images that teach (5): the lid

A curious thing happens in our society today. A person who asserts that death is the end and that there is no heaven can still be heard longing that a loved one be ‘looking down from above’.

For those with ears to hear, this kind of thing happens quite a lot. What is going on?

The Lid, with Brian

Many years ago, Brian Smith, at the time the Principal of Carey Baptist College (Auckland, NZ), used an image that remains with me. It is as if people in our secular world are being educated and socialised to live their lives under a lid. Everything is horizontal. There is no vertical. It is all, and only, about the natural world around us being experienced through the senses. This is all that is real. Any connection with something transcendent, beyond this world, is shut off. “Above us, only sky”—in the words of John Lennon.

At about this time I was adding two Arts papers to my BSc to open the way for an application into an MDiv programme in the USA. I selected Stage One Psychology and then spent the entire year asking how the mind worked, without giving even a passing thought to who made it—and why. It seemed odd. Similar oddities awaited me across in Stage One Anthropology in learning about cultures.

This was life under the lid at the University of Auckland circa 1980.

With that lid, my imagination travels straight to those preserving jars of an earlier era. My mum and my grandmothers preserved fruit, as did Barby and I, especially in our early years in Invercargill with the bounty of Central Otago fruit nearby. It was quite an art and a science, affixing a seal and then a screw-on band. Thinking this was all a relic from the past, I was surprised to find the jars and seals and bands still available online (photo credit: kiwifamilykitchen.co.nz).

The Leaky Lid, with Charles

In more recent years, Charles Taylor has shifted the discussion. At one point, he asks—

How did we get from a time (in, say, 1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time (in 2000) when theism is almost unbelievable?  (Taylor, A Secular Age, 25)

… or, if you allow for my rather crude imagery, how did we get from the lid being off to the lid being on?

Taylor is not easy reading. But one way into his ideas is to dabble with some of his images and phrases. Stick with me here! Life under the lid is a life lived within “the immanent frame”. And yet there is more going on in life than what happens in this space—just like there is for the person at the beginning of this post. Afterall, a longing to have someone ‘looking down from above’ is hardly consistent with life in an immanent frame, is it? What we find, again and again for people today, is that “life is greater than can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations” (Keller, Making Sense of God, 22).

For Taylor, people actually live “cross-pressured” lives, “torn between immanence and transcendence” (Keller, 277), between doubt and belief. They have this “feeling of being caught between an echo of transcendence and being enclosed within the immanent” (Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, 140-141). Life beyond the lid has a way of hanging around, of echoing, and it can be heard even amidst the din under the lid. Once upon a time the self was “porous”—”open and vulnerable to the enchanted ‘outside’ world” (Smith, 142)—before today becoming “buffered”, “insulated … no longer vulnerable to the transcendent or the demonic” (Smith, 140). But Taylor would argue that this buffering is more difficult to maintain in practice.

So according to Taylor—using my crude imagery, not his—it is not so much whether the lid is on or off. Buffered selves living within an immanent frame find life to be resplendent with cross-pressured experiences because they are “haunted” by transcendence! Or, by way of paraphrase, the lid leaks!

A couple of times each week now Barby and I are turning to each other and saying “leaky lid” in response to something we see or hear. The other day we were discussing the growing presence of karakia, or Māori prayer, in public life. Yes, this recognises and honours the indigenous people of this land—but for secular people, for whom such prayer could never happen in English, might it also be an echo of transcendence and evidence of a leaky lid?

A bit like “I don’t believe in God, but I do miss him” (Julian Barnes)…

Incredibly, on the very same day that I was writing this post, I was reading Cuddy. It is the story of St Cuthbert or more accurately, Cuthbert’s body after he died. A focus is on Durham Cathedral, built as a home for his body. In the 1820s there is this call to exhume his body to verify whether it has decayed or not. Professor Fawcett-Black from Oxford—a patron saint for Taylor’s later life within ‘an immanent frame’—is summoned to provide external and objective verification. “My atheism … is surely a worthy armour; a rain-shade …” (326). That is until he is drawn to the Rose Window inside the cathedral. His tidy life experiences an “unravelling… a haunting” (327, the exact same work used by Taylor!). Or, we might say, the lid began to leak. “Everything in which I once believed now lies about me in fragments” (348).

Over the years plenty of people have spoken into this ‘haunting’. For Augustine, ‘our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. For GK Chesterton, ‘the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God’. For JRR Tolkien, our final joy lies ‘beyond the walls of the world’. For CS Lewis, there is that ‘inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what.’ For Plantinga, ‘nothing can fill us to the brim’. It goes on and on…

After living with skeptics and cynics in Manhattan for three decades and establishing a church among them, Tim Keller observed that “great numbers of people intuitively sense a transcendent realm beyond this natural world’ (Making Sense of God, 11). Yes, the lid leaks—but can it still be lifted?

Lifting the Lid—with Audrey and Gwen

Taylor helps us understand both unbelievers and believers, those with the lid on and those with the lid off. But he shows how the options are rarely as simple as just those two. Most of us are “either believing in God but doubting from time to time, or doubting God but believing from time to time” (Hanson, Timothy Keller, 244). The lid closes for some, just as it leaks for others.

