What was, must be tested — some (positive) Christian atheist reflections on the seasons of Advent & Christmas
|The Magi on their way to Bethlehem to honour the newly born Jesus—Annie Vallotton|
One of the things has often stuck me as being odd about the season of Advent (a word which simply means “to come”) is the fact that the coming for which we, and the cast of familiar Christmas characters are waiting, namely, the birth of Jesus, is now two-thousand years behind us. I say that those waiting are, to us, familiar characters, but is this true anymore? I fear not. So, lest there be any doubt, let me list them now. In addition to the baby Jesus they are, his step-father Joseph and his mother Mary, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her priest husband Zechariah, the so-called “Three Kings” (though they are more more properly to be called Magi, “wise men” from the east), assorted shepherds and angels and, of course, the villain of the story, King Herod. To this, thanks especially to once traditional nativity scenes and plays, we must also add the odd ox and donkey.
It would be unfair and remiss of me here not to point out that in orthodox readings of Christianity the oddity of which I have just spoken is avoided by claiming that, in our own age, rehearsing the ancient story of waiting for the coming of Jesus helps us better to wait for the second-coming of Jesus, that is to say the Christ of Christianity. However, if like me, this idea is utterly implausible then we are left with the need to do something with the oddity that the coming we are waiting for during this season does, indeed, seem to be a very, very long way behind us.
Given this, if Advent and Christmas is all only about a long past, and an almost certainly mythical account of, waiting for the coming birth of Jesus, then why on earth do we keep returning to these ancient stories in our post-Christendom age? Of course, often the answer is simply that we return to them for merely sentimental, psychological reasons which, additionally, help us pretend that the festive winter season is something more than merely an excuse to engage in a period of out of control, self-medicating consumption, the beginning of which is now marked by the relatively new anti-festival called “Black Friday.” But might there be another, more serious reason to return to these stories? One which senses that within them there remains something undischarged which continues truly to speak, albeit in an untraditional way, about a genuinely possible better human future which may still be coming?
Something that has long been of great help to me in thinking through and tentatively answering these questions is a book first published in 1972 by the twentieth-century German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). It’s called “Atheism in Christianity” and in it he wrote the following:
What was, must be tested. It does not hold good of itself, however familiar, for it lies behind us. It holds good only so far as the Where-to continues to live before us in the thing itself. If the link binding backwards is false, it must be cut. All the more so if it was never true, but simply a shackle (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, original ed. 1972, pp. 71–72).
Bloch’s words clearly suggest that when it comes to the ancient stories of the Bible, such as the ones we tell at Advent and Christmas, one vital thing we must ascertain before we are tempted finally to cut the links that bind us to them, is to ask what undischarged “Where-to” might still be found in them?
He felt that the Bible contains within it a major strand which, again and again, encourages us not to go back the way we came but, instead, to follow the path of our own free choice. This is, of course to become heretics because, remember, the word “heresy” (derived from the Greek αἵρεσις, haíresis) simply means “choice” or “thing chosen.” Indeed, one of the most famous quotes found in the book is his claim that “The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.”
To illustrate this following the path of our own free choice he uses the Old Testament example of Ruth, but we can see that the Advent and Christmas stories do something similar. You will recall that, after finding Jesus and giving him their gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold, the Magi return home by a different route. In doing this they freely choose not to acquiesce to Herod’s demand to let him know where Jesus was to be found so he could kill the child whom he believed would become a threat to his kingly power. You will also recall that neither do Mary and Joseph return to their home in Nazareth by the same route but, instead, flee with Jesus to Egypt as refugees. In both these cases we see a free (if always extremely challenging and stressful) choice being made by people who wish to affirm a way of being in the world which is characterised, not by the oppressive strength and power wielded by Rome, or someone like King Herod, but by what St Paul (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10, 1 Corinthians 1:25), and certain, much later philosophers and theologians (like Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo) call the “weakness of God”, a type of positive and creative weakness, the strength of which is, of course, epitomised by both the vulnerable, new born Jesus, and the just and loving form of life he later encouraged in adulthood.
