Charles Taylor, Christmas and an Epiphany of Transcendence
Mary pondering the immensity of it all
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. One might call it a gift of the imagination or a re-enchantment.
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 like Thoreau), or in the powers of the imaginative, expressive self (Michel 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 like Monet’s Lillies, 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 elements of encounter and revelation. It can come in a discovery such as finding out the chemicals in our bodies were once part of the death of a star; we are stardust, embedded in creation itself; we owe the stars our very life.
When Mary hears from an angel that she is to become the vessel of a most profound turn of events in history, she is in awe, overwhelmed. It is truly an epiphany, an encounter with radical alterity. Heaven and earth reach out to each other at this juncture and something dramatic occurs, like lightning. Time stands still in this kairos moment. She allows transcendence and immanence to come together in her body and in her life. Her story is punctuated by the incursion of the eternal into the temporal, informed by the descent of transcendence into a historical teenager’s life. This encounter changed everything. We know it as the incarnation.
Mary Considers Her Situation by Luci Shaw
What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.
The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.
Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.
She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.
But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
It is a strong transcendence to use philosopher Calvin Schrag’s language. 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. It powers the sensus divinitatis. The human soul is enlarged. 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. Life is enhanced. There is revelation, high thought, deep realization.
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 supreme 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 Advent Season and open up our world to horizons beyond our normal imagination,a re-enchantment. Mary is a model to us. She allowed epiphany and grace to transform her.
Dostoyevsky’s (1974) work The Brothers Karamozov reveals the power of transcendence and the danger of refusing it, i.e. remaining trapped by an immanent frame. Charles Taylor notes that:
One of Dostoyevsky’s central insights turns on the way in which we close or open ourselves to grace. The ultimate sin is to close oneself, but the reasons for doing so can be of the highest. In a sense the person who is closed is in a vicious circle from which it is hard to escape. We are closed to grace, because we close ourselves to the world in which it circulates; and we do that out of loathing for ourselves and for the world … Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is a part of it. And from this can come only acts of hate and destruction. Dostoyevsky … gives an acute understanding of how loathing and self-loathing, inspired by the very real evils of the world, fuel a projection of evil outward, a polarization between self and the world, where all evil is now seen to reside. This justifies terror, violence, and destruction against the world; indeed this seems to call for it. No one … has given us deeper insight into the spiritual sources of modern terrorism or has shown more clearly how terrorism can be a response to the threat of self-hatred … The noblest wreak it [destruction] on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of evil; we want to raise ourselves above it. (C. Taylor, 1989, pp. 451-52)
The recent Paris attacks in November 13, 2015 are just such a projection of hatred for the Other. It is a simple, cold, deadly logic. It is completely grace-less and warlike. There appears to be a provocative link from self-sufficiency to pride and to the aesthetics of violence (religious or secularist). Taylor holds out hope for a transcendent turn to agape love, hope for a different type of transformation from beyond pure immanent choice-focused self-invention and greedy self-interest which brackets the social world/common good and God. There is discovery of self within the economy of grace, a discovery and a transformation that offers a different stance towards self and the world. It is an epiphanic discovery, but only if we allow it. Continuing with his discussion of Dostoyevsky, Taylor (1989) writes of this epiphanic encounter with transcendence,
What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility … Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession [of terror and violence] is a grace-dispensing one. Dostoyevsky brings together here a central idea of the Christian tradition, especially evident in the Gospel of John, that people are transformed through being loved by God, a love that they mediate to one another, on the one hand, with the modern notion of a subject who can help to bring on transfiguration through the stance he takes to himself and the world, on the other … What he [Dostoyevsky] was opposing was that humans affirm their dignity in separation from the world. (C. Taylor, 1989, p. 452)
We mourn the terrible loss in Paris and yet we must not give up on love. We must be open to the transformation of the world, rather than the elimination of those who are different. We must move away from self-righteousness to suffer and struggle for peace. The clenched fist must become the open hand of fellowship. If we come to realize that the core of reality is love, our cynicism will melt away, our nihilism will give way to rich meaning and purpose. What do we make of Mary’s epiphany? Can it rethink and remake us?
~Gordon Carkner PhD
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.
Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
See also Real Presences by George Steiner; The Self After Postmodernity by Calvin Schrag.
Other GCU posts complementing this idea: Qualities of the Will series.