And He Scores!
I remember the best goal I ever scored in a football match. Okay, in a soccer match for you minority football codes in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. That goal! It had a sense of, a sense of transcendence.
My best goal ever. A desperately fast back-and-forth cup final match, when suddenly the ball broke to me. And I was off. A top corner from the 18 yard line at 3-3 deep in the second half (we went on to lose 5-4, but that’s another story). I remember the run down the wing, the dink inside, and the let-fly. I remember the goal-keeper horizontal and stretching in vain as it hit the roof of the net.
And I remember – though do I really remember? – the euphoric, split-second, time-slowing-down-ness of the whole experience. The yelp of triumph. Or, as Walt Whitman might put it:
…my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Or at least over the roofs of the nearby suburbs surrounding that neat, vert rectangular patch of Perth winter green.
For a moment it felt like I had left my body as that slowing-down-ness coursed through my body, blocking out sound and motion, tingling my very spine, before suddenly it was over and I was peeling away to celebrate in real-time. And the self-same yawps of team-mates and spectators alike, celebrating with me.
Many football supporters, and at least one manager publicly on the record, have described the winning of a league title, as better than sex, with a longer lasting afterglow. Something transcendent touching you. Something that is within your experience, but outside of it at the same time.
Which brings me to The Matildas, Australia’s women’s soccer team which just finished fourth in The World Cup, which our nation hosted. It’s fair to say that it brought a lot of people today with exactly the same sort of euphoria that I experienced in that match many years ago. Lots of yawps. Lots of transcendent yawps.
Lots of transcendent yawps in a world, nay a secular culture in the West, that is losing its transcendence. To the point that it was actually suggested in The Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend, that the fractured nature of our modern nation could be repaired by a commitment to a new sort of transcendence, one which has been vacated by religion.
Parnell Palme McGuinness suggests:
As excitement about the Matildas’ progress grew, World Cup viewing parties sprung up across Australia. We couldn’t bear to be physically apart as national pride drew us spiritually together…As religion wanes and nationalism is frowned on in fashionable circles, fandom is a socially acceptable way that we can regain some of the cohesion that comes from a shared national spirit.
McGuinness is no cultural slouch. She gets what is going on at a deep level. She says that as religion and a sense of nation wanes from our collective conscious, something like a feel-good factor such as The Matildas, can be the glue that holds us together in our search for something more.
And then she says this, which is itself almost a top-drawer, top corner, effort on goal:
Just don’t over-egg it into a new type of Holy Spirit; it would be a mistake to ask our football stars to be our new prophets. Lord only knows the young men who’ve been elevated as sporting gods too often turn out to be flawed and sexting mortals.
Well, short-term memory being what it is, or selective memory being what it is; wasn’t it just a few years ago that several former Matildas told of sexual harassment and abuse within the team?
And by few years I mean 2021. That issue has clearly gone down the memory hole because it doesn’t fit the cultural narrative, but I’d hazard a guess there are a few ex-soccer stars who haven’t been cheering on the team like the rest of us. Spare a thought for them if you can, even amidst the well-deserved praise.
That Pesky Transcendence
But in a sense, why wouldn’t you over-egg it into a new type of Holy Spirit? The search for transcendence in our culture has been stubbornly hard to stamp out. It feels like the smouldering tree stump that keeps on re-igniting every time your back is turned. Just when you thought the new-atheists had won the day, that pesky desire for more, for something more, for something transcendent keeps on popping up. We just can’t let transcendence go.
McGuinness concludes her piece with these words:
But it is worth learning about what takes us a little bit closer to the divine communion of organised religion: less focus on the individual and more on finding the things that bind us. It is the us, not the I, that is transcendental.
Which sounds fantastic, except for the fact that we live in the age of expressive individualism, and every Disney series, Netflix series, and Taylor Swift song, is designed to showcase that the individual is supreme.
And that the collective transcendent moments only last as long as your particular interest in the event, or the fact of your team winning. Turns out, seeking transcendent experiences in things that are, well, “non-transcendent” is fickle to say the least.
Case in point: Leicester City winning the English Premier League in 2015, and being relegated from that same Premier League just this past season. Hey Fox fans, how will the memories of transcendence hold up for you late December 2023, playing a mid-table match against Coventry? Not that well I suspect.
You see, for all of McGuinness’s insights, she misses a few things. First, religion is not on the wane. Religion is never on the wane. Religion and wane don’t go together. All that happens is that we shift the locus of our religious affections. We transfer the desire for transcendence and meaning from one thing to another thing.
As one wise pastor put it, the expulsive power of a new affection. Organised religion is on the wane, for sure, but you could hardly point to much of in terms of transcendence these days.
Yet the search for transcendence continues. As I’ve said before that’s why the battles over sexuality and gender are such hot button topics for so many. It’s not just about sex and gender. It’s about the promise that we can be released from the surly bonds of our own limitations, whether imposed from above, or exposed from within. It’s a transcendent experience for sure, now locked into a world which, on the surface at least, is bound to the immanent frame.
The fact that sex is “close but not cigar”, or in Bill Clinton’s case, “cigar”, explains why when, in the absence of the ultimate intimacy, we might just make do with the penultimate. We might make do with scoring the goal that puts you 4-3 up, with little thought that there is still 15 minutes to play and the game ain’t over until the final whistle blows. And who even knows how much extra time the ref will add?
