A Haunted Immanence: Minus the Bear and Secular Re-Enchantment

By Andrew D. Thrasher

A residue of transcendence in a lost immanence; raising vocals and samplings of complex perfections. Probably unknown to most people, the Indie Rock band, Minus the Bear has been producing music for the past 15 years ranging from a musical repertoire known for their clear beautiful vocals, guitar samples, synths, groovy riffs, and probably one of the most original drummers alive today. Over the last few years since their 2012 album Infinity Overhead I have listened to in awe and wonder at the evocation of a lost immanence found in the perfection of Minus the Bear’s “Heaven is a Ghost Town.” Several friends have commented that “Heaven is a Ghost Town” is Minus the Bear’s example of perfect harmony, timing, and complexity.

“Heaven is a Ghost Town”

By: Minus the Bear

Heaven is a ghost town
Heaven is a ghost town
The pearly gates fell to the ground
The angels fell a thousand years before
There’s no more
They turned off the tunnel of light
No bathing in the warmth of peace
Did the lord stop paying the lease?
[x3]
Heaven is a ghost town
Yeah know, heaven is a ghost town
It’s so dark at night
And since they outlawed love
It gets too cold
There’s no one to hold
There’s no one here
Heaven is a ghost town
[x5]
No one’s home
The lion
No message from on high came down
With no one secure enough for salvation
So no need to praise that empty crowd
Heaven is a ghost town
[x2]
The pearly gates fell to the ground
The angels fell a thousand years before
There’s no more
Heaven is a ghost town
[x5]

The song’s slow, haunting start with ‘Heaven is a Ghost Town/ The Pearly Gates fell to the Ground’ evokes what one friend has commented as what the world is like today: we cannot but disbelieve in God’s presence and the hope of salvation.

When we live in a world of disbelief in the power of the divine to come into and transform our lives, in a lost immanence, we experience what Charles Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’ or the malaise of immanence. Trapped in immanence and the crumbling credibility of belief in God among millennials, what “Heaven is a Ghost Town” portrays is a generation that just cannot believe in God, a generation trapped in the contours of immanence, a loss of transcendence, and the residual effects of incompleteness, loss, and a yearning for something more. In short we have disavowed that God is for us, and have tricked our minds into believing that there is nothing more than the nihilism of meaning, the embrace of meaninglessness, when the redeeming grace of God seems so far away; an inaccessible transcendence devoid of his immanence and presence to us, when ‘No one is secure enough for salvation.’ Taylor states:

A crucial feature of the malaise of immanence is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning, analogous to the existential fragility we always live with: that suddenly an accident, earthquake, flood, a fatal disease, some terrible betrayal, may jolt us off our path of life, definitively and without return. Only the fragility that I am talking about concerns the significance of it all; the path is still open, possible, supported by circumstances, the doubt concerns its worth (Taylor, A Secular Age, 308).

What lead to this secular nihilism, what lead to this dis-enchantment of belief? The history spans centuries, most attributing this disenchantment to the epistemological certainty through doubt of Descartes ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think, Therefore I am), a deistic conception of God as the transcendent watchmaker who created the world with perfect order, set it in motion, and stepped aside to let it run without his interference, and the enlightenment elevation of human rationality and the progress of reason as the objective arbiters for truth, science, and understanding. These three dimensions of modernity entail not merely the hallmarks of human rationality and critical thinking in an attempt to understand, order, and make the world better, but they also reflect something deeper: a schism in the communion with God and a redefinition of what it means to be human without God by elevating human rationality to the level of absolute objective certainty.

James K. A. Smith states that “the emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option… a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within the immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence” (Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 26). Secular nihilism is characterized by the creation of meaning: where meaning must be created in the aftermath of the fragmentation the postmodern rejection of a centered rational, self. What we are left with are fragmented, fractured selves and misleading conceptions of God grounded in the modern rejection and devaluing of religion.

But where does this nihilism of meaning begin? James K. A. Smith commenting on the Radical Orthodoxy movement, articulates, following John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, that nihilism began with Duns Scotus, a medieval theologian who proposed a univocal understanding of God, creating an infinite, unbridgeable distance between God and Man (Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, 88-89). Simon Oliver states that in understanding God univocally Scotus emphasizes that the being of God’s infinitude intensifies in his essential nature a rethinking of creation and finitude wherein the emphasis is no longer on the participation of finitude in the infinite being of God, but sets articulates the difference of God from creation in the infinitization of God from finite creation (Milbank and Oliver, 22).

