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Atheism

The Varieties of Transcendent Experience

In his magnum opus, The Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor charts western society’s unprecedented shift from a consensus belief in transcendent reality to a worldview that is much more immanent or ‘this-world’.

Taylor argues, rightly, that we can over-emphasize the extent to which we have left behind a belief in transcendent reality as we became modern. Instead, he argues that in the last two centuries there has been a ‘nova effect’ – a sudden explosion out of the hegemony of traditional Christianity of a variety of different interpretations of the transcendent, all of which jostle around in the contested space of modernity.

Even among leading atheists, one sees a variety of these positions, from those like Richard Dawkins who dismiss all talk of transcendence as so much woo-woo, to those like Christopher Hitchens, who asserted that “there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic…Without this we really would merely be primates.”

There seems to be a common human yearning for the transcendent, even if people follow that yearning to different destinations. The lines between ‘believer’ and ‘non-believer’ are more blurred than the clashes of the last decade suggest. As Adam Gopnik argued in the New Yorker,  most supernaturalists have moments of profound doubt, while most naturalists still ‘search for transcendence and epiphany’.

Of course there’s a great deal of argument, sometimes bloody, about which of the positions I outline below is more coherent. But it’s worth remembering that we don’t know which, if any, of these accounts is correct, because we don’t really understand consciousness, and its relationship to the ego, other beings, death, and the universe. So, in some ways, none of these explanations make rational sense. Not yet anyway.

Here are some of the varieties of transcendent experience, very briefly sketched. Which one do you identify with at the moment?

Religious transcendence

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946
A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

Humans, whether as individuals or groups, sometimes have religious experiences – in Christian terms described as ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’. These experiences connect you to a personal God of a particular religion, who can be prayed to for intercession. They give you a taste of the bliss that awaits you after death. They also bind you to your fellow believers, and provide experiential evidence for the truth of your religion and its sacred texts. If your experience doesn’t point to that God and is not in agreement with the sacred text (as interpreted by contemporary priests) then it is either delusional or demonic.

Examples: St Teresa, or the collective experience of 18th century Methodists or the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s.

Perennialist transcendence

lrYoDsSHumans sometimes have spiritual experiences, either within or outside of a religious context. These experiences point to a divine reality beyond all parochial religious dogmas, to a God beyond all names. After having had such an experience, you may choose to join a particular religious group, while still believing in people’s ability to find God in other religious traditions; or you may be hostile to religions for their claims to exclusive truth. Your spiritual life may be quite eclectic, for example combining Christian worship with Buddhist meditation. You may shift from a more Christian, personal idea of God, to a more apophatic or transcendent idea of God. You’re more likely to believe in reincarnation than an Abrahamic heaven / hell.

Examples: Ken Wilber, Aldous Huxley, Bede Griffiths

Pantheist / animist transcendence

Miyazaki and some of his creations
Miyazaki and some of his animist creations

Transcendent or spiritual experiences point to a spirit or greater consciousness beyond the human, but not beyond nature. Rather, nature is in some sense spirit. God is ‘all that there is’. Transcendent experience might connect you to a particular spirit within nature, or to the spirit or energy of nature itself. You may be a panpsychist, believing all matter is animate. When we die, our energy returns to nature rather than surviving in any sort of personal immortality.

Examples: Philip Pullman, Hayao Miyazaki

Romantic transcendence

You are not quite sure what is out there, but you have a sense or intimation that there is some spiritual dimension or transcendental or noumenal reality beyond phenomenal appearances. This transcendent reality may be transcendent to nature, or in some sense it may be nature itself. Humans cannot really know this transcendent reality directly or logically, but can have intimations of the Noumenal through emotional experiences in the arts (both creating art or encountering it) or in nature. However, it may be a false intimation – it is not entirely clear. We must resist the impatient grasping after rational certainty.

Examples: Wordsworth (who arguably shifted between this position, pantheist transcendence, and then finally religious transcendence), Keats

Platonic or rational transcendence

newton110There is transcendental realm of divine reality beyond transient appearances, and the best way to access it is through the pure reason of maths and logic. The cosmos obeys the mathematical laws of this divine realm, and we can discover it by discovering the laws of the cosmos. Emotions and desires cloud our reason and our ability to access this reality. However, we might sometimes have intuitions or ecstatic experiences which give us sudden access to divine truths.

