Monday, 5 December 2016

Thinking "consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality"—some photos of a walk across Grantchester Meadows

On Sunday I mentioned the walk over to Grantchester I occasionally take with my friend to talk philosophy and politics. Well, this morning (a lovely, bright and frosty one) I took the time to walk over there on my own and do some solitary thinking and looking. Gustav Landauer's mystical monism, Parmenides' eternal being, Spinoza's Deus sive Natura and the general spirit of Thoreau's essay, Walking, all intertwined as I slowly made my along the river accompanied by leaping fish, feeding swans and a darting kingfisher.

The whole day reminded me of some words of Henry Bugbee found in his book "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form":

During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality (The Inward Morning, p. 139).

As Daniel W. Conway says of Bugbee's philosophical walking:

Walking is not merely a calisthenic propaedeutic to the heroic labors of philosophizing. Rather, walking functions as the engine of immersion, which enables him to take the phenomenological measure of the wild he temporarily inhabits (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 6).

Like Bugbee, and Thoreau before him, I feel have done my best philosophizing whilst walking and today's thinking felt very fruitful indeed—especially after an unusually heavy week of pastoral duties.

All the photos were taken with my iPhone 6+ using the Hipstamatic app. The combination (combo) of "film" and "lens" is one put together by Ger van den Elzen which you can find at this link. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it.
















Sunday, 4 December 2016

Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life—the creation of a liberal, democratic, progressive hegemony or coalition.

Bedside reading, Landauer by day and by night
READINGS: "The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids"—Matthew 25:1-13 

From “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens, Book the First, The Cup and the Lip, Chapter 16: Minders and Re-minders

‘And does he work for you?’ asked the Secretary, gently bringing the discourse back to Master or Mister Sloppy.
        ‘Yes,’ said Betty with a good-humoured smile and nod of the head. ‘And well too.’
        ‘Does he live here?’
        ‘He lives more here than anywhere. He was thought to be no better than a Natural, and first come to me as a Minder. I made interest with Mr Blogg the Beadle to have him as a Minder, seeing him by chance up at church, and thinking I might do something with him. For he was a weak ricketty creetur then.’
        ‘Is he called by his right name?’
        ‘Why, you see, speaking quite correctly, he has no right name. I always understood he took his name from being found on a Sloppy night.’
        ‘He seems an amiable fellow.’
        ‘Bless you, sir, there's not a bit of him,’ returned Betty, ‘that’s not amiable. So you may judge how amiable he is, by running your eye along his heighth.’
        Of an ungainly make was Sloppy. Too much of him longwise, too little of him broadwise, and too many sharp angles of him angle-wise. One of those shambling male human creatures, born to be indiscreetly candid in the revelation of buttons; every button he had about him glaring at the public to a quite preternatural extent. A considerable capital of knee and elbow and wrist and ankle, had Sloppy, and he didn't know how to dispose of it to the best advantage, but was always investing it in wrong securities, and so getting himself into embarrassed circumstances. Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life, was Sloppy, and yet had his glimmering notions of standing true to the Colours.

“Landauer Today” — Richard J. F. Day’s preface to “Revolution and other writings” by Gustav Landauer (PM Press, Oakland CA, 2010, p. 9) 

I would like my final words to be some first words from [Gustav] Landauer (1870–1919) himself, who is surprisingly good at giving us a laugh, and a timeless, pointed, anarchist laugh, at that.

“I will not hesitate to say the following in all clarity (knowing that I will not receive much appreciation from either side): to some degree, the anarchist politics of assassination only stems from the intentions of a small group amongst them that wants to follow the example of the big political parties. What drives them is vanity — a craving for recognition. What they are trying to say is: ‘We are also doing politics. We aren’t doing nothing. We are a force to be reckoned with!’ These anarchists are not anarchic enough for me.” (“Anarchic Thoughts on Anarchism”—1901)”

Every time I see a twenty-something-year-old male dressed in combat fatigues strutting away from a protest with blood streaming from his head and swearing at the cops, I think of this quote from Gustav Landauer. And I think to myself: All well and good, but who’s going to do the dishes, drywall your bedroom, take out the recycling, cook your meals, clean the house, look after the kids and elders, and change your bandages, while you try to get yourself out of jail and then field that short-lived but highly ego-gratifying spate of inquiries from the global media? Here and now, boys, here and now!

