Travelling to find Transcendence

What are the memories you look back to with fondness? The times you replay over and over in your head on the day winter days. The places you forever have in your mind as incredible, due to some moment that happened there that took you to another plane, despite there perhaps being nothing notable about that place to anyone else who would arrive on a later date.

I remember a trip I once was on, hiking on the west coast of Ireland. Arriving at some cliffs during the golden hour, we sat down to enjoy the stunning moments of last light at the sun set over the water, with the waves crashing on the deserted beach at the foot of the cliffs beneath us. Sitting in silence in long grass, we were captivated.

“So I suppose this is where you thank God, is it?” came the voice from my secular friend beside me.

“Why do you say that?” I whispered back, not wanting to spoil the serenity of the scene in front of us, as if the moment would be taken away if it heard our voices.

“I dunno. Just feels like one of those moments”.

Having just read James KA Smith’s “How Not to Be Secular“, I rather despaired. Short as it is, it took me a while to get through for the rather complex language he chooses to use. But as its a commentary to go alongside the more complex (?) “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor (which I confess to not having yet read), I suppose I can’t shoot the messenger.

It appeared to me he takes a full book to simply outline the basic structures and worldview of where we’ve arrived at, from the last centuries of thought. Of course Smith would resolutely groan at me saying this, given that he’s adamant that this is not just a book about theoretical thought, but outworkings and practice in every area of life, which are far more complex. It’s a radical dismantling of a whole framework. Still, I stand by my motto that experts should be able to translate the complexities of their subject to common people, in accessible ways, if they are worth their weight in gold. But perhaps I’m part of a generation that enjoys being spoon-fed too much. Hey-ho.

None-the-less, the exercise, taxing as it may been at points, was worth it for many reasons, one of which I was reminded of as I read Emily Thomas’ The Meaning of Travel and the appearance of transcendence at many points in it. Smith says:

“The result [of the post-modern way of life, exampled by taking art, decontextualising it and redisplaying it,] is an immanent space to try and satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a ‘place to go for modern unbelief’ without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism – but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage.”

(page 76)

In other words, when we rob ourselves of any transcendent being, or absolute standards, we resort to having a mechanical world (no immaterial realm or anything but cold, random chance) or a utilitarian one (where we decide things in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number). In an effort to unflatten this world (bringing back the depth of what we just lost from shaping our world round higher meanings, absolutes etc.), we try and find such depth in new created ways.

Unflattening the box

Each of the three illustrations (concert hall, museum and tourism) could easily be expanded upon, but from my last post (of a return to normality, signified by the return of the woman and her friend to the nightclub), you may have glimpsed how the weekly clamour for the night out mimics something of religious worship that went before, not to mention the less regular attendance of gigs for similar (yet different) ends.

As the [liberal] church dies in the west as it accommodates post-modern, liberal theories within its very walls, and forgets to be shaped by the only thing it has different to the world around it (the transcendent, made immanent in the person of Jesus and His words in the scriptures), the walls of those churches do not just lose their transcendent feel, but literally become museums more and more in Ireland and the west.

Just one of many churches in Ireland which has given up the gospel and become a museum instead.

Whether it still is Biblical writings on the walls, or other ancient artifacts of museums, the visitor would feel little different, if the Biblical texts were to be held out and simply critiqued as one piece of history amongst many. (Of course in one sense they are, but in another, the Transcendant speaks through loud and clear in ways that are unique to the text’s claim that these are also the very words of God). The feeling walking around such museums, whether in ecclesial buildings or otherwise, is the feeling that much old ecclesial architecture would have given – a grand awareness of how insignificant one is, amidst the majestic yet intricate universe towering over us.

Which brings us on to Smith’s (and Taylor’s) third sphere of created transcendence, as he envisages tourism as the new pilgrimage. The traveller goes off on their holiday, ‘gap year’, career break or retirement to ‘find themselves’, religiously ticking off the bucket list items that they must cover in order to have declared that one has been to that location.

The majesty of the Cathedral museum is replaced by the far more diverse Cathedral as we pilgrimage round the world, with ever-increasing boundaries towards our universe and beyond. The mystery remains similarly there, with unfathomable possibilities to explore, delve into and enjoy. Though whether the modern pilgrimage is any less overbearing on the traveller than the perceived smaller cathedral was, inflicting guilt on those who don’t obey the code, or learn the right liturgies as they travel, is another question entirely.

But it brings us full circle back to that cliff edge on the west coast of Ireland. The hunt for “one of those moments” is still the pilgrimage of many travellers in this world. The transcendent found once again, not too far from any one of us. But seemingly out of our grasp for most of our days.

The question that Taylor would ask us is:

Is this a vestige from a genuine transcendent being, still present in this world in some bizarre way? Or is this just a haunting of something society once wished upon, and now leaves us with an annoying desire to do things which appear to be chasing after its likeness?

And the answer he thinks is obvious enough that he has the courage not to express it, and simply says “Try this on for size. Does it make sense of something you’ve felt?

In all honesty, if we stopped fearing the answer had to be a horrid religious fundamentalism on one hand, or the New Atheist fundamentalism on the other, we might be able to answer more authentically.

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