Friday, June 16, 2017

Experience of Transcendence: The Core of Religion and Spirituality

Transcendence beyond the limits of human cognition, and thus reason and even religious beliefs is notoriously difficult for the human mind to grasp; even if as I suspect the human mind has an instinctual urge to yearn to go beyond cognitive and perceptual boundaries (i.e., beyond our ordinary experience), that same mind also has a dogged proclivity to cloth wholly-other religious objects (e.g., a deity) in familiar garb. Transcendent experience itself is immune, hence focusing on the experience itself is superior to getting caught up with the presumably certain divine attributes of a religious object, yet even such experience can be held back, or unduly circumscribed, when the transcendent reference-point is rendered conveniently familiar. Hence the dictum against graven images.  

As “an emotional and sensuous being,” a human being, Feuerbach suggests, “is governed and made happy only by images, by sensible representations,” including those that are fabricated by the imagination.[1] In other words, we have “an instinct, an internal necessity, which impels [us] to think, to perceive, to imagine.”[2] This instinct sees nothing wrong with applying itself to religious objects, essentially robbing them of their rightful transcendence.

The Son, is, therefore, expressly called the Image of God; his essence is that he is an image—the representation of God, the visible glory of the invisible God. The Son is the satisfaction of the need for mental images, the nature of the imaginative activity in man made objective as an absolute, divine activity.[3]

Feuerbach must have read Hume, for he too laments how inherently difficult it is for the human mind to hold onto the divine as a pure, incorporeal spirit for long;  the mind automatically sets about clothing it in anthropomorphic attributes because they are familiar, which is in itself is “so agreeable to the mind.”[4] In other words, “an invisible spiritual intelligence is an object too refined for vulgar apprehension,” so we “naturally affix it to some sensible representation.”[5] By means of the instinct described by Feuerbach, the human mind tends to render the transcendent perceptual by our senses, and thus firmly within the limits of perception. In fact, Hume goes so far as to define idolatry as the portrayal of the invisible divine, which the human mind has trouble holding onto, in terms of “some sensible representation.”[6]

Is worship of a god-man, as in God made flesh, therefore an instance of self-idolatry? The very structure of man worshipping a god-man would suggest so. Furthermore, God made flesh in the Incarnation as Jesus Christ renders worship of the eternal Word, the Logos, surreptitiously susceptible to actually being worship of the human form idealized.[7] Augustine points to the significance of the human form of the second person of the Trinity:

[Jesus] was a baby, he grew as a man, he walked as a man, he hungered, thirsted as a man, he slept as a man, then at last he suffered as a man. . . . In the same form he arose, in the same form he ascended into heaven. . . . When, therefore, you think about the form of the servant in Christ, think of his human shape, if there is faith in you.[8]

Faith is tied here to Jesus Christ having a human shape (i.e., a human body).  It is not as if Augustine were unaware of the risks involved, for he warns against associating the form of the human body with the divine, which inherently transcends finite forms or embodiments:

(L)et every human configuration vanish from your heart; let there be driven from your thought whatever is limited by a bodily boundary, whatever is confined by the extent of a place or is extended with any bulk whatsoever; let such a fictitious image disappear from your heart. . . . Now, O man, if you cannot see your wisdom with the eyes of the flesh, nor think of it with such imaginings as bodily things are thought of, do you dare to impose the form of the human body on the wisdom of God?[9]

Hume stresses that the human brain cannot help but create such perceptual imaginings of bodily things to render the transcendent familiar at the expense of being wholly other and thus transcendent. Feuerbach points out that “the relations of humanity are not excluded from God” in that “God has a Son; God is a father”[10] Sensing that such relations render the deity too humanlike at the expense of being wholly other (as transcendent), Augustine strictly warns his readers that “no carnal thought creep up” in interpreting Jesus’s expression, “As the Father has taught me” in terms of a human father teaching his son. To liken the Trinitarian relationship to a (merely) human one would be, Augustine writes, to “fashion idols” in one’s heart.[11] Unfortunately, such idolatry is a danger even in spite of this warning, for “it is only natural that our own experiences or observations of father-son relations would mold how we view Jesus’ relation to his Father.”[12] In other words, our minds are susceptible to rendering the transcendent in familiar terms even to the point that the religious object is, as Feuerbach contends, actually human potential without our limitations as individuals.

