Friday, April 26, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Bypassing the Intellect

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

[Editor’s note: The following email back-and-forth reproduced here didn’t really bring us to any hard-and-fast conclusions about transcendent experiences and how the Christian ought to process them. Perhaps we talked past each other a bit too much. Certainly, we all used the words “I think” far too often for any of us to hold our respective positions too dogmatically. All the same, it seems to me the exchange serves as a good example of how brothers in Christ tend to work things out in our heads by bouncing ideas off one another, as well as a plausible explanation for why their wives flee the room at such times.]

Bernie: I remember being struck by something Ravi Zacharias said some years ago. I can’t find the original quote but my attempt at a paraphrase is this: “Music has a way of bypassing the intellect and speaking directly to the heart.”

More Than Words

That may not be exactly it, but the sense of that has haunted me for 30+ years at this point, largely because I knew the minute I heard it expressed that it was true, or at least that I had experienced something like that. What I listen to definitely ‘teaches’ me in ways that words on a page cannot. I think you can both identify.

Tom: I certainly can.

Bernie: Music is more — much more — to me than merely a collection of words. Somehow the combination of words and music communicates to me at an entirely different level than simple text. I “learn” from music even when I am not aware that it’s happening and I certainly do not make the same kind of rational choices to accept/reject what I’m hearing that I might make when I read or listen to a sermon or otherwise am exposed to an idea. Music cheats the filtering system. This can be a very beneficial thing or it can be a terrible influence. Again, perhaps that’s only me, but I think I’m writing to two people who share similar experiences.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about transcendence. About the fact that a merely material explanation of who we are and what is around us fails to explain vast chunks of what we actually experience. A materialistic explanation that says “that’s just brain chemicals” seems to be woefully inadequate to account for the way music (in particular) can move me and reach places in me that cry out for something more. It may not always be music, of course. It could be a sunset, or poetry, or a pure 7-iron strike, or an arcing touchdown pass. (I’m halfway serious here.) But there are moments that say, “There is MORE, much more, and you were made for a greater home.” I cannot give you the science or the math to explain why a material explanation falls short, I just know it does. Better minds and pens than mine will have to take up that theme and put some meat on those bones.

Surprised By Joy

Immanuel Can: You mean you find yourself “surprised by joy”? No, I’m pretty sure you’re the only one.

Bernie: Thank you. I ramble that way to come to this: I’ll assume you agree with me that something — music perhaps — speaks to you in a way words cannot and reaches to your very core with a sense of the transcendent. I think you can probably come with me at least that far. So here’s my question of the day:

Are there things that music or other transcendent experiences teach us that must be received in this non-rational fashion? Are there things you are learning about God through the transcendent that you cannot express in words and you did not learn in words?

(Notice I am stopping very far short of the liberal idea that the Spirit can teach us things that conflict with scripture — I don’t believe that for a minute).

Tom: Yes, but I think all these types of experiences are like accidentally coming across a musical passage that inexplicably makes you weep, not because it’s intentionally or unintentionally sad, but because it evokes something you find overwhelming or even delightful. You can’t seek these moments out or calculate them. They happen TO you. They happen at weird times and places and the tears pour down your cheeks and you don’t know why that is, and when you try to articulate it, nothing coherent comes out. The Narnia movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader did something like that to me in the Eustace-as-a-dragon scene. I was gutted for reasons I can’t explain, but I knew they reflected something very good and right and essentially Christian that I had missed in the book. My son thought I was insane, blubbering away in the car on the way home. The Gospel of John movie with the woman at the well did it to me too. The way Henry Ian Cusick [who played Jesus in the movie] looked at the woman when he spoke to her absolutely killed me. It was exactly right, but you couldn’t explain precisely why.

Music? All the time, and definitely.

Bernie: Yes.

Inarticulate and Irreproducible

Tom: But these things happen TO us. They are to be prized when they occur, I think, but there is danger in going looking for them. I don’t think they are the meat and bread of the Christian life. They’re more like a really nice apĂ©ritif or a fine dessert that shows up at the table when you least expect it, usually ordered by somebody else for you. Not only would it be tasteless to gorge yourself on them, but you actually couldn’t do it effectively. These inarticulate joys lose their ability to move you over time. You notice that with a piece of music that rips at your heart. If you play it 200 times trying to replicate the feeling it produced in you, you’ll be dry-eyed by number ten. Or earlier.

I don’t think inarticulate transcendence was meant to be chased. Meant to be enjoyed, definitely. But not chased. Still, the more good stuff you expose yourself to, the more it will happen naturally, I think.

Bernie: It’s not just that you shouldn’t chase those feelings; it’s that it would be a fool’s errand. You can’t replicate that moment or the sense it produces in you. Trying to set the thing up as being opposed to the Word or in conflict with it in any way would be a mistake.

