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Some Reflections on Transcendence – II

“She who comes into being through the breath of life,
from whom the Gods all took their birth,
the Boundless Goddess of Infinity,
who enters the cave [of the heart] and dwells there –
This, I now declare, is that!”
Kath Upanishad, IV, 7-9

This is a follow-up to my previous post back in October reflecting on some facets of transcendent experience. Towards the end of that post, I mentioned the concept of lateral transcendence – an idea that I’ve encountered from a number of different sources, some of which I’m going to briefly examine here. The term “transcendence” is derived from the Latin – trans “crossing over” and scandere – “to climb over” or “rise above” (also scando is indicative of ascending). But etymology can only get us so far. What’s left unsaid, in etymological explanations of transcendence, is the thing to be crossed or climbed over – we might think, for example, in terms of crossing or climbing over the boundaries or fences we have become used to locating ourselves inside – between nature and culture, personal (“inner”) and social (“outer”), sacred and profane, male and female, even. Whilst traditional theologies associate transcendence with with other-worldliness; escape, or a refusal of the body. I think it may be useful, to make a distinction (taking a cue from Huston Smith) between “other-worldly” and “this-worldly” transcendence as modes of orientation towards the world. Take for instance the late Vaclav Havel’s view of transcendence as:

“…a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe. Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.”

Biologist Ursula Goodenough makes a useful distinction between “vertical” and “horizontal” modes of transcendence, drawing on the work of Michael Kalton. Here’s an apposite quote from Kalton:

“Horizontal transcendence finds its anchor in life rather than mind, thus displacing human consciousness from its privileged place. There is no cosmos posited apart from the historically ongoing one within which we find ourselves, nor is there life apart from ongoing living at whatever level it is considered. Instead of the typical vertical transcendence of the Greek inspired tradition, the movement of this kind of spiritual cultivation is horizontal, perfecting our relationship with the world of life about us, celebrating our status as members of the biosystem as a sort of homecoming, and sustaining us with a sense of awe and reverence for the mystery that encompasses us.”

Goodenough herself says:

“…locating the sacred in some other realm leaves me ethically bankrupt. My ethical aspirations are animated by my apprehension of the immediate, by my sense of belonging and relatedness. In the horizontal mode, spiritual cultivation is a shared experience; in the vertical mode it is solitary and unrooted.”

What’s interesting here is that both Havel and Goodenough present transcendent experience not as a big, life-changing event (as in Thorn’s idea of “transcendent thinking”, which I discussed in the previous post ) as it is often taken to be, but more of a relational activity – a “reaching out” towards the world and a commitment to widening one’s perspective. Further, both stress the necessity of aesthetic and ethical orientations towards the world.

I became intrigued with the idea of lateral transcendence after my first brush with the work of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (For a useful overview of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas see this article by David Abrams.) One of Merleau-Ponty’s central concerns is overcoming the Cartesian divide between subject and object – the “unbridgeable” dualistic seperation between us and the world which we are so familiar with. Hence his idea of the “lived body” or what he later called the chiasm or “flesh of the world”. He sought to describe not so much Self and World – but the between out of which both emerge. In Merleau-Ponty’s later writings, the usual dualistic poles: subject-object, body-mind, self-world, inner-outer – are never reducible to each other, but each pole both requires and limits the other, so that neither unity or seperation can ever be attained in any pure or totalising way: “what enables us to center our existence is also what prevents us from centering it completely…”.

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology does not view immanence and transcendence as mutually exclusive – but rather of “the paradox of transcendence in immanence in perception”. For Merleau-Ponty, “the perceived object cannot be foreign to him who perceives”. What is perceived is set within a context or horizon, assimilated in relation to the terms of reference of a perceiver. Transcendence, in these terms, is not some unknowable absence, but a feature of phenomena as they announce themselves within a horizon. Transcendence means that what is perceived “always contains more than what is actually given” – that any phenomenon has the capacity to surprise us, to broaden or even explode our horizons.

Lateral transcendence can be thought of as a reaching-beyond the boundaries of isolated selfhood towards the web of relationships, and perhaps, an openness to novelty, surprise, the unexpected. In Linda Holler’s view it is “a mode of transcendence based on being-in-relation-to, which, by rendering the knower incarnate, lessens the temptation to abstract ‘things’ from concrete space and time.”

