A Christmas Day meditation on the question of how our everyday world of individual, finite things, including ourselves, relates to the whole. For this piece I gratefully draw upon two, twentieth-century Czech thinkers, Erazim Kohák (1933-2020) and Jan Patočka (1907-1977).
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Music, "New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass)
Today is Christmas Day when we remember another day, two thousand years ago, on which many Christians (but not all) believe the only definitive solution to a perennial human question was given. Put in its simplest form, that question asks how our everyday world of individual, finite things, including ourselves, relates to the whole or, indeed, whether there is anything that can meaningfully be called the whole? As the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák (1933-2020) wrote, this question raises
“a problem with which much earlier Christian thought struggled as it sought to affirm both the awesome majesty of God, so utterly transcendent that his name cannot even be spoken, and his intimate presence among us, breaking bread and walking alongside us to Emmanus” (Erazim Kohák, “Jan Patocka: Philosophy and Selected Writings”, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 132).
Of course, the figure Kohák mentions, who broke bread and walked alongside us to Emmaus is Jesus, whose traditional birthday we are celebrating today.
Now, for the orthodox, believing Christian, the solution to the problem is given in the birth of Jesus because, for them, that is the moment of the “incarnation of God” when, according to the famous verse in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Word (logos), i.e. God, “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, AV). What the underlying Greek actually strikingly suggests is that the Word “became flesh and pitched a tent among us” (trans. David Bentley Hart). This dwelling, or tent-pitching, among us is why Jesus is also sometimes called, as he is in the Gospel of Matthew, “Emmanuel”, or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
However, during the first four centuries following Jesus’ birth these beautiful, rich, allusive, mytho-poetic stories were slowly changed into the reified, immovable foundations upon which was to be built the Christian Church’s technocratic solution to the problem, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. In this doctrine the individual human Jesus is, somehow, now to be understood as being the Whole, or God himself, “very God of very God” as the Nicene Creed puts it. By the same token the Whole, or God is, somehow, now to be understood as being also the individual human Jesus. Following Jesus’ death and putative resurrection and ascension back into the Godhead, the third person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, also comes, somehow, to be understood as being the Whole, or God, still pitching his tent among us.
But, as many people over the centuries have pointed out, — including my own Unitarian forebears, many of whom lost their lives and liberties by challenging this doctrine — although the Trinity may be presented by the Christian Church as being the solution to the problem of how our everyday world of individual, finite things, including ourselves, relates to the whole, it really doesn’t provide a solution at all but, instead, merely restates the problem in what has always been a most confusing and, frankly, obfuscatory way.
As we know, despite many brave protests against this doctrinal, technocratic solution, within the Christian tradition as a whole the doctrine of the Trinity prevailed and, in consequence, Christianity has, for some sixteen-hundred years, inevitably continued to look at the Christmas stories as being a narrative (and also often also pictorial) representation of what it thought was the solution to the problem.
However, as we all know, in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century, firm belief in Christianity, especially in its doctrinal, Trinitarian forms, has considerably waned in the population as a whole. Given this, it might have been thought, even hoped, that this would mean the question of how our everyday world of individual, finite things relates to the whole, could, and would, be asked anew. But we can see that, generally speaking, this is not what occurred. As Kohák observes:
“Having lost the solution, which Christian thought expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity, we have lost sight of the problem” (ibid, pp. 132-133).
Kohák makes this point in his philosophical biography of his fellow Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1907-1977) who is now generally regarded as one of the most important central European philosophers of the 20th century. Kohák is interested in him because, although Patočka was a secular, atheistically inclined thinker who rejected the Christian solution, he did not, at the same time, also reject the problem it thought it had solved. Patočka was able to acknowledge that with the loss of this Christian solution humankind risked losing its “distinctive ability to raise the problem of the meaning of the whole amid its preoccupation with particulars, giving up the responsibility of the care of the soul in favour of a greed for things” (ibid, p. 133).
Patočka’s philosophical work remains important because in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century it has become clear that the world’s dominant, modern, post-Christendom, individualistic, consumerist, neoliberal culture is one that has given up the responsibility of the care of the soul in favour of a greed for things and it has become fatally preoccupied with particulars rather than the whole. Consequently, the problem of our individual relationship with the whole (howsoever the whole is conceived) has, today, become incredibly difficult to raise and explore vitally and meaningfully in the public, civic sphere. That this is so can be seen in our current inability to articulate any kind of shared national, let alone global, approach to how we should best respond to the challenges posed by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-increasing climate emergency.
All in all, it is clear to me that, somehow, we need to find some kind of non-technical, moving and poetic way to get the question of our individual relationship with the whole plainly back into view within our culture so that people can intuit again that there exists a real and extremely pressing problem which needs urgently to be addressed. Patočka’s work is important because he was a person who, in a sustained and vital fashion, attempt to ask, and tentatively answer, the question anew for our own age.
This brief piece is not the place to explore Patočka’s questions and lines of research, but reading him over the last few months of 2020 encourages me to suggest that, at this darkest time of the year, it remains possible for us to read the Christmas stories, not as picturing the solution to the problem of how our everyday world of individual, finite things, including ourselves, relates to the whole, but rather as stories which help us raise the question anew.
It makes me as what might happen to our own and our wider culture’s thinking were we able to find a modern, scientifically literate but still religious, mytho-poetic way to stand at the crib-side of the baby Jesus this Christmas morning and, with a clean heart and full belief (pathos), look deeply into the shining eyes of this representative, new-born child as-if it were, somehow, speaking to us also of God, the Whole? Were we able to do that again, even if only for a fleeting moment, would we not be forced, like his mother Mary, to ponder how on earth this could be so (Luke 2:19), and to ask again, how does our everyday world of individual, finite things, including ourselves and this child, relate to the whole?
Remember, like Mary and Jan Patočka, we can accept this problem and ask the question without necessarily accepting the ancient Christian solution.
But what we cannot do is to allow ourselves ever again to lose sight of the problem and of the need, again and again, to ask the question of how it might best be solved in our own times. The future of our species, and indeed huge swathes of life on our planet, depends on the solutions we come to propose and then truly live by.