Bougie Psalm*

The bougie-ness is my shepherd, I want to lack nothing.
    It makes me lie down in plush, king size feather beds,
it leads me beside entertaining waters,
    it never fully satiates or refreshes my soul.
It guides me along the wrong paths
    for my own damn sake.

Even though I walk
through the nicest valleys,
I often want more,
for my bougie-ness is within me;
my junk food and my stuff,
they try to comfort me.

It prepares a table for brunch before me
    in the presence of my luxuries.
It anoints my lips with designer coffees;
    my cup is never quite full enough.

Surely bougie-ness will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will not dwell in anything but the finest establishments
    forever.

*Bougie, as defined by urban dictionary is: ”Anything that is perceived as “upscale” from a blue-collar point of view. ‘Bougie’ is a hacked truncation of the word Bourgeoisie, which refers to the middle-class in Europe, but refers to a more affluent class level in the United States. “

** Photo by Alexander Mils

The Key to Trust

They wear these garments
in violence
Humble houses turned closet,
mighty feed bins of the moth, guarded
in schlage we trust

Keep the nebulous men who,
at property line, loiter
eternally.
they need not strike for their weapon
goes before them
and strikes the heart of those who trust
in schlage alone

To escape:
pamper pompously
overfed and lethargic
bloated lumps struggling vainly
to be beautiful requires your everything
to be rich only requires your soul

Parties: silk bows of flagrant shimmer
satin dresses of elusive design
effusing all with stabs of discontent
the murderous joneses
finishing with final blows of accomplished word
third degree burns of hot air

Speaking of abstract oppression and
trendy genocide
throw a morsel to their cause
who snatches it up, beaten dog
beneath their arrogance

Speaking in loftiness
their tongues walk the earth
their mouths cursed against the heavens
secret lives of distaste, decoys
of a real life projected onto our dreams

Turn me away,
let me not lap up their lies
(beaten dog as i am)
self-deluded emptiness 

tin shell struck
hollow of timbre
Is God out to lunch? no one
is tending this spinning top

Friends and riches piled high
behind golden gates
of schlage eviscerated,
emaciated, wanting of crumbs
down a dirty path with lepers and beggars
look up to see wickedness, stare unblinkingly

look higher, past this
to you descending in grand theophany
a mirror to show
it’s me
hiding
behind those gates
in schlage we trust

*Cover photo by Daryn Barttlet

Adumbration

America I

The adumbration of atavistic America
and some who prophesied his coming
were lost in the sea of voices now come
out of the woodwork to say
“I told you so.”
though only the silent sea, apparent majority
believed
this unexpected prophecy
not of Christ, who they claim he better represented
nor of the anti-Christ, who some say they see
but in truth, anti-the-Christ:

just a man, mammon
bent by fortune, fame, nearly severed from reality
who promises plague and boils
fall upon the foreigner, the stranger, who Christ calls our neighbor
and, if not careful, we let history march on its antiquated oppression

America II

We’ve been spoon-fed fear
And somehow come to believe-
repeat-
backwards is forwards.
Believe and take heed.
Make true the words
of slipping power:

Better the devil you know than
a future unknown.

For the fallen tale of America is
picked up again
saved from the clumsy hands of fable
hail, hail potentate
and throw on the facile saddle we mount
cowboys of the politick, greenbacks
highly anointed with oil

For the anger of losing what you love
slowly like your youth
and your keynote lover

Or, like your dog
privilege grows old, bares the crushing weight
of expectation: you can have it all
and it’s never enough.

America III

Crown those ennoble, who win in perjury
in constant state of plumage
to stand obstinately through privilege

And frown those, ignoble, of us in penury
constant state of umbrage
to stand, ostensibly through privilege

America IV

The fallen eagle rises, ruffled, now ratite,
flightless and spitting.
This obstreperous ostrich,
obdurate and obstinate,
America becomes.

And salvation comes, born of self:
liberty, justice, happiness
ever out of reach
with our head in the sand

They voted their way
voted away their pain
not thinking (not knowing?) of
the pain of others.

Our views
which cost us nothing
so Why not
close your eyes
if it steals away the pain we feel
of America’s slow fall.
We will resuscitate, make great
this fumbling experiment again

America V

Meanwhile
we, the bleeding blue,
self-proclaimed angels to the poor
ideological and nebulous
protectors of this heavenly progression
break under arrogance
and self-delusion
as we work, godless, towards utopia incarnate
A perfect society

Why not advocate
our views,
our inalienable rights to self-righteousness,
righteous indignation- rightfully so-
even if it turns us cold and costless

But what do we do
when hope becomes a dirty word
even among pacifists

But what do we do when we
like babies both
unborn and born
yearn to be held

We hold our agendas instead of each other
like babies both
unborn and born
yearn to be held
we cry out

