What happens to people when they start to wonder “is this is all there is to life?” Os Guinness calls that a signal of transcendence, but what exactly does that mean? How do the life stories of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K Chesterton, and Malcom Muggeridge provide examples of these small openings in the windows of the transcendent? Join us as answer these questions and more with our guest, Os Guinness, and his new book, Signals of Transcendence: Listening to the Promptings of Life.

Os Guinness is an author, social critic, and great-great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer. Os has written or edited more than 30 books that offer valuable insight into the cultural, political, and social contexts in which we all live. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his D.Phil in the social sciences from Oriel College, Oxford.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: What happens to people when they start to wonder, "Is this all there is to life?" Our friend Os Guinness calls this a signal of transcendence, but what exactly does that mean? How do the life stories of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Malcolm Muuggeridge, provide examples of these small openings into the window of the transcendent? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest, I admit one of my favorites, Os Guinness, and his new book, “Signals of Transcendence”. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: This is “Think Biblically” from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Os, welcome. You are one of our very favorites. It's delightful to have you with us. Thanks so much for this new book, “Signals of Transcendence”. Tell us a little bit, the style of this is different from a lot of your other works. What was your purpose in writing this book, and who do you think the audience will be for this?

Os Guinness: Well, what a privilege to be on with you again, one of my favorite programs to put it mildly. Now, this is an idea that I first got from my mentor, Peter Berger, who talks about signals of transcendence as experiences people have, which puncture what they actually believe up until that moment and point beyond it. Those are the two key words, puncture and point. They point, if this signal is really as credible as it seems, what does it lead to? And so, in effect, they then become searchers or seekers. Now I think the idea is very important today, because as Gaynor's Peter Berger used to say, "Our modern world, our world of modernity," is what he called "a world without windows." In other words, in our world what is unseen is unreal. Now that gives a tremendous bias of course to secularism. And if you put it in classical terms many modern people are living in what Plato called the cave. They've never seen the sunshine outside the cave. And if anyone escapes from the cave, comes back in, people inside the cave who are happy with their little shadows in the wall, they view the person who's seen the son as a madman. And so the challenge today is to break into this what Max [inaudible] called disenchantment and get people to really follow the fact that so much of life points beyond the secular, beyond the material to something moral.

Sean McDowell: Let's jump into one of the examples in the book. You maintain that a philosophy of life gives a person three things: meaning, belonging, and a storyline. Malcolm Muggeridge's signal gave him that sense of belonging.How did that happen for him?

Os Guinness: Well, Muggeridge, and I knew him very well in his later years. We loved him, my wife and I. But when he was young, grew up in left-wing circles, and yet he saw through things from the beginning. He went to Cambridge and considered education much of a waste of time. He went to India to explore religion and came back disillusioned with Hinduism and religion. He went to the Soviet Union and his family were Fabian socialists, left-wingers. He was one of the first intellectuals to see through Stalin completely. So when World War II broke out, he was incredibly disillusioned and found himself in East Africa monitoring German shipping off the coast. He came to the conclusion that life was useless, but there was only one death he could have procured in World War II, his own. So he decided to take off his clothes, swim out, and drown himself. Thought that would be better than some sort of shooting himself and so on for his family. It might look like an accident. But as he was swimming out, intending to take his life, he just looked back over his shoulder and saw the lights of the cafe in the little town he'd just left, and suddenly they seemed to him like home. In an absurd random universe he turned round and swam back, and he said, thinking of Plato, it was as if he was in the prison of the cave.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Os Guinness: And he saw this little light, high coming in, and he was determined to seek for the meaning of what gave him that incredible glimpse of belonging.

Scott Rae: So, let me follow up on that just briefly, Os. What do you think shifted Muggeridge from just seeing that signal to actually seeking further what was behind it and really becoming much more what we would call a classical seeker for the truth behind that.

