The Meaning of Transcendence in the Postmodern World
Our discussion of transcendence runs two risks. First, there is the possibility of the miscommunication that arises when we use the same word, but mean different things. Second, we run the risk of trying to answer questions the world is not asking. We have concluded that our world displays a quest for transcendence, and so have decided to make this the topic of our discussion. But what are the questions the world is asking? What lies behind this quest? As John V. Taylor’s son told him, when he had decided to leave the church: ‘Father, that man [the preacher] is saying all the right things but he isn’t saying them to anybody. He doesn’t know where I am, and it would never occur to him to ask!’ My intention in this paper is to outline the different uses of the word ‘Transcendence,’ to ask where people ‘are’ in regards to transcendence, and to pursue one or ways forward.
THE DIVINE SEE-SAW; TRANSCENDENCE AND IMMANENCE
When Christians use the word ‘transcendence’ they usually refer to that attribute of God that describes his difference and distance from the world. Transcendence is what we mean when we say that God is ‘wholly other,’ or beyond our world. He is self-sufficient from the world and the reality we experience. He is separate from and independent of nature and humanity.
This attribute of God is always paired with that other attribute that describes his closeness and involvement in reality, his immanence. Together transcendence and immanence form a royal pair which always needs to be kept in balance, and always runs the risk of falling out of balance. Indeed, suggest Grenz and Olson, where such balance is lacking, serious theological problems readily emerge.
In their opinion the 20th century offers an interesting case study: the pendulum swung to and fro as different theologies emerged, each disturbance of the equilibrium producing a counter-reaction to the opposite side ? something perhaps useful to consider as we discuss transcendence.
This, in a nutshell, is how theologians think about transcendence, and some of the papers contributed to our forum speak of God in this way. It is here that we speak of God?s awesomeness and majesty, and this produces worship and perhaps a healthy fear. Here we also speak of mystery, as we come to understand that God does not subject himself to our categories and systems, and that He, and indeed life itself, do frequently not behave in the way expected.
TRANSCENDENCE AS A DESIRED EXPERIENCE
When people without theological baggage speak of transcendence they are usually unaware of the concepts of immanence and transcendence as attributes of God. Yet usage of the term is popular today ? albeit in a different manner.
It would seem that the word transcendence is used in two ways, and both ways need to be understood against the backdrop of the transition from the modern to the postmodern era.
In its most popular use of the term, transcendence seems to refer to what can best be described as an experience or a temporary state of mind. Transcendence is what we experience when we achieve a (usually quite brief) sensation that we are out-of-the-ordinary, and that we have somehow entered the extraordinary. It may be achieved through music, silence, visual stimulation or chemical stimulation. It is a feeling of ecstasy, oneness, rapture, awe, energy, in short an experience that is out-of-this-world. It is what opera does to Inspector Morse, or what Rave music and Rave parties do to thousands of partygoers every weekend (sometimes, though not always aided by chemical stimulants). It is what I experienced when I attended the evensong service at St. Paul?s Cathedral some time ago, and the high voices of the boy choirs filled that immense space, echoing left and right. It is also what millions of evangelicals experience when they come together for a time of worship and praise.
I believe that for an experience to be transcendent, four conditions need to be met
1. There needs to be a sense of peace. A transcendent experience does not come until we allow ourselves to forget our momentary struggles, and find a way to leave them ‘outside.’ It also depends on us ceasing our striving, forgetting our anger, and rising above our petty differences.
2. There needs to be a sense of connection. This can be a sense of connection to the crowd we are part of (such as in a football stadium or a disco), a tradition (such as a school of thought, a musical genre or a religious order), or simply ‘the whole’ (be it the universe, God or the Goddess, or the cosmic consciousness). Whatever it is, a sense of belonging is created, and belonging transcends the aloneness that for many is part of everyday life.
3. Part of a transcendent experience is also the feeling of being carried along. Whether it is by the music, the rhythm, the scenery, the cheering of the crowd, the serenity or the Spirit, in a transcendent experience something we experience as bigger than ourselves carries us along for the duration of the experience.
