“Behold the Radiant Token”: An Agnostic Perspective on
Incarnation and Revelation
(lay sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist
Church of Indianapolis, Dec. 27, 2015)
I invite you to imagine me as
an 8-year-old boy, thrilled to accept my father’s invitation to lead the entire
Sunday School in the hymn “When Morning Gilds the Skies.” He was minister of
music at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and our family’s
life was closely connected to church life there.
“When Morning Gilds the Skies” was my
absolutely favorite hymn, and, after giving me some elementary conducting
instruction – raising my right arm on the upbeat that begins each verse, then
moving into the conventional pattern for conducting in common time – he set me
loose. I was thrilled. It went well.
|Trinity Luthernn Church as I remember it.|
After all these years, I was
surprised to note how little of the hymn I remembered – in fact nothing past
the first three phrases: “When morning gilds the skies, My heart awaking cries,
May Jesus Christ be praised.” The rest of the hymn, with frequent repetitions
of “May Jesus Christ be praised,” dwells on the endless and universal necessity
of praising the Savior. I’m tempted to believe all that meant something to me
at the time, but today, I wonder.
I wonder in particular because
my jumping-off point probing the mystery of Incarnation in this sermon, in language
I hope connects with a wide variety of Unitarian Universalist belief, centers
on what opened up to me in those first three lines more than six decades ago.
Briefly defined, Incarnation is the Christian doctrine that Jesus’ birth
represents God’s becoming flesh to live among the human race in human form. The
Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, says the Gospel of John, though the Greek
word translated as “dwelt” has the more vivid meaning of “pitched his tent.”
God pitched his tent among us. As the second verse of the much-loved “Hark! The
Herald Angels Sing” puts it in less homely terms: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead
see / Hail the Incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with men to dwell / Jesus, Our
Emmanuel” — “Emmanuel” being Hebrew for “with us is God.”
|The crux of Incarnation: Mary learns she is to bear the Son of God.|
Christmas sets forth the joy
of that belief, and the Resurrection — the celebration of Easter – is supposed
to confirm it. Almost all UUs have to walk back considerably from this doctrine
to a point where we can take in Christmas on worshipful terms, often focusing
on the miraculous quality we assign to all human births in the hope that each
one reaffirms human potential gloriously.
I would like to take another
tack here, seeing Incarnation as an uncertain, flickering, doubtful glimpse
into the world beyond the one we sense every day around us, whose unprovable actuality
may show itself in any life at any point. The metaphor here is of daybreak, the
promise that lies ahead, even at the beginning of cloudy days. I’m inclined to
see Incarnation as any moment that lends us a transcendent sense of new
beginnings, or that allows us to receive insights that take us close to the
mystery of creation and whatever entity may lie behind it.
As an agnostic, I have
unshakable doubts about the reality of what we are seeing when we have such
experiences. But since I’m not an atheist, specifically of the kind who refuses
to see beyond the bland, material ordinariness that’s satirized in David Citino’s poem “The Man Who Couldn’t Believe.” I allow for the possibility of an
unknowable entity we might as well call God, recognizing that he, she or it may
not have chosen to tell us much in terms we can understand.
And I think, even as a
faithful preteen Christian, what resonated with me in “When Morning Gilds the
Skies” was the assertion of Incarnation in those joined images of the first two
lines: Morning, personified as a sublime craftsman, takes the receding night
sky and decorates the east with gold, something precious. And this goes
together, not principally with the head and body waking up in response to this
gilding, but with the heart — the organ conventionally thought of as the seat
of our emotions. From that synchrony, praise issues forth for God incarnate.
The first two phrases are what
I responded to most in that hymn, and all that I respond to in it today. The UU counterpart to “When Morning Gilds the
Skies” is perhaps “The Morning Hangs a Signal.” Its theology is significantly
removed from the Incarnation as Christians see it, but it suits the breadth of
liberal religion. The imagery is provisional, after all, never definitive. In his
book “The American Religion,” the scholar Harold Bloom truly says: “To give
meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of religion.”
But where do we get this meaning?
