CHRISTMAS written by David Cowles
On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Nazarene who Christians believe is the Christ, the Messiah foretold throughout Old Testament scripture. Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah predicted the rise of just such a King, out of the House of David (Is. 11: 1 – 9):
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.
Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked…
Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young goat shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; and the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child shall lay his hand on the adder’s lair. They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.
So what can we say about this king?
(1) The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, bringing wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength and knowledge and culminating in ‘fear of the Lord’.
(2) He will be a Judge. Judges ruled Israel from the death of Joshua until the installation of King Saul. Before Saul, “there was no king in Israel (and) everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Jgs. 21: 25). As Judge, Isaiah’s king will proactively defend the rights of the poor, advance the interests of the weak, and slay the wicked (at least metaphorically).
(3) His Reign will be nothing less than the Eschaton itself…the Kingdom of God: “The wolf shall be the guest of the lamb” and “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord”.
So are we talking about one man here…or three? In just 9 verses, Isaiah seems to have given us three royal prototypes, each entirely incompatible with the other two. Plus, if this is one ‘man’, he seems more ‘anti-king’ than ‘king’. Where are the references to historical power, political cunning, legislative acumen, soaring rhetoric, popular adulation?
Instead, we are introduced to a holy man, perhaps a scholar, almost certainly a recluse, who actually turns out to be a political activist, a revolutionary, perhaps even a vigilante, whose reign brings about the resolution of all conflict and the advent of universal peace.
For real? What’s going on here? Is there any way we can reconcile these ‘three kings’ with one another…and with the concept of kingship itself? Let’s work backwards from the very last line of our excerpt: “The earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.”
First, does water cover the sea? Would it not be more accurate to say that water is the sea? But if water is the sea, what does that do to the other side of the simile: “The earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord”? If earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea, then we have to conclude that ‘the earth’ is knowledge of the Lord. But we know it isn’t, right?
Not so fast! Verse 9 is part of Isaiah’s vision of the Eschaton. So before we can pass judgment on verse 9, we need to understand verses 6 – 8.
Eschaton is the world, whole and entire, as it ultimately will be (historically) and as it eternally is (now). Isaiah’s vision of Eschaton is a vision of a world without conflict. Is such a world even conceivable? But if it is, is it possible to conceive of Eschaton as anything other than such a world?
Conflict is inherently destabilizing: every action provokes a like and opposite reaction. In the historical world, conflict begets conflict. Change, born out of conflict, is the stuff of the spatiotemporal world (Heraclitus). But that sort of change is incompatible with Isaiah’s Eschaton: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain”. Eschatologically, the destructive antagonisms and conflicts of the historical world, function as enriching contrasts. But how can that be so?
All entities share a common origin, a common goal and a common destiny. God is Good and as such God is the unconditioned valuation at the ground of all Being. Every ‘actual entity’ initially comes to be by its appetite for the Good…and that is God. (This is by definition what ‘appetite’ is. What else could an entity possible have appetite for except for Good…at least as it understands Good?)
However misguided an entity’s development may turn out to be, it originates out of the purest of intentions. The urge to be is the urge to be good. There is no such thing as a ‘bad baby’. In this sense every actual entity has a common origin.
Every actual entity is essentially a process. (Buckminster Fuller: “I seem to be a verb.”) That process originates as appetition for Good. But the process is pulled forward by a desire to become a settled matter of fact and to influence the development of other actual entities; and as the process evolves, it draws into itself material from other actual entities in its actual world. In these later stages, mistakes can be made, entities can wander ‘off of the way’.
Nevertheless, every child longs to grow up. Everybody yearns to ‘make a difference’. We are all driven to share who we are and what we do with others. In this sense every entity has a common goal, participation in the constitution of the world.
Once an actual entity becomes a settled matter of fact, it is available to other actual entities as they develop. This is the process by which an actual entity makes a difference beyond itself.
Gregory Bateson defined “mind” as “a difference that makes a difference”. He was certainly not wrong; but he stopped short. Every “actual entity” is “a difference that makes a difference”. Every actual entity is different from the actual world it comes from and every actual entity makes a real, unique contribution to actual entities that succeed it. (Does that mean that every actual entity is ‘mind’, at least in some sense?)
God is an actual entity and, as such, a settled matter of fact. In fact, God is the ultimate matter of fact. But God is, especially in his first person, an eternal entity rather than an historical entity; therefore, God is not subject to ‘limitations imposed by spacetime’. Now by definition, there can be no actual entities ‘outside’ of God (or God would not be God after all). Therefore, God can and must ‘know’ every other actual entity. (Otherwise, there would be no actual entities outside of God.) Conversely, every actual entity can and must enter into the process that is God. Otherwise it would not be part of the universe. In this sense then every entity has a common destiny.
Because all entities share a common origin, a common goal and a common destiny, the antagonisms that exist among them are ultimately just contrasts. We can see this from the perspective of Eschaton…but not from the perspective of history. How come? Because the common origin and destiny of entities lies in the Eschaton, not in the spatiotemporal world. (Only the common goal lies in the realm of history and as we all know that goal alone, by itself is not incompatible with conflict.)
In Eschaton, the antagonisms that manifest as conflict in the historical world function as contrasts. In turn, the phenomenon of change that manifests as destruction in the historical world manifests as harmonization. Therefore, we can say that Isaiah’s irenic vision of Eschaton is conceivable and that no vision of Eschaton is conceivable without similar resolution of conflict.
