Posted by: gcarkner | September 26, 2012

A Wager on Transcendence

Graduate Identity: a Wager on Transcendence

This idea emerges out of George Steiner in his important book Real Presences and Charles Taylor in his tome  Sources of the Self. We turn to the Arts for this portion of the postgraduate identity discourse. We agree that it is folly to try to prove absolutely the divine from the material stuff of the world, but it does not mean that there is no evidence or good reason to believe in the supernatural. We need not stifle the human imagination from the start. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (p. 543) notes in his chapter titled “The Immanent Frame” that “we have come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient, immanent order, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social and moral…. This immanent order can tend to slough off the transcendent.” It can spin into a Closed World Structure (exclusive humanism), which hermeneutically refuses evidence of the divine; it can hold our minds captive in a way that makes atheism seem obvious. He notes that we early twenty-first century moderns tend to focus exclusively on human flourishing or self-fulfilment as our ultimate goal.

But Steiner carefully rebuts this outlook in his wager on transcendence; he claims that we need the transcendent to make sense of ‘otherness’ in the Arts (an element that is beyond the full control of the artist, but recognized by most artists and art appreciators). In a kind of aesthetic imaginative exercise, he appeals to convictions that are beyond typical rational verification or scientific falsification: “There is an art-act and its reception. There is in the experience of meaningful form, a presence. There is an irreducible autonomy of presence, of ‘otherness’, in art and text which denies either adequate paraphrase or unanimity of finding” (Real Presences, p. 213). He appeals to human intuition and common perception.

Steiner also wagers on meaning: “The meaning of meaning is a transcendent postulate. It is also a wager on a relationship between word and world, one which is insured by the transcendent, [but not by science alone]. There is a meaning which is beyond words” (RP, p. 216). Steiner continues, “This means that all adult poiesis [word craft], everything we recognize as being of stature in literature, art, music is of a religious inspiration or reference”. For him, this is especially true of music. The Arts are closest to this perceptivity of that ‘otherness’ which is beyond the time-space-energy-matter world, the focal point of science. He notes that the arts are very earth-bound and yet also transcendent:

The arts are most wonderfully rooted in substance in the human body, in stone, in pigment, in twanging of gut or the weight of wind on reeds. All good art and music begin in immanence. But they do not stop there…. It is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into literal presence, the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between mankind and ‘the other’. It is this common and exact sense that poiesis opens on to, is underwritten by the religions and the metaphysical (RP, p. 227).

McGill philosopher Charles Taylor refers to this as the epiphanic moment, that the poetic word connects with something, reveals something greater than itself. It connects us with a reality beyond the words or the notes. Robert Young, an excellent local Vancouver painter who once presented his work at a GFCF forum, talked of this very experience of epiphany in the midst of his artistic work one day, which eventually led to his journey to becoming a person of Christian faith and life conviction. Epiphanies are suggestive of transcendence.

Taylor also sees a parallel between the epiphanies of art and poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the I-Thou epiphany of religious encounter with the divine. He elaborates the idea of epiphanies (Sources of the Self, pp. 419f, especially 490-93), seeing Post-Romantic and modernist art as oriented to episodes of realization, revelation, or disclosure. Epiphanies and epiphanic art are all about a kind of transcendence, about the self coming in touch with that which lies beyond it, a ground or qualitative pre-eminence. He articulates how God, inserted into this idea of epiphany, fits as a moral source (SS, pp. 449-52). Epiphanies can be a way of connecting with spiritual and moral sources through the exercise of the creative imagination. These epiphanies are a paradigm case of what Taylor calls recovering contact with moral sources.

A special case of this renewal of relationship between the self and the moral source is religion and the relation to God, which he sees well articulated in the work of Dostoyevski. The relationship to art parallels the relationship to religion. The self is oriented in the presence of the inaccessible or sublime, that which captures one’s amazement or awe, for example, when one’s eyes are riveted to a certain painting, and one’s inner emotions are captivated by a poem (when it grips your soul). One is taken beyond oneself, into an experience of transcendence; the experience involves both encounter and revelation, a fullness, a breaking out of immanence. Taylor says more in his 2007  A Secular Age ( Chapter 20, pp. 730-31)

Many of the great founding moves of a new spiritual direction in history involve a transformation of the frame in which people thought, felt and lived before. They bring into view something beyond the frame, which at the same time changes the meaning of all the elements of the frame. Things make sense in a wholly new way. Taylor speaks of such seekers as St. Francis, Bede Griffiths, Mother Teresa, G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, Walker Percy and Gerard Manley Hopkins who all made a wager on transcendence, and discovered a new social imaginary or creative new way of seeing.

Steiner’s importance in late modernity lies in his intimate, nuanced knowledge of the arts and aesthetics. This is a key way to connect with us in the late modern age—through the medium of the arts, especially music. Music is a conduit into the heart of identity; there are touchstones in performance, story telling, poetry, image, metaphor, the body and sensibility. The aesthetic or beauty can offer a gateway to the transcendent. By itself, it is not sufficient, but without it, our apologetic will be much weaker.

Postgraduate students will do well to enrich their lives and wager on transcendence, on an identity which is open to the transcendent; it allows for a much broader horizon of the meaning of our human desires and experience than mere human flourishing. There is a very helpful discussion of different types of transcendence in Calvin Shrag’s book, The Self After Postmodernity (Chapter 4). We have been talking of the strong version. Charles Taylor reveals a transcendent turn in late modernity to escape a certain identity crisis or two-fold dilemma: of either self-hatred or moral lobotomy (anomie). Through the arts, absence can become presence and in the Jesus story, we can find such a connection with transcendence, a time-eternity interface, the mysterium tremendum of the incarnation.

Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator

See also my new book that takes this discussion to the next level: The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity (2016)

Available through Amazon, Alibris, UK Book Depository


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