Augustine exempts the case of Jesus Christ, however, on account of divine revelation attesting, albeit by faith alone, to the truth of the Incarnation; Jesus Christ is not just human potential, as divinity is something more even if it manifests as a Son in human form. Yet does this mean that the godhead tempts us mere mortals into self-idolatry by clothing the divinity in such brazenly anthropomorphic garb? At the very least, Feuerbach suggests, understanding repudiates the application of anthropomorphisms to God.[13]

Not so, Kierkegaard would undoubtedly reply, for the eternal coming into history through the Incarnation transcends human understanding, and thus cognition itself. Larger principles, in other words, are involved than the anthropomorphism. As Kierkegaard points out, “faith is not a knowledge, for all knowledge is either knowledge of the eternal, which excludes the temporal and the historical as inconsequential, or it is purely historical knowledge, and no knowledge can have as its object this absurdity that the eternal is the historical.”[14] Absurdity and paradox, which stress transcendence beyond human cognition, are two terms that Kierkegaard uses to describe distinctly religious phenomena.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, Kierkegaard places the absurd above even human morality. The divine command given to Abraham that he sacrifice Isaac is not in a religious sense murder.  In other words, the religious sacrifice is above the moral verdict of murder—yet another indication that religion does not reduce to morality, and thus spiritual leadership is not really just ethical leadership. The absurd, unlike a moral system, lies beyond the clutches of reasoning. In Fear and Trembling, the absurd is Abraham’s faith that God would not break the promise that Abraham’s offspring would go on to fill nations even though that same God has commanded the old man to sacrifice his only child. This makes no sense, and yet for God all things are possible. Similarly, the eternal in a historical person, albeit historical in a faith narrative, is a paradox that can only be taken on faith.

The paradox is “the god’s planting himself in human life.”[15] This is no trivial point in historical Christianity, for, as Kierkegaard states, “(t)he heart of the matter is the historical fact that the god has been in human form.”[16] Christianity, he explains, “by means of the historical . . . has wanted to be the single individual’s point of departure for his eternal consciousness.”[17] Unlike Socrates, a teacher is needed who can occasion a re-birth of sorts in a person. The condition must be so significant that the person would never forget it.  “(I)n order for the teacher to be able to give the condition, he must be the god, and in order to put the learner in possession of it, he must be man. This contradiction is in turn the object of faith.”[18]

Feuerbach admits that “out of the need for salvation is postulated something transcending human nature, a being different from” human beings, yet “no sooner is this being postulated than there arises the yearning of man after himself, after his own nature, and man is immediately re-established.”[19] Therefore, “the contemplation of God as human,” with love as the unifier of the two, is “the mystery of the Incarnation.”[20] “In the Incarnation religion only confesses” what theology will not admit, “that God is an altogether human being.”[21] That which is supposedly “mysterious and incomprehensible” (i.e., suggesting of transcendence) about the notion that “God is or becomes a man” is actually “nothing more than the human form of a God, who already in his nature . . . is a merciful and therefore a human God.”[22] Neither the human form nor the idealized human qualities of mercy, goodness (benevolentia), power (omnipotentia), and knowledge (omniscientia) are particularly transcendent, as they pertain or come out of our realm and are very much within the limits of our perception and cognition, respectively.  Even in terms of human sentiments, a religious person “unhesitatingly assigns his own feelings to God; God is to him a heart susceptible to all that is human; . . . feeling can appeal only to feeling.”[23] Hence, petitions through prayer appealing to God’s goodness and mercy. Even in such a momentous condition in salvation history, therefore, the human mind leans toward seeing the transcendent through heavily-tinted anthropomorphic sunglasses such that the god is essentially rendered as human at the expense of transcendence.

Even though Kierkegaard considered the mystery of the Incarnation—the absolute paradox, in other words, as an object of faith rather than knowledge—to be beyond the limits of cognition, even his paradox may not reach transcendence in a religious sense. Generally speaking, the ultimate paradox of thought is “to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”[24] The mind, in other words, paradoxically seeks to go beyond itself. So far, the understanding evinces the notion of transcendence. In “its paradoxical passion,” Kierkegaard writes, “the understanding does indeed will its own downfall.”[25] Likewise, cognition and reasoning fall before the Lord.

Yet if the eternal in history—in a human form no less!—is merely a species of the human imagination borne out of instinct rather than begotten by a godhead whose existence is not just idealized human qualities as Feuerbach suggests, then the absolute paradox is not beyond thought. For that matter, I could imagine a unicorn standing on the moon even though the actual science defines reason. Just as my imagination is not bound by the strictures of science, religion is not bound by science, or even metaphysics (i.e., what is real?) Even Feuerbach’s own notion of God holds back from transcending cognition, for “God is thy highest idea, the supreme effort of they understanding, thy highest power of thought.”[26] In other words, “God is what the understanding thinks as the highest.”[27] Religious yearning, on the other hand, goes beyond the point where understanding ends.

