When Mary explains to the angel Gabriel that this is madness, that she could not possibly be with child, the angel . . . tells her that with the unconditional, all things are possible, even the impossible. The name of God has from time immemorial been the name of the possibility of the impossible.[i]
Why is Advent special? It’s a time of expectation, but what are we expecting? We prepare ourselves for a coming, but what is to come? Admittedly, these are questions that I’ve struggled with during this season of Advent. I find myself wondering about this period of waiting and expectation. Indeed, the season itself tantalizes me with mystery and anticipation, yet I can’t help but wonder what for. Historically speaking, the coming of the Christ child (however we interpret that coming) occurred long ago. Whatever happened, has already happened. Despite this, we continue to celebrate this event with a time of waiting. We wait for what has already been. The past anticipates the future, while the future waits for the past. Thus, we remain inextricably bound to an ongoing event that fulfills itself year after year, Advent after Advent. In many ways, Advent is a challenge. It challenges our conception of time and fulfillment. It challenges us to think beyond the confines of the conditional—the historical, and to consider the unconditional, which isn’t something bound by history or time but is present throughout all times and circumstances.
Paul Tillich (who spent much of his career exploring the unconditional), describes the unconditional as what “cannot be grasped; its power includes its unapproachable mystery. If we try to grasp it, it is no longer the unconditional that we have in our hands—even if it has the highest religious or ontological names.”[ii] John Caputo (drawing from Tillich), states that “the conditional is what is constructed under the concrete conditions of language, history, and the socio-political order. The conditional exists in space and time; it is actual and factual, real and historical. The unconditional, on the other hand, is what we are dreaming of, what we are praying for, what we desire with a desire beyond desire.”[iii] For Caputo, this distinction between the conditional and the unconditional is absolutely critical. One exists historically, the other ahistorically. There’s an obvious tension between the two. The conditional is where we are—our experiences and expectations, the unconditional is what calls us—that which unsettles our experiences and expectations. The unconditional, Caputo writes, “is what we are provoked by, what is calling to us and to which we respond.”[iv]
I believe there are two ways we wait for Advent. The first, the conditional, is a time of memorializing. The conditional is historical time whereby we re-member, re-tell, and re-enact the concrete event (again in however way we interpret that) of Christ’s coming into the world. This waiting is conditioned by our own desires and expectations. We interpret that event through our own cultural lenses, longing for what is familiar to us at this time of the year. We look forward to partaking in the familiar sights, songs, and actions of the season. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. Remembering, retelling, and reenacting the biblical narrative all help in restoring us mentally, physically, and spiritually. The season of Advent can bring us back into a conditioned and historical time of comfort, anticipation, and joy.
Deeper within Advent is another waiting. The second waiting, the unconditional, is a bit more ambiguous. It’s hard to describe but intimately familiar once we’ve experienced it. Within Advent is something that we can’t anticipate. This coming, this inbreaking of the unexpected, shatters all our prior conceptions and expectations of the season. Advent is also a season of excess, which calls us to go beyond all the things of the season that makes us feel comfortable. Indeed, I’d even go as far as to say that Advent calls us to go beyond it, to shatter it, in order to bring the coming that we’re truly waiting for. Caputo describes this as the event or the coming of the unconditional. It’s the indiscernible, indescribable moment happening within the names, places, and times of conditioned time. According to Caputo,
An event (événement) is something ‘coming’ (venir), something ‘to come’ (á-venir). As something futural (l’avenir), an event is something we cannot see coming that takes us by surprise, like a letter that arrives unexpectedly in the mail with news that changes your life for ever, for better or for worse.[v]
The event, the coming of the unconditional, can happen at any point in our lives. It’s a moment that shatters our expectations. It’s the arrival of unexpected and life-changing news, a moment of clarity or realization, or even a provocation that challenges old ideas and prejudices. And yet, the event is more than the event itself. The event carries the unconditional. What I mean is that within every event is a future promise of what is yet-to-come or the ‘yes, and…” of the unconditional’s “dynamis [gk: heart, drive, spirit] that pulses through things (rei), urging them, soliciting them, to be what they can be, and it is in that sense what is most real about them.”[vi] The unconditional calls us, reminds us of what could be if we’d only allow ourselves to be open to its calling.