America VI

To my brothers, my sisters
climb in my eyes
and hide: a blanket of saltwater for your rest
and shields of safety swim

And let me climb in yours
see, feel, the burn of your tears
the saltwater blankets of fear and anxiety

let the tears of the oppressed fall
in my palms
and let this grief be shared
by all, at least, me
and let the pools in our hands dry
saltwater stained
as we walk
broken together

America VII
Instead of oppression, let us march
around this ancient and atavistic
wall of Jericho.
Let us cry out
and coming slowly, we may hear
the adumbration of crumbling

Beauty growing in cracks of kindness
spring and bloom
His kingdom, where women are respected and honored
the stranger is loved, integral
colors and cultures, all essential, build to beautiful
an infinte mosaic

And slowly
the Christ
comes to life

A Theology of Reverse Transcendence

Inevitably, one is bound to ask, “Why is there a basic human desire to run away from who and what we are? If God created us as embodied creatures, why do we so persistently spend our lives trying to experience and exist in a state that is beyond how we were created?”

Why do we seek to escape the way we experience reality? Why can’t we simply enjoy and live in the present moment and in our present physical and mental state? Why is there this yearning for something beyond? Can’t we be sufficiently satisfied with who we are, when we are, where we are, what we are and why we are?

When our default way of existing as a human is not enough we seek to break free from our limits. We seek to self-transcend our human limitations – to leave our mind and body behind. We seek a default way of existing that is beyond ourselves. But we perpetually seek and, since we never fully achieve self-transcendence, we are prone to feel trapped. We may feel we are trapped in our bodies, trapped in our minds, and trapped in humanity.

Photo by Olenka Kotyk

When we long to move beyond the physical limitations of existing in a human body in a physical world we can tend to think in terms of being trapped or caged inside and, thus, we yearn to be out. Are we seemingly spirits or souls that long to be disembodied from humanity? Do we engage in self-transcendence in order to achieve and/or return to our seemingly truest (unbodied) state?

As Scott Cairns says in his book, The End of Suffering, “[Transcendence] sometimes attests to a disposition of spiritual fervor that tends to discount the material world and its bouquets of lovely stuff, in favor of the immaterial. Our specifically Christian undertaking of is decidedly not one of transcending. It is, rather, the intentional rein spiriting of the body and its lowly matter- as manifested in the incarnation of Christ.”*

Photo by Jairo Alzate

We do still have a choice: to embrace our embodied state and remain within contentedness so as to not move towards escapist tendencies (running from reality). The courageous path means that, since we experience (and cause) pain and evil (it is the inflicting of pain and evil that destroys our souls), we must do our best to fight against causing pain and evil in the world and use everything within our limits (our bodies) to work towards an end of pain and evil in the world.

But not on our own. We are always longing for what we don’t have already; longing for what we have not already experienced. To think that we desire to live in a way that our bodies cannot experience begs the question: Why is the default way of living – the way we exist, think and act –not enough?  Why did God create us this way?

As a Christian, I believe that I am limited in my ability to do things like end of pain and evil in the world, and so, I must rely on Christ to help me in my limited, embodied state to work towards this end. I am not to work towards an end of self-transcendence as I would be prone to do in this day and age. I must make a decision. Just as we, Christians, believe that God chose to become incarnate -God chose to become human- so we must daily choose to live into our bodily limits. God chose reverse transcendence for our sake; existing and experiencing within the normal and physical level. He decided the best way to save humanity was to become an embodied human and live among us.“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) God also believed that He would bring about His kingdom partly through human means and ultimately, it would be Jesus Christ, the God-made-man, who would be the very King to rule that Kingdom.   

Photo by Dingzeyu Li

I was talking with a friend who spoke about her slow epiphany that drew her to Christianity and how it pertains to a dynamic, embodied life. “What I love about Christianity is the fact that it is a dynamic life; it’s not about being a person who is constantly existing and meditating in complete peace- where if, big waves come through, I am still calm water. I was frustrated that I was never able to achieve that. I realized that the life that Jesus represented- and why I was drawn to Christianity- was that it is a powerfully dynamic life of loving. And that includes weeping and laughing and feeling lost and feeling confused, and trying really hard and not succeeding; a whole dynamic range of colors and life and passion. … ‘Blessed are those who mourn! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!’ Jesus’ life exemplified that in a beautiful picture. But his life includes pain, longings, and unfulfilled desires. That was the picture of the life of the spiritual person; not that you are above it all: pious and impervious. I don’t want to be impervious. I want to be deeply engaged.”

