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?
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.
Humans 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
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
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
There 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
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)
When 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
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
Humans 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
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.