If the revelations that sustain Jews and Christians through the Bible are
doubted to be genuine knowledge about God, doubts often stem from incompatible divine
and human natures. The widely proclaimed attributes of God that we find in the
Bible and the cultural legacy it has left us don’t make sense if we are trying
to describe a force, a generative power, who necessarily has eternal status,
uncreated but always there. Such attributes are instead almost always human
qualities writ large.
the other hand, eternity and infinity are qualities that can’t be separated
from God. Revelation about them may be somewhere in that tiny place among the
flood of materials and sense impressions that engulfs us, as Annie Dillard
suggests in the introduction to her essay on the Gospel According to Saint Luke.
Every trait we exhibit takes place in our time-bound existence. A supernatural entity
not so bound has to be more than a vast collection of human qualities.
of this gulf, agnostics say humans can't claim to know when Incarnation — the
penetration of humanness by the divine — takes place. Incarnation’s purpose may
be to stimulate faith, or at least inquiry, without providing knowledge. In its
“agnosticism” entry, my dictionary of philosophy at home points out: “Faith may
be possible where knowledge, strictly so called, is not, and hence there is a
sense in which it is logically possible, even if psychologically difficult, to be
both a philosophic agnostic and a religious believer.” I haven’t managed that
of God’s purpose could be to remain unknowable. Divine revelation might just be
a comfortable illusion nurtured by human emotional needs. This is consistent
with God’s giving man free will. Humanity’s grasping for meaning becomes a
freer pursuit the less information God imparts. This is giving God’s very
existence the benefit of the doubt, of course.
capacity to reason helps us out here. On
its own, it neither props up faith nor tears it down. “When we call man a
rational animal we mean that reason is his great myth,” wrote the literary
critic R.P. Blackmur. “Reason is plastic and takes to any form provided.”
an example of reason at work on the question of God’s powers. In an essay
paying tribute to his ancient countryman Pliny the Elder, the late Italian
novelist Italo Calvino points out Pliny’s assertion that it violates reason to
suppose God could commit suicide, even if he wanted to. Similarly, God cannot
un-create his creatures, nor can he reverse the course of time.
God’s will has limits, dictated by reason, but they aren’t very reassuring ways
of knowing him. They don’t bring him down to earth much. As Ralph Waldo Emerson
warns us: “There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by
the Understanding.” And reason won’t easily understand God by ascribing to him human
qualities. I’ll look at three of them briefly: will, jealousy, and anger.
talk about our wants, what we will. But as soon as we refer to the will of God,
the analogy breaks down. What God wills is law; people talk about an outcome
they desire, and some add piously, “God willing.” In tribute to our pagan
heritage, others knock on wood. When humans break God’s law within their sphere
of free action, they have sinned; they are defying what they believe God
decrees. They are held to account. There are no plea bargains.
when we are jealous, that’s an emotion aroused by what we feel is our due,
something unjustly denied to us. But loyalty to God, by tradition, is absolute.
When he is a jealous God, as he says up front in the Ten Commandments, it means
that whatever behavior has aroused his jealousy is in error. There is no
defense as there may be within the temporally conditioned jealousies of human
beings. As a result, his anger is
always justified, the Bible says. In Facebook terms, if we unfollow him, he may
upshot is this: Sentences beginning “God” can have no other predicate besides
“is.” Any ascription of qualities to him entangles him in the human condition.
Emerson helpfully provides an out here: He says the special nature of Jesus,
the mediator between us and God, is to declare that the gap has been bridged
potentially in the existence of every person. “Through me, God acts; through
me, speaks,” Emerson has him say. “Would you see God see me; or see thee, when
thou also thinkest as I now think.”
much as we UUs love Emerson, however, he tends to arouse a “Yes, but…”
response. This is mine: The gulf between man and God is immense and much of it
has to do with his unknowability. To illustrate this, I want to present an
allegorical interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial.” I am not
suggesting that the poet meant this poem to really be about the relationship
between God and humanity, but the portrait of this rural farm couple can be
seen as casting light from an oblique angle on the breakdown of the divine-human
|Robert Frost put his marital stress into "Home Burial"|
tells a story in verse about an inert marriage, in which the process of
bereavement is stuck on a child’s death and the difference in response to it
between its father and its mother.
The man, like God, is both a
loving and a terrifying figure. The woman thinks she knows him, and she doesn’t
like what she knows because he has violated her fixed idea about the proper
response to a family calamity. She represents the lingering resentment of
humanity, which has a nagging sense that God, whose world this is, might be terrifyingly
indifferent to the suffering in it.