Examples: Plato, Newton

Transcendent humanism

Humans have a unique capacity to create the transcendent, through artistic effort, but more broadly simply through noticing and appreciating life. This doesn’t point to anything supernatural, it is a simple appreciation of the luminous beauty of moments. The transcendent or numinous is not ‘out there’ – rather, we make it. The fact that we die, and all these moments disappear ‘like tears in rain’ (as Roy puts it in Bladerunner), only makes these experiences more poignant and moving.

Examples: Kenan Malik, Sanderson Jones of the Sunday Assembly, Jeanette Winterson (possibly)

Ego-transcendence

samharris_wakingupWhen humans have transcendent experiences, they are transcending their usual ego structures and achieving altered states where ordinary ego-consciousness is disrupted. You may interpret these altered states either as ‘peak experiences’ or ‘flow states’ or even as a glimpse into the non-existence of self. Such states or experiences may happen spontaneously or through practices like meditation or drugs or sex or sports. Glimpsing the non-existence of self can be either liberating or terrifying. At its best, we get liberated from the ego and filled with love for other beings – either a particular being (like our child) or even all beings. You are skeptical of any claims about the survival of consciousness after death.

Examples:  Sam Harris, Abraham Maslow, most western secular Buddhists

Downward ego-transcendence

You want to go beyond boring ego-consciousness, but take the route of what Aldous Huxley called ‘downward transcendence’ – through violence, or booze, or drug-addiction. Anything to get out of your head and escape the claustrophobic boredom of ordinary life.

Examples: Alex from Clockwork Orange

Techno-transcendence

transcendence.29748Humans transcend their individual selves through technology, which connects them to other beings and to a higher dimension of information. Through technology, we may eventually be able to create a SuperMind, or to download our identity onto the cloud of information.

Examples: Sergey Brin, HG Wells, movies like Transcendence or Lucy

Tribal transcendence

Transcendent experiences lift us beyond our individual minds into a ‘hive mind’ where we feel magically connected to the other members of our tribe – that tribe could be our football club, our favourite band and their fans, or our nation. One observer of a 1934 Nazi rally described it thus: ‘There in the floodlit night …in one massive formation, the little men of Germany, who have made Nazism possible, achieved the highest state of being …the shedding of their individual souls and minds — with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems — until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian, they were merged completely.’  There may be vestiges of the mystical or magical in this tribal fusion, but there is nothing really beyond the tribe.

Examples: Rousseau, Hitler and (as social theorists of ecstatic experience) Emile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt

Historical materialist transcendence

Humans sometimes have ecstatic or transcendent experiences where they can see beyond the present historical circumstances and perceive future circumstances – the ‘not yet’ within the ‘now’, the utopian within the actual. This does not involve God or the supernatural, rather it is part of a historical materialist process as humans engineer a more just and equitable future for their species. These prophetic visionary experiences may happen to an individual (Lenin, Martin Luther King) or may involve revolutionary populist movements, like the Paris Commune.

Examples: Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch

It’s interesting to think where someone like, say, Russell Brand fits in this chart – he’s moved during his life from the downward ego-transcendence of drug addiction, to the false transcendence of celebrity, to the perennialist transcendence of Transcendental Meditation, and now to a sort of spiritual version of historical materialist transcendence. A young Jihadist, by contrast, may move from traditional religious transcendence towards the downward transcendence of extreme violence, mixed with the millenarial utopianism of historical materialist transcendence.

It would be nice if all these varieties of transcendence got along better with each other but that may be asking a lot.

Did I miss out any? I probably haven’t talked about love nearly enough.

There’s room for theists and atheists at the watering-hole of humanism

Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.

Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.

SchoolofLondonDirkchoice-746x488

I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.

The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.

The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.

I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.

I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’

Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.

Ficino’s Academy in Florence

My humanism is better than yours…

Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.

But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.

I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.

At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.

Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.

The decline of humanisms

Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.

The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days
George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.

I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).

The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?

And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.

I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.

Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.

As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.

911EtzXkUDLMeanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.

Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s not intellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.