What is transcendence?
Transcendence is the awareness of ‘otherness’ within our lives. It is not a meeting with God so much as a signpost to Himself he has left for us to discover. It may be anything from a shadowy and fleeting moment to a sublime ecstacy. Transcendence is not so much God’s revelation of Himself as His hint to the unready soul that there is a revelation. It is not itself a spiritual experience that is a part of saving grace. We may not be Christians, and yet may experience transcendence. We may not believe in God, and yet may experience it. Transcendence is built into creation and human existence. And it answers to a capacity within every human being.
Creation and transcendence
You walk along a beach and watch the might of the ocean. You feel your smallness and suddenly you know your life is something less than the whole story. There is more to life and you yearn to connect with it. I spent a week in a Swiss Alpine village many years ago. There was a magnificent pine forest on the doorstep and I loved to walk there. In the beautiful stillness I found something that took me totally BEYOND MYSELF. That is transcendence. These moments vary in intensity greatly. I mildly experience something of this in something just rather good – even a beautiful meal. Much more do I meet it in nature, especially when I am not crowded by others. I meet it in a very special way in the closeness of marriage – a third strand to two human people living in self-surrender to one another, which points to the ‘otherness’ that makes marriage sacred and diferent from a mere partnership of co-existence. For me, music is extremely powerful as a signpost to trasncendence, supremely and sublimely in Bach – though I like a good tune as well (I am listening to Mendelssohn’s ‘Lobsgesang’ symphony as I write!).
Transcendence, then, is not spiritual experience in the highest sense. It is a divinely erected signpost for us to look beyond ourselves to Him. Paul speaks of it in Acts 17:24-28. Or rather, God has erected countless signposts is every area of human life, that ‘haply’(as the AV puts it) we may seek him. Wherever people look for a level of ‘being’ that has meaning, nobility, beauty, love, creativity, and so on – there they find a transcendence that points toward God. This means that we can find them in art, music and literature. It means we can find them in faling in love. It means we can find them in skills like carpentry or even football. Why do crowds lose themselves in the thrill of a football match? Why do we feel a solidarity with other fans, most of whom we would not gladly invite for supper!? Because in the experience created by celebrating skill together we are lifted beyond ourselves. We celebrate humility by admiring superior skil. We become part of a body of people, and find relief from the relentless focus on self that we have been taught is the meaning of life.
Every human being has the capacity to read these signposts and feel them in the soul (which they have whether they know it or not). We can read the signs because we have sight for them built into our human nature. Notice the difference between this and spiritual awakening. No-one has natural spirituality: that is an oxymoron. If spirituality were natural to us, we would notice evil for its novelty, not for its normality.
However, we do have eyes for transcendence. God has gone from us (at least as a Friend), but He has left His footprints behind for us to wonder at. HE HAS DONE THIS BECAUSE WE CAN SEE THEM. It is like someone with Altzheimers, who lives in a jumbled up world of thought nearly the whole time, yet sometimes wanders into a lucid moment for no obvious reason. We can be so wrong and evil that we are deliberately and wantonly alienated from grace. And yet, moments come to us that disturb our certainties and haunt our spiritual emptiness. Indeed, the very things we do in our greatest moments of rebellion are generally acts of idolatry – that is, they have a curious godlikeness about them, but we refuse to follow where they point, and draw another conclusion (which becomes our own idol worship). I was watching Peter Sellers recently in one of his Clouseax films. Do you remember this scene? A butler and a maid are in a room locked from the inside. A shot is heard and the door immediately broken open. There lies the butler dead from a gunshot. Beside him stands the maid with the smoking gun in her hand. No-one else could get in or out of the room. Clouseax relates these things to his assistant to analyse the evidence, shouting, ‘Fact!’ after every incontrovertible statement. Then he asks, ‘What do you conclude?’ His sargeant wearily replies that the maid shot the butler. Clouseax retorts, ‘Don’t be so stupid! How could such a beautiful woman commit murder!’ That is what people do with transcendence when they read the signs wrongly.
