously, not only through the darkest time of the year, but also, perhaps, through the darkest period of human history we all will have personally ever known.

So, as you heard in our readings, the theologian Paul Tillich thought this “new creation” was the Christian message for our times. We’ll come to what Tillich thought the “new creation” was towards the end of this address, but, firstly, we need to acknowledge that many things today hinder us from fully entering into this alert and expectant state where we can live with real hope that there can break into our world some kind of “new creation” that can turn our world around or upside down.

Part of the reason for this is, of course, because of the widespread loss of belief in the existence of another, separate, transcendent, divine world and this, in turn, cuts against taking seriously any myth or story which seems to be speaking seriously about the possibility that something new may break *into* our world from the *outside* — as do, of course, the Advent and Christmas stories.

One negative psychological effect of losing this belief is that it makes many people feel as if they are powerlessly trapped and imprisoned inside a wholly predetermined world of things and events, a feeling 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.”

Although from a certain naturalistic perspective — from which I generally write these days — it seems true that there is never anything new under the sun but, from another perspective, it is clear that the same reality can show up to us under many new and different aspects, moods or modes. So, in this more colloquial sense, we may say there always-already remains available to us another world, namely, this world seen and experienced differently. In short, and again colloquially speaking, we may say from our human perspective that something new is, potentially anyway, always-already able suddenly to “break-in” to, or “appear”, in our world.

Wittgenstein offered us a simple everyday illustration of what might otherwise be a puzzling process at work. His duck/rabbit picture helps us see is that, without the facts of the world changing in any shape or form, one way of looking at those facts  will show them up as being a picture of a duck whilst another way of looking at those same facts will show them up as a rabbit. It is not that one of these pictures 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/facts can often show up to us in very different ways.

OK. Keep Wittgenstein’s thought in mind and now consider this additional thought. 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 speaks about 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 (those who are astonished but not surprised) 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.

So let’s pull Wittgenstein’s, Ingold’s, and Tillich’s thoughts together so as to begin to move towards my theme of Advent hope — the new creation.

Now, in the case of the duck/rabbit picture, not much of importance hangs on being able to see a squiggly line and a dot change appearance from a duck to a rabbit.

However, it’s going to make one hell of a lot of difference to how you feel and are able to act if, on the one hand, you suddenly stop seeing the world as one where “there is nothing new under the sun” and in which we are all inexorably going to hell in a handcart and, on the other hand, you suddenly begin (ow and them) to see the self-same world as ever unfolding in some creative fashion that can be surfed joyously by you under the very same same sun, as our crazy Californian Christmas couple are depicted as doing in the illustration at the head of this blog.

Also, insofar as they have learnt how “to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity” (not only as surfers of course but as ordinary human beings) something new is always likely to show up to them and, when it happens they are generally never surprised, but only astonished.

Now I can turn directly to my Advent and Christmas theme, that of “New Creation.”

It seems to me that only when we learn to become something like that crazy Christmas surfing couple that we will be able, not only to begin properly preparing ourselves this Advent for the genuine possibility and hope that our world can suddenly shown up differently to the dreadful way it does right now, but also to sense that in undertaking this Advent preparation in the right spirit we are, in some remarkable and mysterious way, already beginning to participate in this “new being” or “new creation” symbolised by in the myth of the Christ-child. (Remember, the new creation for which we await and look is unlikely solely to be found in the form of another baby for the "Christ-child" is simply a placeholder for the new creation. Consequently we have to learn how to recognise it in whatever form it "breaks-in" or "appears" in our world.  

So how do we recognise that this new creation or being has come and is present? Well, for Tillich it bears three marks by which we will know it in ourselves.

The first mark is “reconciliation”. As you might expect Tillich uses throughout his famous essay the name of “God.” (NB, as I quote Tillich, please remember that I think it’s perfectly legitimate to use instead the words “reality” or “nature”.) So, Tillich tells us that the

“. . . message of reconciliation is: Be reconciled to God [reality]. Cease to be hostile to Him [reality], for He [reality] is never hostile to you. The message of reconciliation is not that God [reality] needs to be reconciled. How could He [reality] be? Since He [reality] is the source and power of reconciliation, who could reconcile Him [reality]?”

Tillich seems essentially to be saying here that in order to experience a new creation we must, firstly, learn to accept the world, reality, nature, the universe as it is as a whole and to be thoroughly reconciled to this whole difficult though that may always be. As the great nineteenth-century American transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, once memorably encouraged, we need to learn how to say and mean: “I accept the Universe!”

(To return to our surfing image it is, I think to necessary to be reconciled to the fact that sea upon which we surf, that lifts us up and gives us being as surfers, will always be being what it will always be being with all its complex changing appearances.)

The second mark of the new creation is for Tillich, reunion, “in which the separated is reunited.”

Essentially, I take Tillich here to be reminding us that to experience the new creation we must not only accept reality as it always-already is, but consciously and with care, judgment and sensitivity we must enter fully into it’s play of appearance, to throw ourselves into the world fully aware that we are, in the end, intimately part and parcel of the whole.

(To keep to our surfing image this is to recognise we can’t possibly surf unless we throw ourselves and our surfboard bodily into the sea and, through the exercise of care, judgment and sensitivity, begin to respond to the never ceasing flux of the ocean. The new creation is simply not available to those who refuse properly participate by getting on their surfboards like our crazy Californian Christmas surfers.)

The third mark of the new creation is, for Tillich, resurrection. He notes that “‘resurrection’ has for many people the connotation of dead bodies leaving their graves or other fanciful images.” But, he goes on to say, resurrection really means

“. . . the victory of the New state of things, the New Being born out of the death of the Old. Resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow. Where there is a New Being, there is resurrection, namely, the creation into eternity out of every moment of time. The Old Being has the mark of disintegration and death. The New Being puts a new mark over the old one. Out of disintegration and death something is born of eternal significance. That which is immersed in dissolution emerges in a New Creation. Resurrection happens now, or it does not happen at all. It happens in us and around us, in soul and history, in nature and universe.”

(To keep to our surfing image this is to recognise that the expert surfer is always-already being born-again every second of their ride so long as, at every moment, they are seeking to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity.) 

Tillich concludes his important essay by saying:

“Reconciliation, reunion, resurrection — this is the New Creation, the New Being, the New state of things. Do we participate in it? The message of Christianity is not Christianity, but a New Reality. A New state of things has appeared, it still appears; it is hidden and visible, it is there and it is here. Accept it, enter into it, let it grasp you.”

Hard though it may be fully to grasp in these dark times, Tillich is saying that this New Creation is a real, present and future hope for those of us who are prepared to mount (figuratively speaking) our surfboards and who, prepared to be astonished but not surprised, risk stepping out into reality to catch the wave of a universe ever in flux (natura naturans).

If you are able to take such a risk I think you’ll be astonished, but I hope not surprised, at the New Creation(s) you may begin to see appear this Christmas in all kinds of places and things. As Tillich says, let them grasp you. Our duty will then be to slowly and patiently work with this New Reality letting it help us discern ways to leave behind the dark and hopeless ways of being we see so much in our current, old world.

Happy Advent!


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