I realized that I, too, had a similar perception of being spiritual. I felt that well-practiced spirituality alluded to the ability to enter a state of ecstasy, meaning “to stand outside of one’s self.” I imagined myself alone in the woods- or at least alone in nature- sitting in the lotus position with legs crossed and arms open and hands facing up to receive the spirit. I desired to be a meditative person who could have absolute control of my mind, flip a switch and turn off all the chatter in order to simply exist in silence and thus, begin to communicate with God- to successfully hear what God was telling me- just by sitting in perfect stillness both physically and mentally. I had the image of spirituality within my mind as regarding someone who was able to self-transcend his or her body through ascetic means or extreme mental focus.

Photo by Alejandro Alvarez

We cannot achieve transcendence through our own mortal attempts at spirituality; that is to say complete self-transcendence is a fruitless endeavor. In fact, even after death, our spirits do not leave our bodies, allowing us to exist in a disembodied (transcended) state. No, the Bible says we will be resurrected with new bodies. Scripture tells us that the transcendence we seek exists within our lives as embodied creatures; it is, in fact, a reverse transcendence. We must emulate God, who took on flesh and became man. He sought to enter into existence and experience within the normal and physical levels. We must open ourselves to allow Jesus’ spirit to transcend our own lives.

Following Christ down the path of reverse transcendence and allow His spirit to indwell our hearts requires making room; it is the slow, daily, laying down of our physically human will. To “daily take up the cross and follow [Christ]” (Lk 9:23).

Matthew 16:25 says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

Galatians 2:20  “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God”

Galatians 5:24 “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.”

Romans 6: 6-8 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Photo by Tim Marshall

These verses all speak of the long, often painful, act of making room in our hearts and lives; the act of letting our self die. That is to say, to let go of our intrinsic human desires that are concerned with the health, continuation and fulfillment of one’s self. Our innate desire to transcend our bodies must especially be let go; it is a perpetual grasping for something beyond our reach like a man literally reaching for the stars. Our preoccupation with self-transcendence occupies our hands and prevents us from a receiving of Christ’s identity which He continually gives.

As dynamic creatures who are always changing, we can become obsessed with the pursuit of understanding our own identity because there are always new things to discover about our ever-changing selves. Instead, we must constantly receive Christ’s identity as life. To cling to our identity as individuals is death. To receive Christ- that is, to give up and let go of our intrinsic self identity as a human- is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

The serpent preyed on our parents in the garden, convincing them of scarcity with the words left unspoken as much as the words spoken. In between the spoken words, the serpent was saying: “If you don’t eat of the fruit, you will not be like God but you will be lacking – you will be ignorant and unfulfilled.” ** We are faced with the same choice today. We must not believe the god of scarcity who is whispering us lies that what we have is insufficient and that we need more. We must not believe that we need to break free from our human limits to be fulfilled. We must not believe that we can attain permanent and eternal self-transcendence. God, instead, offers another path. It is the path of emulating our very creator, practicing reverse transcendence: taking on flesh and carrying and sharing His love with others through the thoughts and actions of our embodied, limited lives on this earth.

*Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering
** Genesis 3:5
Cover photo by Oscar Keys

The Self-Transcendence Spectrum

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University who is best known for his study of happiness and the notion of “flow,” says, “we are happiest when in a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”* This is the state of flow.

When you get in the “flow,” you are completely preoccupied with the matter at hand. It engulfs your mind so entirely that you are no longer conscious of who you are, where you are, or why you are. You escape the chambers of the subconscious where you are constantly analyzing yourself, your life and everything around you. In the state of flow, you simply exist and move through creation in an ebbing and flowing exchange of action and reaction without having to think about good and evil.

Photo by Aditya Romansa

Since we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, our blessing has become our curse: we always know good and evil. Whether intuitively or learned, we are able to feel/know when something done to us is good or evil. If someone calls you an insulting name, you can experience (feel and know) the evil in it. We, like most mammals, seem to be aware of experiencing good and evil. Unfortunately, knowing good from evil also forces us to question whether the things we think, say, and do to other people are good or evil.

Part of being human is that we become aware of how we cause good and evil. Our blessing of conscious and self-awareness becomes our curse. And, since we tend not to like evil, we seek to avoid feeling/experiencing it. But, more importantly, we also seek to avoid knowing the very haunting fact that we cause evil in the world. We try as hard as we can to live within the simple fact that “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to evil and the problem of pain.

Photo by Aditya Siva

Csíkszentmihályi talks about how there is a limit to the amount of information that the human brain can intake and process at any given time. When someone is fully engaged in what they are doing, they don’t have mental capacities to think about how they are doing; not even realizing if they are hungry or tired. In his words, when one is in the state of flow, “existence is temporarily suspended.”*

To avoid knowing the evil we cause and to avoid feeling the evil caused by others, we often distract ourselves. If we can preoccupy our minds with something else, we don’t have the mental capacities to think about other, less comfortable things.  We utilize “flow” to distract ourselves in many ways: a job that engages us, a story (books, movies, TV), hobbies, etc. We seek to be “in the zone” where everything (ourselves included) flows through time without our being conscious of it. This is a form of self-transcendence. There is a spectrum of ways we distract ourselves so that we flow through time without our being conscious of it. Distractions can be harmless but they can also become addictions and coping mechanisms.

