The Loss of Transcendence

nave-panorama

Ecclesiastes and the Christian historian

One of the philosophical principles generally accepted by historians is that no one can fully appraise or appreciate the time in which they actually live. People have often tried to give definitive and authoritative explanations of their own time period – it is a staple of opinion columns in newspapers – and many minds have flailed around trying to make sense of things. But invariably they arrive at deficient conclusions. The broad failure of this intellectual effort has been long recognised by some of humanity’s most enlightened minds. Ecclesiastes wrote nearly three thousand years ago: “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

It is not wise, asserts The Teacher, to approach historiography in any way that romanticises the past, unreasonably magnifies its wonders, and airbrushes away its horrors. Yet over again, we see that people think exactly in this way. Ancient Romans of the Imperial period looked back fondly to the days of the Republic. In their minds, Imperial Rome was decadent and immoral. But in contradistinction, Republican Rome had forged its heroes in the fires of glorious combat, had produced its white-bearded scholars, and the citizenry had breathed a luminous atmosphere of enlightened values.  Nearly two millennia later, we find the same thing in the minds of Frenchmen in post-revolutionary France. Only they looked back to the Ancien Régime with nostalgia for the glories of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”.

In modern times we have entered our own period of longing, told through the hundreds of romanticised historic television shows and movies that mostly give us a version of the past as modern people wish it had been. And our times are strongly characterised by an attitude that Chesterton described as the “cult of simplicity”. He meant the yearning people have (or claim to have) for “nature”. To go back to supposed cleaner and healthier way of life before the grime and plastic of industrialisation.

Ecclesiastes’ basic point is that people fail to appraise the past accurately. They unwisely forget each time period has it own unique blend of good and evil, and in forgetting this, they come to unwise conclusions about their own lives. They neither see their own time properly nor the past. To fail to see the one is to fail to appreciate the other. And like the man who brings his face very close to an oil painting until it blurs into meaningless colours and patterns, human eyes often water with the effort of dealing with history.

Developments that will be seen as monumental in a few decades may be shrugged at carelessly in the present. History is garlanded with examples. Guglielmo Marconi is considered the father of radio yet his invention was received with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the early 1900’s. He was told by the authorities to check himself into a lunatic asylum. Yet, from our standpoint more than a hundred years later, the tremendous importance of radio is readily seen. Without Marconi’s work, Hitler could never have come to power; the Second World War could never have been fought; the culture could never have been unalterably shaped by radio entertainment. Even baseball would not be the sport it is.

It is only in the rear view mirror of history, as we get greater distance from the period we consider, that it becomes evident which forces and attitudes shaped it. But, does this mean that our own time period must always be scorched earth to us? That it is merely dead ground, shrouded in heavy fog; dense; impenetrable? Not all. It is possible to understand our time through a process of comparison. But it must be done carefully so that we do not run afoul of the warning given by Ecclesiastes who, after all, was sharply insightful when it came to the condition of man and the sociology of mankind.

We must lapse into neither apocalyptic nor romanticised thinking. We must avoid arriving at conclusions that view the past as unspeakably wonderful or our own time as unspeakably evil. Neither must we arrogantly imagine that our current state – after a mere two hundred years of industrialisation – has advanced us morally and spiritually to be wiser than our forebears. Only a sober and sensible comparison can serve as the flare in the night that lights up our age for us to see rightly.

Loss of transcendence

I contend that if there is one thing revealed by a side-by-side comparison between the present and the past, it is the profound loss of any concept of transcendence in our time. Transcendent beliefs and experiences have been evacuated from the public and moral sphere in the Western world in a way never seen before in human society.

Let me first define my terms. By transcendence I mean the social and moral anchoring of humanity to a realm that is higher than itself. For me, transcendence is a shared sense of significance that imbues life with a richer meaning than mere existence itself. It is a framework that aggressively denies the view that we are organic machines whose only real function is to consume, replicate, acquire, and amuse ourselves before death.

