Posted by: gcarkner | March 27, 2013

Epiphany of the Transcendent

Easter as Epiphany

Epiphanies are suggestive of transcendence. Michael Morgan (1994, pp. 56f)) points out that Charles Taylor 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. Taylor elaborates the idea of epiphanies (1989, pp. 419f, especially 490-93). He sees Post-Romantic and modernist art as oriented to epiphanies, episodes of realization, revelation, or disclosure. Epiphanies and epiphanic art are about a kind of transcendence, about the self coming in touch with that which lies beyond it, a ground or qualitative pre-eminence.

Taylor reviews various ways of articulating epiphany in Sources of the Self (1989, pp. 419- 93). He articulates how God, inserted into this idea of epiphany, fits as a moral source (Sources of the Self, pp. 449-52). Epiphanies can be a way of connecting with spiritual and moral sources through the exercise of the creative imagination: sources may be divine (Taylor), or in the world or nature (Romantics), or in the powers of the imaginative, expressive self (Foucault).

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 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 deeply moved by a poem. One is taken beyond oneself, in an experience of transcendence; the experience involves both encounter and revelation.

When Mary discovers her Lord in the garden around the empty tomb, she experiences this sort of epiphany and enters a new world. She is transformed by her new engagement with the divine, her new realization of a risen Christ. Heaven and earth reach out to each other at this juncture and something dramatic occurs. Time stands still; it is a kairos moment.

Transcendence means more than a selfless exposure or reorientation alone, but also a receiving that deeply involves the self, its imagination, its inner resources, its visions and revisions. In this calculus, for religion and art, the self remains autonomous and becomes fulfilled as it opens to the impact of the Other. Morgan elaborates through the example of Jewish writer, Martin Buber, on this concept of religious epiphany or I-Thou encounter (Morgan, 1994, pp. 60-61). Taylor appreciates (1994, pp. 226-29) his use of Buber in relation to his (Taylor’s) concept of epiphany. For Buber, the religious event, revelation, involves a meeting between the self and the divine Other, an encounter that depends upon both parties. It is an act of self-affirmation, even as it is a giving over of the self to the Other.

The self is receiver, but it is a receiver, not of a content, a proposition, a truth, but rather of a ‘Presence, a Presence as Power’. Furthermore, that Presence provides ‘the inexpressible confirmation of meaning’, a meaning that calls out to be done, to be confirmed by the self in this life and in this world … This confirmation and this affirmation of God and self in the world are what Taylor calls a ‘changed stance towards self and world, which doesn’t simply recognize a hitherto occluded good, but rather helps to bring this about’. (Morgan, 1994, p. 60)

There entails the emergence of a good in one’s experience. Thus, the concept of transcendence through epiphany, that has currency for artists and poets of the twentieth century, provides a category for us to extend to the transcendence of God. May this epiphanic realization continue this Easter season.

~Gord Carkner

Local Vancouver painter Robert Young spoke of this epiphany as he was doing his art one day. This led to his conversion to become a follower of Christ. He met the transcendent in his art.

Morgan, M.L. (1994). Religion, History and Moral Discourse. In J. Tully, (Ed.), Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mary Encounters the Risen Christ


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