Transcendence

Robert Wheeler

Ever since Enoch defied death and translated from earthly life directly into heaven during early biblical times, people have considered transcending their earthly existence for something more, an escape from the difficulties of life or to reach for something bigger, better, or more meaningful than their current existence. Throughout known history humans have been concerned with the possibility of escaping from their immediate existence and transcending or moving to a more desirable realm. Most religions and Eastern ideologies have long-range goals of transcending to another form of existence.

The story of Enoch appears in three different books of the Bible. He “walked with God” and was so favored that God translated him into heaven by-passing death, a pleasant way of escaping difficulties of life on Earth. The only problem with this is that since Enoch’s time people have had difficulty “walking with God” sufficiently to experience this way of transcending earthly existence, and unfortunately, people are decreasing in their ability to “walk with God.” Life is tough. In earlier days it was much less secure and comfortable then it is now and possibility of a better existence in some form of heaven was very comforting. Despite the technological advances, enjoyments, and comforts available in present times, our current existence has not provided an advanced level of well-being, and a sense of dissatisfaction is rampant (PewForum, 2019). In the past, various forms of metaphysical beliefs and religion provided possible escape and justification for the discomfort. Conflicts between traditional beliefs and modern experiences have caused such questioning of traditional beliefs that their previous benefits have decreased. The current increase in dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, crime, violence, and terrorism has been attributed to this loss of beliefs and decline in church influence; thus, providing one explanation for renewed interest in transcendence.

Transcendence is defined as the quality or state of being beyond comprehension, the universe, or material existence (among other factors). It grows out of the human need to reach out for something bigger and better beyond daily existence, and has been shown to even have a biological base. However, aside from Enoch, Jesus, and possibly some religious adepts, it cannot be counted on. Some attempts are currently underway, though. Developments about artificial intelligence are indicating feasibility of a computerized entity that far exceeds current human mental ability. The transhuman movement is using medical advances in gene editing and body modification aimed at producing a “superhuman.” And the Psychotronic Association is bridging research about science, spirit, mind, and technology to explore human potential. Such efforts have enough of a possibility to produce a new emergent form of life surpassing current limitations to receive funding. However, there are physical and moral dangers in these efforts of “tinkering with life” and “playing God,” but even theologians are supporting similar efforts.

A recent issue of the Journal Theology &Science (16(3), 2018) was devoted to articles about human progress toward a transcendent state known as deification, sanctification, or divination in religion with the question of appropriateness of human intervention. Information presented there supports a theory that the purpose of life is to grow and develop both as individuals and as a species, to foster development of life. This is similar to the philosophy popularized by the famous French Jesuit priest, geologist, and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin involving the “omega point” to which life is oriented. At that point human consciousness would be able to survive the eschaton (cessation of earthly existence) predicted by many religions and by the science of ultimate global warming when Earth is destroyed by the expanding sun. He is not clear about appropriateness of human interventions into the natural process, nor is he clear if this can occur before material life is destroyed. Many of the writers in the Theology & Science issue indicated this is God’s intention. Irenaeus, a famous Greek philosopher, established an early Christian position in the second century CE when he advocated that God created the universe so that a living organism would evolve naturally by overcoming the problems of material existence and meeting the challenges of evil with their own ingenuity.
The respected English physicist and theologian, John Polkinghorne, proposed that our Creator’s purpose was two stepped. First is the current human creation existing at some distance from a veiled Creator so that creatures will have the freedom to make themselves, and then the second step is the human creature’s encounter with the unveiled riches of the divine creator’s nature (having direct contact with God). He goes further to say that it is possible that God could create a form of matter not subject to the decay characterizing material of this world. Most religions provide for a non-material realm where personal consciousness continues after bodily death and can exist in places such as heaven, nirvana, and Jannah.

How comforting it is to think that such catastrophe can have a positive outcome. Most religions include a belief in such transcendence and advocate ways of achieving it. Success has always been allusive and limited to psychological or psychic experiences. It was the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow that popularized the term transcendence. But this was more scientifically based than the religious or spiritual approach.
Dr Maslow’s first major use of the term transcendence was in a1960 lecture that was published by the Journal of Humanistic Psychology about good health resulting from transcendence of physical environment. Here he advocated going beyond theories of motivation based on adjustment to the environment by thinking independently of the immediate environment and moving to something beyond or higher. He later wrote an article that was published posthumously showing that the healthiest people he studied not only thought about what he called meta-needs like beauty, harmony, and justice, but focused beyond the self, transcending immediate personal needs. Being able to focus on these high-level meta-needs he called actualization and those who were able to focus on these needs beyond the personal self, he called transcendent actualizers.

In a 1971 book, Dr. Maslow gave 35 definitions of transcendence. All but two concern focusing on actions and consideration beyond the self and needs of immediate daily existence to a higher level of functioning such as transcendence of time, ego, superego, one’s past, opinion of others, fear, conflicts, and rising above culture. These indicate support for an effort to redirect the current social emphasis on comfort, entertainment, and wealth to longer-range things such as development, explanation, and contribution. Such change in thinking would alleviate major current increasing social problems of anxiety, depression, suicide, crime, violence, and conflict. And, it will keep the possibility of transcendence alive.

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