Os Guinness: Well, he became a seeker that day. And I should make clear, my book is about people who are prompted to start seeking. And of course, that's the beginning of the search that eventually leads to faith. But in Muggeridge's case, and also C.S. Lewis and many of the others, there was a long time between the signal that prompted it and the satisfaction of discovering. It was when he came to be convinced that Jesus and his Jesus rediscovered, was in fact the Lord God become man. But that was years later. And I think with modern people the great thing is to get them to start thinking, start caring, start searching. And that's why my book is more about the signals than it is. I've got another book, as you know, a great question. You have many books, and your dad does, Sean, too. Many, many books on finding. In fact, most apologetics is about the finding, but I think the central challenge today is to get people to start thinking and caring enough to raise the questions that lead them later to the finding.

Scott Rae: That's a great insight. And I have to admit, one of these signals of transcendence is one that I'd never thought about. And you've mentioned your mentor, Peter Berger, already, just for the general idea of signals of transcendence. But there's one specific one that you hold, that you account to him for, that has special significance I think to you, given your own upbringing. And that is the mother's reassurance to her child that everything will be all right. I can't remember how many times my mom told me that growing up, and I've never quite connected the dots quite like you did. How is that a signal of transcendence?

Os Guinness: Well, as Peter Berger points out, nothing is more prototypical, profoundly essentially human. A mother cradling a crying child or a nightmare-ridden child in the night is going to be all right. Every mother wants to bring the comfort, the consolation, everything's going to be all right. But as Peter Berger says, if you think not everything's going to be all right, the mother will die. The child will eventually die. This world has a lot of brokenness in it. How on earth can we say that everything's going to be all right? In other words, many views of the world, it won't turn out all right. The atheist views the world, for example. Only if God is there as Jews and Christians understand God is that simple cry of the mother fulfilled. But the point is it makes people think and care. Is the mother true? Is the mother lying to her child, even a lying on behalf of love but comforts? No. Berger says no, there is order in the universe. There are final answers to life. It is true. Everything will be all right, all will be well. But you've got to have a grounding for that, and that makes some people really think and care and search.

Sean McDowell: It sure does. It seems like people can give some kind of evolutionary explanation for this, and your point is not to say, "That's false," but maybe it suggests more. Maybe this is pointing to something deeper about the universe that we should explore. So I love that approach. Now you have another story that you describe in terms of the experience of the British poet W.H. Auden at the beginning of World War II as a "double-barreled signal of transcendence." What do you mean by that?

Os Guinness: Well, I love that particular story because it's so close to many people today. Auden, as you remember, was an atheist, a left-winger, and a gay, and a hero of the radical left in his time. He fought on the Republican side against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, but came over deeply disillusioned with Europe as a young gay atheist in New York in 1939. And you know, that was before television. The only way to follow the news, apart from the paper, was to go to see the documentary on Saturday night in the cinema. And he used to go, and one Saturday he went and he wasn't aware that the audience was mostly German. It was the Yorkville Upper East Side of New York, and the documentary was the “Siege of Poland”. Nazi stormtroopers bayoneting women and children brutally, cruelly, and of course America was neutral. He was a Brit, but the Germans from the side of Germany, naturally, they didn't know about the death camps and things like that, so the German audience, “Kill them!, kill them!” They were supporting their own people. Auden sat there in the darkness, and in five minutes his whole worldview was turned upside down. He'd always thought people were good. Clearly there was evil and he was looking at it. But he'd always thought there were no absorts. That's what all fundamentalists believe. Everything's relative. Your age, your class, your culture, you name it. He looked at what he was seeing on the screen. He said I needed an unconditional absolute to say that Hitler was absolutely, not relatively, absolutely wrong. And Zoltan said I left the cinema a seeker after an unconditional absolute and met Jesus. In his case the gap between the signal, that experience in the cinema, and his search was pretty short. It wasn't many, many years like Muggeridge or like C.S. Lewis, but he is like so many today. They hate injustice, rightly so. But how do you ground the absolute indignation and outrage that injustice triggers? You don't have that unless you see the prophets, and of course our Lord, and his father, who hate injustice. I love that story.

Scott Rae: Os, I take it that's what you mean when you describe Auden's experience, that there are some evils that cry out to heaven and cry out for hell, that there's both a hope and a judgment that comes from having those absolutes. Did I get that right?