But what about “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord”? How is the resolution of conflict into contrast related to knowledge of the Lord? To answer this question we have to explore what we mean by ‘knowledge of the Lord’? For example, are we referring to creatures’ knowledge of God…or God’s knowledge of creatures?
In Eschaton, it has to be both! There are no more subjects and objects, no more active and passive verbs; those are the cases and voices of conflict. In Eschaton, all process is reciprocal so there are no cases and all verbs are middle voice.
Check out Isaiah’s text: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, lion and ox, baby and viper, child and adder. In Eschaton all relations are mutual (harmonic).
Therefore, God cannot know a creature except in so far as that creature knows God and a creature cannot know God except in so far as God knows that creature. ‘Knowledge of the Lord’ then can only mean both God’s knowledge of the creature and the creature’s knowledge of God. In fact, it must be the case that God’s knowledge of a creature is that creature’s knowledge of God and that creature’s knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of that creature.
But is that in fact the case? It seems (above) that the Eschatological process is not reciprocal. God knows creatures as settled matters of fact but creatures only know God by the valuation (Good) that forms the ground of all Being.
But we’re forgetting something. God is an actual entity too. Just as God is the ultimate process, God is also the ultimate matter of fact. That ultimate matter of fact can be nothing other than Eschaton itself, God’s Reign. God is the Eschaton, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Furthermore, because God is an eternal entity rather than an historical entity, God is available to every other ‘actual entity’, without regard to the limitations imposed on historical entities by spacetime (the Light Cone). The so-called “Second Coming” is the ingression of God, the Eschaton, into the constitution of each and every spatiotemporal entity. Every other actual entity is known to God; now in turn we discover that God is felt by every other actual entity in its process of self-actualization.
So, as God knows a creature, it knows that creature knowing God; and as a creature knows God, it knows God knowing it. To know God is to know God’s love for us. Therefore, God’s knowledge of a creature is that creature’s knowledge of God and that creature’s knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of that creature. There is but one ‘knowledge’; God and creature are the terms (or reciprocal terminals) of that knowledge. Therefore, everything that is is ultimately ‘knowledge of God’ and so at last we can affirm with Isaiah that the ‘earth’ is knowledge of the Lord.
The prophet Jeremiah affirms this: “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts…They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, ‘Know the Lord!’ Everyone from the least to the greatest shall know me…” (Jer. 31: 33-34)
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus confirms this as well: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
But how can any of this possibly have anything to do with a king who is either a political vigilante or a reclusive scholar or both? Is our king ‘bi-polar’? No…and yes.
In the Old Testament, the concept of ‘justice’ is represented by two different families of words. One family is typically translated as “right/righteous/right doer” while the other is typically translated at “just/justice/judge” (recall that ‘judge’ in Old Testament Hebrew does not mean ‘magistrate’ but ‘doer of good’).
When Isaiah speaks of our King using terms like “wisdom, understanding, council, strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord”, he is speaking of our King as ‘righteous’; but when Isaiah says “judge the poor…and the land’s afflicted…strike the ruthless…and slay the wicked,” he is speaking of our King as ‘just’ (or as ‘judge’).
What’s the difference? As an actual entity constitutes itself, it incorporates conceptual and physical elements. Conceptually, the entity incorporates God’s values, both as they make up God’s nature and as they are at work in the world; physically, the entity incorporates other actual entities as settled matters of fact. In this sense then, every actual entity is bi-polar: it has a conceptual pole and a physical pole. Our King is no exception.
Our King is righteous because God’s values are always uppermost in his mind; but our King is just because he intervenes in history to right wrongs and to influence the development of other actual entities. It turns out that these two ‘sides’ are not only not in conflict, they pre-suppose one another. It is impossible to intervene effectively in history without keeping God’s values top of mind and it impossible to keep God’s values top of mind without those values spilling over and influencing the way one lives one’s life in the world.
The Book of Psalms is testimony to this. This is one interpretation of the ‘faith/works’ dichotomy in the New Testament letters. It is also the conclusion that the great Moses Maimonides drew at the climax of his monumental Guide for the Perplexed.
Wisdom is a window in history that opens onto Eschaton. It is through Wisdom that we are able to see conflicts as contrasts. Likewise, Justice is a window in Eschaton that opens onto history. It is through justice (activist justice) that barriers to harmonization (e.g. exploitation, persecution, evil doing) are knocked down. (See Ecclesiastes in this collection of essays for more on this last point.)
So it turns out that Isaiah’s ‘three kings’ are one King after all, just three complementary views of that King. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that King. Whether confounding the rabbis in the Temple at the age of 12 or fasting in the desert for 40 days or turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple, Jesus is invested with the messianic attributes celebrated by Isaiah and other prophets.
Isaiah 7: 14 refers to the Davidic King as “Emmanuel”, roughly translated as “God is with us”. And we know that God is with us, initially as the ‘Ground of all Being’, Good, and ultimately as Eschaton, Peace, the resolution of all conflict, the harmonization of all contrasts, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us. Specifically, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the entry of the Christ into history. But in a larger sense, Christmas is not just a onetime event or even one day out of a year. It is not the case that “Christmas comes but once each year!” Christmas is the permanent condition of the world: Emmanuel, God is with us.
That’s what we celebrate on December 25th.