This morning I’m going to start on September 11th, 1814 at the Battle of Plattsburgh. The United Kingdom and the United States have fought two wars against each other, the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783), and the War of 1812. The War of 1812 in which the United States declared war upon the United Kingdom in response to British trade restrictions. As the war progressed the United Kingdom attempted to use the opportunity to draw down the Canadian border as far as possible before the final peace was signed.
The Battle of Plattsburgh was the climax of that second war. Plattsburgh is a small lakeside town in upstate New York, in the Cumberland Bay.
It was here where the United Kingdom attempted their final invasion. Plattsburgh was attacked by land and sea; the British had superior numbers and superior weapons, and yet the Americans held out. In the ensuing naval battle the Americans landed a lucky shot, taking out Captain Downie, the British Naval commander.
When news of the loss was circulated, the order was finally given: Retreat! How might we understand this improbably American victory? There was one man who had a very clear answer. A young, thirty year old American infantry officer, who held out during that battle in one of the coastal forts. From there his exposed position came under heavy fire; many of his men were killed around him, but he emerged from the unlikely victory without a scratch on him.
Before the battle, Captain William Miller would have described himself as a Deist, with Unitarian leanings; he read the works of Thomas Paine, Hume and Voltaire. But now… Well now, it seemed that God was not so distant after all. He believed he had surely witnessed a miracle.
In the years that followed, William Miller wrestled with his beliefs and experiences, slowly moving away from his Deism position and embracing a more Conservative, Calvinistic perspective. He started preaching and proclaiming the word. And then he had an idea.
He believed the second coming would happen in his lifetime. That alone was not very unusual, fervent Christians throughout history have shared in this conviction. The skies opening, trumpets sounding, and Jesus floating down on a cloud…
William Miller was unique however, because he did not simply believe the second coming would happen at some point in his life; he came to believe that it would happen on October 22nd 1844. Today people are throwing out ETAs on the Messiah all the time. It’s one of those recurring news stories, some American preacher declaring the end of the world is at hand. But William Miller was the first to do this, to give a specific date. He arrived at his date by uncovering the ‘hidden meaning’ behind certain numbers and texts in the Bible.
In the years leading up to October 1844 William Miller’s movement, known as the Millerites, published widely on the issue and held elaborate tent meeting spectacles to wow the crowd and convince them of what was to come. Theatrics, drama, and spectacle, these are the luxuries of peacetime. To quote John Adams, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” It is no coincidence that this religious revival happened in the wake of the United States and the United Kingdom concluding their two bloody wars, and finally securing a lasting peace.
If you look at the history of drama and theatre, it arose in ancient Greece. Why? Because it was there in the city state of Athens that a degree of political stability and peacetime allowed for such pleasurable pursuits of the mind. The ancient Greeks liked their plays – Greek tragedy, Greek comedy, and so on.
A common practice in these plays would be to have a god turn up at some point, to resurrect the protagonist, or lift a character who was in danger to safety. This was done by lifting the actor playing a god up on a huge pulley – like a crane – and lifting them over the backdrop of the set. To us today this effect would probably not look very spectacular, but in those days, in ancient Greece, it was seemingly magical and awe inspiring.
This is where the term Deus Ex Machina arises, which literally translates as "god from the machine”. In time, this term Deus Ex Machina came not simply to refer to a god arriving on set, but any artificial or improbable plot device resolving difficulties or faults in the narrative. Human beings are quite obsessed with the Deus Ex Machina – the idea that some alien other will reach into the plots of our lives and turn everything on its head, for good or ill. Whether it’s Harry Potter receiving his letter from Hogwarts, Luke Skywalker meeting the wise Obi Wan Kenobi, Captain William Miller receiving his God ordained victory over the British, or as we heard from our reading, God calling Moses from the burning bush to bring his people out from Egypt. Ultimate turning points, in which the very fabric of reality as once understood is permanently altered.
In William Miller’s case of course his eschatological Deus Ex Machina moment, his second coming, never happened. And it didn’t happen in quite a spectacular way. People were so convinced that it would happen that they did not store up the necessary food provisions for the winter ahead; they gave away their money and their possessions. The day came, but Jesus did not. This day came to be known as ‘The Great Disappointment’. The existential crisis this day threw up caused such ripples throughout the American religious landscape, it in no small part led to several new denominations – namely the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, and several others which burned out along the way.
So, The Deus Ex Machina is a plot device in which an alien other reaches in and immediately, and permanently, alters the way in which the fabric of reality shows up to us. The human soul often longs for this kind of spiritual or magical experience. How many children have dreamed of discovering that they alone have some magical ability, they alone possess a portal to another world, they alone can pull back the curtain of reality and see into the unknown…?
But as James Russell Lowell says, "Whatever you may be sure of; be sure of this – that you are dreadfully like other people." That is not to say there are not spiritual experiences which can expose reality, paradigm shifts in which our reference point of this world changes so dramatically that we cannot not live in fundamentally new ways, but all such insights, all such elucidations, arise from within, not from some alien other. Not from any Deus Ex Machina.
The angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
A Poseidon, a Phoenix, a Cyclops or a Griffin. Phantom or angel, symbol of fear or of wonder…
These apparitions of the mind will so easily baffle us, and send us down holes chasing after white rabbits, and take our mind off the true adventure of life, full of knowledge and joy, travel and experience…
But, always keep Ithaca in your mind. To arrive there is your ultimate goal. Where there is neither fear, nor sadness, nor hunger, where each is truly free, and each can truly be.
It will not come in the post, or via the burning bush. It will not be found in the back of a cupboard or offered by the wise old man. It will not float down on a cloud, or be where the rabbit runs. It will be in this journey we share, it will be in our forward motion. It will be found in all the wealth of a lifetime lived.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.