It seems to be our curse that we are self-aware and know good and evil. I stated early that we are conscious of every passing moment; conscious that every step we take brings us closer to our own grave. This consciousness is, at times, uncomfortable. In a culture obsessed with youth, we would rather not think about the fact that we are getting older. And there is nothing we can do about. We don’t like not being the one in control. But we are in control of our ability to distract ourselves.

Photo by Clark Young

Our consciousness hinders us from being free to move through the creator’s garden uninhibitedly. We are cursed to know the pain of this world, to know the pain we ourselves inflict and the pain we experience. We cannot escape it. But we always hope to escape the knowledge of the evil that we cause and contain. This hope to escape the knowledge of evil can lead in two directions: positive or negative.

To varying degrees, we as humans, move towards things that distract us from being present in any unpleasant moment. But to distract ourselves is not fundamentally wrong. There are forms of self-transcendence on the spectrum that lead to positive outcomes, both for the individual and society.

The positive path leads us to seek engagement of our facilities for a purpose. In this circumstance, it is important to have routine or intermittent breaks from work in order to reground oneself in the embodied reality of the present. We are able to find sustainable and healthy rhythms of work and rest. Ultimately, if aligned with one’s skills and passions, engagement in one’s facilities can lead to brief moments of “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” That is to say, while engaging in certain activities, we forget we are limited human creatures capable of causing and experience evil and pain and, instead, exist in complete mental occupation. Ironically, these moments only exist when we are unaware of them; they only exist when we are completely unaware of everything except our present and momentary engagement.

The negative path (basically escapism) leads us to seek the extremes. Perhaps we are discontent with our jobs, our family, or our lives so we seek to escape the knowledge of our un-fantastic lives. We seek to escape the pain of knowing we are limited within our own lives and our own bodies. We seek to escape our own personal world where reality disappoints us, drains us, or brings us to slow death. We seek distraction (methods of escapism) through excessive TV/movie watching, books, social media, alcohol, drugs, or even spirituality.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Stories (fiction books, most TV shows and movies) can give us an immediate exit from the very stories we inhabit. Concentration and focus on the story offers respite from the pain of our own embodied lives. With nonfiction books, articles, reality TV and documentaries, ideas capture our brain and pull us out of the world in which we physically live in and fully into our heads. Excessive social media can become a way to numb our brains to our own story in the midst of other people’s current stories.

Regardless of any moral judgement, these are all mental exercises in distraction. In many ways they are methods of self-transcendence; they enable one to pursue something that will completely preoccupy them and, therefore, allow them to be incapable of contemplating one’s existence and the good or evil they contribute to the world.

Most of the things I listed are generally innocuous (although they can be used in addictive, unhealthy manners). They offer us the ability to distract ourselves and temporarily alter our perception of existence in ways that require concentration and some level of imagination. However, there are other forms of self-transcendence that are more passive. Chemical alterations to the brain from external stimuli also alter our perception of experience. With drugs, for instance, we seek to escape our mind: the baseboard for interpreting experience and the world. With drugs we can attempt to self-transcend our human experience through disorientation of the senses. Drugs can more easily fall on the far side of the negative end of the self-transcendence spectrum.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl

Career can become an obsession where we seek to escape the realities outside of a balanced human life. We, Americans, work obsessively for many different reasons. Perhaps to achieve fulfillment. Perhaps to feel meaningful. Or perhaps to avoid things. Perhaps to avoid a life with a lot of empty downtime. We often toil relentlessly into levels of poor health so that the brief free-time we do have is occupied with attempts at self-transcendence: sustaining an entertainment-high (drug-like) through constant entertainment (or constant consumption of experiences) that escapes the monotonous rhythms of a normal healthy life. However, in order to sustainably exist, we need lows in order to truly experience highs. In this way, one uses a career to escape the inevitable lows that life brings us; it can be argued as a positive or negative form of self-transcendence on the spectrum because it helps contribute to a positive outcome but can still be a method to cowardly escape the realities of daily embodied life in its entirety.

