WHEN God asks a question, we expect to be taken deeper spiritually, as with this query recorded in the book of Job: "Hast thou walked in the search of the depth?" (38:16). But this ancient question has new meaning in the age of postmodernism — the reaction to modernism in the arts, philosophy, and other realms of human culture.
In today's culture, depth is not just the opposite of height. Depth has to do with profundity, with intensity and complexity, with reality. When something lacks depth, it's described as two-dimensional, hollow, and shallow, or in a more neutral sense, as flat.
Depth and surface are central to contemporary dicussions about virtual reality, movies, computers, and television. Depth and surface also relate to such social issues as body image and plastic surgery, visual impressions and contrived images, simulations and fakes. A question common to all of these phenomena is, Is there anything of durable worth beneath the surface?
In his seminal work Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1995), Frederic Jameson investigates the "depthlessness" of postmodern culture, in particular within the art world. He sees a prevalence of the figural over the substantive — for example, in architecture, the prevalence of ornament over form and content — and mourns a general lack of depth in postmodern culture.
There is a rapidly growing interest in virtual realities — in holographic projections, computerized games, and technologies designed to create heightened sense impressions. The emphasis is on seeming and feeling, rather than on being and doing.
Interestingly enough, the media that both inform and entertain us, and which employ virtual reality techniques (via computer, movie, and television screens) to do so, are indeed "flat." These media tend to project the appearance of depth, but often there is only surface — the captivating dance of electrons. It's no wonder that the screen has become the symbol of surface culture.
If surface is all there is, if "depth" is just another superficial layer beyond the initial surface, then nothing remains that is profound. And yet humanity's hunger for meaning is perhaps the most significant movement of thought underway in human culture. Depthlessness would take us toward the existential abyss into which 20th-century philosophers believed we would fall.
Logic tells me there is no way that the five physical senses can ever take us beyond the surface. That is all they can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste. Sensebased knowledge is incapable of grasping something that doesn't have material parameters. It requires thinking and faith — a quiet heart — to perceive something different, something beyond the millions of layered surfaces presented by popular culture.
This "something beyond" was what Christ Jesus saw and taught. Here was someone who literally walked over water — surface — in defiance of material limitations. But as Mary Baker Eddy also noted concerning Jesus, "He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause" (Science and Health, p. 313). Jesus penetrated the surface of the material world that we call "real." He showed that there is a God who is transcendental to the human mind. We cannot reach God with human logic and philosophy, although they can push thought to the point of perceiving the need for something beyond what sense perception can deliver.
God's messages break through misperceptions of what is real and show us something else, the reality of Spirit and spiritual existence. And the Christ is the essence of God's communication to humanity. Way before the postmodernist discourse began, there was this observation on surface versus depth: "When examined in the light of divine Science, mortals present more than is detected upon the surface, since inverted thoughts and erroneous beliefs must be counterfeits of Truth. Thought is borrowed from a higher source than matter, and by reversal, errors serve as waymarks to the one Mind, in which all error disappears in celestial Truth" (Science and Health, p. 267).
All it takes to help forward the search for depth is a simple yearning for something beneath and beyond the surfaces of everyday life.
Annette Kreutziger-Herr is a professor of musicology and cultural Studies. She lives in Berlin.
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