The Ambiguities of Transcendence

by Clyde A. Holbrook

Dr. Holbrook is Danforth professor of religion and chairman of the department of religion at Oberlin College.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 24, 1975 pp. 1180-1183. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christianity does not call us to flee to another world, but to hallow this world where we are placed.

Transcendence is "in." It bids fair to become a cant term in popular and theological parlance. The more the world is seen as pressing people down, with never-ending crises and numbing boredom, the more the idea of transcendence flourishes. It is apparently a dimension of experience that holds enormous promise for escape from the mundane level.

This new preoccupation with transcendence is prompted less by a scientific outlook than by human satiety with the world as it is. Transcendence appears as a flight to a more rewarding realm of experience. Perhaps Charles Fair’s comment about Eric Hoffer’s true believer is not far off the mark. The true believer is "a man determined to drag the supernatural back to life by the sheer power of wishing, or failing that, to vent his desolation on those around him -- on reality itself for being such a cheat" (The New Nonsense [Simon & Schuster, 1974] p. 75).

In the past several years we have been assailed with reports of the benefits derivable from the transcendent dimension. We have been instructed by Harvey Cox and his disciples on the values inherent in festivity and fantasy that lift us above prosaic ways of thinking and feeling. We have been encouraged by Sam Keen to enjoy sensuous transcendence in the name of dancing gods. We have been urged to develop a theology of the unimaginable. And along with these symptoms of dis-ease with the world, we have devils, exorcism, witchcraft, charismatic experience and the dictum of Pope Paul VI that the devil is real.

A recent book blurb assures us that the author has nailed down his argument for God’s existence with the contention that it is impossible to go beyond oneself unless there’s a "Beyond (ideal or real) toward which man can transcend" (note well the reification bought cheaply by capitalizing the B in Beyond!). William A. Johnson believes that the search for transcendence is prompted by the desire for a "deeper and more profound meaning of life and for a sensitizing and intensification of human experience" (The Search for Transcendence [Harper-Colophon, ‘974]’ p. 1). Robert Bellah is heard to say that society needs symbols of transcendence if it is to be capable of creative and healthy activity. Peter L. Berger, enthusiastic proclaimer of the appearance of transcendence, suspects that "there is something close to an instinct for transcendence in human beings" and that "the reality policemen" and "reality definers" that throng our colleges and universities have helped to repress this valuable resource ("Cakes for the Queen of Heaven: 2500 Years of Religious Ecstasy," The Christian Century, December 25, 1974, p. 1220). The "Appeal for Theological Affirmation" promulgated by the Hartford theological group also paid its respects to the subject of transcendence by affirming the loss of a sense of the transcendent, and by distinguishing false transcendence from true (Worldview, April 1975, p. 40).


Obviously, since such a diversity of results is claimed for transcendence, it behooves both critics and defenders to proceed with caution in assessing the value and nature of transcendence. Where so many and so variant phenomena are attributed to transcendence, one is permitted to suspect that some multifarious features of the world, supposedly left behind by transcendence, are nevertheless imported into the essential character of transcendence itself. It seems probable, despite the denials issued by defenders of transcendence, that the mundane world they deprecate revenges itself upon them in the last analysis.

Some common themes link most advocates of transcendence. Essential to many types, if not all, is the belief that there is a supernormal state of consciousness in which a breakthrough of the normal limits of consciousness raises one to a dimension where a new state of being comes about. Thus, in his comments on defining religion, Berger approvingly refers to Rudolf Otto’s idea of the holy, and suggests in the light of that concept that religious experience must be recognized as distinct from "the experiences of ordinary, everyday reality." Religious experience, then, is almost equated with transcendence. "The reality of everyday life is ever again breached, as other realities force themselves upon consciousness" ("Some Second Thoughts on Substantive versus Functional Definitions of Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. X, No. 2, pp. 129-130).

As Berger’s comment shows, transcendence is not merely a transformation of the mind; it stands also for an "objective" reality not accessible to daily, ordinary experience. This point becomes salient for those who would wish to convince us that there is a larger, deeper "reality" than could be produced by mere mental operations. Furthermore, many proponents argue that transcendence issues in beneficial consequences: it leads to creativity, to a sense of the hollowness and flatness of daily life as one sees beyond it, to an opening of perceptions and sensitivity to the normally unseen "realities" beyond the trivialities of worldly existence.


The implications of this way of thinking for Christian religion and theology become clear. If the religious life is to be accurately assessed as religious, it must be lived in the presence of "two realities" -- the sacred and the profane, the holy and the secular, the supernatural and the natural. God inhabits the realm of the sacred, the holy and the supernatural -- accessible only, if the logic be followed, in a state of consciousness which opens the way to the reality of the transcendent. God is behind the scenes. He is not where human beings do their daily work, where they live, think, feel and die. The richer world of the supernatural and transcendent lies beyond the dumpy, dull world that we inhabit most of the time.

