What is “Transcendence”?

You may have noticed number of writings on religious topics that make reference to “transcendence” or “the transcendent.” However, the word “transcendence” is usually not very well defined, if it is defined at all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes several references to transcendence, but it’s not completely clear what transcendence means other than the infinite greatness of God, and the fact that God is “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable.” For those who value reason and precise arguments, this vagueness is unsatisfying. Astonishingly, the fifteen volume Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914) did not even have an entry on “transcendence,” though it did have an entry on “transcendentalism,” a largely secular philosophy with a variety of schools and meanings. (The New Catholic Encyclopedia in 1967 finally did have an entry on “transcendence.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “transcendence” as “the action or fact of transcending, surmounting, or rising above . . . ; excelling, surpassing; also the condition or quality of being transcendent, surpassing eminence or excellence. . . .” The reference to “excellence” is probably key to understanding what “transcendence” is. In my previous essay on ancient Greek religion, I pointed out that areté, the Greek word for “excellence,” was a central idea of Greek culture and one cannot fully appreciate the ancient Greek pagan religion without recognizing that Greek devotion to excellence was central to their religion. The Greeks depicted their gods as human, but with perfect physical forms. And while the behavior of the Greek gods was often dubious from a moral standpoint, the Greek gods were still regarded as the givers of wisdom, order, justice, love, and all the institutions of human civilization.

The odd thing about transcendence is that because it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach.

Theologians refer to transcendence as one of the two natures of God, the other being “immanence.” Transcendence refers to the higher nature of God and immanence refers to God as He currently works in reality, i.e., the cosmic order. The division between those who believe in a personal God and those who believe in an impersonal God reflects the division between the transcendent and immanent view of God. It is no surprise that most scientists who believe in God tend more to the view of an impersonal God, because their whole life is dedicated to examining the reality of the cosmic order, which seems to operate according to a set of rules rather than personal supervision.

Of course, atheists don’t even believe in an impersonal God. One famous atheist, Sigmund Freud, argued that religion was an illusion, a simple exercise in “wish fulfillment.” According to Freud, human beings desired love, immortality, and an end to suffering and pain, so they gravitated to religion as a solution to the inevitable problems and limitations of mortal life. Marxists have a similar view of religion, seeing promises of an afterlife as a barrier to improving actual human life.

Another view was taken by the American philosopher George Santayana, whose book, Reason in Religion, is one of the very finest books ever written on the subject of religion. According to Santayana, religion was an imaginative and poetic interpretation of life; religion supplied ideal ends to which human beings could orient their lives. Religion failed only when it attributed literal truth to these imaginative ideal ends. Thus religions should be judged, according to Santayana, according to whether they were good or bad, not whether they were true or false.

This criteria for judging religion would appear to be irrational, both to rationalists and to those who cling to faith. People tend to equate worship of God with belief in God, and often see literalists and fundamentalists as the most devoted of all. But I would argue that worship is the act of submission to ideal ends, which hold value precisely because they are higher than actually existing things, and therefore cannot pass traditional tests of truth, which call for a correspondence to reality.

In essence, worship is submission to a transcendent Good. We see good in our lives all the time, but we know that the particular goods we experience are partial and perishable. Freud is right that we wish for goods that cannot be acquired completely in our lives and that we use our imaginations to project perfect and eternal goods, i.e. God and heaven. But isn’t it precisely these ideal ends that are sacred, not the flawed, perishable things that we see all around us? In the words of Santayana,

[I]n close association with superstition and fable we find piety and spirituality entering the world. Rational religion has these two phases: piety, or loyalty to necessary conditions, and spirituality, or devotion to ideal ends. These simple sanctities make the core of all the others. Piety drinks at the deep, elemental sources of power and order: it studies nature, honours the past, appropriates and continues its mission. Spirituality uses the strength thus acquired, remodeling all it receives, and looking to the future and the ideal. (Reason in Religion, Chapter XV)

People misunderstand ancient Greek religion when they think it is merely a set of stories about invisible personalities who fly around controlling nature and intervening in human affairs. Many Greek myths were understood to be poetic creations, not history; there were often multiple variations of each myth, and people felt free to modify the stories over time, create new gods and goddesses, and change the functions/responsibilities of each god. Rational consistency was not expected, and depictions of the appearance of any god or goddess in statues or painting could vary widely. For the Greeks, the gods were not just personalities, but transcendent forms of the Good. This is why Greek religion also worshipped idealized ends and virtues such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks represented these idealized ends and virtues as persons (usually females) in statues, built temples for them, and composed worshipful hymns to them. In fact, the tendency of the Greeks to depict any desired end or virtue as a person was so prevalent, it is sometimes difficult for historians to tell if a particular statue or temple was meant for an actual goddess/god or was a personified symbol. For the ancient Greeks, the distinction may not have been that important, for they tended to think in highly poetic and metaphorical terms.

This may be fine as an interpretation of religion, you may say, but does it make sense to conceive of imaginative transcendent forms as persons or spirits who can actually bring about the goods and virtues that we seek? Is there any reason to think that prayer to Athena will make us wise, that singing a hymn to Zeus will help us win a war, or that a sacrifice at the temples of “Peace” or “Health” will bring us peace or health? If these gods are not powerful persons or spirits that can hear our prayers or observe our sacrifices, but merely poetic representations or symbols, then what good are they and what good is worship?

My view is this: worship and prayer do not affect natural causation. Storms, earthquakes, disease, and all the other calamities that have afflicted humankind from the beginning are not affected by prayer. Addressing these calamities requires research into natural causation, planning, human intervention, and technology. What worship and prayer can do, if they are directed at the proper ends, is help us transcend ourselves, make ourselves better people, and thereby make our societies better.

In a previous essay, I reviewed the works of various physicists, who concluded that reality consists not of tiny, solid objects but rather bundles of properties and qualities that emerge from potentiality to actuality. I think this dynamic view of reality is what we need in order to understand the relationship between the transcendent and the actual. We worship the transcendent not because we can prove it exists, but because the transcendent is always drawing us to a higher life, one that excels or supersedes who we already are. The pantheism of Spinoza and Einstein is more rational than traditional myths that attributed natural events to a personal God who created the world in six days and subsequently punished evil by causing natural disasters. But pantheism is ultimately a poor basis for religion. What would be the point of worshipping the law of gravity or electromagnetism or the elements in the periodic table? These foundational parts of the universe are impressive, but I would argue that aspiring to something higher is fundamental not only to human nature but to the universe itself. The universe, after all, began simply with a concentrated point of energy; then space expanded and a few elements such as hydrogen and helium formed; only after hundreds of millions of years did the first stars, planets, and other elements necessary for life began to emerge.

Worshipping the transcendent orients the self to a higher good, out of the immediate here-and-now. And done properly, worship results in worthy accomplishments that improve life. We tend to think of human civilization as being based on the rational mastery of a body of knowledge. But all knowledge began with an imagined transcendent good. The very first lawgivers had no body of laws to study; the first ethicists had no texts on morals to consult; the first architects had no previous designs to emulate; the first mathematicians had no symbols to calculate with; the first musicians had no composers to study. All our knowledge and civilization began with an imagined transcendent good. This inspired experimentation with primitive forms; and then improvement on those initial primitive efforts. Only much later, after many centuries, did the fields of law, ethics, architecture, mathematics, and music become a body of knowledge requiring years of study. So we attribute these accomplishments to reason, forgetting the imaginative leaps that first spurred these fields.