A sense of transcendence always lets man brush his fingertips over things that are eternal. By feeling the infinite, he is properly integrated into the stream of time. Man lives a transitory life. We all are pilgrims, transmitters of a sacred trust; a precious deposit of truth that must be safely handed on until the ending of the world. To quote Alan Bennett, “Pass the parcel boys. This is the game I want you to learn. Pass the parcel! Not for me; not for you. But for someone, someday. Pass it on!

An awareness of the transcendent is what enables a person to experience emotions and thoughts that can only arise when standing before something monumental. Awe; veneration; reverence; wonder; self-conscious humility; gratitude; adoration; and genuine worship. Unlike our forebears who valued these experiences and went to great effort to establish settings in which they might occur (churches, museums, galleries etc.), modern people have surgically excised this whole emotional domain from their psychology. Especially among the young, the words awesome or wonderful are now only terms of approval. They are unhooked from what they once signified. The term irreverent is a synonym for good and prides is synonymous with healthy.

Transcendence has been replaced with a narrow band of utilitarianism that presents an entirely different universe of values. Few things are considered sacred anymore. Important things are also consumable. Anything new is good. Anything old is bad. The is no reverence, not even for time itself. Amusing ourselves to death, wrote Professor Neil Postman in his seminal work. The number of human hours wasted on entertainment, particularly screen based entertainment, is probably higher now than ever in history.

Does it work? people now ask. Does it matter to me? They do not ask: Is it right? Is it good? Does it matter to God? There is no longer a common  template of transcendent principles against which all things are tested and measured for worth. In this sense modern man is worse off than the pagans, for at least they had their heroic men, their legendary philosophers, mythologies, gods, and their epic poems against which they could judge their present.

It may have been a deficient template, alien to the concept of holiness and overburdened with immoral deities, but it was undeniably transcendent. It crossed the threshold between the material and the spiritual. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, in these ancient stories we may even see faint echoes of a longing for Christ. Prometheus, man’s greatest benefactor, stole from the gods their flame and fought with Zeus on man’s behalf.

The assumption that anything new is better than anything old has become more and more ingrained until it now dominates the latest generation so completely that they are hardly even aware of what the past was like before their august advent into the world. Terms like “updating“, “moving with the times” and “modernising” have become synonyms for good. These terms are applied not just to the domain of technology but also to morality, lifestyle, and behaviour. To update one’s household furniture is a good thing, requiring no further explanation since it is obvious that the new is always better than the old. When a politician speaks of updating the law to fit the times, it is never questioned whether “the times” would be better off fitting the law than the other way about. It is never questioned because these terms are complete microwavable arguments in and of themselves. If a house is repainted in the latest style and someone asks what was wrong with the old style, one may simply rebuke the questioner with the phrase, “We must move with the times, mustn’t we?” and this is considered a satisfactory, even unanswerable, response.

Modern Protestantism must reclaim a sense of transcendence

I am convinced that the loss of a transcendent sense is not isolated to unbelievers but also to Christians. The decline is most accentuated among Protestants but no group of Christians is really immune. This inescapable deduction flows from the most elementary observations. Consider following image:

Church

This is St. Helen’s Church in the small village of Lea, West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. This church is a typical representation of small, country churches found throughout Europe. It was built in the 12th century and during the 900 years since, has been restored several times. It features items – pews, stained glass windows, towers, roofing, paintings and so on – that date from nearly every century between its construction until now. The east window of the northern aisle features stained glass from 1330, a century that was particularly busy for the church.

Several things are noteworthy. First, this is a building constructed for a very small village. Lea’s current population is just over 1,000 people and the village is so small that it has no shops. Other than the church, its two major communal institutions are a tennis court and a small primary school. Major metropolitan centre it is not.