Up-down, Inner-Outer?
I’ve found Goodenough’s distinction between vertical and horizontal modes of transcendence helpful in thinking through some other – related – issues. Despite the increasing orientation towards immanence in Pagan thought, it strikes me that many of the familiar organising schemas we draw on – such as the Tree of Life, or the (westernised) Chakras schema are vertically-oriented. In a similar vein, we tend to conceptualise the act of reconnecting with what has been lost (relationality, divinity, etc.) in terms of ascension (going upwards or drawing downwards) or in terms of a movement-within (“inner”) often at the expense of the “outer” – the communal, or social. There’s a subtle tendency, through the use of these hierarchical models, I think, to reinforce the mind vs body, inner vs outer, divine/(“higher”) vs body/(“lower”) distinctions – none of which sit well with emerging theologies of immanence. Even the ever-popular “As above, so below” statement seems to me to work to keep “spirit vs. mundane” spheres seperate. I’ve never heard anyone declaiming “as below, so above” for instance.

(I’ve been exploring some related issues in the ordering-machine and experience series of postings.)

Around the time that I was mulling over this, I was trying to get to grips with Deleuze & Guattari’s critique of “aborescent thinking” and their counter-idea of the rhizome. For Deleuze & Guattari, aborescent (“tree-like”) structures typically have at their top, some immutable concept made prominent via transcendental theorising or unreflexive presumption, the related concepts or particulars of which are organised vertically beneath in a tree/trunk/root arrangement and ordered hierarchically (for example, from transcendent to particular). The subordinate elements of the arrangement are static, according to an organising principle implied or set up by the overall concept – which dictates the position or meaning of everything else within the closed system. Furthermore, arboreal models tend to dissipate the difference between particular elements in favour of the similarity which defines them in terms of superior concepts in general and the top-level concept in particular. For Deleuze & Guattari, thinking in such a way leaves favours universals and abstractions over lived experience, and shields dominant concepts from critique. In contrast, Deleuze & Guattari assert that lived experience comprises uniqueness and particularity in each moment, the differences of which always ought to be acknowledged.

“…trees are not a metaphor at all, but an image of thought, a functioning, a whole apparatus that is planted in thought in order to make it go in a straight line and produce the famous correct ideas. There are all kinds of characteristics in the tree: there is a point of origin, seed or centre; it is a binary machine or principle of dichotomy, with its perpetually divided and reproduced branchings, its points of arborescence; it is an axis of rotation which organises things in a circle, and the circles round the centre; it is a structure; a system of points and positions which fix all of the possible within a grid, a hierarchical system or transmission of orders, with a central instance and recapitulative memory; it has a future and a past, roots and a peak … there is no doubt that trees are planted in our heads: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, etc. The whole world demands roots. Power is always aborescent.”
Dialogues II, p25

In this post in 2010, I thought through some criticisms of the occult tendency to treat our favourite representational schema (Tree of Life, Chakras etc) as “total knowledge systems”, having found a quote from Israel Regardie: “The whole mélange thus serves as a further means of classifying all knowledge. It serves to organise the contents of the mind and to provide a mechanism for unifying all systems of any and every kind. Thus, ultimately, it enables one to reduce all types and kinds of knowledge to unity.” – this is I think, one of the problems that Deleuze & Guattari are attempting to highlight – that attempting to jam everything into one overarching model of classification erases difference (and distance) and fixes them into a static, universal schema, proceeding from a singular point of origin.

It seems to me that these schemas tend to reflect the traditional western idea of uni-directional transcendence.

As a point of contrast, I think it is worth examining some Indian approaches. Raimon Pannikar in The Vedic Experience uses the term “theanthropocosmic” to denote the cosmological perspective in which the sacred, human beings, and nature are interdependent participants – where the vertical orientation towards transcendent wholeness does not entail seperation from the the horizontal orientation towards others – the immediate and immanent. That “the epistemic plurality does not contract the ontological unity.”

“We must therefore content ourselves by noting the stupendous crescendo of the texts and their theandropocosmic connections. All is related and interdependent. Brahman is not like a ladder whose earlier steps we may forget once we have reached a higher one. Brahman is not confined to the top but is in immediate contact with everything.” (p227)

Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition wherein God creates the world ex nihilo, the Vedic Purusa Sukta has the Cosmic Person creating/emitting the world through an act of self-dismemberment – so that all of creation shares the same substance. As Pannikar points out (p73):

“It is neither a merely divine affair, nor a purely human endeavour, nor a blind cosmic process; it is human, divine, and cosmic all in one. That is, it is cosmotheandric. God, Man, and the universe are correlates. … The three are constitutively connected. … Nothing seperates Man from God. There is neither intermediary nor barrier between them.”

