Sermon: The Porous Self

1.11.2015     Preaching Text: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

During Advent and Christmas, I spoke repeatedly of how our culture at that meaningful time of year seems far more willing to suspend – if but temporarily – its otherwise tenacious disbelief of all things religious, especially those things having to do with the mystical and the transcendent. Every year I marvel at the way people seem to open up to possibilities long since rejected, things thought to be from humanity’s primitive past.

As a case in point, at the Christmas Eve service, I borrowed a quote from a book I read years ago. Referring to pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh, the author colorfully observed that in those days “the skies hung low.”

What he meant was that prior to the advent of our rationalistic, scientific age, most Westerners were open to the mystical and transcendent. They saw the skies (and world) as cluttered with supernatural meaning, and with angels continually carrying messages back and forth between heaven and earth. This was an accepted truism unquestioned by the vast majority of people.

Picking up on this theme, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his landmark book of a few years ago, A Secular Age, suggests that in 1500 A.D. unbelief was virtually unthinkable. To disbelieve today, on the other hand, is pretty much a cultural requirement!

Pre-modern Westerners possessed a “porous” self, as he puts it, open and receptive to the mystical, the divine, the “other” beyond the self. The universe was “enchanted,” charged with meaning. Power actually resided in things, and not mere symbols within the confines of the mind. Which is why, he says, relics and the Eucharistic Host were thought to hold such significance and power.

Some 500 years later, we now live in a “disenchanted” universe, where the location of meaning has shifted from beyond us to something we must manufacture ourselves.

This process of increasing inwardness means that we are now “bounded” by the limits of our own minds. In contrast to the pre-modern porous self, we posses a “buffered” or “protected” self. This buffered self is insulated, isolated, and, by definition, disconnected from others. Because meaning is no longer found outside oneself, outside one’s private, inward, individualistic self, alienation from others is logically unavoidable.

In fact, “only the buffered self,” he writes, “is aware of the possibility of disengagement.” Once the individual becomes the sole locus of meaning, the communal is lost, replaced by a variety of separate, disconnected social worlds.

Sealed off from the enchantments of a larger world, the “immanent frame” of mind is left to “ruminate in a stew of its own ennui.”

And though, Taylor points out, this buffered self does afford some measure of protection from the terrors and uncertainties experienced by our ancestors’ due to their vulnerability and openness, the modern self remains uneasy and uncomfortable with a closed-off, interiorized state of disenchantment. The separation of the earthly from the transcendent has left us, perhaps ironically, in an ever more fragile state!

For in truth, God exists, even if the limited, post-Enlightenment mind assumes it has closed him out. Because of this, Taylor argues, modern post-Christian Westerners find themselves “cross-pressured” by the nagging reality of God, unable to square the spiritual (and their need to experience the spiritual) with the closed-off, immanent, materialistic world they have created. With the porous self effectively sealed up, the nagging reality of God has not disappeared, in effect “haunting” our outwardly confident secular world.

Which brings us to Jesus’ baptism, and our own. For baptism is the symbolic giving of the Holy Spirit, a force that comes from beyond us. It is the means by which heaven communicates with creation, serving as the ordering principle that lives and breathes within from beyond us.

Logically, to experience the Holy Spirit demands a porous self, open to that which is beyond itself, that which infuses all of life with divine, mysterious power.

Because modernity is “cross-pressured,” meaning that the closed, buffered self is besieged by the countless intimations of the Holy Spirit, it longs for the transcendent, almost in spite of itself.

If Augustine was right – that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God – this longing makes perfect sense, given that it is the deepest, most basic yearning we human beings have.

For the contemporary church, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. As Tony Robinson has pointed out, our current secular state is rife with potential for some sort of spiritual awakening. As Taylor suggests, Western secularism is ripe with spiritual yearning, even if that yearning takes non-traditional form. Why? Because we are made for the things of the Spirit, and no amount of willful “buffering” can ever eliminate that.

Even when the secular world tries hard to deny the Spirit, it continually betrays itself. Christian author Jamie Smith cites as an example the 2011 HBO documentary, God Is the Bigger Elvis. The documentary chronicles the dramatic spiritual life of Dolores Hart, a onetime Hollywood actress who in the early 1950’s co-starred in films with James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner, and, yes, Elvis Presley (to name but a few).

At the tender age of 24, Ms. Hart gave up her promising Hollywood career to join a Benedictine abbey in Bethlehem, CT, where she is mother prioress today. By Smith’s account, the editorial slant is one of dumbfounded disbelief that she could have taken this action, while at the same time offering a kind of curious, begrudging respect for her commitment and lifestyle.

Smith’s conclusion? That even when the secular world seeks to dismiss the power of the spiritual, it betrays an almost vestigial respect for it – again, almost in spite of itself. As one contemporary author recently put it, “I don’t believe in God. But I do miss him.”

Thus it is this same vestigial longing that draws people to church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, as well as in those moments of crisis or tragedy. Our secular world, in other words, remains haunted by the power of the Spirit, and doesn’t know what to do with it.

For us in the church, there is an opportunity to witness to the reality of this same Spirit, knowing that there exists this powerful longing for it, even in those who deny it. Amen.