There is no need for argument if all that is claimed for transcendence is that human beings can move psychologically from one state of consciousness to another. Such self-transcendence is obvious and needs no defense. Memory, reasoning, the use of signs and symbols, self-awareness, the exercise of imagination, the sense of depth or height of certain crucial experiences, the sense of humor, the realization of what Karl Heim called the nonobjectifiable ego -- all are forms of self-transcendence, as are despair and madness. Transcendence conceived as self-transcendence is the ability we have as human beings to move psychologically from some time-confined present patch of sense or mental datum to some datum or proposition not available within the bounds of the previous present. In this sense one transcends or goes beyond any present content of the mind for the sake of a new "present." As such, there is nothing extraordinary or even notably religious in self-transcendence, although without it we would be less than human.

Now a distinction already hinted at must be made clear. Advocates of transcendence too easily slide over this distinction as they assimilate self-transcendence to the idea of an ontological, independent realm of the transcendent. Thus, Johnson states:

"Whether transcendence is conceived of in a technical philosophical sense (as that metaphysical realm above the rational) or in an ordinary sense (as that phenomenon or experience found within the natural world, but which appears to point beyond that world) the meaning is about the same" (op. cit., p. 2).

However, it is far from obvious that the ordinary sense of self-transcendence counts as evidence of an ontological transcendent realm or that self-transcendence provides "pointers" to or "signals" of such a realm, as Berger would have it (A Rumor of Angels [Doubleday Anchor, 1969], pp. 55 ff.). Psychological experience of self-transcendence cannot legitimately be converted into an objective ontological transcendent. The mere fact that I have a certain self-transcending experience does not forthwith establish that the experience is a veridical experience of an independent reality. The conversion of psychology into ontology cannot be accepted unless we are willing to accept the Berkeleyan dictum "To be is to be perceived." Furthermore, to make psychological experience identical with independent reality is to convert psychological operations into causal categories -- a move of dubious logic at best.


Another matter that poses an interesting problem for those who obscure the distinction between self-transcendence and ontological transcendence is the fact that inference (a self-transcending act) intervenes between the primary self-transcending acts of, the mind and the final conclusion that such "signals" or "pointers" are valid indicators that there is a transcendent realm. A short-circuited line of argument is implicit in the effort to conclude forthwith that such a realm exists. Even if we are told that the move from psychology to ontology or metaphysics is an act of faith, a judgment is tacitly involved. What seems to happen is that explicitly or implicitly one affirms that a state of mind is either factually identical with an ontological reality or that from a state of mind one can logically posit the existence of an ontological realm.

In either case, inference (i.e., this is that) derives its efficacy from that daily, ordinary, secular world so often put down by the defenders of ontological transcendence. Ecstatic experiences still conceal argument behind their transcendent faces! And that is to say that the criteria of good judgment and argument, all resident in an ontologically nontranscendent world, demand their legitimate price eventually. Would it not be wise to remind the advocates of ontological transcendence that there is a difference to be observed between perceiving things and events differently, more deeply or broadly, and perceiving different things, events or objects outside this common world?

We have learned that transcendence in either of its two forms has beneficial consequences. It frees persons from the routine, prosaic level of daily life. It opens the way to new insights and elevates the mind and soul to higher aspirations. It cannot be gainsaid that some forms of self-transcendence do refresh the mind and open the way to creative thought and action. The arts, philosophy, theology and science are unthinkable without them.

What is more questionable is that all forms of transcendence, but for the moment self-transcendence in particular, are uniformly beneficial. For example, daydreaming, in distinction from mind-wandering, is a form of self-transcendence. It may lead to connections between ideas that have been disparate and bring them into a coherence that no intellectual frontal assault could achieve, thus serving a productive end. However, daydreaming can also be a waste of time or a danger when in one’s daydreams there appears a seething reservoir of evil imaginations concerning oneself and one’s relation to the world. It is as easy to argue that self-transcendence opens the way to despair or to the demonic within one as it is to maintain that self-transcendence is an unmixed blessing. Self-transcendence carries no guarantee that its products will always be beneficial to the self or to the world. It is a capacity neutral about the value of its product.


The borderline between self-transcendence and the ontological transcendent, as we have seen, is a hazy one. However, some claim for the ontological transcendent even greater and more important benefits than for self-transcendence alone. The term "God" is often identified with this realm; the two become interchangeable concepts. But the demonic, as we have noted in the case of self-transcendence, can also appear in the ontological dimension. The pope is apparently willing to deposit the devil there. And Berger finds in his study of contemporary transcendence that the "current occult wave (including the devil component) is to be understood as resulting from the repression of transcendence in modern consciousness. Repressed contents have a way of coming back, often in rather bizarre forms" (Worldview, op. cit., p. 37).

