Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whatever Happened to Transcendence?

There was a time when people aspired to higher things: ways of thinking, manners, and even food. If this podcast is to be believed, those who lived in Italy during the Renaissance preferred to eat fowl, as they were the food found closest to the heavens. So while we partake in earthbound animals like cows, pigs and chickens, those eating in the 1400s enjoyed more lofty fare, as one more way to be closer to the angels. Undoubtedly, this was a luxury more commonly found among the elite, and perhaps the same is true today as not everyone can afford land leases, shotguns and duck blinds.

But it wasn’t only the food of course, but all of the arts aimed to lift the souls of men upward. Listening to motets of the day, one can very easily imagine that this is the music of the angels. And even if it isn’t, it’s certainly what the best composers imagined being sung in more transcendent places. The painted and sculpted masterpieces of the era reflect tedious, time-consuming and advanced art that sought to offer a glimpse of what heaven might be like, a hope for something beyond our hard labor, plague and sin.

In other words, transcendence was valued. It’s not to say a majority of those in the past lived saintly lives and didn’t enjoy a dirty joke from time to time. Nor is it to say that transcendent thoughts pre-occupied the lives of everyone. But at least in the art that has survived from past eras, there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Church and on the part of artists to move men beyond the gutter they often dwelled in. (The churches that have survived from these eras certainly concrete this hypothesis.) That’s no judgment; we might forget that most people did not enjoy cubicles, air conditioning and extra money. Most merely subsisted and enjoyed a precious few creature comforts. Perhaps that is the necessary context for our thoughts to be elevated upward. Maybe we’re high enough already, so we longer see the need for transcendence.

At least, that’s what I’m assuming. As I look at the prevailing trends in American church life, transcendence is either being embraced in more dramatic fashion or being left at the church doors, never to be glimpsed by those who worship. It is being embraced by those (like myself) who are returning to a more liturgical sensibility that seeks to offer a stark contrast to secular media and methods. It is being ignored by those who are seeking to come to God in the most ordinary and the most plain of languages, those who use luxury cars as props for a sermon or dress in $200 denim jeans, and those whose music is tragically reminiscent of the fare on American Idol. The idea here seems to be, “Let’s bring God down to the most ordinary of ideas, the most pedestrian terms. Let’s bring God down to our level.”

But this is the exact opposite of worship’s innate function. It doesn’t ask God to come down to us, but rather, that we strive to go up to him. That’s what worship is, a sacrifice of praise where we commit to transcending above our everyday worries, contexts, and sins. Yet, how can we talk about transcendence, about leaving the very worldly things that tie us down, when we use such worldly language as rock bands, designer clothes, and messages of inspiration loosely based on the Bible, if at all? And more to the point, did anyone ever think it might actually be spiritually dangerous to talk about God in such blatantly ordinary ways? Did any church every stop and think that taking God so casually might also be even worse than taking him for granted, and that he deserves more respect than that? Are these sanctuaries, er, auditoriums, filled with people ready to say “The emperor has no clothes,” or do they soak it all up, as though talking about a transcendent God in such pedantic terms should be no offense? I’m not saying we should wear sackcloth and ashes to church, but did it never occur to these hotshot pastors that there is something fundamentally hypocritical about preaching in a $500 outfit?

This is not to say that we cannot approach God through ordinary means. Indeed, a sacramental theology tells us we can do exactly that. The problematic ordinary way to approach God might be to use rock music and worldly styling to talk about a God who is really just one of the guys, one of our buddies, someone as approachable as a friendly dog. The problematic extraordinary way of approaching God would be to be surrounded by gilded aesthetics and to speak in dry, lofty language about a God who is so far above our understanding, we’re lucky to even be in this ornate sanctuary to hear his beloved gospel.

The beauty of the liturgy is that we are given ordinary things, and they are made extraordinary. We are given ordinary water, and when combined with the Word, we receive baptism and the promise of family and forgiveness. We are given ordinary bread and wine, and coupled with some of Jesus’ last words, are given Communion, the promise of reconciliation and presence. It’s not that God is too far away to approach, or that God is so near, any old worship will do. It’s as though the liturgy has appropriate boundaries, by holding God in an infinite light, but remembering that he came to us through an ordinary laborer.

Jesus offers us clues to transcendence, in that he lived a rather hard life, only to be resurrected. Why do our churches forget this value? Why have we chosen to speak of God in such ordinary ways, that we no longer offer those longing for meaning the very things that can produce it? I ask again, whatever happened to transcendence?

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