“I am encouraged when I see a dozen villagers drawn to Walden Pond to spend a day in fishing through the ice, and suspect that I have more fellows than I knew, but I am disappointed and surprised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”
I read that unfamiliar quote from Henry David Thoreau while searching for a different pithy saying, and I have not been able to shake it.
The fish alone. Nothing else to be caught.
In pondering the meaning behind what the poet/abolitionist/philosopher/naturalist wrote, it got me thinking in several seemingly disconnected directions. But that’s how I am, so bear with me.
Which is why I’m switching writing about fish ponds to time travel.
A supposed Gallup poll cited by the podcast Mysterious Universe noted that when people were asked what piece of technology not yet invented would they most want and for what reason, “time machine” was cited by just over 80% of respondents. Why? To go back in time and change their broken past.
Thoreau’s 19th century statement about men and fish and a 21st century poll that had people desiring to go back in time, though seemingly unlinked, share an underlying desperation.
What so troubled Thoreau was that the act of fishing on a frozen body of water went beyond just catching the fish. The transcendent qualities of the experience–the camaraderie shared by the fishermen, the rapture of nature, the participation in the blessings of the Creator, the innumerable numinous aspects of the “mere” act of fishing–were lost on the men who huddled around a dark blue hole in the white canvas that was Walden Pond.
The fish alone. And nothing more.
Caspar David Friedrich – “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”
What are the great questions that form the backbone of all human inquiry? Who? What? Where? When? How?
When more than 80% of respondents in a poll about desired technology want a time machine to go back and undo whatever it was that went wrong in their lives, the underlying question that has troubled them is the one of why. Why did things turn out the way they did?
For most of human history, people have struggled more with the other questions. Who is God? What has He done? Where can He be found? When can I know Him? And how?
But despite the why of the Book of Job, why is more of a modern question. It is a step beyond the more basic questions. That Job asked them may make him the first “modern” man.
Today, in 2015, the other questions of life pale in light of the question of why. Science has told us much, but why still eludes us. By its very nature, why is a transcendent question.
And this brings us to the American Church.
If I could categorize 2014’s chatter about the Church, one of the top three topics would be, Where have all the churchgoers gone? This lament is everywhere and everyone has an observation and an answer. (Though some good detective work will show that the actual number of supposedly “former” attendees is not so much avoiding church altogether. Instead, they still attend, only not every week as they once did, which makes the attendance numbers on any given Sunday lower, making it seem as if those people have dropped out entirely, which is not the case. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, right?)
What I see almost none of the handwringers noting is what I think is behind much of the drop–or the more sporadic attendance. And it goes back to fish and time machines.
When today’s church tries to answer the cry of why, the common response is to point to God’s sovereignty. And this proves problematic, because the Church is mistakenly assuming something.
For the mass of men, there is only the fish. When these men go to church, they get a bad rock concert atmosphere that stands in for transcendence. They get a message delivered by someone who experienced something transcendent a long time ago and has been running on the fumes of it for years now.
Most men go to church, experience nothing transcendent, fail to use amid the assembly the gifts God has given them to any appreciable measure, barely interact with their fellows, and then stumble off to a fishing hole on a bleak, frozen pond to get some fish. Because there is nothing else but the fish.
These men go to church on Sunday with the question of why eating holes in their guts, and the church tries to answer that transcendent question with a supposedly transcendent answer, yet nothing of those men’s experience in church from week to week ever takes them anywhere into the genuine transcendent light of God. You can’t meet transcendent needs of people who are stuck thinking only of fish, if all you can talk about is the fish itself. And churches today are absolutely mired in talking about the fish.
You can blame the leaders, but the fact is, most of them are generations removed from the last transcendent moves of God in this country. A lot of them are struggling themselves with the blandness of their spiritual lives.
Most people experience nothing of the transcendent moves of the Holy Spirit on any given Sunday, and we do next to nothing to empower men and women to serve each other in the midst of the assembly, so their spiritual gifts–one very real connection to transcendence–go unused.
Every day it seems I hear of another Evangelical who has “swum the Tiber,” looking for transcendence in the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not sure the Catholics have got the transcendence thing down any better than the Protestants do, especially in America.
Or else you see once solid Christians incorporating Eastern spirituality into their beliefs, a surefire way to dash themselves on the rocks of heresy.
And it’s all because we have a serious lack transcendence in our churches today. Coincidentally, all my thinking on this started with Thoreau, and only as I sat down to write it did I recall that he was labeled a Transcendentalist. How fitting.
When human beings ask why, they will only be satisfied with the kind of answer the Church gives today if that same Church is taking those people to a place–and person–of transcendence week after week. People who experience no genuine transcendence in the day to day will simply shrug off our answers, especially if for all our talk of transcendence, we don’t deliver or experience it either.
We live in a world of the mundane, largely of our own making. For most, there is only the fish and nothing else. To solve the problems of mankind, the Church in America has got to rediscover transcendence.
The Church knows there is something more than the fish. If we’re not reinforcing this in everything we say and do, both on Sunday and during the rest of the week, then we will not be offering the one thing that people desperately need, even if they are unaware of that need.
God help us if our own experience of transcendence is as empty as the people we’re attempting to save.