The poem opens as he sees her
looking out a window on a staircase: God likes spotting us when we are unaware.
He asks her twice, “What is it you see.” Frost does not punctuate this with a
question mark [contrary to the PoemHunter text linked to above], which suggests that the man, like the omniscient God, already
knows the answer. Besides, to ask “what is it you see” is different from the
blunter question “What are you looking at?” The way he frames the question also
asks her to reveal her point of view, her interpretation.
The man quickly turns to
command; “I will find out now – you must tell me, dear.” Worship of the
superior being is a duty, and confession must be good for her soul. The loving
God is also a commanding God, so the man comes up the stairs to where she is,
“mounting till she cowered under him.” Despite her subordinate position, she
turns the tables on him. What, humanity perennially wants to know, does God
know about us? Does he ever see what we see the way we see it?
So the woman makes the man
describe the scene, and he pretends to be so used to it he hasn’t noticed it in
detail. He is slyly seeking a way to refresh the withered covenant. And he
gives context to the view out the window: “The little graveyard where my people
are, so small the window frames the whole of it.” In God’s view what is to be
seen covers the whole span of life, from the site of procreation (“not so much
larger than a bedroom, is it?”) to a life’s final resting place. But she interrupts
him roughly when he mentions it: “the child’s mound.”
There’s a change in position
now, a turn away from the window as she slips by him toward the door. Mankind
is asking, not for the first time, if it can know and love a God who takes
death in stride and still claim a close connection to the dead: “Can’t a man
speak of his own child he’s lost?”
His commanding position is
neutralized by her lack of faith; she wants to leave. He is not capable of
knowing her any better, she thinks, so his offer to ask her a question is
rejected. He wants to establish a basis for dialogue. He forges ahead
nonetheless, but the question is not so much asked as the potential dialogue is
framed, like the graveyard in the window. He wants to make a deal: What can we
talk about that’s OK with you, and what do I have to leave alone? God is
asking: When you pray to me, what should be off limits so that you will be more
accepting of my answers?
Like the jealous Old
Testament God, however, he warns her: “Don’t go to someone else this time,” and
“Don’t carry it to someone else this time.” God is angry at his people’s
falling away, seeking a connection to strange gods (as he and the prophets so
often warn about), or in our own time, worldly distractions from what religion
says should be our primary bond.
Especially revealing for my
allegorical interpretation is the man’s odd plea: “Tell me about it if it’s
something human. / Let me into your grief.”
But as so often in marital arguments, there is a sting in the tail of
the request. God, being quick to assert his rights in the covenantal
relationship, implies that humanity is restive, as usual. She flashes anger at
him. And he really sounds like Jehovah — God in the clouds— when he says in
response: “You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.”
He protests against her
attempt to muzzle him. As the prophets so often
thundered, humanity wants to be
deaf to God’s voice. It’s not telling people what they want to hear. They are
stubborn; life’s hard knocks embitter them. Too often God places personal
disaster in the midst of life’s stream; he’s above it all. The woman vents her
rage, because for her the scene through the window does not exist over a time
that puts the fresh grave in the context of older graves. Instead it is fixed
on the man’s digging the grave, his absorption in the work. Can this be the way
God wants to be known? Why can’t he be as fixated as we are on what moves us
most? Why can’t he understand our narrowed focus?
|A child's fresh grave: Are divine and human views of death irreconcilable in "Home Burial"?|
So, what is the deity
revealing about himself when he is like the father and husband come in from
digging his baby’s grave and able to (as she accuses) “talk about your everyday
concerns”? He is casual about the inevitability of decay and decline, in her
view; the wife bitterly repeats his words: “Three foggy mornings and one rainy
day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
The God of Nature philosophizes
about rot. She rages against life and for once puts the man in the social
world, blaming mourners who also turn to their own concerns to soon after the
funeral. In despair, people can lose even the human connection, jettisoning
both faith and reason: “The world’s evil. I won’t have grief so / If I can
change it.” God has listened to all
this, knows humanity is wrong, closed in, and incapable of governing grief or
the occasions for grief. So he speaks patronizingly to her, and is ready to
reassert his command. He tries to check her move to leave by exclaiming:
“Amy! There’s someone coming down the
This is the jealous God; no
one on the outside should even suspect that the covenant is broken. Yet God,
despite his occasional solicitous attitude, has not revealed anything about
himself besides what the woman has described. He has merely protested her
interpretation, and by the end puts his right to control uppermost. This time
his question is genuine, for the first time in the poem. What are you after, if
you can’t honor your bond with me? “Where do you mean to go?” Not waiting for
an answer, in the next line he threatens: “I’ll follow and bring you back by
force. I will!” The poem is done.