Over the centuries, the local population would never have much exceeded what it is today. Yet despite the small number of people that would have worshipped here, Christians of the 12th century constructed a building that required a significant investment of capital and labour, and was obviously intended to be permanent. The builders of St. Helen’s expected it to be in use for a very long time. They were not building something that might – maybe – last for merely a hundred years. They were building something that would be used by their great-grandchildren. It would last for as long as God willed, maybe even to the ending of the age.

The building reflects an attitude of confidence about the future and a collective concern for coming generations that is quite foreign to modern man. They may not have been historians but the villagers who built and worshipped here 900 years ago would have known about the prophets, biblical kings, apostles, and probably a good deal of hagiography. They would have been trained to see their faith as one that stretched back through the mists of time to the dawning of the world. Their confidence in the long history of the church and in a transcendent God resulted in a stability of purpose. This building, in other words, was a vote of confidence in the future.

Secondly, note the aesthetics. Although only a small country church and therefore built with some degree of economy and functionality in mind, the designers and builders were still keen that it should offer a clear expression that something special occurred in this place that occurred nowhere else. For it was here that the community gathered to offer up their communal worship of God, the King of Creation in whose hands their lives rested.

For many centuries this would have been the most ornate building in the village and certainly among the largest. Situated more-or-less in the dead centre of the village, its tower reaches higher than any other structure; its windows are long and beautifully outfitted with stained glass. There are a number of Gothic features on the tower and the interior is colourful. Nothing is disposable. Everything is built with durability in mind.

The building is doctrine and faith taking form in stone and wood. It reflects a formality and otherworldly concept of worship. The fundamental attitude behind this building is that worship involves being lifted into the heavenly realms; of handling carefully the sacred trust of the Faith. It is an act of coming into a sanctified place to kneel before an omniscient and holy God, and there participate in something awesome and mysterious. Participating, it must be said, not as individuals who happen to be sitting in a group; but as a community approaching the only true God together.

This building, although one among many churches just like it, represents an entirely different way of thinking to our own. Contrast with this:

group

Could meaningful worship be offered up in a setting like this? Of course. Christians have worshipped in caves, in prisons, and holes in the ground before. Our Lord promised that wherever there are two or three gathered in his name, there he would likewise gather in the midst of them. We are all familiar with the Christians in the Roman catacombs during the early centuries of persecution.

These arguments for the “democratisation” and “de-formalising” of worship are so well known by nearly every Protestant of the last hundred years that they trip from the tongue with hardly any thought. And yet, so soon forgotten, is that in the long intervening years since the ascension of Christ, the predominant and favoured form of worship of the overwhelming majority of Christians everywhere has been decidedly toward the elevated and formal. Borrowing from the forms of worship laid down in the Old Testament, Christians have sought to worship in an atmosphere of sacredness and other-worldliness, with a true effort to maintain a faithful continuance of worthwhile practices laid down by dozens of generations.

I would argue that their sense of the all-pervading holiness and greatness of God – as the One before whom man in his smallness bows – has been largely dispensed with and modern worship is more akin to the receipt of information.

I am not suggesting that reverent and meaningful worship cannot be offered up in a variety of formats, neither am I advocating for a particular form of worship. Only that a study of the past conveys a very different attitude toward life and toward God from what is generally expressed today. The difference is the loss of a heavy sense of transcendence, and this has diminished the practice of the faith, and I believe driven people from it. In some way, an informality in worship renders it something less than that which our forefathers of faith experienced and practiced, and passed to us.

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Power over the Waves: Jesus and the Psychology of Fear (Part I)

calming sea

(Text: Mark 4:35 – 41)

A recent survey conducted in Australia revealed that young people now experience worry and fear at an unprecedented rate. Among the most common fears were those connected to the future, which is not terribly surprising. Almost by definition our worries and fears are about things set in our future. “What is going to happen to me?” people wonder, “What if everything goes wrong?”