In turn, Charles Taylor situates the beginnings of the secular in the idea of ‘reform’, where, through a historical series of reform dating from the medieval period, the process of reformation has lead to a disembedding of identity, a schism in the embedding of identity in the cosmos, social order, and the human good (Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 222). The disembedding of identity from the pre-modern realms of making sense and meaning making has resulted in postmodernity in the fragmentation and a crisis of human personhood that several scholars place the construction of the de-centered postmodern self in the communal, narrative identity and webs of belief defined by a conglomerate mix of sometimes incommensurable truths and religious pluralism (Thistleton, 130-131; Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 328-330; Taylor, Sources of the Self, 17). Taylor states:

There is a generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost. I put it in the optative mood, because people react very differently to this; some endorse this idea of loss, and seek to define what it is. Others want to downplay it, and paint it as an optional reaction, something we are in for only as long as we allow ourselves to wallow in nostalgia. Still others again, while standing firmly on the side of disenchantment as the critics of nostalgia, nevertheless accept that this sense of loss is inevitable; it is the price we pay for modernity and rationality, but we must courageously accept this bargain, and lucidly opt for what we have inevitably become (Taylor, A Secular Age, 307).

Dis-enchantment entails not merely a loss of mediation, a yearning for something more than our own embrace with meaninglessness, but a loss of communion with the divine characterized by the buffering of human reason where we are no longer affected by the world, but have the capacity to control and order the world (Taylor, A Secular Age, 156). But is this all there is? In the aftermath of modernity, the nihilism of meaning, and the immanent frame, what we are left with is either an embrace of meaninglessness or a call to rethink and re-imagine transcendence as a possibility for meaning. Smith states that:

Despite its over-reaching claims to be the ‘value-free’ description of ‘the way things are,’ the secularist disenchantment of the world is a particular narration of the world that is contestable. In other words, the secular story about the world—human beings and our relationships—is just that: a story. To resist it, then requires the imagination to think the world otherwise…Re-enchantment requires a kind of theorizing that is imaginative—which is not constrained by the rules and regulations imposed by the plausibility structures of secular modernity (which are themselves relative). (Smith, After Modernity, 11).

The call is for a re-enchantment where we not only imagine God as no longer far off, intangible, and inaccessible, but rather where we participate in the narrative of God’s story. A world again participating in the divine life of God by being suspended in-finitude in our dependency and contingency upon the infinite goodness of God for the gift of our very existence. Here the re-enchantment is seen in its participation in God wherein, “God bestows upon creation a finite participation in his own substantiality. In other words, creation does not have an existence by virtue of itself, but only and always because of the gratuity of God.”(Milbank and Oliver, 17-18). Building on a participatory ontology, of finite creation participating in dependence upon God in the narrative of God’s story, Smith articulates a creational hermeneutic and incarnational logic that orients our identity as creatures participating in the mediation of the Cross. The incarnation of Christ allows access again to God, because he condescended to us, became like us, to bring a lost creation back into relationship with him. Romans 3:23-24 articulates the grace of the incarnation: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

But where does this lead us? What are we to do if we have lost, devalued, and imagine meaning in a dis-enchanted world. Honestly, we have two options: Embrace nihilism with a cynicism and flatness to life devoid of any higher meaning or purpose, and go on living as if we can create and imagine a meaningful purpose to life bound to finite worth; bound to immanence. Are we to go on living in this trap of created and imagined meanings of significance, or are we to rethink the possibility of a God who is not only present to us, but loves us and calls us into a transforming relationship marked by the grace of a God who not only welcomes our brokenness but renews our sense of meaning and purpose with an infinite significance by the grace of his Son. Grace is unmerited favor and justifies even those who have no hope; it gives infinite meaning and significance to finite existence; it transforms and renews our lives allowing us to believe again in a God who loves us (Cf. Kreeft). When we take seriously the malaise of immanence, what is left is the re-enchantment of the Cross.

Andrew D. Thrasher holds an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Religion, Culture, and Values from George Mason University (2014) and is currently pursuing a ThM in Christian Theology from Regent University. He teaches Religion at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA and has presented internationally and regionally at conferences in philosophy (10th annual Polish Philosophical Congress) and theology (Eastern Regional meeting of ETS). He has numerous working papers ranging from historiography, philosophy, comparative theology, and several articles engaging with postmodernity and religion listed on https://gmu.academia.edu/AndyThrasher. He is a member of the Acts 29 network at Anchor Church in Virginia Beach, VA.

References:

DeRoo, Neal, and Brian Lightbody, eds. The Logic of Incarnation: James K. A. Smith’s Critique of Postmodern Religion. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009.

Grenz, Stanley. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

———. The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Kreeft, Peter. The God Who Loves You. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.

Milbank, John, and Simon Oliver, eds. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2009.

Minus the Bear. Heaven Is a Ghost Town. Digital. Dangerbird Records, 2012.

Smith, James K. A., ed. After Modernity? Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008.

———. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

———. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

———. The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.

———. Dilemmas and Connections. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

———. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Thistleton, Anthony C. Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation, and Promise. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.

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