Os Guinness: No, absolutely. I mean, a lot of people are uncomfortable by hell. And as Winston Churchill used to say, "The best argument for God is Hitler and Stalin, for whom a hell is necessary." In other words, when you confront radical, outrageous evil, everything in you is forced to say, "This is wrong, and it must be punished." You remember when Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem and then condemned to be hanged? Many people said hanging is too good for him. What the Nazis had done deserved more. And so you can see that that outrage against evil is a very profound signal of transcendence. Now we've got to be careful and I make the point with all of them, you can misread the signals. I mean, you know, my reading this morning was from Exodus when Moses and Aaron give the initial miracles, throw the rod down, it becomes a crocodile. And you can see, Pharaoh, rather, says, "You know, my people can do that too." He just viewed it as one more secret art. His people could do secret arts, you could do secret arts, but that didn't solve the problem. In other words, signals can be misread. It's only those who are struck deeply seriously by how the signal strikes them. It’s different for everyone. And then they set out to be seekers.

Sean McDowell: Now you talk about some of the grave evil done by, say, Stalin and Hitler as a kind of signal that cries out for justice. But you also talk about what's called a, quote, "heart-cracking goodness" that gave hope to a Jewish professor and Holocaust scholar Philip Halley, as also being a signal of transcendence. So what was that goodness that he saw, and how did that signal transcendence for him.

Os Guinness: Well, you know, Auden's experience is one that many, many people can relate to because of the passion for justice today. Philip Halley's is more unusual. Here he was as a Jew brought up in a Chicago tenement, trained to be cynical by all he'd seen in his youth and background, and then World War II, and he became a scholarly expert on the horror of the Nazi doctors and their terrible medical experiments on young children, gypsies, and Jews. He was so depressed by what he saw that one day he was thinking of taking his life. He left his family, went down to his study, and was looking around at all the incredible range of 25 years of scholarship on the horrors of the Nazis. And he thought, "What else was there?" And he reached out for some books on the resistance, and he picked up a little pamphlet he'd never read before. It was on the resistance. And as he read it, he said, it was as if a fly was in his eye, and he put up his hand to brush it away. It was a tear. He'd been reading how a village of Huguenots, who for three hundred years had been persecuted under the Catholics, a village of Huguenots had rescued 5,000 Jewish children at the risk of their own lives. And as he read the story, he said, "It was heart-cracking goodness." I love that. So evil is shattering in many ways, but what's equally shattering is goodness because of injustice cries out for justice. Heart-cracking goodness? What on earth is so wonderfully good that it can triumph over the worst of the evil? And it's an extraordinary story, but people again have to read it for themselves and think of how this spurred the search for the individual and then where they eventually ended up.

Scott Rae: Os, a number of these stories that you recount have sort of just everyday ordinary things that function as signals of transcendence. Things that, you know, I guess most people would overlook, it would be easy to ignore. But you described G. K. Chesterton's as what broke through to Chesterton was something as simple as a dandelion, a weed that most people pull and throw away. How on earth did that turn out to be so profound for somebody as profound a thinker as Chesterton.

Os Guinness: Well, as you remember, Chesterton grew up very creative, artistic. He didn't want to go to Oxford and Cambridge. He wanted to go to an art college. And at the end of the 19th century, he went to the Slade School of Large in London. And there was an incredible, very close to postmodernism to date, cynicism, deep bunking, nihilism. And as he said he was led to flirt even with the occult. So his view of the world as he went on as a student was black, nihilistic, negative. But then he said he was stopped in his tracks by a dandelion. In other words, the world was broken. Yes, yes, yes, you give a hundred arguments for that. But it was also at the very same time, beautiful. And even that little weed was incredibly beautiful, not a sunset or a margarita on a Californian beach or the birth of a baby or a Mozart sonata, but a simple weed with its beauty.

So he becomes a seeker because from then on he had to discover why the world was both broken and beautiful, why there was wonder and disorder. Now in his case, some years later, when he was looking at all the possible worldviews, he saw that in the Christian faith, because of creation, the world is beautiful, ordered and full of wonder, but because of sin, there's brokenness and ruin. And the Bible stresses both, not one or the other, but both. And he says, and I love it if you read his book, “Orthodoxy”, I'm sure you have, it's a rather mechanical picture, but he describes all the nuts and bolts all fitting in together. And as if he shouts out like Archimedes' “Eureka! It fits." He can see how the Christian faith explains both, and the seeker became the finder. And then, of course, he became one of the greatest writers and greatest apologists for the Christian faith in the early 20th century.