Consumerism, the relentless pursuit of commodities and experiences, is often pursued to gluttonous levels as means to escape and self-transcend the realities of life. Often, it is coupled with the career-transcendence to fill in the off time (ie: nights, weekends, and holidays). For many people, consumerism is a religious experience where they give themselves to the pursuit of goods and experiences in order to avoid the void inside that longs to be filled. We, as humans, are so bombarded by marketing targeted at our discontented nature that we unintentionally attempt self-transcendence through a never-ending pursuit of void-filling via constant consumption. 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

Even spirituality is a means to self-transcendence for many. For some it is an emotional and/or spiritual experience where we are able to break free from ourselves, and carry ourselves into something else – something beyond ourselves. Some yearn to transcend their humanity in order to achieve oneness with the universe, to become nothingness, to be in communion with God, to be one with God, or to become part of God. We have become “dabblers in transcendence,” engaging in spirituality with the specific hope to transcend our bodies, if even only for a little while.**

All of these are ways to escape reality and to live in some fantastical world that is not our present place and time within our human bodies. Too often we long to be anywhere but here- right now- in this present body. We do not escape for the sake of escaping; we escape as means to an end, and that end is self-transcendence. We escape in order to transcend our humanity. We seek self-transcendence in order to escape our human reality. We seek to escape the limits of our bodies and our minds.We seek to transcend our humanity in order to no longer experience and cause pain. We seek self-transcendence in order to return to our pre-Adamic state before the fall where we do not know the difference between good and evil.

Cover photo by Martin Sattler

*Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2

** Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book

Transcending Creation

Whispers from the creator swirl and stir, rousing the cosmos from her slumber. His sweet-nothings caress her pristine and maiden ears. She, the newly beloved creation, responds with embrace: a mere sphere of spoken words. Electricity sparks and excites a reaction. Nuclear fission ignites, releasing heat and energy. Earth, beloved, takes her supple form while heat from the creative passion encompasses her. The porous ground of this new planet forms, opens and, from the fertile black loess and loam, rises steam in plumes, allowing the malleable soil to divide from its tenderness; separation and sedimentation into liquid and solid.

The residual steam is drawn to a providential spot on creation’s terrestrial surface; it is here that the air enshrines thick and wet, dripping in fresh opulence. Undulating hills of alluvium and colluvium expand in the warmth like sponges and release more of their moisture, pulled deep from the abysmally prosperous compost.

The creator rests, contented in the afterglow of love, and watches as prolific variations form the landscape. Certain areas- void of internal liquid-  become tough and compact; the layers press together amid the heat and form rock. On one side, rivers cascade down jagged rock mountains. On the other side, deserts form in their absence. Seas pool together after the slow cutting knives of cool waters slice their way down the mountaintops. Soft planes split. Creation is dynamic and alchemic, ever-changing and ever-transient. But there is a strange stillness where the steam collects. Plants and trees rise from seeds. Softly, they levitate and sift through the steam, drinking in the moisture through a drawing inward- an inhaling through veins of leaves and needles: capillary. Chlorophyll soon covers the naked landscape and, when all the steam of the earth is consumed, a lush garden appears.

The garden is flush with life having drunk the wine of creation’s passion and, for a time, the earth is at complete peace, resting in its form. However, the lingering silence is broken with a pleasing exhalation from the creator. With that, the winds of creation lift the nutrient-rich dust off the earth and twist it together to form life. Humans from humus.

Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground.”

Photo by Eutah Mizushima

We are naive creatures of dust.

God had created an abundant garden from the same dust as us where Adam and Eve could have access to all but one thing: the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In that garden, the serpent planted the idea in the human spirit that what is available to us is not enough- that we need more. Thus, through deceit (from an outside force) was birthed humanity’s first insecurity: discontent and, consequently, the propelling drive to relieve it. Our garden parents were told that they -and we- will be like God; that, with one simple bite, we will escape our humanity and become like God, knowing good from evil. Then, and even now, the serpent tells us that eating of the fruit allows us to break our human limits.

We fell for it. We pressed our lips against the skin of the fruit, broke our teeth into the flesh, and let our tongues taste the libatious nectar inside. And we were ashamed of ourselves.

Photo by Veeterzy

We, being the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, have the rudimentary yearning to move beyond our normal experience. We have a fundamental desire to be like God (to “surely not die”). This is what drives us to be eternal. It drives us to live forever and not be contained by our earthly limits: to not die, to know everything, to go everywhere, to experience everything, to be everyone. This persistent yearning for more is why we are constantly searching for ways to transcend normal human experience.

We are constantly faced with the limits of being a human. We only have a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of resources and skills; we can only pursue certain passions and certain relationships. To be human is to be limited. Since we are creatures, created in the likeness of a limitless God, our souls yearn to be limitless. But we were intentionally created with limits by the creator God and, because of this, we will never feel like we have enough time. We will always hunger to transcend ourselves.

This is most evident in the ways we seek to transcend the limit of time. All-the-while, the economy is trying, quite literally, to capitalize on our limited nature- to capitalize on the fact that we are dissatisfied with our limits. Technology, as the premier idol of our time, is marketed to us as the answer to our prayers; as a vaccination to this fear of never having enough time. It is marketed as a way for us to transcend our limited time; a way to transcend our very humanity.