But I would add that it seems that these experiences are important precisely because they deepen and enrich what you already know but could not articulate; they bring freshness and life to the written word, they put meat on the bones. The moment you describe in which others deem you insane is tone-perfect; that’s the way it goes. Moments like that are a bizarre combination of being utterly alone in the most profound and deep way it is possible to be humanly alone — and yet being nothing like lonely; because in that moment (here comes the “hippie” part), you are with God in a way you have never been before and — as far as you know — no one else has ever been either. It’s unique, it’s precious and it’s utterly indescribable in word. I want to share a moment like that with people I love and I simply can’t — they think I’m nuts.

Teaching and Being Taught

IC: Is it really “teaching” we’re talking about, or is that just our best metaphor? Serious question.

Bernie: Hmm. Well, I don’t know what word to use to replace “teaching”, although I confess it to be inadequate to the subject. I think it’s the most adequate word language permits. I’m at a boundary of sorts in my thinking (which was not a long journey).

What does teaching do? Teaching changes us; it imparts usable knowledge we did not have previously, or else it isn’t really teaching. You didn’t teach if no one was taught; if you spoke but no one listened. The tree fell in the forest and it didn’t make a sound.

Has the transcendent changed me (and you)? I think that’s undeniable. We behave and think differently than we might have prior to the influence of a transcendent moment. I don’t know what way to describe that other than having been taught. This is a part of who God is that breaks through the mundane and the routine and the ritual and confirms things I dared hope but did not know and could not express. Words alone couldn’t tell me — but the transcendent taught me. It seems to me to be a deeply personal contact with a deeply personal God.

What word would you suggest is to be preferred? If “teaching” is a metaphor behind which lurks a truth that ought be expressed in different and less symbolic terms, please do so!

IC: Not “teaching”, perhaps, if by “teaching” we mean anything that can be worded in propositions — which is usually what teaching entails — but rather a provocation, an invitation, an epiphaneo that says, “You’ve no idea how great all this could REALLY be,” and bids us, “Don’t get too attached here; it’s not the place it could be yet.”

So with all due respect to The Eroica, or to your golf swing, or to my cast-and-drift on the river, these things just “crack the door” for something, lest we forget it will be coming.

Man May Not Utter

Tom: How about this:
“I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
Now it could be, as with other heavenly experiences, that Paul heard things he was told not to write down for others, but I think what he’s talking about there is having heard something heavenly that mankind is incapable of expressing. We don’t have the tools. Those things surely changed the apostle, even if he didn’t communicate them and couldn’t articulate them.

Is this being “taught”? Some part of it was, I think. Would we call it “teaching” in a school-sense? Probably not.

Bernie: I think we’re probably talking around the same thing and that we perhaps agree. To wit: What does “know better” mean to you if NOT being taught something more than you had before? IC objects (not violently) to the word “teach”, but is merely restating the idea by replacing it with the phrase “know better”. They mean the same thing at heart. At least they seem to …

A “Known” Better Known

Tom: I think I see what IC may be objecting to (or maybe not), which is that the experience is primarily emotional rather than intellectual. It is usually not new information content either. In fact, I can’t think of a single time I’ve experienced what Lewis called “the numinous” that has taught me anything new at all. Rather, what I think happens is that I start to feel something I already knew intellectually but hadn’t experienced emotionally. The power of the thing for me, maybe, is that there is an already-existing association for the “numinous” thing to trigger. When it hits, it hits especially hard because there was a “known” that you now “know” better. But nothing new has really been added. The known has just been properly experienced.

Is that anything close to what you were trying to get at, IC?

IC: Well, I wasn’t actually objecting. I was simply being obtuse about it. If I were also trying to be pedantic, I’d say, “Well, ‘numinous’ is Kant’s word, you know,” at which point you’d (rightly) want to hit me.

Tom: I think it would be obligatory.

IC: I think that one thing about that experience is that you somehow feel “This sensation doesn’t belong here.” That’s what’s surprising about it. The ordinariness of the world, suddenly shot through with something much beyond it, something that invades with neither apology nor notice, but which the world quickly manages to screen out again.


  1. I don't mean to barge in here and tread where I should not. But this is the first time I hear something being addressed that has always been astounding to me and that I think is too often ignored in the discussion of God and creature.

    And that is the fact that one easily discusses the human body and intellect in relation to how God created and relates to humans and we tend to ignore the highly intangibles of feelings and emotions, which I would almost compare to another dimension. And yet, they are so terribly important. They imply that God must have them as well, that they are not lost when our spiritual existance begins and that they provide an entirely different set of terribly important variables that make our lifes conplete in wellness or illness. Our physical bodies are tangible and God could produce them from a rock but where does this intangible part of existence come from? And it is that part of our existence that needs to be especially sustained and supported by God more than our body to keep us well. And that can only be accomplished by turning to and tuning in to our creator. By looking around we can see the consequences of failing to do so in every part of society.

    1. Agreed, Q. You can blame Bernie for that one. :)

  2. Thank you for the post this morning. I appreciated it very much.

    It reminded me of the first time I read Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”. The imagery did something to me that the “mere” words could not have done.

    1. That Hideous Strength is my very favorite fictional work, and the entire trilogy is top ten. I feel the same way about it, Patrick.