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.

 

Einstein’s Judeo-Quaker Pantheism

I recently came across a fascinating website, Einstein: Science and Religion, which I hope you will find time to peruse.  The website, edited by Arnold Lesikar, Professor Emeritus in the  Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Engineering Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, contains a collection of Einstein’s various comments on religion, God, and the relationship between science and religion.

Einstein’s views on religion have been frequently publicized and commented on, but it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive assessment of Einstein’s actual views on religion because of the tendency of both believers and atheists to cherry-pick particular quotations or to quote out of context. Einstein’s actual views on religion are complex and multifaceted, and one is apt to get the wrong impression by focusing on just one or several of Einstein’s comments.

One should begin by noting that Einstein did not accept the notion of a personal God, an omnipotent superbeing who listens to our prayers and intervenes in the operations of the laws of the universe. Einstein repeatedly rejected this notion of God throughout his life, from his adolescence to old age. He also believed that many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible were untrue.

The God Einstein did believe in was the God of the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza conceived of God as being nothing more than the natural order underlying this universe — this order was fundamentally an intelligent order, but it was a mistake to conceive of God as having a personality or caring about man. Spinoza’s view was known as pantheism, and Einstein explicitly stated that he was a proponent of Spinoza and of pantheism. Einstein also argued that ethical systems were a purely human concern, with no superhuman authority figure behind them, and there was no afterlife in which humans could be rewarded or punished. In fact, Einstein believed that immortality was undesirable anyway. Finally, Einstein sometimes expressed derogatory views of religious institutions and leaders, believing them responsible for superstition and bigotry among the masses.

However, it should also be noted that Einstein’s skepticism and love of truth was too deep to result in a rigid and dogmatic atheism. Einstein described himself variously as an agnostic or pantheist and disliked the arrogant certainty of atheists. He even refused to definitively reject the idea of a personal God, believing that there were too many mysteries behind the universe to come to any final conclusions about God. He also wrote that he did not want to destroy the idea of a personal God in the minds of the masses, because even a primitive metaphysics was better than no metaphysics at all.

Even while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein described God as a spirit, a spirit with the attribute of thought or intelligence: “[E]very one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” In an interview, Einstein expressed a similar view:

If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.

Distinguishing between the religious feeling of the “naïve man” and the religious feeling of the scientist, Einstein argued:  “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

While skeptical and often critical of religious institutions, Einstein also believed that religion played a valuable and necessary role for civilization in creating “superpersonal goals” for human beings, goals above and beyond self-interest, that could not be established by pure reason.  Reason could provide us with the facts of existence, said Einstein, but the question of how we should live our lives necessarily required going beyond reason. According to Einstein:

[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. . . . Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. . . .

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.

Einstein even argued that the establishment of moral goals by religious prophets was one of the most important accomplishments of humanity, eclipsing even scientific accomplishment:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

Einstein’s views of Jesus are particularly intriguing. Einstein never rejected his Jewish identity and refused all attempts by others to convert him to Christianity. Einstein also refused to believe the stories of Jesus’s alleged supernatural powers. But Einstein also believed the historical existence of Jesus was a fact, and Einstein regarded Jesus as one the greatest — if not the greatest — of religious prophets:

As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus. . . .No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein, while remaining Jewish, expressed great admiration for the Christian sect known as the Quakers. Einstein stated that the “Society of Friends,” as the Quakers referred to themselves as, had the “highest moral standards” and their influence was “very beneficial.” Einstein even declared “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Now Einstein’s various pronouncements on religion are scattered in multiple sources, so it is not surprising that people may get the wrong impression from examining just a few quotes. Sometimes stories of Einstein’s religious views are simply made up, implying that Einstein was a traditional believer. Other times, atheists will emphasize Einstein’s rejection of a personal God, while completely overlooking Einstein’s views on the limits of reason, the necessity of religion in providing superpersonal goals, and the value of the religious prophets.

For some people, a religion without a personal God is not a true religion. But historically, a number of major religions do not hold belief in a personal God as central to their belief system, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, many theologians in monotheistic faiths describe God in impersonal terms, or stress that the attributes of God may be represented symbolically as personal, but that God himself cannot be adequately described as a person. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argued that although God had been described allegorically and imperfectly by the prophets as having the attributes of a personal being, God did not actually have human thoughts and emotions. The twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich argued that God was not “a being” but the “Ground of Being” or the “Power of Being” existing in all things.

However, it is somewhat odd is that while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein saw God as a spirit that seemingly possessed an intelligence far greater than that of human beings. In that, Einstein was similar to Spinoza, who believed God had the attribute of “thought” and that the human mind was but part of the “infinite intellect of God.”  But is not intelligence a quality of personal beings? In everyday life, we don’t think of orbiting planets or stars or rocks or water as possessing intelligence, and even if we attribute intelligence to lower forms of life such as bacteria and plants, we recognize that this sort of intelligence is primitive. If you ask people what concrete, existing things best possess the quality of intelligence, they will point to humans — personal beings! Yet, both Spinoza and Einstein attribute vast, or even infinite, intelligence to God, while denying that God is a personal being!

I am not arguing that Spinoza and Einstein were wrong or somehow deluding themselves when they argued that God was not a personal being. I am simply pointing out how difficult it is to adequately and accurately describe God. I think Spinoza and Einstein were correct in seeking to modify the traditional concept of God as a type of omnipotent superperson with human thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, it can be difficult to describe God in a way that does not use attributes that are commonly thought of as belonging to personal beings. At best, we can use analogies from everyday experience to indirectly describe God, while acknowledging that all analogies fall short.

Ironically, some of the deepest and most contentious issues in science today revolve around the use of certain concepts and analogies in describing physical entities, often on the subatomic level, that we cannot directly observe and that behave in bizarre ways completely outside of our normal experiences. But that is a subject for another day.