 Kierkegaard too holds back, as he is content to remain on the cusp of the unknown, where it collides with the understanding, rather than pushing further. “The paradoxical passion of the understanding,” he writes, “is continually colliding with this unknown. . . . The understanding does not go beyond this; yet in its paradoxicality the understanding cannot stop reaching it and being engaged with it, because wanting to express its relation to it by saying that this unknown does not exist will not do, since just saying that involves a relation.”[28]  The understanding does not go beyond the edge of the unknown that can be made known, and Kierkegaard is satisfied to remain there rather than to venture into the unknown, and thus to God beyond cognition. “But what, then, is this unknown, for does not its being the god merely signify to us that it is the unknown?”[29]  In other words, the unknown is the god. Yet the unknown to understanding is none other than ignorance, and the god, as omniscient, is hardly that. God extending beyond human understanding does not necessarily mean that the god is just the absence of understanding. Furthermore, that the god is mysterious, and thus not fully known, is not to say that it is simply the unknown.

In short, the understanding stops at the beginning of the unknown—arriving at it—whereas religious faith, and thus experience, extends into the wholly other, or absolutely different.  “To declare that God is the unknown because we cannot know it, and that even if we could know it we could not express it, does not satisfy the passion,” Kierkegaard states, “although it has correctly perceived the unknown as frontier. But a frontier is expressly the passion’s torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further. . . . What, then, is the unknown? It is the frontier that is continually arrived at . . . it is the different, the absolutely different.”[30] To arrive at something is not to go past its border into it. To be sure, it is not the understanding that can venture so. “Defined as the absolutely different, it seems to be at the point of being disclosed, but not so, because the understanding cannot even think the absolutely different; it cannot absolutely negate itself but uses itself for that purpose and consequently thinks the difference in itself, which it thinks by itself. It cannot absolutely transcend itself and therefore thinks as above itself only the sublimity that it thinks by itself.”[31] This is why it is so difficult for the human mind to conceive of God as wholly other; it is in the very nature of thought to conceive of objects in terms that bear some familiarity to the mind, which “cannot absolutely transcend itself and therefore thinks as above itself only the sublimity that it thinks by itself.”[32] To even try to think of something absolutely different involves an arbitrariness, and yet we affix such certainty to our knowledge of the divine attributes. Consequently, Kierkegaard points out that “at the very bottom of devoutness there madly lurks the capricious arbitrariness that knows it itself has produced the god.”[33] Hence the nature of the god—the religious object—may not be the basis of religion. Religious experience, on the other hand, is felt on our side of the line, within the known, and yet crucially its object or aim transcends even the border to the absolutely different that cannot be known, sensed, or perceived. The nature of the experience is thus unique. As such, it is part of the native fauna in the religious garden. In fact, being in itself immune from anthropomorphism from within our realm, the sui generis experience is, I submit, the defining characteristic of religion and spirituality. We can indeed transcend even the masks of eternity that we hold as ultimate. In achieving such transcendence, a person enters religion’s inner sanctum—that which religion really is.

The essay pertains to chapter 3, "Spiritual Leadership Revised," in Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, George Eliot, trans. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 75.
2. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 78.
3. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 75.
4. David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, sec. 5, in Principal Writings on Religion including Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and the Natural History of Religion, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Ox-ford University Press, 1993), 150.
5. Hume, Natural History, 152.
6. Hume, Natural History, 152.
7. Worden, God’s Gold, 338. See John 1:14.
8. Augustine, Tractates on John, 127.
9. Augustine, Tractates on John, 127.
10. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 56.
11. Augustine, Tractates on John: Books 28-54, 40.4, trans. John W. Rettig, Fathers of the Church: 
A New Translation 88 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 126.
12. Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth (Tucson, AZ: The Worden Report, 2015), 339.
13. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 35.
14. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments or A Fragment of Philosophy, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 62.
15. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 107.
16. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 103.
17. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 109.
18. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 62.
19. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 45.
20. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 50. See also p. 48.
21. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 56.
22. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 51
23. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 55.
24. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 37.
25. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 47.
26. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 38.
27. Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, 38.
28. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 44.
29. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 44.
30. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 44.
31. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 45.
32. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 45.
33. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 45.