Peter L. Berger on 'signals of transcendence'

I love the sociologist Peter L. Berger. For 50 years, he's been producing intelligent, rigorous and sympathetic work on the sociology of religion. I just got a copy of his 1970 little book, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, in which he talks about what he calls 'signals of transcendence' in modern society - little flashes of light which seem to point to a transcendent reality.

He takes one such signal to be a mother's love for her child, and the words 'everything is alright' - he thinks this is a signal to a cosmic order where everything really is alright. 'The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man's situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child's experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.'

He also thinks play and humour are 'signals of transcendence', and these are the passages I particularly want to quote, because they're beautiful. He writes:

Joy is play's intention. When this intention is fully realized, in joyful play, the time structure of the playful universe takes on a very specific quality - namely, it becomes eternity...This is the final insight of Nietzsche's Zarathustra in the midnight song: 'All joy wills eternity - wills deep, deep eternity!' ...It is this curious quality, which belongs to all joyful play, that explains the liberation and peace such play provides....When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood. This becomes most apparent when such play occurs in the actual face of acute suffering and dying. It is that that stirs us about men making music in a city under bombardment or a man doing mathematics on his deathbed...It is his ludic [playful] constitution that allows man, even at Thermopylae, to regain and ecstatically realize the deathless joy of his childhood.

This is interesting, and reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow states, and the suspension of ordinary time-consciousness in moments of deep absorption. Play gives us that deep, meditative absorption, that's one of the reasons we love it - because it suspends ordinary time-consciousness. It's funny that we construct artificial rules to give us parameters within which to lose ourselves. In that sense, a game is like a religion - an artificial construction to enable moments of absorption and transcendence.

Csikszentmihalyi would insist, rightly, that the deepest absorption comes with excellence - when a person is at play but bringing all of their resources, all their skill and power, to the game, like this beautiful scene from A River Runs Through It. I find this scene moving, because you know Brad Pitt's character is in trouble, and will die tragically later in the film , and yet the transcendent moment stands out, in defiance of death.

Berger also takes humour as a signal of transcendence: 'By laughing at the imprisonment of the human spirit, humour implies that this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence, in the form of an intimation of redemption.'

I like the idea of humour and play as signals of transcendence. One could adapt Pascal's quotation: 'Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a laughing reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he laughs at the universe and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.'

But comedy could just as much be interpreted a reaction to the absurdity of our existence and our inability to know what the hell is going on.  Think of, say, Woody Allen's comic existentialism, or the Coen Brothers' Simple Man, or even Beckett's Waiting for Godot - the comedy comes from asking deep existential questions, and not really getting any transcendent response. And yet finding a sort of humorous or absurd acceptance of that.

OK, one last quote from the book I want to share with you:

Human life has always had a day-side and a night-side, and, inevitably, because of the practical requirements of man's being in the world, it has always been the day-side that has received the strongest 'accent of reality'. But the night-side, even if exorcised, was rarely denied. One of the most astonishing consequences of secularization has been just this denial. Modern society has banished the night from consciousness, as far as this is possible...Much more generally, modern society has not only sealed up the old metaphysical questions in practice but has generated philosophical positions that deny the meaningfulness of those questions.

How long such a shrinkage in the scope of human experience can remain plausible is debatable. In any case, it constitutes a profound impoverishment. Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experience of the mystic, but any experience of stepping outside the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.