The reason there has been so much heat in our ethical debates of late is that our secular, sexular culture has moved all of its non-transcendent ground floor projects one floor up to the second floor, a floor given over to transcendence.
Let me explain.
Our culture has rejected the idea of an external transcendence that lives above it. Charles Taylor calls this “the immanent frame”; the idea that “this” is all there is. But that does not mean that people go around in a resigned funk, shrugging their shoulders and saying “Oh well, we’d better get on with lives of lesser meaning, lives lived on the ground floor.”
On the contrary they work with all of the determination, time and money they have to find transcendence. To push their ground floor self-improvement projects one floor up.
The results are not all that pretty to be honest. We now have several generations of well off, well educated Westerners who are constantly in therapy, because they know that the huge amount of self-fulfilment projects upon which they embark should satisfy them but they are not! And if they’re not in therapy, they’re like existential sharks, always on the move lest they die, most likely of boredom.
People are pushing their non-transcendent ground floor projects and goals – think career, sex, pleasure, experiences – one floor up, and they’re pulling overtime to make it work for them. And it can do – for a while.
They demand a level of ultimacy and fulfilment from these ground floor projects that previous generations concluded was the domain of the recognisably religious second floor.
Taylor observes that for the first time anywhere in history, here in the West, we have made the goal of human flourishing, human flourishing. It is an end in itself, rather than a pointer to a greater goal – the glory of God. It’s ground floor projects pushed upstairs.
In the introduction to his primer and critique of Taylor’s A Secular Age, James Smith notes how difficult the task of evangelism is in our day (and it’s worth quoting at length):
You’re a church planter who has left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon. You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions that “secular” people had. But it didn’t take long for you to realise that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked.
And they weren’t questions. That is, your “secular” neighbours aren’t looking for “answers” – for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps.
You’ve realised that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbours are oriented by all sorts of longings and “projects” and quests for significance.
There doesn’t seem to be anything “missing” from their lives – so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.”
They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives (though a lot hinges on that “almost”).
Smith points out that people don’t realise that their secular lives are missing a second floor, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. What has happened is that these quests are pushed one floor up. There’s still a desire, a deep existential longing, for a second floor.
Indeed in a post-Christian world, the place where the staircase was once located has now been boarded up and plastered over. We have the idea of access to that second floor as a memory in our heads, but we lack the entry point of the staircase itself.
But like a poorly finished renovation job, the hint of something more having once been there remains. There are still clues in our culture that something more is available, it’s just that the original access point has been removed. We even use the language of transcendence and meaning in a stolidly non-transcendent world.
God intended our ground floor projects to compel us to look upwards towards that second floor, and conclude that those ground floor projects are not enough. Humans, however, are determined to create the best ground floor furniture available in a vain attempt to create the perfect habitat; to manufacture a transcendence that, by dint of it being transcendent, cannot actually be manufactured by us.
Compared to any other time in human history, we have the skills, money, technology, time and education to almost pull those projects off. But as Smith says a lot hinges on that word ‘almost’. There’s a fragility to ground floor projects that have been pushed upstairs. They don’t stand up to scrutiny, nor do they invite it.
This becomes clear when anyone (think Christians) push back on the “Me Projects” that dominate our cultural practices.
The primary example in our current clime is sexual identity. Christians are often shocked and astonished when, after assuring their gay friends that they are loved, but that they don’t have to agree with their take on sexuality, the primary response to that is anger.
There are a number of reasons for that anger, not least of all some bad behaviour from Christians towards the gay community in the past. But it’s not as simple as that.
The gospel informs us that sexuality is a ground floor project that points to a transcendent second floor reality.
But if all you have had is ground floor, then sexual identity takes on the transcendent significance once reserved for the second floor. Egged on by a popular culture, and reinforced by politics and law, this ground floor project becomes a second floor reality, with all of the ownership, intensity, religious fervour and transcendent hope that the second floor offers.
Any challenge to that idea, any rejection of sexuality as that transcendent and important – no matter how lovingly couched – is a direct challenge to the core of your being and your ultimacy.
Christians have been busy crafting an apologetic and a narrative that assumes people know that sex is a ground floor project, when all along they’ve pushed it upstairs to the transcendent second floor. We’re hopelessly behind the eight ball on this one.
The hostility and downright outrage directed towards Christians in the public square who attempt to downplay the significance of sexual identity is proof we don’t get it.
But let’s not just blame those naughty secular sexularists out there. We’ve had at least two generations of churchgoers who, faced with a less than happy marriage, or faced with the prospect of singleness, push sexuality up to the second floor as well. Divorce in the church, sexual promiscuity, porn, shacking up, these things are commonplace in church.
And it’s not just sex either. The consumer church mentality, birthed by the Boomers, and refined by their children has pitched “my satisfaction” as the goal of our lives. Which of course it is – satisfaction in the only One who satisfies.
But to its great shame, the Western church has succumbed to offering its people sanctified versions of ground floor projects, and offering them as second floor realities. Six sermons on financial freedom, or five sermon series on a happy marriage anyone?
That’s just another way of pushing ground floor projects to the second floor. And the results have not been happy in church either, if the number of listless, bored Christians in therapy is any indication.
We’ve turned church into the mall, with all of the attendant consumer bells and whistles. And then we express surprise when our people give inordinate time, attention, money and love to ground floor projects. Faced with those sorts of messages, what did we expect them to do?
The fifty somethings with their two bored teenagers in tow who have been to seven or eight churches in twenty years of marriage. They’re the ultimate consumers looking for second floor meaning from their first floor project of searching for the perfect church.
They can tick all the boxes on your transcendent statement of faith, but the reality of those words slide off them like Teflon. Never landing, never satisfied, never serving, never committing, always looking for what’s next. They’re addicted to addiction and they’re a pastoral team’s nightmare.
And that’s not even the end of it. In a strange, and contorted way, the anger in the church towards the godless sexular culture, the push by the church to retain its place at the cultural table at any cost, is also an example of pushing earthly power one floor up as well.
It’s very easy to sanctify that project as a second floor one, when in fact temporal power has been one of the church’s primary idols; a first floor project pushed upstairs. By all means seek to have influence in the public square, but don’t rage when it’s not given you.
The task for the church as we live in a culture pushing ground floor projects one floor up, is two-fold.
First it is to refuse to find satisfaction in ground floor furniture ourselves. To refuse daily – and it will be daily in this shimmering, colourful, rainbow-laden culture – the siren call to search for transcendence on the ground floor. To live such lives among the pagans that they see our good works and glorify your Father who is in (second floor) heaven.
And second, our task missionally, is to uncover the staircase for those who are searching for something transcendent and have wearied themselves with all of the ground floor projects they possibly could. There is a path to the transcendent available to us.
Happily – joyously – that transcendence is not waiting upstairs for us to grope around for. Our task is to point people to the Jesus who came down to this earth to live among us and show us what a truly satisfied life looked like.
Jesus, the greater Jacob, who told Nathaniel, who was looking for a second floor transcendence himself, that “he would see heaven open and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51). Jesus is the transcendent project, and he is the revealed stairway to that second floor.