Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Hypothesis of Hope

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and a good time to remember that Christmas is not a season for merriment. All the happy noise which starts its crass and brassy bruiting today is a perversion of what Advent is about.

The season has been hijacked by heathen and hucksters — anti-Christians who delude people with glitter and the narcosis of false hopes.

I am not simply chafing against commercialism, although the stampede to buy and sell is so rampant the season might as well be called Shopmass.  No. I am complaining as well about those well-meaning pagans who see in the season a time to light candles as a challenge to darkness.

Now, lighting bonfires in the cold of night is such a natural thing to do that it would be the ultimate in Scroogeness to cavil against it.  The problem I have with bonfires is that they too easily tie into notions of either making merry or resolving to be good, both of which, in my view, miss the point of Christmas.

It goes without saying that, in formless multi-cultural societies, no one is obligated to celebrate the end year in a Christian manner. If they want to beat drums and run about with torches or light candles or set their cheque books afire that is their business.  But, as the name might suggest, Christmas is a christian holiday and this brief article will attempt to explain what that commemoration is about.

This explanation will obviously be made in the context of the Gospel narrative. But although that may be the shell, I believe the kernel of the message is something that might be of interest to heathen, apostates, infidels and stiff-necks as well.

Advent is indeed a penitential season. (Shock and Surprise!) But while there is nothing wrong with taking stock of one’s imperfections,  I believe the focus is wrong.  The penitence at issue is penitence for our existential darkness.   Today’s lectionary begins,

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.   (Is. 64:6)
Isaiah is far more irredentist than a mere moralist; for it is, he says, our righteous deeds which are a filthy cloth.  If all our righteousness amounts to no more than a filthy cloth, what is the point in resolving to be righteous?

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?  Cum vix justus sit securus?
What shall I, frail man, be pleading? When the just are mercy needing?
(Dies Irae)
The darkness of the Advent season is not a mere stumbling or falling short but an all-encompassing hopelessness.  We can rectify nothing; we are and can only become a vexation to ourselves. (St. Augstine, Confessions.) We are utterly hopeless.

But so too the world.

The fact is that when we look objectively at the world, it is nasty and brutish. It too is a vexation. 

How can the rich and powerful be allowed their fame and comforts while a little boy in Iraq has both his arms blown off at their command?

Where is goodness to the little fish who gets swallowed up or to the fawn who gets taken down in the tiger’s maw?  Where is justice to the little mousie with his upturnéd housie? 

I’m truly sorry Man's dominion; Has broken Nature's social union.”   But Nature’s union is itself hard and cruel.  What we call the beauty of Creation is simply ignorance of its nastier half.

Every where we turn, we see more than enough evil and injustice and failure and pointlessness to fill us with the emptiness of despair. 

Le silence eternel m’effraie. (Pascal) A cruel god has created harsh world and everywhere a deaf god has forsaken us. This is the winter of our solitude.

And so we can but regret. We regret our existence and are sorry in a hard and brutish world.  Today’s lectionary continues,

After [all] that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  and the stars will be falling from heaven,  
Even at this moment, galaxies are being swallowed up whole into pinholes of infinite darkness. 

Light a candle?  Oh, please...

To this, the priest will answer that there is hope at the end of the tunnel — a hope symbolized by the birth of innocence and powerlessness in a rough hewn stable.

Some say it is the hope of rebirth, of continuity of those things which are fresh and new and full of hope, like a baby.

Others will say that it is the hope of powerlessness and the overcoming of might by weakness.  Thus, St. Luke,

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.  (Luke 1:46)
Still others will say that is the hope to be found in simplicity or in dedication to others

Perhaps. But all these exhortations are merely a hope.  Hope is not a good in the hand.  It is an aspiration,  a breathing in, little else.   In the end hope itself is vanity.  Chanting in the dark may be sonorous but it is still chanting in the dark.

So then, if darkness swallows all, if injustice overcomes all and if hope is merely a distracting sigh, we might just as well indulge in vulgar merrymaking, for what difference does it make?  (1 Corinthians 15:32.)

It is here,  I think, where the true faith of Christianity shines through. This true faith consists in the assertion that, in spite of everything to the contrary, there really and truly is a joyous light force in the world.  Its existence allows us an hypothesis of hope .