‘Transcendence signs’ (now we have a term to play with) are more felt than understood. Why does music enchant us? Why does nature create a sense of mystery? Why do the hairs on our necks stand up in a ghostly atmosphere? Rationally, it is extremely difficult to explain these things. We can say there are no ghosts, and still feel nervous. We can be moved to deep emotions through nature, even as we declare to ourselves that the world of matter is relentlessly physical and a pure accident to boot. Indeed, rationality is often a deliberate veil we throw over transcendence signs. No matter that they shout ‘transcendence!’ we seek to convince ourselves we can hear nothing of the kind. Or at least, that it means ‘nothing but’ an emotional disturbance that will soon pass and leave us with ‘reality’. But is not the moment a moment of reality as well? Are feelings not real – even though they are admittedly capable of great misunderstanding? The thing about transcendence experience is that it involves emotion differently from its usual place. In western life, we put understanding first, choice second, and emotion third. We believe and so we act, whether we feel good about it or not. On the whole, this is a Christian way of looking at truth, as it happens (though rationality is suspect in Christianity in a way that it is not in humanism). However, transcendence signs do not first of all address the mind, but the heart, whatever vestage there is in it of the original spiritual dimension humanity lost b turning from God. It defies understanding, it contradicts understanding, it insults understanding by invading its hold on reality with shocking contradiction. It is a sight of the unseeable. It is a voice ‘from beyond’. It is the loss of rational control. It is a portal to another dimension.
Transcendence and spiritual experience
I have said that transcendence in worship involves first of all, that there are trascendence signs in the worship for us to experience, and our receptiveness to receiving them. It is here that the difference between transcendence and spirituality become both subtle and yet vital to discern. To seek the transcendent is not exactly the same as to seek God. It is to seek that what we do points in the direction of God.
I know plenty of people who enjoy worship as transcendence because of its capacity to create a sense of ’otherness’. There is pleasure and comfort in that, as long as one is not bothered to wonder whether that other realm could be dangerous as well as attractive. Or to put it another way, whether there are demons as well as angels, judgement as well as grace, Satan as well as Christ, hell as well as heaven. Equally, I know plenty of truly spiritual people for whom transcendence signs are confusing, because they want the organ-grinder rather than the monkey, so to speak. Some people are led to believe that it somehow magnifies God to make His presence in worship a kind of contrary miracle. Keep it all so un-transcendent that there can be no mistaking the real thing when you meet with saving grace. Of course, this is the original Puritan reaction to Catholic ritual, a reaction born of the fact that even the divinely appointed transcendence signs of church (the sacraments) were turned into idols by the church itself. So let us admit absolutely, that transcendence signs can become distractions from the real experience of God, and even anti-Christ in spirit: that is, another and substitute form of religious experience.
Having said that, it seems to me that rejecting transcendence signs as contradictory of spirituality, is a kind of perverseness. It is like a husband driving his car while his wife reads the map, and turning left when she says turn right, just because he doesn’t like her being right!
Transcendence signs in worship are divinely appointed, and therefore we should surely accept their legitimacy and value. I mean, of course, the two sacraments. But we are not limited to those that are divinely given. We are told to lift our hands in holy prayer. That is a man-made transcendence sign. So is greeting one another with a holy kiss. So is singing a hymn of praise. Prayer in worship is commanded, but different ways of praying are allowed, and some POINT at least some of us to God more effectively than others. You cannot say that a prayer group is intrinsically more or less spiritual than a measured prayer from a leader of worship. Both involve a transcendence sign in their FORM (not their content, which is either spiritual or unspiritual).
Therefore, I believe there is no contradiction with true spirituality in seeking to provide transcendence signs in worship. Yes, we must turn to God in repentance and faith in order tomeet with Him. Nothing less will do. But FORM either inhibits or encourages us to do that. A disordered service inhibits me, at least, from seeking God. It grates with my spirit. Equally so does a service without joy, without passion. GIve me Pentecostal praise to Baptist blandness any day! Better still, give me Baptist praise with Pentecostal fire, liturgical direction, and Calvinistic depth! That doesn’t happen by accident, but by design. Someone has to plan a worship service that POINTS US the way we should go through transcendence signs rather than allowing it to be spoiled by transcendence obstacles (some parents of small children seem unable to understand that!) The service that provides transcendence signs only to hold us within them is false worship. You can get that falseness in a cathedral performance of evensong, or in a charismatic display that invites you to dance to the music. You can get it when you are invited to ‘decide for’ healing by ‘having the faith’ instead of committing yourself to the God who can and does heal (but not always).
Finally, I offer you one of the most unwelcome and unvalued transcendence signs that God has made: suffering.