But here is where lid-lifters, Audrey and Gwen, come to mind—for my strength and encouragement. Last September I was given the privilege of speaking at the funeral for Auntie Audrey. I was drawn to 2 Corinthians 4.13-18 and ‘what we know—the heart of faith knows more’ and ‘where we focus—the eyes of faith see more’. I mentioned Brian’s lid and then offered these comments:

(For people today) what is real is what the senses can engage and what science can measure. It is all about the natural world—and shutting out the big, sovereign, God beyond the lid. The God ‘whose ways can be past finding out’ and whose mystery can be as real as his mercy.

When I think of Auntie Audrey, the lid was off as the living, transcendent God streamed into her life enabling her to live with a clear, simple, deep trust and with a certain hope, earthed in the reality of the risen Jesus as her Saviour and Lord.

She knew more and she saw more.

For Audrey, the transcendent was more than an echo, or a haunting. It was the really real. She placed her confidence in the invisible (that which is not seen) and the eternal (that which is not now)—and for almost a century, through all of life’s seasons, that lid remained lifted. God proved his faithfulness by drawing near—becoming immanent, no less!—in Christ and by his Spirit.

Just twenty eight days after Audrey’s memorial service, we had another one in the very same church—for her first cousin and close friend of more than 90 years: Gwen, my mum. Such was the alignment of their lives, I was struck by how the same message could have been given again.

But this time I was drawn to Ecclesiastes. It is such an honest book, such a human book. I imagine the author as a guru (when in India), or a kaumātua (when in New Zealand), and with him being of a similar age to Audrey and Gwen. He also provides the reader, all these centuries later, with a remarkable doorway into the ‘secular age’ of Charles Taylor:

A. The kaumātua reflects (ch 1-10): life in ‘the immanent frame’

I’ve done stuff (2.1-11); I’ve seen stuff (4.1-12); I’ve thought stuff (4.9-12; 7.1-3; 10.1-2); I feel stuff (12.1-7); When all is said and done, I’ve stuffed-up: there is nothing left in life (“vanity:); there is nothing left over from it (“no gain”); there is Someone left out of it (“under the sun”).

B. The kaumātua pleads (ch 11-12): ‘echoes of…haunted by transcendence’

Trust God and live fully (11.1-6);

Remember God and decide early (11.7-12.7);

Fear God and weigh seriously (12.8-14).

With Gwen’s service, I focused on Ecclesiastes 11-12 because this trusting, remembering and fearing of the transcendent God captured her life so accurately. The music of Caroline Cobb might not have been her first choice, but I am confident she’d have appreciated the resonant lyrics. Listen carefully.

A final word…

I am embarrassed to say that until the Lectio 365 folks mentioned it the other day in a devotional, I had never heard of the term, ‘daylighting‘. It is the process by which streams and rivers, lost under the clutter of urban life, find new life and purpose by being opened up to the sky above.

A bit like Audrey and Gwen.

nice chatting

Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

8 Comments

  1. Peter and Elizabeth Anderson on February 22, 2024 at 12:11 pm

    This was another extremely helpful and thought-provoking piece, Paul. Terrific. So true. Also loved the song and the comments on Ecclesiastes.

    • Paul Windsor on February 24, 2024 at 6:35 am

      Thanks, Peter — so pleased you found these thoughts to be helpful. They are never too far from my mind and so it was good to get them down ‘on paper’. I got through half of your latest book while on holiday this week. A bit too heavy (in weight, not content!) to take with me on this upcoming trip, but I shall enjoy finishing it on my return. Kind regards to you both, Paul

  2. Riad on February 22, 2024 at 2:03 pm

    Paul, what a deep and thoughtful reading! The lid imagery is powerful. Thank you for sharing about Audrey and Gwen.
    Do we really need to read a book after your unpacking 🤔?

    • Paul Windsor on February 24, 2024 at 6:38 am

      Maybe one day, Riad 🙂

      Glad you found the lid to be helpful.

      Audrey and Gwen were the best — and for their funerals to be just four weeks apart and in the same church has been sobering indeed.

      See you tomorrow

      Paul

  3. Thomas Spallinger on February 25, 2024 at 9:58 am

    Loved the last lines of Caroline’s song:

    First, the lyrics question:
    If there is restlessness, could there be rest, if there is hunger, could there be fullness?

    Then, the lyrics answer:
    If there is restlessness, there must be rest, if there is hunger, there must be fullness!

    You feel eternity and it’s beating in your chest so you know in your soul it’s not all meaningless. -Ecclesiastes

    P.S. Love how you honor Mum; enjoyed and benefitted from your blog post and journaled the song lyrics, thank you for sharing; plan to share/pray this for someone I know that is hurting.

    • Paul Windsor on March 18, 2024 at 8:48 am

      It is a delight to hear from you, Tom.

      I am sorry we did not have more together in November.

      I find the way Caroline Cobb’s song moves towards that final flourish to be so powerful.
      I’ve listened to it so many times :).

      The Lord is with you

      Paul

  4. Ken Keyte on March 1, 2024 at 2:06 pm

    Great thought provoking post Paul, and a beautiful song! I chuckled about the “daylighting” term. I hadn’t heard of it before until after the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods with “daylighting” being one of the many solutions proposed for the city. Certainly another helpful image of letting our transcendent God in and what happens when we don’t!

    • Paul Windsor on March 18, 2024 at 8:50 am

      Yes, indeed — I think ‘daylighting’ has lots of possibilities as a contemporary metaphor, Ken

      Hope you are well — and thanks for your faithful engagement (and encouragement) of this blog 🙂

      Paul

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