Monthly Archives: March 2016

What is Religion? Part 5: Transcendence

Today’s Post

We’ve looked at religion so far as a way of making sense of things, as a locus for our evolved understanding, as a basis for our acting, and as a context for our sense of belonging.  Today we will look at religion as a ‘signpost to transcendence’.

Transcendence: More Than We Can See

Human history is filled with intuitions of a reality which exists outside, beyond, above or beneath the tangible world that we all experience.  Ancient cultures, through their myths and rituals, routinely attributed supernatural causes to things they did not understand, and the gods and religions that they invented gave structure to an otherwise dangerous world.

As we saw in the post of September 17, “The Evolution of Religion, Part 2- The ‘Axial Age’, about 500 BCE the object of ‘understanding’ began to shift from our environment to ourselves.   As Karen Armstrong puts it

“This was one of the clearest expressions of a fundamental principle of the Axial Age:  Enlightened persons would discover within themselves the means of rising above the world; they would experience transcendence by plumbing the mysteries of their own nature, not simply by taking part in magical rituals.”

This evolving awareness of our environment from ‘the unknown’ to ‘the yet to be known’ involves a new understanding of the future as ‘promising’, filled with ‘potential’, and is the basis of the human sense of transcendence.

In this sense, we stand before a future which is unknown (and hence risky) but nonetheless has the potential to yield to our yearnings.  While we may feel finite and limited (and hence weak) when we sense the risk, we may also be able to sense the potential for both understanding and dealing with the unknowns that we will encounter as we step forward.

None of this can be objectively proven, but to the extent that we doubt we are unable to take this step into the unknown.

A Brief History of Transcendence

As humanity has gone forward, slowly replacing our sense of transcendence as simple ‘intuition of the unknown’ with an increasingly clear understanding of ourselves and our environment, it might be expected that this milieu of transcendent reality would be eventually replaced by empirical facts.  This, in fact, is the belief expressed by the atheist community.

However, even the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, recognizes that something is at play in human evolution that moves us forward.  He refers to this something as “the phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression” which he explains:

“ a matter of observed fact, it (human evolution) does move…  (the Zeitgiest) is probably not a single force like gravity, but a complex interplay of disparate forces like the one that propels Moore’s law.“

While it is certainly true that the history of religion and society as a whole can be superficially seen as the continual replacing of supernatural rationale for phenomena by empirical explanations, as Dawkins asserts, it continues to be enriched by a ‘Zeitgeist’ which pulls it forward in the direction of increasing complexity.

Science, in particular, is enriched by such a phenomenon.  The basic principle which underlies every scientific theory is that there is something not yet known which causes something that is observed.  It may well be true that this process of discovery may result in an empirical explanation for this ‘something’.  However, faith that the nature of reality is such that it will yield to human inquiry is itself an acknowledgement of its transcendent nature.

The other aspect of this faith is that the human activity of ‘reason’ is capable of both managing the process of discovery and of understanding reality sufficiently to describe it.

From this perspective, ‘transcendence’ can be understood as the ‘open-ended’ nature of both ourselves and our environment.

Teilhard addresses this movement toward transcendence at both the personal and universal level:

“Evolution consists of the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to see.”

Religion and Transcendence

Religion, in its role of ‘making sense of things’ has a long history of informing human society.  In this long history, however, it has accumulated an immense amount of supernatural, mythical and otherwise other-worldly explanations for entities and phenomena.  The Western bible, for example, contains many such depictions and explanations.  In its roots of thousands of years of multiple oral traditions, fragmentation of Jewish society and scribal redactions it also contains many contradictions.

These aspects of the bible have given rise to much ado in Western religions as well as encouragement to the recent rise of Western atheism.   The Western expressions of Christianity fight among themselves over the meaning to be derived from scripture, while the atheists crow over the many inaccuracies and contradictions of literal interpretations.

But all religions insist on ‘meaning’ beyond their literal expressions.  As Karen Armstrong asserts above, religion offers “the means of rising above the world”, of rising above the obvious, the tangible, the material and the limiting aspects of reality.  This “means of rising” can be recognized as the ‘Zeitgeist’ of Dawkins, active in human evolution as it moves us forward.

Religion reminds us that there is more to life than that which appears.  As we have seen in the thinking of Teilhard:

  • in his understanding of evolution as it rises through our life through the activation of our potential for growth and relationships
  • as his perspective rounds out the findings of science as it accommodates the human in scientific thinking
  • as religion can be understood as the human attempt to reflect these aspects of life

From this perspective, religion is a signpost to transcendence.  It reminds us that the thread of evolution continues its billions of years of upwelling to flow in our lives, and in our society, continually offering us

  • an increase in our ‘complexity’: our growth and maturity
  • and a more robust energy of relationship: our ability to love.

The Next Post

The next two posts will provide a sixth and final approach to defining religion, that of “Stability”.

What is Religion? Part 4: Belonging

Today’s Post

In the last three posts, we have taken a look at religion from three perspectives: as a way of making sense of things, as manifestation of human evolution, and as a basis for action.  Today I’d like to address another perspective: as a basis for ‘belonging’.

