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Os Guinness: Signals of Transcendence

Os Guinness: Signals of Transcendence

by Michael Giere
June 12, 2023

They can come to us as revolutionary events -- or even a dandelion.

It is hard to overstate the contribution of author and social critic Os Guinness. Across many decades and over thirty books, he has examined life and social issues in the Western world. Always on the far frontier, he has sounded the alarm over the careering erosion of faith -- both in ourselves and our heritage of human freedom -- down the corridor of history.

And he has been a clear voice about so much we need to know about living with ourselves and each other.

His latest book, Signals of Transcendence (InterVarsity Press), is a slim and razor-sharp study of people's lives and how they understood the "signals of transcendence" that reshaped -- remade -- those lives. It surveys the varied junctures, switches, paths, and tragedies that trigger "both a contradiction and a desire, and call into question the past, the present, and the future." Each chapter is a story of the known and unknown and the signals of transcendence they dared not ignore -- that spurred them on -- some to a rich faith, others not. And, he asks, is the modern world even capable of hearing, or admitting if they do hear, the signals of transcendence? Or is the promise of some wholeness held hostage by our era's comfort and relative safety?

In Dr. Guinness's previous book (which I reviewed here), he welcomed the reader to examine the towering intellectual and religious traditions, perhaps for the first time, as a Sherpa does his mountain. In Signals of Transcendence, he deftly takes us into the lives of people with their own unique stories because each "speak to all of us." While the signals are exclusive to each person, they share a universal language that speaks to the soul.

For Malcome Muggeridge, the signal came in the dark night. He swam out to death and found a way home in distant lights that transcended pain. "I have always felt myself [..] a stranger in a strange land." For the famed poet, W.H. Auden, the signal came in a newsreel at the cinema about the Nazi's horrific conquest of Poland and the audience's support of murder. In a relativistic world that rejected absolutes, he found absolute evil and the demands of its absolute rejection. Later, he lost confidence in human goodness and the political machinations that promised a perfect man in an ideal society. The signal of transcendence was moral judgment.

For another, not evil but goodness proved an inflection point -- the signal of transcendence. A visit to a small village in central France that saved thousands of Jewish children during the war turned his suicide to life. From hopelessness to hope.

The famed writer G.K. Chesterton was provoked in school by the "starless nihilism" and decadence of his times, and yet even he dabbled in the dark arts. Yet he was "..stopped in his tracks by 'looking at a dandelion.'" Wonder and gratitude for the simplest thing became a signal that changed a life forever. It was a signal that eventually led the famed writer to see faith through a new reality -- resting on the stem of a dandelion.

From C.S. Lewis, the reluctant convert, to Tolstoy, the accounts and explanations of each person are sewn together with rich history and juxtaposition -- each in Os's always clear and straightforward prose. He's a craftsman showing us the issues and framing the complexity of each signal and how it changed everything.

Two of his chapters touch on his own family. They are sweet and inviting biddings of honest reflection that charge this book with additional energy -- and truth -- to the signals of transcendence. There is nothing more "real" than Love, he reminds us. We love because we belong to Love. "Love wills eternity just as joy wills eternity -- from the very start and by its very nature." The tawdry imitations of love that the twenty-first-century parades as love, are imposters. They are not the deep Love that survives even death. Love, like faith, exists beyond us -- outside of us.

Dr. Gunniss ends his book with the late Kenneth Clark, the famous art history and television writer who wrote of his experience in which he "felt the finger of God." Yet, he believed if he pursued that signal of transcendence, his family would "think I was going mad." He, with a hint of sadness, let the moment go. "I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course."

Os turns his book home to the inflection points, the spurring on, that captures us if only we'll respond to them. They can come to us as revolutionary events -- or even a dandelion. They can be challenging or mundane circumstances. But heeded, they can remove the shackles of modernity and introduce us to the "real." The part of us and the part of life that calls us home.

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