God’s will be done, as
Christians pray regularly in the Lord’s Prayer. Our sympathies with the man in
this poem are checked by his commanding manner, despite genuine expressions of
love; our sympathies with the woman are checked by her hysteria and her lack of
both love and understanding.
You’ll notice she doesn’t
waste any words of love on the dead child; it’s the man’s behavior, and the
long view he seems to take of both personal and world woes, that alienates her.
But she really has nowhere else to go. She neither loves nor understands him.
He can’t explain himself, and the genuineness of his love is overmastered by
his need to control. More than the child has been buried in “Home Burial”; as a
place of comfort, home itself has been interred. Yet this is the home we all
have to live in, where no approach to truth we take can make a truly
transcendent God known to us.
is the fusion of possibility — that there’s an eternal being behind time —
with certainty; of potential and actual truth, of the transcendental and the
terrestrial; of the infinite and the finite. A timely instance: “A Christmas
Carol,” whose stage adaptation just concluded its annual run at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is flecked with the Christian message and underscores our
theme in Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, a
figure so complex as to challenge the reader’s imagination, never mind any
production team, even one as excellent as IRT’s.
This ghost combines youth and age
incongruously in its features; it comprises the seasons, carrying holly and
wearing summer flowers; it is well-muscled, yet soft-spoken; it is primarily light but holds a cap which darkens, an
“extinguisher,” Dickens calls it. Scrooge wants him to put it on; strong
illumination of his past life rightly worries him.
|Dickens hints at the shock of revelation with the Ghost of Christmas Past.|
Spirit refuses: "Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, this light
I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap
and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?"
|IRT's Scrooge gets guidance from a youthful Spirit of Christmas Past.|
This is a challenge to human understanding as extreme as anything in “A
Christmas Carol.” It is close to Christian teaching: We read in the First
Letter of John in the New Testament: "God is light and in him is no
darkness at all. If we claim to be sharing in his life while we walk in the
dark, our words and our lives are a lie; but if we walk in the light as he
himself is in the light, then we share together a common life.”
Such is the reassurance to
Christians that most of us here in this room can’t be reassured by. But if
there is a light that pierces the curtain behind which we live, when the rare
possibility of Incarnation presents itself, will we know better than to ask it
to don the cap darkening the light it brings with it?
And when we dare to confront
its power, as Scrooge does at the end of his harrowing sojourn with the Ghost
of Christmas Past, are we engaging in a struggle that strengthens us or keeps
us in ignorance? Can knowledge hold a candle to faith? Flip the question
around, if that makes more sense: Can faith hold a candle to knowledge?
At the outset of their
journey together, Scrooge hesitates to step with the Spirit through his
upstairs chamber window: “I am a mortal, and liable to fall.” The Spirit
extends a hand, laying it over Scrooge’s heart: “Bear a touch of my hand there,
and you shall be uplifted in more than this.” It’s a beautiful moment, a moment
of faith, even love.
In Genesis, Jacob’s wrestling
with the man some have identified as the pre-existent Jesus ends in his
receiving a blessing, which alters a people’s destiny. At the end of his time
travels with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge also loses a wrestling match
with a supernatural figure, and must endure two more unsettling visions before
being delivered into new life.
Can the knowledge revealed in
Incarnation’s light ever be trusted as
knowledge? In Scrooge’s case, is it nothing more than a kind of ethical
shock treatment? In Dickens’ concept, a look into one’s past may open up vistas
into eternity, but for the sake of his story, it’s sufficient that Scrooge
learns enough about himself to effect a personal spiritual change, allowing him
to re-enter the human family at Christmastime, the season of the Great
It’s all we can do to stay
open to something that may convey divine truth to us in our fleshly form, something
that almost convincingly presents itself as knowledge about God. Yet we might
well come away from such an experience saying, along with Citino’s man who couldn’t
believe: “Damned if I know.”
Damned if I know. Even when
morning gilds the skies.