Photo by Jeremy Holden

Even today, as with Adam and Eve, the serpent hovers near- eternally loitering and lingering over our shoulders. Stalking; prowling; subtly whispering, “with one bite, you will be closer to escaping your cage of flesh and bone. With one simple bite, you will have the ability to transcend your human limits.”

Therein lies the alluring temptation, the sweet deception: to move beyond our human limits. Transcendence is that next step which sits in view but is just out of reach. It becomes our means of human escape, defined by Merriam-Webster as, “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.”* Transcendence, in essence, means being able to experience and exist outside our physical bodies.

Transcendence piques our attention with its promise of freedom. In fact, in first world countries, with so many civil freedoms already achieved and protected, our bodies have become the final frontier of freedom; the manifest destiny yet to be conquered.  Transcendence is the means to achieve ultimate freedom. Like technology that promises to break us free from our limited amount time, transcendence appeals to the same hope of being free from the limits of time; it is the hope of freedom from an entropic body with its limited number of days. Each moment we live is a moment we take out of our future and place in our past. This is a fact of life but we are prone to give into fear and scarcity in the face of this truth. Out of such fear arises our search for the fountain of youth, which continues perpetually alongside the path of humanity as we move into the future.

Photo by Heather Zabriskie

These days, we see humanity’s hope alive in ads for cremes that hide or fix wrinkles and blotches, surgeries that tucks or removes our saggy bulges. Underneath it all is a great discontent of life inside a temporal body. It is a discontent of our existence within a creation made with limits. This discontent leads to many permutations of transcendence. Especially today our insecurities ring true. We want, at all costs, to be free. We want to be free to do as we please, go where we please, be who we want to be. Ultimately, we want to be free from limits -especially those imposed by external forces. However, what we are truly searching for is not the freedom from outside forces but freedom from our very nature, which is, by human definition: limited.

In the end, we will always hold the hope for unlimited time; for the life eternal.  From the very beginning, “God has set eternity in the human heart” and we long to return to a place of eternity. ** Transcendence, then, is an appeal to that paramount freedom, an appeal to eternity. Like most things in this age, there has been a whittling down of communal connection towards the self as sufficient core; transcendence is by no means excluded from this trend. What continues to rise in global culture is the emphasis on fixing and fulfilling our own problems. Transcending our limits has primarily taken the course of self-transcendence: transcendence by our own means. We, individually, seek to transcend our limits. Ironically, permanent transcendence (self or otherwise) is eternally elusive.  We always reach but we can never quite grasp. Thus, our greatest tasks are that of being present and content; learning to live in a embodied state with graceful acceptance of our limits. We must not grasp and claw at self-transcendence but learn to live in simple contentment. Perhaps, even, with the help of a creator who created us (and consequently, knows us intimately) we can hope to move beyond contentment to the saintly state of gratitude while being present in our embodied state.


* Merriam-Webster, “Transcendence”, www.merriam-webster.com

** Ecclesiastes 3:11
Cover photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Architecture of Isolation

I designed houses, when I was in high school, and rooms that were hidden away within and only accessible through easily-overlooked, obscure corners. I made complex, maze-like houses with long hallways and corridors, rooms staggered and stacked unpredictably. I never wondered about my labyrinthine style but the way I imagined creating houses came deep out of my psyche. I was creating intimate, protected spaces, insulated by walls and hallways. On my computer and in my imagination I could craft new spaces; spaces where one was insulated from the difficulties of going through life with others. I wanted to be able to exist in a protected space where my identity was not infringed upon by the social pressures and skirmishes that inevitably took place in high school.

Naturally, we tend to find ourselves moving away from those who inconvenience us. To carry over the previous metaphor: if we are in open water, we are swimming away from those who impinge on our happiness. We want the waters between us as individuals to protect and separate -to insulate us from their inconveniences and from the cost it takes on us to be a part of their lives. We are trying to become protected islands unto ourselves. If we avoid people who inconvenience us altogether, we are not creating methods of insulation but we are swimming towards isolation.

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There is a subtle difference between insulation and isolation. Insulation keeps things like heat or sound in and cold/sound out. It is a boundary that separates and protects. Among people, individual insulation allows us to be differentiated -and less dominated by others- in order to be more fully ourselves. This is a good thing. In the same way, we’ve found that insulating our houses is a good thing. We don’t talk about our houses being isolated. The two key differences between insulation and isolation are the distance between and what that distance contains; insulation is a relatively small area of space that is filled with something whereas isolation is a larger area of space that is often devoid of anything.