Sometimes worry or fear can be so immanent in the mind that it poisons the entirety of a person’s life. A fearful mind results in waning joys; exhausted disinterest in legitimate pleasures; and God is made to seem cold and distant. Life is emptied of sunlight. And since fear exists solely in the realms of the mind, it is in the mind that fear must be dealt with.

The Bible promises that it is possible to be truly and completely happy in this life (on God’s terms, of course). This is a revolutionary doctrine in a world where great numbers of people are unhappy, where others have lapsed into glum pessimism, and where many other people believe that the best they can hope for is merely moderate levels of happiness before death. Into this defeated moral landscape, like an urgent message on a battlefield radio, comes word from heaven: full happiness is possible whatever our circumstances. But to experience “joy unspeakable” – the “joy that is full” (John 15:11) – it is first necessary that a person be set free from worry and fear. Nobody can be purely and simply joyful if he is afraid.

And this is biblical. For the stern and parched hyper-Calvinists among us who glory in preaching doom and misery like the man sitting under the shade of the last palm tree in the desert, this is the explicit instruction of scripture. Indeed, our Lord teaches his disciples “do not worry about your life” and St. Paul writes “be anxious about nothing“.

The Christian disciple, in practising the faith, should be keenly concerned about setting himself free of fear and worry. This is part of our spiritual patrimony; our heritage of joy. Happiness belongs to those who have feet that are set toward the City of God. The Spirit himself bequeaths this state of mind to those in whom he lives: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love and self-control“.

Likewise, the commandment “be not afraid” appears in the Bible (NIV) some 70 times. But the theme of fear is addressed a great deal more often if we also consider attendant teachings such as commandments to trust in God, take refuge in him, and be full of courage. “Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death“, says the king who travelled that valley many times during his turbulent life, “yet I will fear no evil because You are with me.

Freedom from fear and worry is therefore a product of right thinking. To achieve a mind liberated from fear, the Christian must understand fear and why it is a sin to worry and fret in the Lord’s universe. The Bible gives us a complete taxonomy of fear and how it works. It does this for our edification, that we might better realise that worry and fear flow downward from a stark deficiency in knowing God. It is precisely because we fail to really know God as a Person in wonder and joy – notwithstanding the correctness and orthodoxy of our doctrine – that we become afraid. The remedy therefore (which I will address in a later post) is found primarily in the manner in which we relate to God.

Faith and Fear on Display

In the text referenced above, Jesus tells his disciples to set off across the lake. The Lord being tired out by a day of teaching and healing falls asleep in the back of the ship. A terrible storm erupts on the lake. St. Luke tells the reader that the ship was in serious danger. So much indeed that the disciples, the experienced fishermen among them concurring, thought that they were at imminent risk of drowning.

In their fear, the disciples wake Jesus. Each evangelist records a slightly different statement helping the reader to imagine the hubbub of fearful cries:

“Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” (Luke 8:24)
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25)
“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

St. Matthew tells the reader that Jesus’ first response upon being roused by this urgent din was to rebuke his disciples. Carefully note that St. Matthew tells us that this rebuke occurred before Jesus calmed the wind and waves. “You of little faith? Why are you so afraid?” Having said thus, he then issued a command to the furious storm and immediately there was a great calm. The Lord turns to his terrified disciples and says, “Where is your faith?” (Luke). “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark).

Fear is not legitimate for the disciple

Jesus’ rhetorical question to his disciples presupposes a remarkable truth. It tells us that from Jesus’ perspective, which is the only right and valid one for a disciple purporting to follow him, there were no legitimate grounds for them to be afraid. This is astonishing on the face of it given that all the evidence would suggest the reverse. It would seem to us that the disciples had good grounds to be afraid since they were totally at the mercy of the storm. Not so, says our Lord. Quite the contrary!

Jesus firmly impresses upon his disciples that had they possessed genuine faith in him they would never have been afraid. Faith would enable them to see the hidden realities behind the storm and the surfaces of the world around them.