Finding Our Roots

A perennial fascination in human culture is the desire to understand our family tree, the roots from which we have sprung.  With the benumbing amount of data that increases every day, the tracing of our ancestry becomes ever more feasible, and more people are availing themselves of an increasing amount of tools and services which can help them do so.

We only have to go back a few generations before the difficulty of such activity becomes almost insurmountable.  For a very long time the understanding of lineage was possible only for the rich and noble, whose family lines were captured in such tangible and enduring things as paintings, sculptures and legal documents.  If we go back a few hundred more years, only those rulers and demi-gods whose legacy was written in stone are known to us.

The advances of science have offered new tools for such research.  It is now possible to subscribe to services which will analyze our genetic makeup, our DNA, to offer probable identification of the many threads of lineage which lead to us.  While we are limited in tracing our ancestry at the level of individual predecessors, it is nonetheless possible to determine such things as racial and national stock in helping us to determine our roots.

Putting Us In Context

Why this urge to understand where we come from?  Certainly, most of us come from a family in which our sense of ourselves is nurtured, and from which we get much of our self-image.  Most of us go on to establish deep relationships, from which spring our own families, and in this process our sense of self continues to evolve.  With all this, however, the longing for ‘more’ never ceases, and each link that we make to our past has the potential to add a small sense of ‘belonging’.

Carl Rogers, in his landmark book, “On Becoming a Person” addresses this phenomenon of the evolving human person.  In his extensive experience, he finds the human person’s capacity for maturity and growth to be assured:

“Gradually my experience has forced me to conclude that the individual has within himself the capacity and the tendency, latent if not evident, to move forward to maturity.  Each human has a tendency to reorganize his personality and his relationship to life in ways which are regarded as more mature.  Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive toward self-actualization, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life.”

He goes on to note that while this potential exists, to actualize it requires the overcoming of many barriers:

“This is a difficult concept to accept. … Christian tradition has permeated our culture with the concept that man is basically sinful, and only by something approaching a miracle can his sinful nature be negated.  In psychology, Freud and his followers have presented convincing arguments that the id, man’s basic and unconscious nature, is primarily made up of instincts which would, if permitted expression, result in incest, murder and other crimes.”

And, as Richard Rohr notes, the negative content often seen in Christian theology:

“…Augustine’s “original sin,” Calvin’s “total depravity,” or dear Luther’s “humans are like piles of manure, covered over by Christ.”

According to Rogers, the increasing sense of alienation that we experience in our fast-moving society also contributes to the many barriers to personal growth.  As a result, we long for the sense of ‘belonging’ or ‘fitting into’  reality that we had when we were children.

Religion and the Sense of Belonging

At the most superficial level, religions, like many other social structures, offer a sense of belonging.  As Rogers notes above, however, it is not unusual to find religious thinking which not only does not nourish personal growth, it offers a ‘sense of belonging’ that requires denial of the potential of personal growth.  A review of the many doctrinal statements of western religion reveals much diversity, even contradictions, in the interpretation of scripture and practices of belief when it comes to understanding the human person and how he fits into reality.

In the final segment of this blog we will address such statements and practices to plumb their potential as a resource to human personal growth.  We’ll address one such statement here, which comes from the Gospel of John:

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him”.

Thousands of interpretations and commentaries have been offered on this statement, but a simple interpretation, in line with the human need to ‘belong’ as one of the conditions of maturity, comes from two assumptions that that are embedded in this statement:

  • First, whatever or whoever the human person consists of is deeply connected to whatever or whoever the ground of being consists of.  Whatever our ‘feelings’ of belonging and the ‘potential’ for our growth, we are deeply connected to the source of our being.
  • Second, the deepest and most profound manifestation of this connection is found in the energy of love.

Another statement which speaks to our ‘belonging’ is that ‘God is Father’.  Maurice Blondel proposes a ‘principle of reinterpretation’ that seeks to interpret ‘statements about the divine’ in terms of ‘statements about human persons’.  He respins this basic Christian statement as:

“The relationship between us and the ground of being is that of child to parent.  The ground of being is on our side.  We belong to the universe as a child belongs to a family”

Good religion, as Richard Rohr notes, “reconnects (‘re-religio’) us to what is ultimately real”.  Further, Teilhard identifies the human person as the latest product of evolution, and we are connected to each other by the most recent manifestation of the energy of evolution (love).

These two examples illustrate how religious statements can be reinterpreted into statements about reality which address our person, our deepest relationships and the growth by which both mature.

Through such reintepretations we can begin to understand ourselves as not only connected, but deeply ‘belonging’ to the grand sweep of ‘becoming’ manifested in the evolution of the universe, an evolution which yields to our longings if we but understand how to cooperate with it.  As Teilhard sees it:

  • “Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves borne by a current towards the open seas.”

The Next Post

The next post will provide a fifth and final approach to defining religion, that of “transcendence”.