Many people operate out of the assumption that we should not have to deal with the inconveniences of others. What starts out as a way to insulate our lives has evolved into over-insulating, even isolating, our lives. If you look close enough you can see the effects of this accelerating cultural trend to over-insulate as manifest in the way we construct our private worlds (our islands). Namely, how we construct our houses is a microcosm of how we culturally construct our society, our culture and our lives.

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This progression of over-insulation (towards isolation) can be seen, starting with the invention of the automobile. One of the chief, long term unfolding effects of an entire society commuting in automobiles is that they insulate us from the outside world and from others by taking away the opportunity to spontaneously interact with strangers and neighbors on the streets as we go about our daily activities. We no longer needed to walk down the sidewalks out of necessity; if we used sidewalks it was out of recreation (or a side-effect of poverty). 

Mostly, we chose to adopt the technology of automobiles because they saved us time (allowing us to increase our efficiency and productivity) and gave us individual control. With the automobile, we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, and fast. But another, less explicit, reason we chose automobiles is because we appreciated the insulation. We appreciated being insulated from most of the inconveniences people may ask of us.

With the automobile, we needed a place to park them which meant incorporating attached garages to our houses. We then could drive inside one insulated environment that brought us to our insulated home-base. Moving from insulated environment to insulated environment quickly over-insulates.

And this led to other isolating trends. Next, it was the urban sprawl of suburbia. With automobiles, people no longer needed to live in cities or villages to get access to the resources (or the jobs) they needed; they could live outside of the city where there was space between houses. Here, we see the first differentiated characteristic of isolation: a space between, devoid of anything. People wanted a certain amount of space of nothing between houses in order to insulate their own house from unpleasant noises, smells, people, etc. At the same time, the houses we built were being constructed further from the road. Even in cities and suburbs, houses moved further back into the lots, away from the streets.

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As people’s houses grew in distance from each other and distance from the road it was harder to walk anywhere from those houses. The creation of suburbs further denied people the regular opportunity to spontaneously interact with neighbors. As less and less interaction happened among neighbors, people did not know who their neighbors were. In the unknowing, our minds were filled with thoughts that were projected by the news and media (i.e. the more we see/hear about terrible things happening the more prone we are to become suspicious and distrustful of those we don’t know).

As general distrust grew amid the unknowing of our neighbors, we increased our insulation and isolation: we stopped using our front porches and began building back decks. Our front porches were places we used to interact with neighbors and people passing by on the streets/sidewalks. They fostered a sense of knowing -a sense of community. Backyards and decks, on the other hand, became private oasis that allowed us be insulated and isolated from our neighbors and, more importantly, out of sight and further isolated from strangers on the road.

All of these are manifestations of over-insulation as exemplified by the exterior of our homes. But changes have taken place within our houses in regards to the progression towards isolation. Consider the evolution of the word “hall.”

The original meaning of a hall was “a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people.” Think about the architecture characterized in the Romantic period: halls were vast -often eloquent- gathering spaces where people came together to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. Now we must clarify when we are speaking of such a space (by adding an additional word): a banquet hall (or function hall).

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We have added “banquet” to clarify that the space we are talking about is for meeting together with a lot of people because we understand the word “hall” to mean something far different. We currently take the word hall to mean an abbreviation of hallway: a narrow passage that intersects a house and leads to separate rooms. Previously, a “hall” was a large, open, unidirectional space. Then the word “hallway” came about in 1839 to clarify a space that led somewhere. Since then, hallway has come to be abbreviated as (and to replace the original meaning of) the word “hall.”

This is a massive cultural shift from the communal to the individual, exemplified in the evolution of our language over the last 200 years. The word “hall” encapsulates the vast cultural changes that have occurred: we used to be a people who created a space to insulate ourselves from the wilderness outside -a place where we could all exist and celebrate together in a common space. Now we are a people who create buildings that require hallways to guide us to separate, individually protected spaces. Halls have become means to an individual, isolated end. Our houses exemplify that we want insulation within (layers of) insulation; individual rooms inside of individual houses where each individuals can have his or her own protected place. I’m not trying to argue a moral judgement about every individual having an individual room but I am wanting to acknowledge the trajectory of over-insulation and isolation and observe the cultural repercussions of this when implemented on global scale.

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When thinking about this in regards to seeing glimpses of God’s kingdom here (tangibly on this earth) I can’t help but wonder: are we letting our cultural architecture define and shape us in a way that steers us further away from the way Jesus modeled us to live?

The truth is that our identity is not entirely cut free and untethered. In reality, we are all connected. The people we live with shape us greatly just as the act of living alone greatly shapes us. And, looking at the evolution of housing, we can see the very spaces we choose to live in shape us both collectively (as a people) and individually. Can we let our houses become halls (in the original sense) where communities of people gather together to celebrate instead of halls (in the more modern sense) that lead us to isolation?

