Advent: "Cognitive Ease"

The Revd Brutus Green

I have slight obsessive tendencies. Nothing too disturbing or unmanageable. Just a slight craving for order. The sort of straightening cutlery at dinner, making the table symmetrical, compulsion that some might mistake just for an attention to detail. It noticeably increases in times of stress or anxiety. So if I’m really hectically busy, I also have to fit in a couple of hours for tidying. Counter-productive but as they say, tidy room, tidy mind.

Stress also provokes me to go online shopping but I’m pretty sure that’s unrelated.

Social scientists usually suggest that this desire for order, this need to control our environment, is a universal human instinct. (Having seen Bryan’s office I would dispute this.) The instinct, anthropologists argue, springs from a primal fear. The fear of chaos. Anarchy and meaninglessness. Of being as the brute beasts of the field, part of the random web of blind nature, red in tooth and claw; of being nothing more than a complex splurge of impulses, biological drives and selfish genes. The fear that your ego, your personality, is an illusion.

So the ability and the joy of the caveman or the child drawing the lion; the satisfaction of a child learning to knock a square shape through a square hole, or hitting the button to hear the ping, repeatedly over and over again; are ways of taking control of our environment. Of asserting our ego against the world, or our reasonable humanity against the clanging gong, the sound and fury of the chaotic world.

And if this seems a little abstract and speculative, consider the universal first-reaction of every British person to bad news or anxiety: making a cup of tea. The very ritual of putting the kettle on, fetching the milk etc. is a reaction of asserting control in the face of insecurity. And there is a payoff - repeated familiar rituals (like coming to church) reduce stress and aid rational thought. They produce the conditions of ‘cognitive ease’. Cognitive ease. A lovely expression isn’t it? It is an evolutionary response that is the body’s way of recognising a safe place. So keep making tea. Keep coming to church. Cognitive ease is good for you.

Well, if my straightening knives and forks in restaurants gives me cognitive ease, we should not be surprised at prophets making crooked paths straight. And God lifting up valleys, and lowering hills and mountains, levelling the uneven ground. It recalls the beautiful prayer of John Donne, that God might bring us to ‘that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor hopes but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity’.

It is the power of God to dispel the chaos, as he created the heavens and the earth out of the chaos by the Word, the divine logos, which gives light and meaning to the world. You might say, then, that creation and redemption are both about creating the conditions of cognitive ease. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.’ If Isaiah had been English he would have put the kettle on.

This is the prophetic task: to remind the people of the order of the world. To distinguish in the mess and chaos of everyday life the principles of right and wrong, good and bad, ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’. To remind them the point of being alive, how to live, who they are. To bring them back to the familiar rituals. Prophecy is about restoring God’s order against the chaotic mess of sin.

Astute listeners to the readings will have noticed a discrepancy, a bit of misquoting going on. In Isaiah we read ‘A voice cries out: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”’. In the Gospel we have ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”’. Isaiah is being sent into the wilderness, whereas John the Baptist is calling from the wilderness to bring the people out.

The wilderness is the place where God is found. A place of simplicity. A place of testing, where you are faced with the enormity of the natural world, whether the middle Eastern deserts, the frozen Antarctic plains or, at a stretch, the gentle seclusion of Hampstead Heath. Anywhere that you are forced to assert your lonely ego, your fragile humanity, against the overwhelming vastness of the cosmos, but with the mental space, the cognitive ease to attend to yourself.

A life spent on Oxford Street, on the other hand, is a life of ego-depletion, a life of distraction and anxiety. You feel the rage rising within you at the poor spacial awareness of others, at the fool standing on the left of the escalator, at the mindless [person] walking too slowly right in front of you. And for all the shiny lights and gaudy baubles it’s a recipe for depression, even if you make it to the Wonder Bar at Selfridges.

Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of God into the world at Christmas. It’s a cliche for dull clergy to complain that people spend more time preparing for Father Christmas than the baby Jesus, but in all the stress, the economic and social anxiety of gift-giving, we may well find it beneficial to discover a little wilderness when we get the chance.

If nothing else you can always watch Frozen Planet! There is something there, in the contrast between the actual endless expanses of brutal wilderness and the program with its perfectly produced panoramas and crystal-clear, slow-motion perfectly captured images of life-and-death struggles, that enshrines the human business of bringing order to the earth. And alongside the spectacular beauty of the harsh landscape, who wasn’t outraged at the wicked wolves tearing apart the baby bison? Who didn’t cheer for the penguin to escape the marauding sea-lion?

Bringing order to life is what baptism is about. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel is pulling people out to the wilderness to repentance, to return them to right, meaningful living, and to prepare them for the coming of God into the world. Baptism is the decision to detach ourselves from the order of chaos, of meaningless and death, and discover the new order of truth, of meaning and love. It is the broad commitment of families and individuals to the set of values that Jesus taught: to forgive one another, to love one another, to put others ahead of ourselves.  But also it’s a statement of hope and faith - that we are not just animals caught up in an unnoticed, insignificant cycle of life and death; that our actions and lives matter; that we are intrinsically all of value; that we are answerable for how we live and that we are loved since before the foundations of the world.

The beginning of the Bible tells about order being created out of chaos. This, the earliest of the Gospels, similarly begins with the path of God being made straight, and of the return of the people from the chaos of sin to the order of repentance and baptism. Today we join with Arthur and his family in affirming our commitment and values, like straightening the knives and forks on the table. These rituals should remind us what’s important in life and give us a moment to find our inner-wilderness, amid the flurry of Christmas card writing, shopping, decoration-hanging and winter-wonderland, to take hold of a moment of peace, of cognitive ease, in order to prepare for the coming of God.