But, in lacking faith, they saw the world as a colourblind person sees the world: in flat and brutal monochrome, unable to tell a red door from a green one, or a tomato from an apple. Severe indeed is the myopia of the faithless soul! For without faith men are doomed forever to view the world as though standing on their head. And in so doing, life, and the world at large, and everything in it is seen through the wrong end of the spiritual telescope, so that things which are small loom large, and things that are truly great appear insignificant.

The story gives a number of insights into the psychology of fear:

1. Fear is now native to the human mind.
According to Jesus, his disciples had “no faith” or “little faith“.

Faith is alien to us in a fallen world and does not come naturally to anyone. This is why St. Paul says that faith is a “gift from God”. It has to be since we cannot manufacture it ourselves. Yet this intruder – the condition of faithlessness – creates an existential vacuum in the mind and heart of man (who was, after all, designed to be a creature faith-filled and trusting). This void is filled with another in-rushing spiritual element. Fear. Fear has displaced faith in the human condition. In fact, the first recorded human emotion in Genesis is fear. (Genesis 3:10).

Without faith the grandeur and scope of man’s understanding shrinks to the orbit of a pinpoint, and fear, as it were fixed on a sliding scale, increases in the same direct proportions. Whereas once man in his innocence saw all things under the great unifying governance of God, such that we could confidently have walked the stars had we wished or trod on the flames of the sun which would not have harmed us neither overflowed upon us, now we are conscious only of ourselves, our smallness, weakness, fragility, and the tyranny of our circumstances. The world seems massive. Life in it appears to be the only thing that matters. The titanic and eternal depths of the spirit seem ethereal and insubstantial. Our various problems seem insurmountable.

Faithlessness pretends the universe is all about us, and God is pushed to the periphery of his own creation, distant or even absent altogether. To be alone in the universe is to be a spiritual orphan. To be abandoned by our Spiritual Father is to invite fear into the soul.

Without faith, our native reaction is innate distrust of God. Even the Christian, in his unguarded hours, may be both suspicious and cynical about God’s power. Yes, we can readily believe theoretically that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good. On paper, of course, the theory is extremely straightforward and childishly easy to grasp. But when things get difficult and worries and fears emerge from the surf of the fleshly mind, we find it much harder to function on the basis of our cherished theory.

It is like a man who has been told that there is an invisible bridge crossing the span of a deep chasm. The man learns about the bridge. It is a strong bridge, he discovers, and never fails. He comes to confidently proclaim the existence of the bridge to others.

But all the theory in the world is meaningless until the man places his foot over the chasm and puts his weight on the invisible surface he has claimed is there. At that point we get to see whether the man really believes what he says. If he steps forward, we see that his message is more than mere fantasy because now, at last, he is operating as if he knew that his theory were true. He trusts his life to it.

The same goes for faith in God.

2. Fear is the product of having our godlike pretensions exposed.
The first sin was not just disobedience to God but an effort to assume his status. This insufferable pride colours the thinking of every human being to one degree or another. We prefer to be in control of our circumstances and destiny. Self-determination!

We also hunger for knowledge that belongs only to the Almighty. Humanity has had a fascination with foreknowledge, and therefore always longed to peer through the mists of time and see the future. Clairvoyants and mediums have always ranged from cheap parlour entertainers, to mendacious tricksters, to shameless carpetbaggers, to properly deluded souls with a demonic odour rising from their clothing. But they have always been in demand, in every culture, because they promise access to the future. And lest we readily despise such a culture, even in a scientific age, predicting economic, meteorological, sporting, environmental, and social and political outcomes are big business. Humanity craves to know what it is not entitled to know.

For the disciples, the storm stripped away these pretensions. The Twelve realised that they were powerless. The storm was big and they were small. The storm was strong and they were weak. It was beyond their resources to cope with and they did not know what to do or what was going to happen. They probably did not think even Jesus could do much to save them, except lend his strength to an oar.

