What is transcendence, and why does it matter?

A reader writes:

In reading through your website, I noticed that the word “transcendence” pops up frequently. Many times you refer to the loss of transcendence as a reason for the dip into the void by America.

Now the word “transcendence” is an abstract term that means exactly what? What transcends what? What is “transcendence” supposed to be pointing towards in concrete terms? God? If so then why don’t you use the word “God” directly instead of “transcendence”? Or is transcendence a bigger (wider) term than God?

What is the concrete stuff of transcendence? It must be God because if there is no god, there is no transcendence (of anything). However when someone keeps substituting the word “transcendence” for “God”, I can only assume that this term “transcendence” is a greater term than “God” in the speaker’s mind. Doesn’t wielding the term “transcendence” about sort of make one bigger than God—giving that person the sense of defining what and who God is?

The letter went on a bit further, and in trying to explain to the reader what I concretely mean by trancendence, I found in my computer a section of text that I had regretfully removed from the manuscript of my booklet, Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation, because it didn’t fit well with the rest. Before tonight, I hadn’t looked at it in years, and in fact had forgotten its existence. It is my fullest discussion of this issue.

What is transcendence and why does it matter?
Lawrence Auster
Unpublished fragment, 2001

The key to the Secular-Democratic world view—and to the loss of our traditional culture which that world view has destroyed—is the denial of transcendence. Before we proceed further in this discussion, it is essential that we grasp what this means. Fortunately that will not be difficult, since transcendence plays a key role in every person’s experience of life, including the lives of those who deny its existence.

In religious terms, of course, transcendence means “beyond the world,” in the sense that God as revealed in the Bible exists outside the physical universe of which he is the creator and is not an object of direct human experience or of scientific reason based on the evidence of the senses. But the idea of transcendence does not apply only to God in his ultimate transcendence. The quality of being objectively real yet beyond immediate sensory experience applies to all human values and institutions. It could be described as the quality of any whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

A marriage, for example, is not simply constituted of the man and woman who make it up; it is something larger in which the partners participate and which provides the very meaning of their life together, even though the institution of marriage that binds them is invisible to the senses and all that can be seen is the couple and their actions. Similarly, a sports team is not just a collection of athletes, but a larger entity that provides the ordering structure of their activities as well as the primary object of their fans’ loyalties; when a team becomes a collection of free agents, it often loses, to the fans’ distress, its character as something that transcends the individual players. In the same way, a nation, along with its whole system of common rules and interests, is a larger and more enduring entity than all the people who belong to it. Although its quality as a nation cannot be seen or experienced with the senses, its members do not doubt its reality or its function in establishing the meaningful order of their lives; they are even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of that larger whole that they cannot see.

The idea of transcendence applies not only to social and moral institutions but to natural categories and socially defined roles such as male, female, child; policeman, priest, President. In belonging to any of these categories the individual partakes of a meaning greater than himself. The very idea of “man”—the largest human class to which we all belong—is not an object of experience. We cannot see “man” anywhere. We see individual human beings. None of those individual human beings is “man,” even though “man” is the essential nature of what human beings are, and, according to the Declaration of Independence, the very source of our rights as individuals. Further, each individual is also “transcendent,” in the sense that his inner self or consciousness cannot be seen or experienced by the senses, yet we know that it exists and is the source of his value as a person.

Though the concept of transcendence is not referred to in ordinary political discussion, it is at the heart of people’s deepest values that underlie all their political concerns—their love of their country and its history, their love for their parents and children and friends, their memories of their home town, their response to nature and art and literature, their belief in justice, or their sense of outrage at some injustice. All those things go beyond the specifics that can be seen, heard, or touched; and without the invisible added element they would fall far short of what they are for us. Transcendence is the matrix of basic allegiances that cannot always be justified in rationalistic terms because the true value of any thing can be known only through participation in that thing, not through mere external observation or manipulation of it.

The Secular-Democratic consciousness, especially in its more radical stages, devalues and denies this invisible dimension of existence. To the Secular-Democratic mind, a police officer is not a symbol of the constituted authority of society (which is itself a transcendent idea), but just a man with a gun. A priest is not the representation of Christ, but just a man in a funny uniform going through obscure, even absurd, gestures. A human being does not represent the transcendent essence “man,” but is simply a bundle of needs, desires, and rights (though where these human rights come from if there is no transcendent human nature to base them on is never made clear). Similarly, marriage is not the fulfillment of God’s command in Genesis that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It is any pairing of persons seeking mutual gratification, lasting as long as both partners find it gratifying. A nation is not an enduring essence transcending its individual members, but an ever shifting collection of individuals with an ever expanding portfolio of demands that the government must satisfy. And since the nation is not a transcendent idea, the flag that symbolizes it has no higher significance; it is only, as many liberals love to sneer, “a piece of cloth,” a phrase that perfectly conveys their contempt for the transcendent, and their undying wish to free humanity from its “oppressive” claims.