4. Lastly, a transcendent experience requires a sense of surrender. Somehow, the individual needs to give permission for the emotions and feelings to be impacted by the contextual elements.
This need for transcending experience can be understood when we consider that much of our life is concerned with survival, routine, chores, frustration and anxiety. In this way, the yearning for transcendent experiences could be interpreted as mere escapism, but I believe it is much more than that: it is the desire for life as we feel it should have been. John Eldridge explains that within the human heart there lies an awareness that life as we experience it is not the life that we were created for ? and this creates a yearning that Dan Steigerwald has described as the longing for home.
In this respect the longing for transcendence is often explained as the longing for ‘a reality that is more real than the one we live in’. The latter is a phrase I encountered when interviewing some rave party attenders. Surprising as I found the phrase, its sentiment is consistent with C.S. Lewis’ idea of the grass in heaven being harder than our feet are used to (The Great Divorce), or the movie What Dreams May Come, in which the colours of heaven are deeper and richer than the colours on earth ? somehow there seems to reside in the human heart an awareness that reality as we experience it is but a drab reflection of what it should be. The desire for transcendence then is the desire for life as it should have been: real, whole, peaceful, exciting, awesome, beautiful, and majestic.
TRANSCENDENCE AS A BELIEF ABOUT REALITY
There is another reason people in our world desire experiences of transcendence. It is a reaction against the rationalism of the enlightenment, which rejected any sense of mystery, choosing instead to break any whole down into subparts so that it could be controlled and tweaked logically and without emotion. This rationalism cured us (for a while) of dreams of life as it should have been, and focused our attention on that which we can explain and categorize and predict.
But rationalism alone does not feed our souls, and over time the vacuum created by the enduring emphasis on reason could not do anything else but implode. As Richard Holloway said, ‘We are more than our rationality. We have depths to our nature ? emotional, aesthetic and spiritual, and if we lose touch with them we diminish and distort our humanity.’ Albert Einstein agrees with him when he says:
The most beautiful experience is to meet the mysterious. This is the source of all true art and scholarly pursuit. He, who has never had this experience, is not capable of rapture and cannot stand motionless with amazement, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.
The transition to the postmodern world in this respect is an awakening. All over the Western world people are waking up to the notion that there is more to life, and they are going after it with a vengeance.
Unfortunately, the church has proven to not be immune to the rationalism of the preceding age, and so it now finds itself at odds by and large with a world longing for transcendence. Mark Oakley describes this well:
The amazing paradox is that such a Church can talk of Transcendence, but only as a cognitive concept. By definition God defies categorization and predictability ? but a Church that allows empirical thinking to govern its theology, cannot do anything but attempt to categorize and predict God. Armed with such a worldview we become able to answer virtually any question, but in the process God himself ‘loses’ transcendence, and becomes ‘small’.
The problem is now twofold. First, the church is uncomfortable with transcendent experiences for fear that reason should loose its governing influence on our behaviour. Second, the church presents a concept of a God she claims to be transcendent, but the concept leaves little room for mystery, wonder and the unknown. It was this tendency (among other things) that caused Einstein to reject Christianity. Said he: ‘My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.’ Somehow, Einstein could not harmonize the ‘illimitible superior spirit’ with the God put forth by Christianity.
Postmodern people reason much the way Einstein did. Their observation is that ‘if indeed there is a God behind reality, responsible for it all, and upholding it all, He must be so awesome and so ‘other’ that there must be a great deal of wonder and mystery involved in his worship.’ Transcendence is something postmoderns have come to believe about reality: the complexity of ecosystems, the flow of energy through the universe, the size and age of the cosmos and the interdependence of subatomic particles have taught us one thing: reality transcends any possible explanation.