Bloch next points to Jesus and suggests that, like Ruth, “Jesus’ goodness is [also] closely tied to his ability to strike off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition.” In Jesus’ case this is, of course, to strike off heretically from the traditions of the orthodox Judaism of his own time. Bloch goes on to suggest that, analogously, our own goodness is closely tied to our ability to do something similar and to strike off at a singularly sharp and heretical angle, away from the orthodoxies of our own present-day religious traditions, which, for most of the members of the Cambridge Unitarian Church where I am minister and wider British and American culture in general despite its secularity, is Christianity.
That the Bible (and within it, Jesus) may be saying something like this may come as a surprise — even a shock — to some people but, as Bloch says elsewhere in his book: “There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.” And, although this book has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful, it is vital to recall that “the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on” (ibid. p. 13).
In Bloch’s mind, then, the Bible has always been the book in which ordinary people, those who throughout history have found themselves oppressed by Church or State, have been most readily and easily been able to hear the call to freedom from oppression; a call most tersely expressed in Exodus (cf. Ex 5:1) when Moses and Aaron say to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Citing the radical, sixteenth-century German reformer, Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489-1525), Bloch says that this call to freedom “Rang out to all the oppressed, ‘without difference or distinction of race or faith’” (ibid. p. 12).
Thanks to a careful, non-traditional, and atheistical reader like Bloch, it is possible to begin to sense that in the stories we tell each other at Advent and Christmas we are helped, without difference or distinction of race or faith, to hear again this perennial call to freedom, and to strike off at a singularly sharp and heretical angle, away from all those aspects of our religious traditions which are shackling us to what are now showing up as unhelpful and, perhaps also false, beliefs and practices. This world of creative, new possibilities that beckons is the “Where-to” that Bloch, and someone like me, thinks continues to tremble, undischarged, in the Advent and Christmas stories and, indeed, in the Biblical text as a whole. As the title of Bloch’s book, “Atheism in Christianity” suggests, very importantly — and for many people completely counterintuitively — this striking off at a singularly sharp, heretical angle from tradition also begins to lead into a way of being in the world that no longer requires us to believe that we are ruled over by a supernatural (and often judgemental and vindictive) God. This is why Bloch can say, in the another well-known quote taken from the book, that “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.” Be that as it may, in the “Where-to” envisaged here, the word God is understood to represent something that can only be known by us in the actual, this-worldly acts of genuine love and justice we show to those whom we meet, whether neighbour or enemy, on the journey of life. As the contemporary French Catholic theologian and philosopher, Emmanuel Falque (b. 1963), wisely reminds us all “We have no other experience of God but the human experience.”
Although it is obvious that any journey towards this kind of “Where-to” is highly likely to take us away from our former religious Judaeo-Christian tradition/s at a singularly sharp and heretical angle, at the same time, I do not think that this also requires us to throw away the Bible. In fact, far, far from it because, whenever we take it seriously in the way a thinker like Bloch insists we should, we will always have access to a powerful and inspiring, liberating call to a life of radical, ethical action in favour of uplifting and honouring the weak, marginalised poor and dispossessed which, in this season, is paradigmatically symbolised in the moment the Magi, the so-called Three Kings, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, bow down to honour the humble, poor and soon to be refugee family of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.
Many of you will recall that this message of a world turned upside down is explicitly found in the Advent stories in the words of the Magnificat uttered by Jesus’ mother, Mary, during her visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth sometime before Jesus’ birth. In those words Mary insists that, through her still unborn child, God, her ultimate concern “has worked power with his arm, he has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts; He has pulled dynasts down from thrones and exalted the humble, He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, trans. David Bentley Hart).
Consequently, I trust that during this Advent season at least some of us will take the time to ponder again this ancient yet still modern call and so begin to prepare well for the liberating, democratising and really-real levelling-up work that is always be done if we are to stand a chance of moving closer to the “Where-to” that, without difference or distinction of race or faith, will always be trembling, undischarged, in every new-born child.
WEDNESDAY EVENING CONVERSATION, 2ND DECEMBER 2020