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:
“..as 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”.