Let us begin with the fact that behind the manger looms the Cross.  We know now that the story which begins with Jesus in Mary’s arms ends with Christ’s arms outstretched on wood.  A knowing Christian cannot but see in birth a future death. 

We are fooling ourselves if we think it otherwise; if we close our eyes and are just insipidly happy for a moment.

Let us hew to realism.  Today’s cutsie babie is tomorrow’s Pontius Pilate. Tomorrow’s Moral Example ends up cast into the pit on the day after.  Explaining hope in terms of natural or moral regeneration leads nowhere but in a circle. We remain trapped in a world that is ultimately and infinitely dark and pointless, ruled over by a deaf and impotent god who is best at forsaking those whom most he loves.

We are looking in the wrong place.  Contrary to artists’ best and most beautiful impressions, the light spoken of in the Gospels does not emanate from the newborn in swaddling clothes but from above. At most, it lit upon the the manger, although more appreciably what it illuminated was the sheep.

In the gospel narrations, this light next appears when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top and it appears one last time when Jesus is resurrected into Heaven.

Thus, within the story, the star which comes over the shepherds on the field is a foretelling of the light that can fully fill our being and which overcomes after death.

In sum, the Gospels tell a story of a Light which shines on, shines through and ultimately swallows up.

The Transfiguration (Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai)
Now it is at this point that the Moral Regenerists fall into error; for they interpret the light as a metaphor for good behaviour and a sense of maximized well being... or however they quite want to put it.  They do this because they can’t really and truly accept that the Light is actual and real.  It does exist in eternity eternally.  

The Gospel’s account of the Light is not the same as its account of Jesus’ life.  It  runs parallel to the history of Jesus’ ministry.  It is the ergon behind the logos of the drama.
This living force in the story is its own self-sufficient good.  Without this bright light, which makes its appearance at the three junctures mentioned, the logos of Jesus’s life and ministry is just another moral example — another good guy who got it in the neck in the end.  It is the Light which gives another substance to the tale and, doing so, is something more than a simile for Jesus.  This extra substance is what Christian theologians have in mind when they insist on the “historical reality” of the Resurrection.

Now, there is a certain amount of controversy attending the Resurrection and there are some that even go so far as to deny it ever took place.  The fable of the Resurrection, they say, was just an attempt to explain away the utter futility and pointlessness of Christ’s life. 

This criticism also looks in the wrong direction.  The issue is not whether asserting the Resurrection is an Act of Denial, but rather on what basis the such denial is made.  Or, stated obversely  on what grounds does today's lectionary assert that,

Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory? (Mark, 13:26)

Let it be assumed that the so-called Resurrection is just an inference.  On what basis is the inference made?   In terms of the story, on the antecedent transfiguration and on the still previous star shining on the field.  Ah well....   But these appearances of light in the Gospel stories are just a manner of speaking. What the accounts are saying, at bottom, is that there is a transcendental, joyous life force which really does exist; and, although we may only glimpse it or hear it for a flash  of a second, it gives us a reliance which changes the way we live and die.

Too much useless theological effort has been expended, in my view, on whether Jesus is the light or is of the light or became the light. Certainly there is an association of Jesus with light and one can make of this association what one will.  But for modern man the key is that the gospels attest to the existence of a light in and of itself.  It shines, it comes down, it takes up.  But it is.  

And its existence is what makes Christianity possible. There were early “Christians” who did not believe in the Resurrection.  They were, in fact, simply sectarian Jews who had had the experience of a particular teacher.  For them, Jesus was another moral example, another candle lit against the dark.

When St. Paul argued that “if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14)  what he was saying was that if this light, which swallowed Jesus up, did not truly exist as a reality -- and not as a metaphor -- then it was all pointless and one was no different from pagans and Jews.  We were, in the end, left to our own epicurean or moral devices in a dark and hopeless world.   If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

In so admonishing, Paul was attesting to the existence of a light-force that shines on, permeates and eventually takes up everything, “in a flash, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trumpet.... The dead shall be raised and we will be clothed with immortality.”  (1 Cor. 15:52.)

