Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thinking about transcendence in more multidimensional way

One of the main arguments of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is that people, at least modern secular Westerners, have come routinely to think that the world as it is must be all there is. The contrast between immanence and transcendence is thus one of Taylor’s main organizing themes. Immanence locates both our sense of reality and our sense of the good within the world around us; transcendence gives us a sense of something beyond. Taylor develops this in conjunction with a notion of “fullness” to try to evoke what it means to live in more constant engagement with that which is beyond the immediately given, the spiritual which might infuse nature, for example, or the Divine which might lift morality above a notion of ethics as mere fairness.
But in trying to make clear the distinctively religious senses of transcendence, I think Taylor narrows the notion a bit. I think this actually obscures important aspects of religious experience as well as the possibilities for transcendence outside religion. Moreover, I think Taylor himself offers us tools for thinking about transcendence in this more multidimensional way.
In A Secular Age, and in much of his other work of recent decades, Taylor runs in effect three parallel and mutually informing arguments. One is about the narrowing of the self to a being of mere self-interest – or rather a narrowing of thinking about the self, since Taylor is at pains to point out that even while utilitarian theories have grown so have richer ideas of the person and human potential. A second is about the flattening of the notion of good, so that instead of having a strong idea of “the good” that gives order to our moral lives and aspirations – what Taylor calls a moral horizon or a higher good – we often think in terms simply of many goods, all in principle quantitatively comparable. And the third is about the importance of transcendence vs. immanence, of the difference between seeing “this world” as all there is, and of having a sense of something more.
By setting the three arguments alongside each other, and trying to integrate them more, we can enrich the idea of transcendence. Specifically, we can see that each evokes an idea of transcendence: transcending mere self-interest and more limited notions of the self is among other things an occasion for self-transformation. In other words, this is not simply thinking differently about a self that remains unchanged. We are actually able to change who we are – albeit not often radically – to make more of ourselves than what we find on initial self-examination. Similarly, commitment to a higher good necessarily includes a transcendence of mere goods.
Taylor himself articulates three senses of transcendence, three dimensions in which we go “beyond”: a good higher than human flourishing (such as love in the sense of agape), a higher power (such as God), and extension of life (or even “our lives”) beyond the “natural” scope between birth and death (summarized on p. 20). He is clearly concerned to bring out what is distinctive to a religious rather than a secular orientation. But let me suggest the value of seeing the transcendent as including what Taylor lists but not limiting our notion of “going beyond” to these senses.
The easiest to grasp, partly because Taylor has so wonderfully articulated it, is the notion of transcendence built into the idea of self-transformation. We can, as he put it in Sources of the Self, want to have better wants. In this phrase he captures both remaking the self and the importance of a notion of higher good. The higher good may or may not be backed by a higher power (and as discussions of Durkheim by Taylor and Bellah in this blog suggest, the higher power may or may not be Divine). It may not even transcend our selves in all senses – as the Aristotelian pursuit of excellence calls for transcending an initial state of the self in pursuit of a better one. The higher good may transcend human flourishing without transcending all senses of “nature” (as Taylor’s references to Gaia suggest). But – and this is crucial – many kinds of commitment to human flourishing already transcend the narrower sense of self which Taylor thinks has become more common in a secular age. To really order our lives by an ideal of improving the human condition is already to be oriented to transcending that condition as we found it.
This approaches a second sense of transcendence, the transcendence of the self embodied in commitment and connection to others. This may be love (which is already more than simply valuing fairness or most other notions of a merely ethical universalism). The Christian notion of agape situates this as participation in God’s love for humanity, but we need not understand love this way for it to be transcendent. Moreover, the transcendent aspect of social relations is not grasped simply by altruism. It is not necessarily an orientation to others rather than self, but includes the transformation of self that comes through opening ourselves to noninstrumental social relationships. We transcend the sense of ourselves as individually complete and necessarily who we already are not only in personal relationships but in larger groups, including movements which work for larger social transformation. To say that there is transcendence of self in relationships with and commitment to others, thus, may point to a more differentiated notion of society than the Durkheimian whole.
And this points us to the third sense of still-earthly transcendence, active participation in history. “The world as it is” is an ahistorical phrase. The world as we find it is inevitably subject to change, and we may shape that change in various smaller or larger ways. The sense of possibility this can open up invites a certain “fullness,” an orientation to a higher good, a sense of participation in something that will live beyond our natural lives. The history in which we participate is potentially, as Hannah Arendt stressed, world-making. It may involve revolutionary transformations and enduring institutions. But this orientation to history need not be either revolutionary or utopian to be transcendent. What is crucial is the capacity to envision history as more than mere change, as transformation in which we may participate.
So, there is transcendence in self-transformation, in relationships with others, and in the effort to make history. None of this negates the religious senses of transcendence Taylor describes – nor the extension of a “spiritual”, quasi-religious attitude in understanding nature itself as sacred. Indeed, these may coincide and reinforce each other. Faith in God may make faith in other people easier, may make the struggle for a better future more sustainable. Conversely, though, the transcendence of self in relationships with others may also help to sustain faith in God.
More generally, it seems important to be attentive to several dimensions in which it is possible to transcend resignation to ourselves and to the world as we find them. This entry was posted on Monday, January 28th, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under A Secular Age.

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