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Gebser's Christmas

Christmas Day: 25th December, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (Jn 1:9)

It's easy to get cynical about Christmas. What did I hear an atheistic friend say recently: "God is an imaginary friend for grown-ups"? It's all very well for the kids, but holy ghosts and virgin births just don't do it for most people these days. Well, I'm not so sure! I would like to give a plug for the Holy Family, and all their heavenly entourage. Yes, it certainly is a magical story for the kids, but it is also a profoundly adult story. The Christmas story is packed with deep truths, and life-giving inspiration, but these can be obscured if we insist on a literalistic reading.

Jean Gebser was a Polish intellectual and colleague of the psychotherapist Carl Jung. His seminal work, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad & Algis Mickunas (Ohio University Press, 1986) is concerned with the evolution of human consciousness, and provides a useful lens through which to view the Christmas story. Gebser identifies four stages that consciousness has passed through over the history of humankind.

The first is the ARCHAIC. This is a primal, pre-historic state; ground zero, if you like. There is no science, no religion, at this level, not even language has been developed. Impulse and intuition are the order of the day. This is human being at our most basic level of existence.

So what does the Christmas story look like from this perspective? Well, it doesn't. With no language, there is no story, no history. Jesus doesn't exist. So perhaps we'd better move on.

Next in Gebser's hierarchy comes the MAGIC state of human consciousness. This involves an awakening to the power of words and nature, and the interplay between them. It is a place of superstition and incantation. Human concerns are still primarily hunting and gathering, survival in a hostile universe. But at night, around the fire, the power of focused intuition is released. Art is born, idols are carved, ritual comes to life for the first time.

And the Christmas story, what does it look like through this lens? Well, it really is a magical story. There's a real-life ghost, the Holy Ghost, and a young girl who magically becomes pregnant before she has ever slept with a man. Then there are angels, and a star that moves through the heavens, and a king who tries to kill the magical God-child.

Gebser's third stage of human consciousness, beyond the magical, is the MYTHICAL. Gebser observes that if words became the tools to reflect on inner silence, myths became reflectors of the soul. This stage in human consciousness saw the birth of religion as we recognise it today. Myths covering all aspects of life and human relationship were told, written down, retold, rewritten, added to, developed, and written down again and again. The Greek myth of Prometheus, for example, celebrates the discovery of fire, and all the human empowerment that brought. Magic was the domain of the emotions: fear, lust, ecstacy. Myths released the power of imagination: poetry, history, prophecy, art.

This third stage is where the theologians start their work. If Jesus was so much more sacred than any previous God-child, and his mother was a virgin, then perhaps his grandmother ought to be a virgin too. The architects join in, churches are built in honour of St Mary, and St Anne; choral and orchestral masses are composed and performed for the rich and famous; the world's greatest artists re-create the Christmas story in fresco and on canvas for all to enjoy. A rich world of beauty and imagination grows around the ancient, simple Christmas tale.

Gebser's fourth stage is what he calls the MENTAL structure of consciousness. This stage has seen a series of epochs battle for dominance, from the Greek philosophers, to the Christian scholastics, and latterly the era of the Enlightenment, science and rationalism. The mental state of consciousness, Gebser argues, is still the dominant one in our world. One of the characteristics of the mental stage, is duality. Conflicting world-views battle, quite literally, for dominance. Christianity pits itself against Islam, religion against science, and so on. This has been the era of self-destruction, of genocide, of nuclear threat, of impending ecological disaster.

But what of the Christmas tale? Well, it starts to fade from this rung, as we see in our world today. There is no such thing as virgin birth, ghosts don't exist, and stars don't appear above a stable. In this fourth stage, the "Jesus chapter" in the history books is written by non-believers, the scholars do their work of demythologisation, and they then move on hurridly to the next hot topic of intellectual interest. Bits of the tale are still useful for selling material goods at Christmas, but no one really takes much notice of the Bible stories any more.

There is, however, a fifth perspective on human consciousness, Gebser calls it the INTEGRAL. It is not yet in exisitence in our world, so it is hard to grasp, but Gebser uses words like a-rationality (to acknowledge the limits of the rational), a-perspectivity (to highlight the variety of perspectives that need to be held in tension), and transparency (as opposed to an unconscious latency) to describe this new epoch. Gebser also evokes the analogy of love, as central to the integral era of human consciousness: the love of neighbour that the Torah teaches, but importantly the next step that Jesus also took, the love of one's enemies.

From this not-yet perspective, war, bigotry, domestic violence, child-abuse, abuse of our fragile planet, and all the other poisonous hallmarks of the mental epoch, appear as horrific remnants of a by-gone era. The Christmas story takes on a different purpose. Arguments over virgin birth and holy ghosts between literalists and liberals become irrelevant. And the exclusive, militaristic Jesus, who inspired crusades and holy wars, becomes an anomaly. The Christmas story is a love story, between God and humanity, and it is this energy (both human and divine), that will drive our life and our politics in the not-yet integral stage.

Gebser's vision is a hopeful one; with us, I imagine, he longs for a day when violence is seen as an errant way of life from a by-gone era, when greed and non-sustainable living is laughed at for the folly it is. The German author Jean Paul Richter wrote: "What has puzzled us before seems less mysterious, and the crooked paths look straighter as we approach the end." Something of our Advent and Christmas journey perhaps.

John's gospel also puts it beautifully: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world".


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