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Posts Tagged ‘transcendence’

I stole the title of my previous post from Fergus Kerr’s book Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. It’s a collection of essays about twentieth-century philosophers whose thought, often indirectly, has touched on the human encounter with the transcendent. Kerr is interested in what lies at the very edge of human experience, in those ill-defined questions about origins and meaning and ends that don’t always get asked. It’s the border between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith.

Kerr was a great help to me when I was trying to find a title for my PhD dissertation eleven years ago. I knew I wanted to study in the general area of ‘philosophical anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person. I had some initial ideas about focussing on the notion of the self and second nature in contemporary philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. But more and more I was drawn to the subject of human freedom, not as a particular capacity or skill, but as a reflection of the extraordinary fact that human nature is open-ended and only incompletely defined; and that some of the defining is – strangely – up to us. We are, to some extent at least, self-creating creatures. The rest, in turns of my academic journey, is history. Or more simply, the rest is Aquinas and Sartre

Here is the publisher’s blurb about Kerr’s book.

Daringly extending the agenda of what is usually considered as ‘philosophy of religion,’ Fergus Kerr argues that more religion exists in modern secular philosophy than many philosophers admit.

Examining much-discussed contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell, and Charles Taylor, Kerr reads their respective stories in the light of Karl Barth’s notion that “transcending our humanity only makes us more human than ever.”

In Kerr’s view, transcendence-the “immortal longings” of his title-plays a central role in many of these philosophers’ systems of beliefs.

Kerr’s brilliant and long-awaited study shows that the theological content of modern philosophy deserves much more attention than it has received in the past.

And here are some comments from the review in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

What does one carry away from this learned and engaging book? Many specifics: insights, aperçus, and good readings of Nussbaum, Barth, and the rest. This alone would justify a close reading by anyone interested in philosophy of religion or in the religious elements in philosophy.

But there is more. One of the delights of this book is Kerr’s humane presence in the text. Through the text shines a person in a certain attunement toward these issues: an attunement which we can admire and learn from.

But finally Kerr does more than catalog a set of concerns and exemplify an orientation toward them. He has named, and lifted up for our attention, the philosophical career of the central theme of religion: what lies beyond us humans, and how do we stand with regard to it? The two conflicting intuitions-that we are at once somehow intrinsically tied to it and yet alienated from it, that we know it and yet do not-seem perennially present in human self-understanding.

To Kerr we owe thanks not only for showing us some fascinating patterns of commonality in surprising places but also for disclosing the problematic unity underlying those patterns.

It’s well worth a read.

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I was at Compton Verney recently to see a fascinating exhibition entitled Flight and the Artistic Imagination. It brought together all sorts of images and objects, many of them religious, about the almost universal human desire to fly. Part of the interest was seeing how different strands of mythology and culture could be woven together so unexpectedly.

The central theme of the first room, of course, was Icarus.

Son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Daedalus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete within the walls of his own invention, the Labyrinth. But the great craftsman’s genius would not suffer captivity. He made two pairs of wings by adhering feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Giving one pair to his son, he cautioned him that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. But Icarus became ecstatic with the ability to fly and forgot his father’s warning. The feathers came loose and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

But taking up a whole wall in the same room was Zurbaran’s Levitation of St Francis (I can’t find a copyright free image unfortunately), with St Francis in ecstasy, gazing up to heaven, flying through the sky, with nothing to frame him except the clouds.

At the same time as the exhibition explored the hugely important science of ballooning, and various artistic and cartographic responses to the first experiences of aircraft flight, it also looked at the biblical subject of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, which reached to heaven and on which the angels of God ascended and descended.

So the various themes were eclectic, but there was a thought-provoking and unforced unity about the whole exhibition: our desire to fly, to escape from our earthly confines, to gain a more expansive vision, to pierce not just the clouds but the heavens. It was a beautiful way of reflecting on the search for transcendence.

Really it should have ended, at the scientific level, with the Hubble telescope, which has allowed us to see through the heavens of our own galaxy and to look beyond into the vastness of the universe – without satisfying the hunger to see still further beyond.

And at the spiritual level the best crowning image would have been not St Francis levitating, but the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when human nature was lifted up and taken through the veil into heaven itself. There are so many great artistic representations of feet seen from below – I’m thinking for example of the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham.

I’ve always enjoyed the Icarus story. My main project for O-level art at school (yes, I am old enough to remember O-levels) was developing a screen print of an Icarus figure leaping from the end of a pier and falling into the sea below. Designing the engineering of the pier structure gave me great delight – I love piers. And the mixture of hope and tragedy appealed to me. Maybe tragedy isn’t the right word; I think my image managed to convey the idea that it was better for Icarus to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. I took him as a heroic rather than a foolish figure; not just disregarding his father’s warnings, but truly believing that the wax might hold – and that it would be worth it.

It’s an argument for prayer for those who have no faith: it’s better to try, knowing that in theory it might be possible, even if you don’t yet have the personal experience or the objective evidence to prove it for yourself. The tragedy would be not taking the opportunity, not taking the risk. You wouldn’t crash to the ground, like Icarus; you’d just find yourself sitting comfortably in the same seat – maybe more enlightened, maybe more curious, maybe still puzzled, or perhaps completely anticlimaxed. But what is there to lose? I know, it’s not that simple…

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