The Word Embodied
Open to Transcendence
“Put out into the deep.”
A hallmark of what some academics have called the “postmodern world” is the loss of transcendence. It is supposed that there is no other reality than the projections we humans construct, whether individually or communally. All of existence seems to have been unmasked as a distorted mirror of our passion for power and pleasure.
We do not need some pedant to lecture us on deconstructionism in order to feel its effects. Nor need we realize that the great prophecies of postmodernism are found in Nietzsche’s will to power, Marx’s money-Molech or Freud’s seething cauldron of the id. We see, hear, and smell the theory every day, in our streets, in the courthouses, on radios and television. Power, money, and pleasure reign supreme as the values by which to measure our lives and happiness.
In an unrestrained celebration of choice, the human will is worshiped as the ultimate reality. There is no standard of truth and goodness outside of us, before which our wills must bow. We make the truth. We concoct what is good. And “nobody has any right to tell me what to do.” The human will has no duty, no responsibility, no obedience to any authority other than itself.
We think we celebrate openness: but it is an openness only to the projections of our own lips and minds. Rarely are we open to the wholly other—some other that transcends the mirror images of our ego, class, ideology, nation, or any other pet particularity. Our openness is precisely not to transcendence. It is a hankering after our own constructions, those effigies we feel comfortable with, those icons that make us feel secure, those ego-clones that confirm our self-importance.
True transcendence is something else altogether. Isaiah knew he was in the presence of some reality higher and loftier than any human or earthly throne. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. All the earth is filled with God’s glory.” Isaiah’s earthly house shook and billowed with smoke. He became immediately aware of his paltry and sinful condition. This encounter with high mystery, utterly beyond him, shattered any delusion of grandeur he might have had. “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a person of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”
The quality of this transcendent experience is uncannily matched in Luke’s Gospel story of the great fish catch. After preaching to the disciples and the crowds, Jesus tells Simon to “put out into deep water and lower the nets.” Simon’s resistance is due to the fact that he and his fellows, for all of their own efforts fishing through the night, have caught nothing. Obviously, there is nothing out there. “But if you say so, I will lower the nets.”
In the presence of this superb show of power beyond human reckoning, Peter adores the awesome mystery he has witnessed and is suddenly conscious of his sinfulness, like Isaiah. “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”
The moment we recognize our inadequacy, our sin, our smallness before the greatness of the transcendent God, we are capable of truly being called out of ourselves. When God is heard to say, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here I am. Send me.” He is empowered, not paralyzed.
Similarly, Christ’s manifestation of transcendent power was not for the sake of stirring human anxiety and fear. Christ wants to call us to a life mission far beyond the expectations of our constricted categories.
Human encounter with the transcendent God has always met with resistance. But the idea of a God wholly independent of our sway is especially repulsive to contemporary taste. After all, it requires a terrible admission of our insufficiency. It demands a recognition that we cannot rescue or save ourselves. It commands a yielding to, a humble listening for, an obeying of an other utterly beyond our mere human minds and wills.
The gospel Paul preached rests upon the recognition that we mere humans stand in need of salvation and that we are powerless to do this for ourselves. What is more, we are sinners who need to be healed of our moral wounds. This, we believe in faith, has been done in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and promises us a world beyond our earth and our earthly projects. It is not by dint of human science, alchemy, or artifact that our meaning can be found. It is only by God’s kind favor that we are what we are and that we are made for something far greater still.
If my last paragraph is not an insult to the postmodern mind, nothing is.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University