‘He Has Set Eternity in Our Hearts’

In my Sunday sermon, I alluded to Ecclesiastes chapter 3 where God is said to have “placed eternity into every man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In it’s context, I believe that the author is referencing a longing for transcendence wired into the fabric of our being.

In that message, I referenced James K.A. Smith’s two definitions that he supplies in his book How (Not) to Be Secular, which itself is a summary of Charles Taylor’s much larger work on Secularism.

The two definitions were: First, the ‘Immanent Frame‘ – “A constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. Second, the ‘Buffered Self‘ – “In the modern social imaginary, the self is sort of insulated in the natural world, no longer vulnerable to the transcendent.”

Later that day, my mind began to come back to this and to two testimonies that I believe illustrate this longing for transcendence so profoundly (that tend to show up in unguarded moments). One is from a famous nineteenth century scientist and the other is from a more recent celebrated innovator. You will recognize their names instantly.

First, Charles Darwin’s testimony from his autobiography:

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays.

I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.

I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.”

This sounds like Taylor’s life in the ‘Immanent Frame’, a fixation on the natural order alone, which dulls ones sensitivity to transcendence.

Next, Steve Jobs testimony given to his biographer Walter Isaacson during their final conversation together, just weeks before Jobs’ death:

One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death. He talked about his experiences in India almost four decades earlier, his study of Buddhism, and his views on reincarnation and spiritual transcendence.

“I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”

He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife.

“I like to think that something survives after you die,” he said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” He fell silent for a very long time.

“But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.”

Then he paused again and smiled slightly.

“Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

This sounds like Smith’s definition of the ‘Buffered Self,’ insulated from the transcendent until he was confronted with the reality of his own mortality. He ends by making light of what happens after we die. Not wanting to allow a foot in the door to eternity and transcendence.

I thought these were profoundly insightful testimonies to the limits of life lived solely on the natural plane, and the haunting that is still experienced, even for the ardent secularist, that there might be something more.

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