Sunday, December 27, 2015

'Behold the Radiant Token': a seasonable sermon beholden in part to Charles Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' (and inspired by IRT's stage adaptation)

“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.

Trinity Luthernn Church as I remember it.
“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.

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.

On 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.

Because 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 yet.

Part 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.

Our 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.”

Here’s 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.

So 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.

We 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.

Similarly, 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 unfriend us.

The 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.”

As 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 relationship.

Robert Frost put his marital stress into "Home Burial"
Frost 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
A child's fresh grave: Are divine and human views of death irreconcilable in "Home Burial"?
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?

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 road!”

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.

Incarnation 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.

Dickens hints at the shock of revelation with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
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.

The 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 Revelation.

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.

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