—o0o—

ADDRESS

During the past year or so a friend of mine and I have taken occasionally to walking over to Grantchester and back (via The Green Man) to discuss various philosophical and political questions that are currently concerning us. In doing this we are, of course, continuing a longstanding Cambridge philosophical tradition.

A recurring theme of our conversations has been the need strongly to resist letting ourselves be lured by the thought that, for any ideas or actions to be valid and practical, they must be capable of being played out immediately and successfully at either a national or even international level. Making this leap, from the highly local articulation of this or that religious or political idea or action to the articulation and implementation of the same at a national or even international level, can seem to us simply too great, impossible even, to achieve. Consequently, there can easily develop the temptation to begin to think our ideas and local actions must always be mere pie in the sky or, perhaps more appropriately for my friend and me, mere pork-pie in the pub, and to begin to see ourselves for what we really are, namely, two idealistic, middle-aged geezers irrelevantly talking about philosophy and politics over a few pints and a bar snack in a sleepy, fenland backwater of England — ivory-tower, Cambridge philosophy at its pointless best . . .

Many people will, of course, think this impression is true but neither my friend nor I think it is necessarily true and an initial dispelling of this impression was cast in the form of an observation made by my friend of the great value that has always existed in being, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, a “Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life” (“Our Mutual Friend”); that is to say of being the kind of person who, regardless of their levels of formal education or other social or financial attainments, continues in their own small, highly local way, creatively to challenge society’s constant and always problematic desire to slip into thinking all is only well when all people are willing merely, slavishly to follow its own current habits, beliefs, prejudices and mores, allowing the status quo to continue unchallenged.

This point strongly resonated with me because I’m a minister (and this is a church) standing in an historic radical, liberal, “rational dissenting” tradition. Starting with the example of the human Jesus and going on to include all those people who have expressed the philosophy of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life”, we have consistently refused to accept any status-quo which is crushing (or is beginning to crush) people under the boot-heels of anti-democratic religious or political creeds, confessions or ideologies. We have, instead, always insisted on keeping alive, in our individual hearts and local communities, a form of life dedicated to the democratic expression of freedom of thought and conscience that seeks to overturn of all pecking-orders. In short, our church has been (and I hope still is) very proud to be, along with Sloppy, a full member of the “Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life”. Connected with this, as our minister emeritus, Frank Walker, once splendidly put it, we are to the core of our being “boot resisters.” And I fully trust that up with the current disturbing nascent challenges to the basic values and practices associated with our liberal democracies here in the UK, Europe and the USA, we will not put.

But, once again, I need to acknowledge that many people can feel that such small local sites of struggle and resistance, like this church community and those others to which I know many of you belong, are simply insufficient to the huge tasks we see looming up all around us and those same people can come to feel as if they are powerless and irrelevant.

This feeling can have at least two problematic consequences. The first is simply to give up in despair, to remove yourself from that local community and either sink back into silent depression or to retreat into pleasant private hobbies and past-times of every conceivable type. For obvious (understandable) reasons, this is currently a very popular past-time. This approach is, to hark back to an address I gave sometime ago, an example of what Simon Critchley calls “passive nihilism.”

The second is to go ballistic in some fashion, to engage in what Critchley calls “active nihilism”. This, again understandable, but ultimately unsustainable, hyper-active way of raging against a current situation nearly always ends in burn-out, sometimes of a quite catastrophic kind — and I see a lot of this in my life as a religious and political activist. Mostly, at least in liberal democratic, progressive circles, this active nihilism is non-violent in nature (at least to others if not the activist’s self) but sometimes, alas, the deep frustration at the evident and seemingly intractable injustice of our world can lead some liberal and progressive folk to begin to consider committing acts of violence either against property or people, or both. Gustav Landauer (1870–1919), an advocate of social anarchism, an avowed pacifist and a philosopher (who developed an interesting pantheistic, mystical theology that mixed both Christian and Jewish thought in a way that is very congenial to the Unitarian mind and spirit) saw this actively nihilistic tendency emerge clearly in the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed, his best known essay, “Anarchistic Thoughts on Anarchism”, was written in 1901 as a response to the shocking news from the USA that a man claiming to be an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, had just assassinated President William McKinley. Landauer wanted to distance both himself and his own understanding of the anarchist tradition from what he called the “propaganda by the deed.” In a letter from 1901 to the novelist, Fritz Mauthner, Landauer wrote, “By the way, I will soon give the anarchists a piece of my mind in an article on the most recent events; I am tired of the glorification of these so-called ‘deeds.’”

