Craving Transcendence

I believe that humanity needs transcendence.  We need moments that take us out, above, the tensions, pressures, stresses, and hum-drum complacencies of daily life.  There is a scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations that illustrates this.  A certain clerk at the office of an unscrupulous, callous lawyer is described as appearing like a mailbox.  His mouth is set so stiffly, it appears like the steel slot that you slide letters into.  But as he walks out of the office, and heads to his domestic life, his innocent home life, his face relaxes, takes on lively expressions, and his innocence emerges.  At home, the clerk finds a kind of transcendence.  His humanity retreats in the hostile environment of the law office, and re-emerges in the safe home in which he lives.  In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne meets Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, in the woods, far, far from the pressures of the intense Puritan village in which they live.  And perhaps the most clear literary example of transcendence is in the medieval romance Tristan.  In this work, the lovers Tristan and Isolde meet in the forest in a special “Love Grotto” which is a kind of cave that resembles a medieval cathedral.  Their bower of love, away from the life of the castle court, is a protected, transcendental place in which their love can be freely—carefreely–expressed.

We all need a place like the safe domesticity of the clerk at the law office, the woodland refuge of Hester and Dimmesdale, or the Love Grotto of Tristan and Isolde.  A place or an environment in which we feel safe, and more than safe, uplifted spiritually.  For ages, humanity has found transcendence in relationship with God.  A connection with God was found to be ecstatic, uplifting, calming, peaceful, enlightening.  The roots of many religions teach that God is somehow above the created world, and that connection with God would lift a person out of the pressures of worldly life, transform one’s emotions and thoughts, elevate one’s soul.  “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).  Religious transcendence is found in prayer, worship, meditation, devotional reading, and charitable works.

I have seen efforts to find transcendence without God.  This is because many today are renouncing belief.  Without God, and with a craving for transcendence, where can people find that place apart from the world, above the world, better than complacency?  I see in TV and cinema episodes that look like transcendental places.  One common transcendental space is in the experience of love.  Lovers create a kind of bubble which is known only to the couple.  Finding someone who treasures you above others, as lovers find, makes a person feel special.  At least to the beloved, you are more important than other people.  In strong love relationships, the beloved is treasured above anything else, everything else.  That feeling of being special to one other human, lends the feeling of transcendence, creates a space that we don’t find in the world.  Often the world can feel harsh and unloving.  In the movie The Big Chill, the friends lament their eventual return to the tough world they view from the treasured solace of their friendship.    These reflections suggest two other options for semi-transcendence: family and friendship.  Friendship is like love, but not as intense.  Indeed, lovers often are best friends, but best friends are most often not called lovers.  And families seem to hold the widest array of love relationships.  Parents love their children sometimes even more than their partner, and they also have that mutual love that couples know with their partner.  So family life is another powerful place of transcendence.  It is a place where the stresses of the world can be let go, and where each family member is special just for who they are.  Robert Frost calls family, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (The Death of the Hired Man).  Other means of semi-transcendence can be art (the rapture of music), nature, sports (especially the communal experience of a live game), or, unfortunately, drugs.

My feeling is that these attempts to satisfy the universal craving for transcendence are not sufficient.  I think that they will lead to frustration.  Seeking something that lifts one out of the human situation can’t be found by other human creations.  I have felt the kinds of semi-transcendences that I listed briefly above.  And in my better moments, I have felt religious transcendence.  I have experienced the semi-transcendental episodes in cinema, for instance, and for me, they don’t fulfill my own craving.  It feels really good, indeed.  It does create a space outside the pressures of the world.  But it doesn’t uplift.  It doesn’t bring peace.  And so with other efforts to get away from it all, but not all the way to heaven.  Granted, as a believer, I have expectations grounded in religious experiences.  But as a human, I do feel love, friendship, family, art’s rapture, the enjoyment of sports, the quiet of nature (which, arguably, is God’s creation, and at least, not a human creation), and have experienced drugged relief.  My experience of spirituality feels higher than the other forms of transcendence.  In fact, my experience of love, friendship, family, art, and nature is enhanced by my spirituality.  I think the craving for transcendence can be relieved only by a transcendental Reality.  I don’t think that the craving for transcendence will ever be forgotten or sloughed off.  Humans will always want a place apart.  But I don’t think that humanity will find that place apart without God.  I see endless frustration, maybe unconscious frustration even, when finite forms are used to fulfill what is essentially an infinite urge.

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aphorism

Outrage is not the same as hate

And friendship is not the same as loving.

Other Things that Take Effort

When you work hard, you’re tired.  Sometimes all you can do is vege in front of the tube, maybe pass out, and go to bed.  But you’re not always that worn out.  Often, we stay up for a while and wile away the time.  How we wile away time matters.

One day-off I was sitting in an easy chair, feeling lazy.  I hadn’t worked that day and had, basically, the whole day ahead of me.  I felt too lazy to listen to Beethoven on my iPod, or jazz, and settled for classic rock.  I don’t mean to disparage classic rock at all.  It’s good.  But it doesn’t require much effort to listen to.  It doesn’t sound right, but Beethoven or Bach seem to require listener effort.  At least concentration, which takes effort.  Even Beethoven’s 6th required more effort than I had in me that day.

But I criticize myself for my laziness.  Vegeing in front of  TV, or letting classic rock pass time is a cheat of the soul.  Now we can’t and shouldn’t only listen to Beethoven or read Shakespeare or David Hume.  But I need to rise to Beethoven’s intonation in some moments.  My life is blessed when I do listen to him.  Or when I am able to read Shakespeare.  Hume isn’t hard, he just requires a lot of time.  And the point is, I need to make time for them all.