The conditional and the unconditional are not diametrically opposed. In fact, we can’t really appreciate the unconditional without the conditional, and the unconditional reminds us that there is more to life than the conditional. Life itself is messy and often unpredictable. It swings us to-and-fro between joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, acceptance and rejection, love and hate. And yet, deep within these moments is that continual call and urge, the solicitation of the unconditional. It’s a reminder that life is an opening to something excessive (and maybe even a bit mad) that fuels our imaginations and lifts our spirits.
So instead of choosing between the conditional and the unconditional, it is a matter of living between them. The mark of the human condition is to live in the distance between the conditional and the unconditional, to constantly negotiate between them.[vii]
I see the Advent season as a heightened time of this living in-between both the conditional and unconditional. It’s a liminal time whereby we enter conditional time—waiting, preparing, praying “Come”—hoping against hope that we might encounter the unconditional. And though we wait, preparing ourselves for what is to come, the conditional gives way toward an encounter that defies and bewilders all our conditional preparations. We step through the doorway, the opening, and emerge in a place we never deemed possible. For me, Advent is the season when we celebrate the impossible. It’s a time of madness and folly that threatens the happy harmony between the conditional and the unconditional. For what can be more maddening and foolish than the coming of God as a child? Truly, such an event should shatter (and continue to shatter) every conceivable idea we might have about what is and is not possible. Advent reminds us that we cannot prepare for the unconditional, and the future remains out of our control. We can only prepare ourselves and remain open in conditional time to the inbreaking of the unconditional.
Again, ask yourself, what is God if not the possibility of the impossible, the name of the event of the un/conditional, un/deconstructible, the im/possible? What is God if not the folly of the impossible?[viii]
Advent will end on Christmas Eve, but the event carries on. The possibility of the impossible goes well beyond the season. We’re always waiting for the Advent, it remains unfinished. Thus, “we are asked to respond to the call of the coming of a future that we cannot see coming, to prepare to be surprised, to prepare to be unprepared. Here we are summoned to be loyal to the unconditional . . . to affirm the possibility of the impossible, to let the prose of the present world be disrupted by the poetry of a world to come.”[ix] Therefore, Advent is also a challenge. The event contained within it calls us to prepare for the coming of the unconditional, not just during December, but forevermore. What is within Advent can never be contained by it.
Therefore, when we say “Come,” we must truly mean it. Our work is to continually promote, encourage, and plead for the event of the unconditional—the possibility of the impossible. Within the conditional, we must prepare the way for the unconditional to come for those who need it most—the poor, the oppressed, those who are suffering. We must carry Advent within us, becoming embodied bearers of the event, overflowing with hope, peace, joy, and love. And though we bear the event within us, we must also remember that “we cannot make an event happen, but we can provide the conditions under which events can happen.”[x] It doesn’t mean that we won’t fail or suffer setbacks. As I mentioned earlier, life is messy, meaning that injustice, inequality, and oppression continue to find ways of thriving in our world. There are those who’d rather prevent the event, to discourage the coming of the unconditional. Such people remain closed to the possibility of the impossible, fearing what it would mean for the many who need to experience the impossible. They’ve grown comfortable in the privilege and power afforded to them within the confines of the conditional. The unconditional is a call that we’re free to respond to or reject out of hand. And sadly, many do reject it.
Therefore, I encourage you to remain open during this Advent season (and beyond). Open your hearts, your minds, and your spirits to “the future that we cannot see coming, the future that blindsides us, that lands on us like an absolute surprise and throws everything into question.”[xi] This Advent season, place yourselves in the presence of the unconditional. Pray for its coming, prepare the way, and allow the impossible to unfold in hope, peace, joy, and love.
[i] John D. Caputo, The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016), chap. 3, Kindle.
[ii] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 76.
[iii] Caputo, Folly of God, chap. 2, Kindle.
[iv] Caputo, Folly of God, chap. 2, Kindle.
[v] Caputo, Truth: Philosophy in Transit (New York: Penguin), 74-75. Italicized French in the original.
[vi] Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event, in After the Death of God, ed. Jeffery W. Robbins 65. Note: The title of the text refers to the “Death of God” movement of the latter 20th century.
[vii] Caputo, Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 37. Italics in the original.
[viii] Caputo, Folly of God, chap. 3, Kindle.
[ix] Caputo, Folly of God, chap. 3, Kindle.
[x] Caputo, Folly of God, chap. 2, Kindle.
[xi] Caputo, Truth, 107.
Note: Originally published on Progressive Southern Theologians in 2019.