I think we who would today protest strongly against many of the illiberal and anti-democratic things occurring in our world today should listen carefully to Landauer when he suggests that moves towards violent protest nearly always occurs because people are all too often driven by “vanity – a craving for recognition” and that their violence is simply a nihilistic cry that “‘We are also doing politics. We aren’t doing nothing. We are a force to be reckoned with!’”

But this is, of course, to be lured into using the same violent and illiberal methods of power and control that the progressive protester claims they, themselves, wish ultimately to overturn. This is what Landauer means when he concludes, “These anarchists are not anarchic enough for me.” Landauer could see that such people aren’t really acting as true members of the “Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life”, as true “boot-resistors”, but are in fact playing the same, grim violent power game that shows as little reverence for life as that shown by their “enemies”. In doing this they become jackboot-wearers themselves.

But Landauer offers us a glimpse of a third, effective, non-nihilistic middle way of boot-resisting as a full private in Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life. What this looks like, the contemporary commentator on Landauer’s work, Richard J. F. Day helps tease out in the words taken from the conclusion of his fine preface to a new collection of English translations of Landauer’s work that you heard in our readings.

By continuing to do the dishes, drywalling (i.e. plaster boarding) a bedroom, taking out the recycling, cooking your meals, cleaning the house, looking after the kids and elders, and (as Jesus memorably showed in the parable of the good Samaritan) changing the bandages of those who we find injured by the wayside, we show ourselves to be genuine boot-resisters and members of the awkward squad — people who are properly preparing the way for the development of a grounded reverence for life that is truly able to stand-up against a, by now, global culture that, no matter how one tries to spin it, really doesn’t give a damn about anything other than the short-term “well-being” and “success” of a few rich and powerful un-democratic individuals and corporations.

You’ve all heard of “kitchen-sink drama”, well, I guess this address is a modest proposal for the self-conscious development of a kind of kitchen-sink religion and politics.

At this point I can conclude with an obviously Advent theme not least of all because, as Landauer himself notes, in doing this kind of thing we show, “[w]e are all waiting for something great — something new” and that “All of our art bears witness to the anxiety involved in preparing for its arrival. But what we are waiting for can only come from ourselves, from our own being”. Following Landauer’s advice seems to me to be doing something like that done by those wise bridesmaids who prepared for the coming of the bridegroom and we, in our own time and place, fill our lamps and trim our wicks by continuing to do the dishes, drywalling bedrooms, taking out the recycling, cooking our meals, cleaning the house, looking after the kids and elders, and changing the bandages of the injured. We do this, not to prepare for the coming of a bridegroom but certainly for a certain kind of marriage celebration, namely, the hoped for loving, democratic, coming together of lots of anarchic, little awkward squads who still have in their hearts, as did Sloppy, “glimmering notions of standing true to the Colours” and who are beginning better to understand the truth contained in some words attributed to the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This way of coming together we may call the creation of a liberal, democratic, progressive hegemony or coalition.

But it takes considerable wisdom, foresight and courage to see that, together, all our little local sites of struggle, resistance and of reverence for life are, not only necessary, but also, potentially anyway, this powerful and influential in the creation of a common, democratic good.

So, here’s an Advent toast to Sloppy and to all the other countless noble, loving and brave Full-Private Number Ones and battalions in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life like Jesus, Albert Schweitzer and Gustav Landauer. Let our collective, peaceful, progressive, liberal democratic cry from the sink and common-table ever be that, together, “Yes we can” — “Podemos” — and let’s not forget that it starts here and now boys and girls, here and now.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

An inward colonization—what is at stake are new forms that have never been—Gustav Landauer

[Here] is yet another crucial fallacy: that one can – or must – bring anarchism to the world; that anarchy is an affair of all of humanity; that there will indeed be a day of judgment followed by a millennial era. Those who want “to bring freedom to the world” – which will always be their idea of freedom – are tyrants, not anarchists. Anarchy will never be
a matter of the masses, it will never be established by means of military attack or armed revolt, just as the ideal of federalist socialism will never be reached by waiting until the already accumulated capital and the title
of the land will fall into the people’s hands. Anarchy is not a matter of the future; it is a matter of the present. It is not a matter of making demands; it is a matter of how one lives. Anarchy is not about the nationalization of the achievements of the past but about a new people arising from humble beginnings in small communities that form in the midst of the old: an inward colonization. Anarchy is not about a struggle between classes – the dispossessed against the possessors – but about free, strong, and sovereign individuals breaking free from mass culture and uniting in new forms. The old opposition between destruction and construction begins to lose its meaning: what is at stake are new forms that have never been.


Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in "Anarchistic Thoughts on Anarchism" [1901] in "Revolution and other writings" (PM Press, Oakland CA, 2010, p. 87)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Sunset over the River Cam

On the way back from visiting an unwell member of the congregation who lives out of town I cycled home along the tow path of the River Cam. It was a beautiful evening and I stopped for ten minutes or so to watch last rays of the setting sun, enjoy the waxing crescent moon and the quiet sounds of wild fowl ending their day. I took a photo too and post it here for your pleasure. It was taken with my iPhone 6+ using the Hipstamatic app. Just click on the photo to enlarge it.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A cold and frosty day in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden—A set of photos where David Hockney meets Brian Cook meets Polina Sarri

This morning proved to be lovely, sunny cold and crisp, one that irresistibly called me out of the house to take a walk to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden via Parker's Piece. It was a perfect day for taking photos and, on this occasion, I found myself inspired to take some shots that suited a lovely combination of “film” and “lenses” created by Polina Sarri for the Hipstamatic app that she describes as “reminiscent of David Hockney.” I think she’s right in this but her combo also reminds me powerfully of Brian Cook’s illustrations which were often used by the British publisher Batsford Press for their dust jackets. My childhood and teenage imagination was indelibly shaped by many of their books, dozens of which still grace my bookshelves.  Consequently, I had much fun today in taking the following pictures and I post them here for your pleasure. They appear in chronological order. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it. Enjoy!
























Monday, 28 November 2016

Five ways of looking at a tree — a sort of visualisation of Sunday's address on the hope that a new world, a new creation can, suddenly, (if we respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity) whoosh up before us

On Sunday I gave an address in which I was trying to encourage my listeners to sense that, even though the world when taken as a whole (if one could ever do such a thing — which one can't) cannot be said to change (I inherit this thought from thinkers like Spinoza and Parmenides) it is, nonetheless, always capable of showing up to us under new modes, moods and aspects. I wanted also to show that a change of mode, mood or aspect can, for us as finite being-in-the-world, always mean there truly exists new possibilities of being. In this sense we can (in principle if not merely at will) create the space, or the conditions for new worlds of practices or meaning. It was precisely this ability to create these kinds of new worlds that Heidegger thought what was made us distinctive as beings.

In a time when many of us on the progressive, centre and leftist political and religious spectrum are feeling at the moment that we are very much on our back foot (for all the obvious reasons I mentioned on Sunday, Brexit, Trump, Marine le Pen, AfD, a revanchist Russia, climate change, etc.) I think this realisation is vitally important because from a certain perspective it is possible to say all can never be lost. True, things may be turning bad for us, and may get worse, but that is never the end of the matter. To be sure a totally human-centred world view may well go the way of the wildebeest, or that of some star gone super-nova, but Being will continue and the miracle of existence and life (if not necessarily human life) will also continue. Again and again I find myself coming back to George Santayana's words introducing Spinoza's conception of eternity that I use repeatedly at funerals:

When a man’s (or woman's) life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [or, as I say in a funeral, "existence"]. George Santayana from his preface to Spinoza's Ethics, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1910.

I realised something of the ability of the same facts/world to show up under different modes, moods or aspects can be illustrated (very imperfectly of course) by the five photographs in this blog post of a tree on Christ's Pieces (opposite where Susanna and I live). The facts of the world do not change from photograph to photograph but something new is, I think, revealed in each of them. it may help folk catch just a glimpse of what I am driving at.

The original photo was taken and edited in the wonderful Hipstamatic app using an iPhone 6+ with the exception of the second black and white photo which was edited in the Blackie app. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.

(PS. This is NOT simply to see the world through some filter or other — rather it's about understanding that we can tune into aspects of the world that are really there but which we weren't yet able to discern and shape into new worlds of practices or meanings or, of course, new pictures.)






Sunday, 27 November 2016

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!