I have never constructed a literal house according to my adolescent dreams. In truth, part of me would still love to do so, but I have, instead, chosen another way of living. As a Christian,  I believe it is important to live in a different space. Perhaps, for many of us Christians, the task we are called to is to be living in ways that allow us, as believers, to exist “together and [have] everything in common.” That may mean reviving the original definition of “hall” as a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people. Many church buildings still function in this very manner. But perhaps we need to begin to draw this model further into our own lives -to let it manifest itself in our daily lives so that others may see the space in which we live as a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Cover photo by Vision Webagency

First photo of hallway by Dan Jewell

Photo of house through fence by Matt Jones 

Photo of house at sunset by Inspiration de

Second photo of hallway by Pat Loika

Photo of banquet hall by Joe DeSousa

Islands Unto Ourselves (4)

I remember when I first heard the term “islands unto ourselves” it was like a drug slamming into the pleasure receptors in my brain. I was hooked. Yes, I want to be an island unto myself. I want to protect the unique snowflake that is me. I want to be distinct from -but also respected and appreciated by- others. Basically, I want to be completely free to be the best version of who I am, unhindered by anyone else. Don’t we all?

In my desire for complete freedom, I often want to be swept far away to a private place; a place that is protected from the discomfort and inconveniences that being tethered to others inherently brings. I want to be completely free to be me, unencumbered, so I let myself be swept away to an island unto myself. But as Stanley Hauerwas poignantly says, we have “confused freedom with the isolation of the self.”*

I started wondering if I was confusing freedom with isolation. Does our desire to be free from people who inconvenience us also isolate us? If we think of ourselves as individual islands, could the very waters we let divide us and delineate the boundaries of our distinct identities actually isolate us?

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Don’t get me wrong, solitude and differentiation are important but, too often, in our desire to be free we let ourselves be swept away by imperceptible undercurrents. One powerful cultural undertow is the idea that, when it comes down to it, we are fundamentally disconnected from everyone else; we are islands unto ourselves. This can be a very dangerous idea.

Even as islands, we occasionally feel the loneliness of isolation. However, too often the discomfort of creeping loneliness leads us to distract ourselves. And, since there are so many things begging for our time and attention, it is easy to let ourselves be distracted. In distracting ourselves every time we feel lonely, we slowly let our imaginations atrophy. Let me explain:

If we feel a momentary twinge of loneliness, we can too easily turn to whatever is right beside us in order to escape the discomfort. Too often, what is right beside us is another experience, idea or thing ready to be consumed. Since we are subjected to many hundreds of (brain)washings in any given day that tell us how to live our lives we can easily lose the ability to imagine anything other than the projected imaginations of consumer culture.

The projected imaginations of consumer culture are what consumer culture co-opts us into imagining for ourselves: of the individual self obtaining permanent happiness, self-fulfillment, identity, security, comfort, mobility, convenience and freedom through the means of consuming experiences, information, goods and services. In fact, these projections are so pervasive and ubiquitous that we often lose the ability to imagine anything else for our lives. The American Dream is extremely uniform and not very imaginative; the fact that most of us Americans live such similar lives speaks to the failure to imagine and actually live in any alternative manner.

As we give into the projected imaginations of consumer culture we lose the ability to imagine for ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr., in a great speech, called Americans to be maladjusted to society. That is, we must not adjust ourselves to a society of discrimination and injustice; we cannot participate or be complicit when we know what is going on around us is wrong or immoral. **

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I’ve said before that our brains are always being washed and what starts out as a wash can easily become a wave. If we are not careful, the wave will wash us away. In reality, we may think we wish to be islands unto ourselves but that is a projected imagination of consumer culture. We must reclaim our ability to imagine. We must imagine a different (perhaps maladjusted) life for ourselves, realizing that being swept away in order to become “islands unto ourselves” is not actually good for us and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not actually what we deeply desire as relational creatures. 

Perhaps what we truly desire is to stand on common ground where we can wash ourselves, be washed by those who truly know us and by the One who loves us instead of being washed away by projected imaginations of consumer culture. Perhaps what we deeply want is to give ourselves to a purpose bigger (and more important) than ourselves, and to live a simple life basking in a shared contentedness with those around us. Our prophetic task is to find the courage to imagine something alternative: a kingdom not of this world. We must imagine glimpses of God’s kingdom manifested here on earth in our daily lives. We do this, not by being swept away by cultural washings and waves, but by becoming aware and actively swimming against that cultural force, back to shore where we can find common ground together.

 

Stanley Hauerwas, Called to Community, pg xiii

** Martin Luther King Jr., Maladjusted 

Cover photo by Ivan Slade

2nd photo by Pablo Garcia Saldaña

3rd photo by Breno Machado