TRANSCENDANCE AS A DESIRED STEP IN THE EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS
There is a fourth use of the word Transcendence, and it is probably the concept that most Christians tend to be least familiar with. Nevertheless it is a concept that is gaining popularity and becoming increasingly influential in the worlds of art, politics and education.
This use of the word is best explained by Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, in his lecture ‘The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World,’ which he delivered July 4th 1994, at Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
Havel puts forward the current political and historical situation, which he calls ‘the postmodern world,’ and says we have come to a crossroads in history. Here a fundamental change in human being is desired. Mankind must transcend itself. If the human race is to survive on planet Earth, it must ‘create a new world order,’ one that is carried and supported by a new kind of human Being. The alternative is extinction.
Self-transcendence in Havel?s understanding is the ability to rise above our present condition and to collectively embrace and practice a faith in the oneness of all creation. Inspiration for this idea come what Havel calls ‘two transcendent ideas’: the Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis. Havel explains both, starting with the Anthropic Cosmological Principle:
Its authors and adherents have pointed out that from the countless possible courses of its evolution the universe took the only one that enabled life to emerge. This is not yet proof that the aim of the universe has always been that it should one day see itself through our eyes. But how else can this matter be explained?
I think the Anthropic Cosmological Principle brings to us an idea perhaps as old as humanity itself: that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tine particle whirling in the endless depth of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.
Until recently, it might have seemed that we were an unhappy bit of mildew on a heavenly body whirling in space among many that have no mildew on them at all. this was something that classical science could explain. Yet, the moment it begins to appear that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, science reaches the outer limits of its powers. Because it is founded on the search for universal laws, it cannot deal with singularity, that is, with uniqueness. The universe is a unique event and a unique story, and so far we are the unique point of that story. But unique events and stories are the domain of poetry, not science. With the formulation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, science has found itself on the border between formula and story, between science and myth. In that, however, science has paradoxically returned, in a roundabout way, to man, and offers him - in new clothing - his lost integrity. It does so by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.
The second example is the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the earth’s surface form a single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet - Gaia - named after an ancient goddess who is recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, we are parts of a greater whole. If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interest of a higher value - that is, life itself.
It will be evident that this concept of transcendence is inspired by Social Darwinism in that it sees this next development of the human being as the logical and necessary next step in evolution.
A modern philosopher once said: “Only a God can save us now.”
Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.
It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies - it must be rooted in self-transcendence:
I have given so much space to this concept of Transcendence, because it is becoming an increasingly influential idea, with powerful adherents in many strategic places in society. Transcendence in this way of thinking borrows indeed from the Christian concept of the transcendence of God, but augments it quickly with insights from many other ways of thinking (in true postmodern fashion) to end with a concept of transcendence that is really about evolution and human development.
My paper has sought to put forward four ideas. First, there are four distinct ways in which people understand Transcendence. Secondly, Christians tend to use the word Transcendence different from non-Christians, raising the chances of miscommunication. Third, the way non-Christian use the word sheds some interesting light on what they believe about life and reality, and this in turn presents some healthy challenges to Christian thinking. Fourth, the rationalism of the Enlightenment has severely impacted our way of thinking, and it is necessary to understand the extent of the damage, and make appropriate changes. As we do we encounter the Transcendence of God in a new and fresh way, and this changes our manner of speaking about him and relating to him. In Mark Oakley?s words, we become people who do not seek resolve the mystery of God, but rather ‘deepen’ it.
I shall now risk making a sweeping generalisation. On the whole, religious people fall into two basic categories. First, there are those who want to resolve the mystery of God, to teach and preach it clearly, to spell out the facts as they are believed, to be like a reporting journalist and relay information in black and white to those not in ‘the know.’ On the other hand, there are those who, instead of wanting to resolve the mystery, seek to deepen it. Such people are uneasy with words as ‘simply’ or ‘easily,’ they are willing to get tongue-tied, to say ‘I don’t know,’ to embrace the evocative languages of poetry and music in their search for God. They have come to believe that truth is not the same thing as the elimination of ambiguity.