But McGuinness is right. Christianity is the old religion, The Matildas is the new, especially with the celebration of just how lesbian it all is. The tournament has been called the “gayest World Cup ever”, though back in the day that’s what I heard about the turgid 1982 men’s tournament won by a drab Italy.
But in terms of a search for a transcendence fitting the cultural moment, then this it something new. Or something old actually. As David Foster Wallace put it, we’re all made to worship (but that’s been quoted to death, so let’s not go there!)
And I get the transcendence thing, I really do. As I reported in these very pages, one of the most transcendent experiences outside of football and sex that I’ve had, was attending the Nick Cave concert in Perth back in December.
It was a truly spiritual experience that was far more moving, far more memorable than many a church service I have attended. Indeed the very same Sydney Morning Herald reported that Cave was the religious experience for secular people in 2022. Cave himself may demur at that point. He seems to be too fascinated with Christ himself to fall for that old chestnut.
The Hunger For Something More
If it shows us anything, it’s pretty much what cultural and religious writer, Tara Isabella Burton, has picked out, having been on a long transcendent search herself before finding Christianity. What we are searching for, says Burton in her book Strange Rites: New Religions For a Godless World:
…[is] A religion for a new generation of Americans [ and Aussies I suspect] raised to think of themselves both as capitalist consumers and as content creators. A religion decoupled from institutions, from creeds, from metaphysical truth-claims about God or the universe or the Way Things Are, but that still seeks—in various and varying ways—to provide us with the pillars of what religion always has: meaning, purpose, community, ritual.
Meaning, purpose, community and ritual. And for a brief, flickering moment good soccer by the Matildas will do that. As will good sex with Matilda, or whoever you choose. And if that’s the case, then why not settle for that?
But of course, the game is finished, the tournament is over, Spain beat England in the final, and Australia is not getting the public holiday that the Prime Minister promised we would once the Matildas had won what was rightfully theirs. Primarily because they only managed one goal in open play in their last three matches.
Match fitness, final ball placement, and an opposition with slightly more nous put paid to our hopes and dreams. Transcendence can come down to earth with a bump. Or you’re lying there post-coital thinking about the fact that you forgot to put out the rubbish bins for the morning.
True transcendence, orthodox transcendence, the lasting sort of transcendence we search for, is – unsurprisingly – a lot harder to bottle and maintain. If that were not so, if transcendence were a dime a dozen, then it would not be transcendence would it? It would be normal. It would be “what is”. Transcendence is, by nature, about liminality. That’s why a 90 minute match, plus added on time, is heaven, while a six year-long match with a referee who refuses to blow the whistle would be hell.
What earth-bound transcendence cannot do, is to provide anything beyond itself when the noise dies down. Or when the nil-all-draw becomes the stuff of life. Or relegation becomes the reality. For all the sense of a search for transcendence, what McGuinness et al seem to be looking for is a unifying force that would usher in a bigger vision of what life is about. And yes, that could be the Matildas in 2023, but it could also be the first Nuremberg rally in 1923.
The Scriptural take on transcendence is surprisingly one-way traffic. While Moses gets a transcendent experience, as do Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration (and the apparently surly, earthy Apostle Paul), it’s mostly one way traffic. God, angels, etc, come down. We don’t get to go up.
Crafty brothers, northern prophets’ and their servants, and shepherds in fields see heaven opened and angels descend and ascend. But we pretty much stay earthbound. The Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us (John 1), but he’s pretty clear: his job is to make the transcendent known by coming down, not by taking us up.
Not yet at least. Or not completely. What sets the Christian experience of transcendence apart from all others, is that it’s a 24/7 event for us, except its by proxy! We can be in the deepest despair, the blight of sin, the pain of loss, the anguish of death, and yet we are told this:
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6-7)
Seated now! Yes for sure. But shown later.
That’s what faith is. It’s trust that what is transcendent is still true even without the full blossoming of the experience. Transcendence in this age, or at least the search for it, needs the experience now. Turns out indeed that we are all still very religious. It is Christ’s transcendence that truly matters, mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Calvin observed:
He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth. All this he does until he shall lay low all his enemies [1 Cor. 15:25; cf. Ps. 110:1] (who are our enemies too) and complete the building of his church. This is the true state of his Kingdom; this is the power that the Father has conferred upon him, until, in coming to judge the living and the dead, he accomplishes his final act.
In other words, I don’t need exhilaration to experience transcendence. It is being experienced on my behalf by Christ, and mediated to me by the Holy Spirit in ways that the transcendence of this age cannot recognise, or cope with.
This means that the worst of situations; the broken person I am ministering to; the sorrow shared of a church member’s wayward child or spouse; the pain-filled prayer over a newly diagnosed cancer; the simple act of reading Scripture together; sharing bread together again and again and again, are opportunities for transcendence. Made so not by their excitement below, but by their enlivening from above.
I’ve been to some great concerts. I’ve attended some amazing football matches. And yep, old married man that I am, have had some great sex. But I need a transcendence that, er, transcends all of these things. Something that will last. Something that these things can point to for sure, and yep the Matildas had a feel-good factor about them. But, good as the ride was, you can’t make a created thing carry a weight it wasn’t designed to carry.
In our stubbornly non-secular world, we’ll always over-egg an earth-bound transcendent experience into a new type of Holy Spirit. We can’t help ourselves. Meanwhile we sit around waiting for 2027!