Phenomenology

This morning Cooke’s Peak was a grey ghost behind a veil of pink gossamer cloud. She hovered on the horizon like a distant memory of something solid. The other day she was dashed in white on her summit, frosted after a storm. She stood solid and present. Today, though, she was a grey ghost.

An empirical mind would say, “appearances aren’t everything. If you drove through the gossamer veil you would find her solid as a rock, standing tall to her predictable 8404 ft. above sea level. You just experience her as immaterial because of the tricks the light plays on your eyes, playing through the clouds and the early morning slant of the sun.” Phenomenology, on the other hand, looks at lived experience. It arose in the late nineteenth century, about the time the Modernist Movement was really gaining strength in theological circles. The Modernist Movement sought to read the Bible empirically, to demythologize it and figure out what “really” happened when the sun stood still for Moses and Jesus walked on water. The whole world was going scientific, and phenomenology, in its desire to dig deeply into the essential experience empirically, ended up being a healthy counterpoint to the rest of the world. Of course, it leaves us with the question of what is real, and the answer depends on where you stand. To the physical scientist Cooke’s Peak is always a stack of rock. To this phenomenologist this morning she was a grey ghost.

The irony for me is that we cannot talk of ultimate reality in any other than phenomenological terms. Our lived experience with the holy is all we have. The only “empirical” test we have is the consensus of the community of the initiated, in my case, the Christian Church. After all, how do you put a tape measure to a metaphor? —not that God is a metaphor, but all the great thinkers of the Christian tradition agree from the very earliest years that all we have to offer to talk about God is metaphor. Augustine of Hippo said, “If you understand it, it’s not God.”

No wonder we are moving so quickly to a post-modern world. The only language we have to talk about what really matters stubbornly resists reduction to empirical method. Hurrah for phenomenology! It has emerged from its philosophical (and often atheistic) roots to save the world!

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