In Pannikar’s vision of transcendence, the vertical and horizontal orientations are mutual, interdependent – the remote can become -from instant to instant – proximate, and vice versa. We might begin therefore, to think of transcendent experience not in terms of a horizontal of lateral orientation, but as a circle, or better yet, a sphere. I’ll leave that point hanging, for now, and continue this wittering another time.

Gilles Deleuze, Clair Parnet Dialogues II (Columbia University Press, revised edn 2007)
Raimon Panikkar The Vedic Experience: Mantramañjari: An Anthology Of The Vedas For Modern Man (University of California Press, 1977)
Vijaya Subramani A Taste of the Divine: Rasa and Transcendence in Dialogue (MA Thesis, University of Calgary, May 2006)

Online Resources
Ursula Goodenough: Evolution is Not About Survival of the Fittest But About Fitting In
Michael Kalton: Green Spirituality: Horizontal Transcendence
Walter H. Capp: Interpreting Václav Havel


  1. Gyrus
    Posted March 20th 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Well wittered! 🙂 I’m going into a lot of these issues, from a different angle, in what I’m writing about cosmology, and lots of this resonates. I’ve been trying to cover the entire span of human history, and what’s striking to me is the transition from foraging to settled life and agriculture. Obviously there’s the usually risks of simplifying and “noble savage” romanticism, but this bifurcation seems to be crucial to understanding any horizontal vs. vertical concepts of cosmology, spirituality, power and social relations.

    The basic story is that in most forager societies, egalitarianism seems to go hand-in-hand with a cosmology where the celestial is merely one aspect of the world. What seems to us to be a “natural” symbolic role for the sky, manifesting “transcendent” realities, is in evidence in these cultures, but not in the overtly hierarchical way it is in most agricultural societies. For instance, when it comes to orientation, even though foragers move around a lot, they generally do so within a distinct region, which they know incredibly well – and it’s landscape features, such as mountains and rivers, that provide crucial points of reference. Conversely, despite generally being “sedentary”, agricultural societies are more prone to long-distance migrations, moving into regions whose geographical features are unfamiliar – and here, the “fixing” of celestial reference points in a cosmology abstracted from the Earth becomes very useful. I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that agricultural societies are general stratified into social elites and “commoners”, the former generally associated with the lofty heavens. Obviously outlining the flows of causality among these social and cosmological elements will depend on your ideological bias, but while the connections are certainly complex, they seem to be obvious and revealing.

    That reading of the Vedic cosmogony is interesting. I admit that my view of it – and its Indo-European variants – has been coloured by the Dumézil / Lincoln thing about the “trifunctional hypothesis” of 3 social strata. Can’t recall the precise links between the cosmogony and those 3 levels, and the theory’s a tricky one, but there’s definitely something there. And of course it posits an “organic unity” that is very vertical. While it’s pretty obvious this element of vertical social heirarchy was there in these societies, Pannikar seems to highlight how much Dumézil’s theory was also a “reading”, and the culture’s myths always afforded a more horizontal perspective for parts of society that sought such a thing.

  2. grant
    Posted March 22nd 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Because I’m a nightmarish person (and have been reading Otto Rahn on and off for the past few months), I immediately leaped from lateral transcendence to the ideals of fascism and collectivism. I’m not sure how to fit the cult of personality around Mao or Hitler into that schema (certainly not rhizomatic), but there seems to be a similar kind of movement or transaction. I dissolve into the will of my brothers and sisters, united in common cause, comrades, one folk with one heart….

    Nowadays, we democratic westerners treat these things as horrific and repress the imagery (see: underwater Nazi zombies), but for a while in the 20th century, the concepts were bold and seductive and promised to transform human society for the better.

    I’m curious if “spherical transcendence” would do a better job of dealing with Self vs. Other. (I like the idea of our universe being a sphere that has no outside, just itself. No place to be excluded to, you see.)

  3. grant
    Posted March 22nd 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Ooo – I should also say that the Judeo-Christian creation story in Genesis (and in John), creation isn’t exactly *ex nihilo* but *ex mare*. The later European commentators kind of elided the fact that Genesis had a lot in common with Egyptian creation stories of Amun bringing land out of Nun, the primal sea.

    The waters are already there in Gen 1:2, and the first thing that God does after turning on the light is move some of the water off the land. It’s above us and below us and all around us… which is, I guess, a spherical image. (The NAB even says God “made the dome in the middle of the waters.”)