Our righteousness will no longer be a filthy rag, but we shall be changed into another kind of body altogether.
Many reduce this hope to the forecast of a better world tomorrow or a metaphor for the self-realization of a better, maximized, simpler self.   I see nothing of account in such an interpretation.

Others seek to interpret the hope as the gift of some cosmic redress which supposedly forever erased the debt of our sin which somehow keeps cropping up requiring ever more blank cheques on Sunday.  I see no basis in the Nicene Creed for this exertion in theological accounting.

Such geometries do not get us very far.  Paul was not offering a logos but stating a dynamic mystery and the mystery was, to repeat, that there exists in the world a light which by the mere fact of its existence changes everything for us in that it allows for an hypothesis of hope
Let us return to our initial observation that, objectively speaking, life sucks big time.  There simply is no accounting for the manifold injustices and cruelties of the world and the endless failures by mice and men in their best efforts.  In the end, we cannot do anything about it.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is being a stupid Pangloss.

A world where the grass is not trod underfoot, where the ant is not heedlessly stepped upon, where the fish is not swallowed, where the fawn is not taken down where man does not despair and weep amid his misfortunes and upturned endeavours is not the world we know and love.


The one single question, says Jung, is whether we choose to affirm or deny.  There is, he says, no reason for choosing one over the other, but everything else follows from the choice we make. 

In other words, the question is not why a deaf and impotent god allows the worst of evil to triumph.  The question is not why there is injustice or whether there is good in the world.  The question is not why am I blessed with happiness or cursed with unhappiness.  The world is what it is in all its harsh and unfair perplexity.  The question is: do we affirm or deny?  Do we say, after all and at the end of our days, it is good?  All of it.   Or do we not.

The Christian reply to Jung is that there actually is a light the mysterious existence of which gives us a reason to deny that the world is hopelessly pointless.  This light is not a “stand-in” for Jesus’s moral example and it is not a simile for our best earthly Happy Moments ... whatever they may stupidly be.

The emphasis on spatial resurrection in Christian theology is misplaced.  The truth of the Resurrection is simply the truth of a light-force in the universe.  For reasons we will never understand this light appeared conjoined with Jesus.  At least that is the attestation.  From what was seen in him, the light appears to be transfigurative.

For Christians, the personification of the light in Jesus, is a critical focus.  But that personification (and the theologies that flow from it) obscure the more simple and universal truth that, in and of itself, there is a light in the immensity universe the mere existence of which allows us to assert that all is not darkness.  That may be a slim reed, but it's all we've really got.

Permit me to duck an imputation of mumbo jumbo.   Nihil in mente nisi prius in sensu.  That such a joyful light should exist in a cold and harsh universe is a mystery, but that it does exist is a question of factual perception.  On what basis is such a perception attested to? St Paul confesses that his eyesight is weak (“We see now as through a glass darkly") but what he asserts is a seeing not an abstraction.

In the end, all our perceptions are subjective, even those on which science is based.  What makes scientific perceptions  “objective” is  that they exist as an empirical lowest common denominator among men. Their universality endows them with a corresponding credibility.   Conversely things which are not commonly seen are deemed incredulous, the product of inflamed imaginations or neurological defects. 

But not all men or all creatures are endowed with the same perceptive capacities.   Dogs hear high pitches which men do not; but do those pitches not exist?  Birds, insect and aphakic people see the ultra violet spectrum which most men do not.  Does that energy not exist?  If one imposes a lowest common sensory denominator as the pre-requisite for any and all credibility, then talk of a "light" is nonsense.   It is otherwise if one is willing to entertain the attestations of others and to consider their motives and the circumstances of their perception with an open mind. 

We may see it for a moment now, as if a flash in the dark. We may only hear of it from others we trust who attest to having seen it.   But the existence of this light which was seen in the transfiguration and in the resurrection and which was prequelled in the manger  gives us a hope that ...somehow... there is a surpassing and perhaps all embracing goodness in the world which allows us to rejoice and say... if we choose to say it... hallelujah. 

©Woodchipgazette, 2014


1 comment:

l'oeuf said...

i wish there were a court in the land that would listen with baited breath to the wonders of the chipsters argument. Above, surely One listeneth