Perhaps the whole intent of this quotation is that although self-transcendence can take odd forms when repressed, it may be that civilization and religion depend upon such repression! In one sense the comment does not bear directly upon the content of the ontological reality. However, if such "bizarre" consequences are produced by repression and then are taken as "signals" of the transcendent, we have a strange situation in respect to the benefits of the transcendent. We also have a curious state of affairs in which repression from the bonds of the "reality definers" determines the content of the ontologically transcendent!

When fulsome credits are attributed to the transcendent, my mind goes to a newspaper item describing a young student’s self-immolation, According to the report, she set herself on fire to experience death and the world of spirits beyond -- i.e., the transcendent. Surely such an act is not simply self-transcendence, but self-transcendence motivated by a belief in the realm of the transcendent. It is more "bizarre" than playing with exorcism and devils. It raises ethical questions about norms in respect to the transcendent realm. Without such norms, the result is tragedy rather than the enhancement of human life. Clearly the world can be drained of value as well as enriched by the transcendent.

Doubt about the beneficial effects of belief in the transcendent is raised by last winter’s Hartford Theological Affirmation. That document challenges the assertion that emphasis upon God’s transcendence is a hindrance and preventive to Christian social concern and action. The framers of the document claim that this assertion denigrates God’s transcendence, but admit that some people shrink back into a "false transcendence" of privatism, withdrawn from social responsibility. This interesting defensive move on the part of the Hartford signers is tantamount to distinguishing false and true transcendence. Because the Bible, they are convinced, supports God’s transcendence, they retire to it as though an unassailable conviction determined the case. Of course, the fact that all biblical evidence of God’s transcendence occurs only within history does not seem to bother the authors.

But more important is the question of what basis there is for distinguishing "false" transcendence from "true" except, as the authors finally do, by reference to the realm of ordinary moral judgment and their own collective and informed insight. The transcendent itself is subject to this judgment; it is not the resolution or determiner of that judgment. The criteria of false and true at last derive from the nontranscendent and subject transcendence itself to the realm of the ordinary!

Is transcendence, either as self-transcendence or as ontological reality, so chaotic in consequence, so formless as to its dimensions, so blind as to direction, so vacuous as to structure, that only as we return to the realm of the ordinary can we make sense of it, introduce criteria of truth or falsity, beneficence or evil into it? The imagination is a wondrous capacity for self-transcendence, but as Puritanical skepticism often maintained, it not only elevated the mind and heart to God, but provided a lurking place for the devil with all his blandishments. Without imagination there is no self-transcendence, but it is far from being a self-justifying exercise of the human personality unless harnessed to the realm from which it begins its airy journeys into the beyond.

What then are we left with, beyond merely a sociological reading of the present interest in transcendence? What function in the theological enterprise does transcendence as ontological reality have for our workaday world? I would submit that at a minimum -- which is a lot -- the ontological transcendent legitimately stands for the objectivity of God. It means that God is not to be reduced to a function of the human mind, as a Feuerbach or Freud contended. It is not because he is in some seldom-visited realm beyond nature and human relations, but because we have experiences of him as supreme in value and being in the world we know. He is the power over against and within that world sustaining all that is in it. We fight him as well as become reconciled to him. His transcendence is his ever-present objectivity, whereby our subjectivity and nature are created.

As such, he is, for Christianity at least, the object of our search, as he is the one who constantly searches us out in the secular. He does not call us to flee to another world, but to hallow this world where we are placed. As Kierkegaard, in the words of Victor Eremita, says of the mystic in disdaining "the reality of existence to which God has assigned him," he "thereby disdains God’s love" (Either/Or, Vol. II [Princeton University Press, 1971], p. 248). So religion cannot be defined solely in the rubrics of sacred and secular, holy and profane, supernatural and material -- a world bifurcated into two entities (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, op. cit., pp. 125 ff.). If God is necessary to the living of this life and the understanding of this world, then surely he is not so far from us that we must dig a gulf between him and a world in which he is only spasmodically present. If we define God out of this world, we have little reason to wonder that so few are aware of his presence, and so must be counted as irreligious. Whitehead’s dictum is still relevant to this situation: "Out of relation, ignorance" -- that is, total ignorance.

The words of Second Isaiah resound with reassurance: "They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; They shall walk and not faint" (Isa. 40:31) -- in this world where most of life is walking without fainting and running without becoming weary. So after all, this ordinary world may not be so flat, dull and uninteresting as some proponents of transcendence claim, since by walking and running we may see and enjoy much which, in our haste to leap into transcendence, we have overlooked or deprecated.