History and Transcendence

The sun was striking the hoarfrost on the trees yesterday morning, and even though we’ve had a surplus of such winter wonderland vistas this winter, I took 15 minutes on my way to somewhere else to stop at a local park with my camera. The morning was fresh. It was pristine. The birds were singing their springtime songs in spite of the frost. It could have been the first morning of the world. I thought about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetic assertion: There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. Even though generations have trod. And trod. And trod. Yes, morning still recovers itself with a sense of freshness that seems like hope. I felt pure and uplifted by the frosted trees in the sunlight, a feeling I wanted to keep.

Soon enough I was back on the road with traffic and with history, or the compressed version of it on the radio. The place where things get muddied. So which is true — the pure essence of things I felt in the park? Or the muddied mess of things in the daily news? Or both? And religion — what a crazy quest to try to join these things — history and transcendence, and to hold them in tension. There are some spiritual practitioners that would opt out of history altogether. That temptation is strong. I felt purer in the park than I felt anywhere else. Couldn’t I just stay there? But for me, the whole point of religion is that transcendence isn’t just out there. It’s here on this ground, and it is in history. And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil, Hopkins wrote, and he still went on to title his poem, “God’s Grandeur.”

I am studying the Hebrew prophets this semester, and as Abraham Joshua Heschel noted in his book, The Prophets:

A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums….It is not the sort of poetry that takes its origin, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ Far from reflecting a state of inner harmony or poise, its style is charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of nonacceptance. The prophet’s concern is not with nature but with history, and history is devoid of poise.

“Yet,” Heschel went on to say, “There are interludes when one perceives an eternity of love hovering over moments of anguish.” The prophets attested to both.

In Taoism, which I am also studying this semester, Chuang Tzu, living in China during the Warring States period (480-221 BCE), rejected statecraft altogether in his philosophy. And watching the statecraft around me these days, in a nation that could easily be called the Warring States, I understand the rationale, the longing for equanimity and the cultivation of it. History is devoid of that poise. But the point of incarnation, for me, is that it occurs in history, out of timelessness. This is where we are, born in a particular time and place. Jesus went out to the wilderness to pray, but he came back. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that we are responsible to the circumstances of history.

I hold these things in tension: wilderness, widows, orphans. Anguish. Hope. The freshness of a pristine morning, with its high and lifting hope. And the smeared with trade world, which also, although it may not be as easy to feel, awakens with hope this morning.


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