On The Loss of Transcendence

 

Margaret Wheatley writes about joy as an experience of connection, communion, presence, and grace within the ordinariness of our daily experience. She notes how it’s possible to have joy in moments of great suffering. Noting that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy, she speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond physical – laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter.

Perhaps this seems so paradoxical as to not be true until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. When we lose connection to the transcendent we are left to the tyranny of self – a state of profound disenchantment.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

The joy we so long for may not be found on mountaintops but it must be found somewhere. It’s not distance that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a preoccupation with self that makes self-transcendence impossible.

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The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is to my mind one of the towering figures in contemporary philosophy. Joshua Rothman in an op-ed in the New York Times last year wrote that Taylor:

has explored the secret histories of our individual, religious, and political ideals, and mapped the inner tensions that cause those ideals to blossom or to break apart.

images-1Taylor’s massive opus A Secular Age explores the historical, religious, and political developments leading to our arrival in the current secular age. He contrasts the year 1500 when it was impossible not to believe in God with the impossibility of such belief for many today. He charts the route of travel as the culture of the West moved from the impossibility of unbelief to the impossibility of belief.

In the long 400-year emergence of our current secular Western mindset, Taylor notes the gradual transition from the age of enchantment to the age of disenchantment, Disenchantment denotes our loss of a connection to the transcendent.

When our connection to the transcendent is lost, all we are left with is ourselves – now occupying center stage. This is a place of great loneliness and disenchantment.

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Drawing on Taylor’s distinction between enchantment and disenchantment helps us to view the Biblical narratives as the product of an enchantment mindset. To the enchantment imagination, God is often frighteningly present in the physical structures of the material world. Divine power not only inhabits objects and places, it fills and disturbs the relational spaces that separate one person from another. God is made uncomfortably known in the sweep of great events through the unfolding epic that is the story of history.

The enchanted mindset understands God’s presence in spatial terms of up and down, in imgresand out. Thus God inhabits sacred mountaintops, sacred spaces. The encounter between the divine and human takes place only after a laborious journey up to the mountaintop where God dwells in a self-revelation in blinding light.

Yet at the same time, the mountaintop is a place concealed in thick cloud. What comes to be known there cannot be spoken about. On the mountaintop Peter, James, and John experience an epiphany of Jesus clothed in his divinity as the Christ. This is a fleeting experience, no sooner glimpsed than it is gone – forever eluding their desire to capture and contain it. Then the disciples must negotiate the even more perilous path down the mountain carrying the experience. They must carry the remembrance of what they have seen and yet, at the same time, practice a kind of forgetting.

Events on the mount of the Transfiguration are only at a midpoint in a long process towards the dénouement or the final act in Jesus’ ministry. It seems that in the spiritual life peak experience is only a means to, and not an end in itself.

As they were coming down the mountain Jesus ordered them, “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”.

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Today we do not look for God in material space-time. The acceptance by past generations, whose enchantment shaped expectations of encountering God in material objects and places is now firmly rejected by most of us as superstition. Nevertheless, the question is not does a separate spiritual dimension still exist for the modern imagination, but where and how does it exist for the modern disenchantment mind?

Spatial references to up and down don’t work in the same way for us. For us, God no longer inhabits the mountaintop. Heaven is no longer imagined as up there, or hell being down there. Yet, the metaphors of in and out still work for us. For a modern imagination, the spiritual realm is best conceived of as a parallel dimension that interpenetrates with space-time.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain.

The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of the absence of the spiritual in lives given over to a preoccupation with our small self. We may no longer find God in the through the material world in quite the same way as our Biblical and generational ancestors did, yet, despite this God remains emotionally and experientially available to us.

The paradox is that while we reject enchantment as superstition, no generations crave with a greater intensity a desire of self-transcendence than we do. Magical realism, heroic superhuman sagas abound in Hollywood’s works. Opioids, marketed as a solution for physical pain establish a hold on society as a solution to the increasing levels of our spiritual pain.

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Margaret Wheatley speaks of joy as an example of a transcendent experience because joy is able to encompass both delight and sadness. Joy is not happiness, which is a very one-sided experience. Happiness is easily destroyed because it is the product of self-preoccupation. Joy radiates outwards, opening new pathways for interconnection and relief from self-preoccupation.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. We transcend the limited confines of self not into the emptiness of bliss, but into the joy of being fully present for one another. Wheatley quotes from the great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

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The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Mark’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Christmas-Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the season of Lent.

Is there no better time than in Lent than for us to renew our engagement with the debilitating experience of our preoccupied and disenchantment self?

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