Erik Erikson writes about a late stage of development called “Generativity versus Stagnation.”  It’s a stage in life when we are concerned with passing on wisdom to the next generation.  It seems to be hitting me.  Symphony halls can’t make a go of classics, so they are playing “pops” and other light music to keep their doors open.  In my hometown, it’s hard to find concerts that I want to go to, meaning Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Copeland, et. al.  I talked with a biology student who was forced to read Shakespeare.  She complained to me why they wouldn’t let her read something more contemporary.  Jazz venues are closing.  Two undergraduate girls at a prestigious university couldn’t tell me who came first, Moses or Jesus.  While my personal problem is getting my lazy butt up to giving Beethoven the listening he deserves, my fear for society is that all these things are being sloughed off by indifference, apathy, ignorance.

I’m not just complaining about passing on my generation’s likes to the next.  I believe that the individuals I mention, and others of a like kind, have a precious gift to humanity.  Losing them is like losing a part of the human soul.  But then again, contemporary philosophy teaches that there isn’t a soul, never was one.  I’m not at the point of despair yet.  Maybe closer to alarm.  And that includes alarm at myself, too.  I hate to think I’m sinking into a laziness that doesn’t have the energy to put on a Beethoven symphony.  Even the death march in his his 3rd.

Spiritually Asleep

I think that spirituality takes energy.  We can’t just go with the flow of the world, sometimes.  Even if we live in the Bible Belt, where religion is everywhere in the air, it’s not enough to go with the flow of the world.

Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I believe that that goes for our life in the world, and our religious life.  What I am getting at is living an examined life, being critical about our life.

It’s easy to drift with the crowd and talk only about money-making, flashy cars, sports, our wealth, our job, our family.  All these things are OK when they are in perspective.  But to sleep in the midst of these matters, swept along with worldly ideals, may result in sloughing off spirituality.  It was Heraclitus who said, “We ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep” (fragment 73).  And Jesus, using stronger language, said,

“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)

These days, I don’t think people are rebelling against spirituality.  I think the problem is one of apathy.  It’s just not something that society thinks about.  As if asleep.

I think it takes energy to rise above apathy, and ask spiritual questions.  To investigate spirituality.  Sometimes I see eager interest when I raise spiritual issues.  Even delight.  There may be spirituality even if it lies beneath public discourse.  The energy exerted in pursuit of spirituality will reap rich rewards.  Whether we are snoozing in the drift of what we always believed religiously, or in the flow of worldly life, the Bach chorale calls to all of us, “Sleepers, awake!”

The Reaper Is not Grim

The world-view Fitzgerald paints in The Great Gatsby is bleak.  He describes a billboard with a pair of unseeing eyes overlooking a town covered in ashes:

“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic–their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

These billboard eyes that brood over the dumping ground are a parody of God.  God is supposed to look over the whole created world; God is supposed to know the workings of humanity and to provide for everyone’s salvation.  But God’s divine oversight is translated into a weather-beaten billboard depicting unseeing eyes, in Fitzgerald’s vision of the world.

And with no God in their life, the people in The Great Gatsby flit about their meaningless lives like moths,

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

The Psalmist has an analogous view.  We are as grass or wildflowers, which sprout and die away in a moment.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).

But the Psalmist sees the world much, much differently than Fitzgerald does.  God loves the created world God made, and each one of us.  We are not presided over by an unseeing billboard.  We do not vanish into emptiness after a short meaningless life like moths seem to do.  God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting—it is eternal.  And though our life in the material world seems to be as short as a wildflower, God’s love remains with us forever:

17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.

It is out of fashion to see the world as one created by Love, watched over by a Loving Creator.  And in many ways, it can appear that Fitzgerald’s vision of a world evacuated of God is happening now.  In Fitzgerald’s day, people spoke of God’s all-seeing Providence.  Hence Fitzgerald’s image of the unseeing eyes would have been recognized as a parody of God’s Providence.  Today, I fear, so few people think of God, that the meaning of Fitzgerald’s image would be lost.

Regardless of fashion today, there is a God.  A God whose love is unchanging and from everlasting to everlasting.  Time loses it’s meaning when we think of eternity.  From everlasting to everlasting means eternal.  The from and the to, are awash in the everlasting.

With God, life has more meaning, more glory, more pain, more struggle, more ecstasy than without God.  We are free to believe or ignore.  But our belief or lack thereof doesn’t change the facts of reality.  To invoke the Psalmist, a wildflower alone declares the care, the love, the existence of a Loving Creator.  And though we may be as wildflowers in our short time in the material world, our real relation to life involves a relationship with a loving Creator, awash in the everlasting.

 

Family and Ideology

I understand when parents are proud of their children.  I understand that having children feels like a blessing (and at times, I know, a curse?).  But where I am not living, I am witnessing something very strange, something intangible, something in the air.  I understand that parents are proud of their children.  But what does it mean when parents are proud that they have children?  Proud to be a family unit.  Proud of family as an ideology.

I had heard about “family values,” as a catch-phrase associated with right-wing politics.  I am now seeing what that means.  It is a pride that they have a family, that they are part of the “family values” ideology.

In Biblical times, having children took away the “reproach” of  barrenness for women.  Men wanted children to help with work and to inherit their wealth.  There was also an element of ancestor worship.  God tells Moses that He is “the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob.”  Children had pride and reverence for their parents, grandparents, ancestors.

But that is not contemporary pride in having a family.  I love my parents, and my brothers and sisters.  But I’ve never thought that I was proud to be a family unit.  Family values strange as an ideology.  It’s almost a destruction of the innocence of children, when children are viewed as part of a political ideal.  It’s almost a corruption of bonds of love, when love becomes pride.

I am now witnessing something very strange in this family values, something intangible, something unsettling.