They were certain that their fate rested with themselves and since they were unable to deal with the storm on their own, they expected the worst.

The Christian disciple is most afraid when he most convinced that his fate rests with himself. He is afraid when he is convinced that God will not intervene in his life and that he is thrust into the cosmos alone. He is afraid when he thinks that he alone is ultimately responsible for dealing with his circumstances and problems. He is afraid when he distrustfully assumes that God’s intervention in his creation is miserly and capricious, instead of ongoing, omnipresent, constant.

We are most afraid, in other words when we assume a godlike perspective and attitude, and forget that God is God and we are not. That God is sovereign over ever square inch, every particle, and every happening in his creation.

3. Fear mangles the future and looks to it with distrust.
The problem with both lacking faith and at the same time pretending we are little gods who can confidently speculate about our future, is that we tend to assume the worst. The future looks painful, difficult, problematic, and downright frightening when we adopt the godlike perspective.

This attribute of the psychology of fear is fully displayed in the inspired narrative. Since the disciples could not deal with the storm, they assumed they were going to drown.

That was a perfectly logical atheistic deduction and would make sense if the universe was a godless one. But this is not an atheistic universe and neither we nor our circumstances and limitations are the deciders of our fate. God is.

4. Fear mangles the past and jettisons all memory of God’s mercies and care.
Don’t you care if we drown? asked the disciples, with the heavy implication that Jesus did not. If he did care wouldn’t he be bailing water and hauling on the rigging too?

Yet in the space of a few chapters, St. Mark has already shown us that Jesus handpicked his apostles. The evangelist gives us the deeply touching scene of Jesus surrounded by a circle of his disciples, exclaiming, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” And just a short while earlier Jesus had told his apostles that it was their privilege, unlike those outside, to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

A fearful state of mind quickly forgets the past mercies and care of God. It forgets the storms through which God has already led us; the answered prayers; the loving guidance through the valleys of the shadow of death. Indeed, the faithless mind makes past mercies seem small compared to the present crisis (although if we recall accurately, very often past crises also seemed to be the worst thing ever at the time).

Fear and faithlessness rounds upon God. Don’t you care if we drown?

Even if it does not emerge as a railing accusation against the Almighty, the same attitude can be expressed in other ways. In quiet despair, in nervous exhaustion, in persistent gloom, in listless brooding, in anger directed against human targets, or trickles of fear.

We so quickly and readily take the view that although God has helped us in the past, somehow he is going to desert us in the present. Or, we take the view that past challenges were far smaller than the present crisis and that while God was adequate to those problems maybe he is neither willing nor able to help us with the present problem.

5. Fear is a product of thinking we know better than God what is good for us.
The disciples woke Jesus probably in the expectation that he would help them operate the ship and fight the storm. From their perspective that was the best help that Jesus could give to them at that moment. They certainly were not expecting deliverance from the storm. They were not expecting Jesus to stand up in the ship and address the sea. They were not expecting a miracle at all. We know this because once Jesus had calmed the sea the text tells us that the disciples were terrified. What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!

Fear often emerges when the Christian comes to understand that God is not going to dance to our tune, we must dance to his. Yet over and over again, we become convinced that we know better than God what will make us fulfilled, holy, happy, content, joyful, and peaceful. And when it looks like God is not going to assist us in the way we think he should, it produces fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God because we are confronted with the reality that we are not in control.

It can be a frightening thought that God is going to make us happy, holy, and peaceful by the means he has determined. It can be a fearful thought that God will save and sanctify us according to his wisdom, and not ours. We do not like this because of our innate distrust of God’s motives and methods. We never seem to realise that God does what he does for his glory and our benefit, and that ultimately, at the end of our days, at the dawning of eternity, we will be satisfied with the work that God has done in us. With clarity we will see the love and wisdom in it and we ourselves would have it no other way.

In short: trust God. He knows what he is doing. And we will increase in joy and peace through the process of his dealings. Always.