Sean McDowell: Os, one of the things that's so fascinating about your book is the different kinds of signals of transcendence, whether it's a dandelion like you described in the case of Chesterton, whether it's a mother's assurance that everything is going to be okay. In C.S. Lewis, it was an experience of joy. How in his life did that function as a signal of transcendence?

Os Guinness: Well he's probably the most famous in the book, but many people know their story so well that they missed the real point. He was a hardcore atheist. He'd read all the great atheists. Through his experience of the loss of his mother and the tragedy in carnage of World War I, he was a hard-boiled atheist and he knew strong atheists. But what happened? He was "surprised by joy." And you remember he says joy, as he experienced it, was not happiness, that's circumstances. It wasn't pleasure, that's the five senses. It was something far, far deeper and he had to find the basis for it. As he said, it's an unsatisfied desire, more desirable than any satisfaction. Now in his case the gap between starting to search and seek and his finding was something like 12 or 13 years took him a long while. And a huge amount of scrutiny of all sorts of positions, but slowly he moved from seeing his secularism, naturalism, atheism was unsatisfying towards an idealism and then theism, and finally to a full acceptance of Jesus as Lord Himself. But it was that being surprised by joy. And I think many people today can experience that, that desire, that immortal... that yearning. But where does it point to? People have really got to follow the signal. I had a subtitle in my book, "It's Listening to the Promptings of Life." And the tragedy is in a world in which we have so much to live with consumer goods, and so little to live for, people haven't thought it through, many people don't listen to the promptings, and they're just satisfied with their world without windows.

Scott Rae: Os, let me make this a little more personal for me. My uncle just passed away not too long ago, and I'm not sure it'd be quite accurate to call him a hard-boiled atheist in the same way that Lewis was, but he made it clear on repeated occasions that he just didn't want much to do with the Christian faith that, you know, anybody else in our extended family was a part of. And I don't know that he ever saw anything like a signal of transcendence. Is this something that just sort of breaks through individually to someone? Or would there have been a role that myself, my mom, who was his sister, or other believers coming into his life could help sort of illuminate some of these promptings? Or is that something that's just entirely individual?

Os Guinness: No, I think people have the experiences, and our challenge coming alongside people is to help them interpret, to help them take them seriously and respond. And many, many more people have them than many people recognize. You remember the story of Kenneth Clark, later. There's a reading we have in one of our Trinity Forum curriculums of Kenneth Clark in Florence experiencing what he calls, "I felt the finger of God," as he was looking at some of the art. Now, we read that reading and a friend of mine did it with a group of CEOs. And he just said to them, mostly hard-bitten, secular, materialistic CEOs, certainly not a Christian group. He said, "How many of you men have had experiences like this?" And all but about two said they had. In other words, these experiences are far more common. I don't know where your uncle was, but the Kenneth Clark story is a wonderful one, because if you read the story of what he did in Florence, with the incredible impact of the beauty that he was seeing, he says he felt the single finger of God. But he said, if I had gone back to London, they would have thought I was a crackpot, and the intellectuals were all secular. And he said I would have been embarrassed morally. We know now he had a mistress at the time. It would have involved his breaking all that up and so on. So he had all sorts of reasons not to take it seriously and he said I brushed it aside. But did he? At his funeral, his wife and a priest pointed out he had been baptized six months earlier.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Scott Rae: Interesting.

Os Guinness: And although publicly he brushed off the finger of God. In fact that search had never left him and of course the Lord is the one who knows our hearts. And while I'm certainly not a universalist, many fundamentalists go to the other extreme, and unless we know how people have turned to the Lord specifically, we write them off. You know, our Lord knows the heart, and He is just and He is merciful, and I think we can leave the judgment, the discernment to Him. But many, many more people have these experiences and acknowledge it because it's unfashionable, to put it mildly in today's world, it's politically incorrect. I mean, look at the religious knowns. You now have secularists who are saying that we're seeing the end of religion itself, not just the Christian faith, but the end of religion completely. Now, that's very radical. I think they're entirely wrong, but we need a profound re-enchantment from the disenchantment of the modern secular world of modernity. And these signals of transcendence and encouraging people to follow through on them is one way.

