Signals of immanence & transcendence
“Small disconnected facts,” novelist Walker Percy wrote in The Thanatos Syndrome, “if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.” It is part of the mystery of existence. No matter what we think about reality, the details around us always prove to be signals, pointing to something greater or deeper or beyond themselves, even if only as a quiet whisper, a sly hint, and even if only to some other small detail of existence.
I keep a little stick on the windowsill of my office. Bleached white and rubbed smooth, it is a piece of driftwood, 13.5 inches long and ½ inch in diameter that I found on the shore of Lake Superior. It’s just a stick, but it reminds me of the three weeks Margie and I spent in a cabin on the north shore—the best vacation of my life. It’s a stick, and a signal.
“A signal,” James Sire says in Echoes of a Voice, “can be any action, event, thing, image, sound, taste, touch, smell, word, metaphor, or idea that sparks curiosity beyond its own identity. In other words a signal is anything that calls out to anyone who is struck by what they perceive and wants (becomes curious) to know more about it, more about how it fits into the context in which it occurs, in short, what it is in relation to what it is surrounded by.”
Signals surround us, and some of them are signals of transcendence. For me, such signals of transcendence have come in a variety of forms: goldfinches, the music of Bob Dylan, ravens, and a stick found during a time away when creativity returned after a year of unrelenting spiritual dryness.
In Echoes of a Voice, Sire shows us how to think about all this by carefully unpacking the phenomenon and by introducing us to the work of thinkers and poets and prophets and scientists, believers and unbelievers, who notice the signals and try to make sense of them. This is not a superficial work, but a thoughtful and accessible exploration of philosophy, theology, and art. Sire asks us to reflect on our experience of life and reality, in all its glorious ruin, and to face the question we all know we need to answer: What does it mean?
In Echoes we have a chance to reflect on the words of Virginia Woolf, Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Steven Weinberg, among others. They see the signals, hear the echoes, and come to very different conclusions. Along the way Sire helps us to classify the signals around us, clarifies our experience of them, unpacks a Christian perspective on them, and demonstrates that some meanings are more meaningful than others.
The philosopher Charles Taylor, in The Secular Age, shows that in our age of disbelief a new type of humanism has been born: what he calls “exclusive humanism.” He defines it as a worldview, novel in human history that accounts for human significance and meaning without an appeal to the divine. If we have ears to hear, we can hear its claims in the hopes and lives of so many around us. Yet even exclusive humanists stumble upon signals of transcendence, and it is here that a conversation about the gospel might be fruitful.
And even apart from those conversations, Echoes of a Voice will help us make sense of the signals that flicker and glimmer around us. The signals that we see and hear and feel, and that we make sense of, for blessing or for curse. And that is a grace.