The philosopher Charles Taylor speaks about a “three cornered battle raging in our culture” today. For Taylor, each of these corners is occupied by secular humanists, neo-Neitzcheans, and “those who acknowledge some [transcendent] good beyond life”.
Secular humanists seek the fulfilment of human potential while excluding any notion of transcendence. A true experience of life, they say, contains no impulse to move towards any reality beyond life itself. There is only life. There is no God.
The neo-Neitzscheans emphasise Nietzsche’s idea of ‘the will to power’. To grow involves struggle, a struggle of the will to preserve itself, survive and thrive. It is a struggle happening only within the reality of a person’s earthly existence. There is no afterlife waiting. This material life is all we have. We are all a will using power to grow, to become.
The third group embraces the reality and experience of transcendence, seeing it, ultimately, as a source of goodness. It can be as specific as a belief in God, or be more generalised like a mysterious sense of something ‘other’.
Secular humanists hold the view that we do not need this transcendence to fulfil human potential. Neo-Neitzscheans hold the view that we are our own transcendence. Christian spirituality says that the Divine Life itself is the source of this transcendence. It is a divine dynamic intimate with creation, working for the good and fulfilment of all (whether implicit or explicit, known or unknown), doing so in ways that life by itself cannot do.
This song from Emmylou Harris, for me, is a song about a human journey affected by this divine transcendent dynamic within life. Through it all she sings of looking for water from some mysterious “deeper well”. There is a thirst for this well’s water in the experience of life. Nothing else satisfies. At first the search is full of the will to power – “I went…I fell…I looked…I saw…I found”. It’s a search that “rocked”, “rolled”, “rattled”, and raged – a search that attempted to find in the experiences of life its own dynamic of transcendence, that is, its own way to move beyond life and into something more deeply satisfying.
This attempt ends in the “terrible sight” of a life hitting rock bottom. No material experience, in itself, is this deeper well. For many of us there is a thirst for life that cannot be quelled simply by living life. The eternal of life needs, in some way, to be given attention.
Finally, at the bottom, there is a “reaching out for a holier grail” – something in life that is part of life yet more than life. This reaching out is often the fruit of a fruitless search. Hitting rock bottom can be the discovery that we are finally in the deeper well. After the search exhausts us enough we can be ready enough to accept something of this divinely transcendent dynamic within us. Grace waits in our struggle and search, respecting our freedom, until, through struggle, we become free enough to glimpse and experience what we most deeply hunger for.
Buddy Miller’s guitar work is raw and powerful, giving thrust (and at times desperation) to the search. Emmylou’s vocal is delivered with determination and edgy grace. Her band, Spyboy, when it was together, was a wonder to behold. Grab a copy of their 1998 live album Spyboy to hear more.
Christian spirituality names this deeper well as that mysterious place within us where the Divine Life dwells. The water itself is this Divine Life, a living spring, the wells source. This Divine Life is the source and the fulfilment of all earthly transcendence. Our thirst for this living water is a natural human and spiritual response to the presence of this living water – the heart’s deepest desire. Our thirst, our dissatisfaction, is often our companion on the way to the well within us.
A practice like Christian meditation maintains our attention at the deeper well. Regular practice has us drinking this living, divine water. As we experience this water rising up from the centre of us and all creation, we learn just where else this water is for us in life.
…but no one who drinks the water that I shall give will ever be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will become a spring of water within welling up for eternal life. (John 4:14).
The contemplative drinks of this water in and through their life and prayer practice. The contemplative comes to understand deeply that life is life, God is God, and that God is the water of life. We can all be contemplatives; we can all sing “I drank the water from a deeper well”.