Sean McDowell: So Os, is this written to Christians to give them courage to share their signals of transcendence or believers in God? Or is it written to non-believers to give them a sense of pause and think, "I wonder if there are signals in my own life and am I open to this?" Or is it written to both?

Os Guinness: Well I tried to write it for both. I think as you know, Sean, too much apologetics is written for Christians.

Sean McDowell: It's true.

Os Guinness: Rather than directly, so the great quest I tried to write to seekers. And in the same way, I hope this one is primarily for seekers, in other words, for Christians to give to their friends who are not believers. But of course I think it helps Christians see that these things happen and how do they work and how can I encourage people to follow up and so on. So it is written for both. But I would love it if it was primarily for seekers and searchers.

Scott Rae: Os, one final question for you. You make the point toward the end of the book that the stories that you're recounting here are about individual people's lives and how their signals of transcendence touch them and turn them into seekers and finders. But you also say that there's a message just to the broader modern world. And what is that message?

Os Guinness: Well, that's what I was saying. The worldview of modernity, which is secular and materialistic, is really like the inside of Plato's cave, or like the effect of a Greek innkeeper, Procrustes, who brought his guests in, and if their legs were too long, he'd chop them off to fit his bed, and if they were too short, he'd stretch them to fit his bed. In other words, our world insists that we think this way or that way. No. Reality is much, much bigger. The meaning of the system is outside the system, as Wittgenstein used to say. And what the Western world needs is a massive breakout and awakening. I thank God for what's happening, say, at Asbury.

Scott Rae: Here, here.

Os Guinness: But we need something like that nationwide. We need something like that civilizational-wide, because our Western modernity is so shrunk. We need a massive awakening now. The source of that, of course, is the Word, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God breaking in through preaching and other things. But I think at a very humble level, this idea of the signals of transcendence, there is a far greater reality than most people are aware of. We're much closer to Hamlet's remark to Horatio, his friend. There's much more in [inaudible], Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. So the Western world needs a massive awakening. And this is just a tiny contribution to that.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I wonder if at some point the modern world will recognize its dissatisfaction with just seeing the shadows in the cave as opposed to coming out into the sunlight. And when they come back into the cave from seeing the sunlight, they won't be considered as madmen. But they will actually be considered somewhat rational and thinking and recognizing that there is a transcendent realm outside of what we can perceive with our five senses.

Os Guinness: No, absolutely. And that's our wonderful calling as followers of Jesus. We are witnesses, primarily to what we know God is and to what we know God has done and what the Lord has done for us. We're witnesses. There's a world of sunshine outside the cave, so we should be driving home, all the discontents, all the dissatisfactions, that's where secularism, materialism, atheism, whatever it is, that's where they lead to. But there's a better way.

Scott Rae: Yeah. And I say at the least we need to at least look like we have a suntan as opposed to looking like we've lived in the cave.

Os Guinness: Yes. [Laughing]

Scott Rae: Os, thank you so much. This has been so rich. And I want to commend to our listeners your book, "Signals of Transcendence," and I love the subtitle, "Listening to the Promptings of Life."
And it's a book that you can give to your friends if we have listeners who are, you know, who are in that place where they are seeking, they haven't, they really don't know what to think about the claims of Jesus Christ, but are seeking and interested in looking, this is an ideal book to tackle and to get into your life. So grateful, Os, for your approach to this and for your friendship with us on our program. And we will continue having you on whenever you come out with something else. And that's been a pretty regular thing these days. So we're very, very grateful for your continued writing and contribution, and it's really good stuff.

Os Guinness: Well, I love being with you Scott and Sean, so thank you. It's always a pleasure and always fun.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture”. “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully bachelor's program in Bible theology and apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our good friend, Os Guinness, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.