Some reflections on Transcendence – I
“…what is emerging now is the nondualistic understanding of “immanent” and “transcendent.” Long seen as opposites in Western cultural history, transcendence is coming to be understood as “beyond” but not “above” the material plane we can see in every day life. What science calls “complex dynamical systems” has illuminated in recent decades the extraordinarily creative, complex, dynamic processes going on at every fraction of a second within, around, and through every entity in the universe. Our minds will never be able to map the endless networks of what I call “relational reality,” so spirituality that seeks to commune with either immanence or transcendence now sees that they are not apart. This realization is not new to Eastern philosophy or indigenous cultures, of course; we were simply late coming to it in the modern West because of our dualistic and mechanistic worldview.”
Charlene Spretnak, Immanence as well as Transcendence
In September I attended Thorn Coyle’s lecture on Self-Possession at Treadwells Bookshop. She was talking about, very eloquently, I thought, two problems associated with transcendence – firstly, that transcendence, implies a kind of non-worldly retreat or withdrawal from the everyday, and secondly, something which she termed “transcendent thinking”, which she explains in her book Kissing the Limitless in the following way:
“…flashes of enlightenment or moments of grace may happen, but there is no foundation for them to rest upon, leaving people hungry for things beyond their ken. This is the cause of transcendent thinking: things will be better after I lose weight, or find a new job, or get the right partner, or go to heaven. In these scenarios, something always gets left behind. That something is often the seeker herself. With self-possession, seekers open to inclusive consciousness, a new concept that argues for the embrace of all parts of human existence into the fold of the spiritual quest. When all of life is included, all of life can aid what is known in magical esotericism as the Great Work of coming to know our own divinity and our life’s purpose.”
So, transcendent thinking if I’m reading Thorn aright, is a desire to acquire a condition out of which everything will be perfect, or at the least, the things which worry me now, won’t because I have achieved “x” state (new job, new lover, inner equilibrium, etc.). It’s a turning-away from the present to seek satisfaction in some imagined future condition. Not only is there a critique of the notion of transcendence here, but also, I think, how we think about progress, evolution and perfectability – but I’ll leave that for now.
There does seem to be, amongst some Pagans, an increased suspicion of the idea of transcendence – roving around the web I’ve noticed a tendency for some Pagan writers to stress immanance in opposition to transcendence – the latter being explained purely in terms of God as being distinct from the world – with the implication that transcendent experiences are a kind of moving-away from the world, a disengagement with the everyday or an escape from the confines of materiality. It’s hardly surprising, as from the early twentieth century onwards, there’s been a sustained critique of this kind of ontological transcendence from all quarters – theology (and thealogy) philosophers, etc.
In Starhawk’s writing for example, transcendence-as-seperation is inextricable with the production of existential feelings of seperation and alienation from the world. The “rupture” that “underlines the entwined oppressions of race, sex, class and ecological destruction.” (Dreaming the Dark) Alienation – that sense of being disconnected – stems from removing value from the world and projecting it onto a transcendent deity and a consciousness “modeled on the God who stands outside the world, outside nature, who must be appeased, placated, feared and above all, obeyed.” A consequence of this alienation is the endless search for an unattainable object of desire beyond and apart from the Self – which is what Thorn is critiquing with her phrasing of “transcendent thinking”. A further problem of the transcendent for Starhawk is what might be termed the disembodiment of knowledge – the pervasive belief that a transcendent “truth” can be obtained which is “beyond” human experience. This produces fundamentalist thinking – the urge to preserve unity through the control and nihilisation of others. “In the split world, spirit wars with flesh, culture with nature, the sacred with the profane, the light with the dark”.
There are echoes here, of Foucault’s critique of Western thought of the “subjection to transcendence” – that Western thought and institutions have come to rely on some “exteriority” which can be apprehended, revealed and interpreted and thus provide a foundation for action. Claire Colebrook explains:
“The most obvious and general form of transcendence (and the one described by Foucault) is truth. Instead of seeing what we say and do as productive of relations between ourselves and our world, we imagine that there is some meaning or truth awaiting intepretation, revelation or disclosure. (This is the disease described by Deleuze and Guattari as ‘interpretosis”.) It is this invention of truth that produces ‘priests’ (those who will lead us to the truth) and ‘asceticism’ (for we renounce our desires and enslave ourselves to supposedly higher ideals). More importantly, this whole process leads to nihilism: despair when that higher, truer world we imagined behind appearances turns out to be ungraspable.”
Gilles Deleuze Claire Colebrook pp71-72
Of course, Deleuze & Guattari go a lot further, critiquing more complex instances of transcendence such as the subject – the ‘I’ differentiated from the world. But I’ll leave that aside for now, although Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence is something I’ll come back to another time.
So there is this powerful critique of transcendence as being productive of alienation – the sense of being disconnected from the world of immanent relations, arising out of theology, Patriarchy, or post-Englightenment rationality. Increasingly, the emphasis on immanence is being presented as one of the core principles of contemporary Paganism, with transcendence presented as a feature of monotheistic religion – although of course this tends to overlook the transcendental influences on Paganism, or the presence of immanence in, say, the Christian tradition. Some writers are going so far as to deny that contemporary Pagans are at all interested in transcendental experiences – those “flashes of enlightenment or moments of grace”. Yet at the same time, there’s a pervasive idea running throughout contemporary Paganism that human beings need to “reconnect” with the immanent world – that most of the time, we tend to feel that we are “out of alignment” or “disconnected” – Max Weber’s “iron cage” and his notion of disenchantment seems to have triumphed. Or has it? It seems to me sometimes, that the very dominance of the proposal that we are disenchanted (broken in some way) – and that modern Pagan/occult praxis can be thought of as methodologies of re-enchantment (a reconnection with that which has been “lost”) almost begs questioning the idea of disenchantment in the first place. But I’ll leave that aside for now – but it’s worth thinking about how much are we broken? How far can reconnection go?
The reason that I’m raising this last point is that what’s common to those “flashes of enlightenment or moments of grace” is that they are, to varying degrees, temporary. I’ve been attempting to write about my own experiences of this kind in the “Intensities” series of posts. They can last for a few seconds or several hours. They often involve an intense feeling of union with whatever’s around me – grass, trees, sky, buildings, other people. There’s a loss of a sense of a body-boundary – a feeling of unitive, encompassment with “everything”. But of course, this does not last. There’s an afterglow, which slowly fades. But at the same time, something remains – the sense being- in-connection never quite goes away; the open-ness to wonder which can burst forth at any moment. It’s not an experience for “chasing” – which is also implicit in Thorn’s “transcedent thinking” – nor do I think such experiences necessarily provoke a major life-change in the way that “transendence” is often presented as doing. Rather, it’s something quite ordinary; a gradual (or sudden) intensification of consciousness as opposed to a cataclysmic rupture. I think of these states as transcendence-towards-immanence; there is, often, a feeling of going upwards (or downwards), but also, simultaneously, spreading outwards – diffusion throughout the field of awareness – vertical and lateral at the same time.
In the next post, I’ll examine some different approaches to transcendence, and some related issues.
Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze (Routledge, 2001)
Thorn Coyle, Kissing the Limitless: Deep Magic and the Great Work of Transforming Yourself and the World (Red Wheel/Weiser 2009)
Jone Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminine: The Reclaiming Witches of San Fransisco (Routledge, 2002)
Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Beacon Press, 1988)
Starhawk The Spiral Dance: a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (Harper & Row, 1979)