Another phrase with which liberals attack transcendence-based standards is “Why not?”: Why not allow people to burn the flag? Why not permit marriage between two persons of the same sex? Why not allow a 15-year-old boy to come to school dressed as a girl? Why not have female priests? Why not have female soldiers? Why not encourage children to treat their teachers and parents as their equals? Why not import totally incompatible cultures into our society? Why not surrender our national independence to a global government?

And here we come to the nub of the problem: In a society that has lost the experience of transcendence, in a society that sees only the material or individualistic side of things, there is no answer to these questions. Without an allegiance to its own transcendent essence and the ability to articulate it, no institution—and no nation—can survive the Secular-Democratic critique. Indeed, the members of such a society will fail even to recognize that a threat exists, since they no longer have any consciousness of the thing that is threatened.

At the same time, since people cannot actually live together without institutions, the breakdown of institutions based on shared adherence to a higher truth must lead to new institutions based, not on any ideal, but on the increasingly naked assertion of will—whether it be the will of “the people,” or the will of some oppressed minority, or the will of some managerial or ideological elite who seek to redesign the society from top to bottom. For these reasons, whenever the Secular-Democratic consciousness has gained power it has repeatedly led to various kinds of extremism and statism, except in those societies, such as Britain and the United States, where it was balanced and moderated by surviving elements of the Classical-Christian consciousness.

- end—

Further discussion

In response to the above article, a reader complains, in a long letter, that my notion of transcendence remains undefined and could mean anything. Thus, he says, a liberal like Peter Gomes, a homosexual professor at Harvard, can write a book entitled The Good Book (about the Bible) and give “transcendence” a completely liberal meaning. The reader says transcendence has become separated from its historic root in the Classical-Christian consciousness, and that my view of transcendence would be as open to Hinduism as to Christianity, as open to John Lennon as to traditional Western culture. He also says that if America is defined as “more than the sum of its past parts,” then America can become anything, evolving “into a greater whole as the whole keeps expanding much like the expanding universe. Transcendence now comes to transcend its previous definition…. All the liberal has done is take the transcendentalist at his word that transcendence is an important dimension and has gone on transcending. Such that now even the Classical Christian consciousness is being transcended…”

By way of reply, my first point is that my discussion is taking place within the framework of the Classical-Christian tradition that formed the West and America. What I’m saying about transcendence doesn’t make sense without that context.

My second point will seem to contradict the first. It is true, as the reader says, that giving transcendent value to things is a universal activity. People give transcendent value to things, including bad things. For a Mafia member, his gang has a transcendent value. The answer, obviously, is that the process of valuation needs to be subjected to the moral law, just like any other human activity. Yet we cannot subject this act of valuation to a moral and religious framework unless we first understand it.

My main purpose in this discussion is to get at the root of why we our letting our culture be destroyed. I’m saying it’s because we have lost the experience of the transcendent as it is related to our specific culture, and therefore we don’t have the will to preserve or defend our culture. The transcendent needs to be understood not only in relation to the idea of God, but in relation to culture. If the transcendent is only experienced in relation to universal morality or God, then we end up with modern conservatism, which worships universal ideas of democracy and puts 99 percent of its moral energy into opposing abortion, but which fails to defend our culture as a culture from the innumerable ills that threaten it from without and within. It is no coincidence that both neoconservatives and evangelical Christians favor mass non-European immigration. It is because they lack a sense of the transcendent quality of our particular culture and nation. (I explain this point at more length in my article, “Immigration and Multiculturalism: Why are the conservatives silent?”, under the heading, “The credo that has left us defenseless.”)

Now, could this same idea of transcendence be used to advance Nazi Germany, or a jihad terrorist gang, or homosexual marriage, or the lifestyle of David Brooks’s Bobos? Yes, it could. But that, as I’ve said, simply requires us to make the moral and rational distinctions that we need to make in all human affairs in any case. These include, first of all, the distinction between moral right and wrong, but they also include the distinction between transcendence based on objective values and the substitute forms of transcendence that populate liberal society.

So my short answer to the readers’s objections is: when I say something is transcendent, I’m not necessarily saying it’s good. At the same time, all good and true values are transcendent and we cannot understand or preserve them without that experience.

Doubtless these criticisms and discussions will continue. The idea I’m trying to convey, of the transcendence that gives meaning to cultural values, lies in an uneasy middle ground. On one side, agnostics and secularists reject the very notion of transcendence; on the other side, certain Christians reject any notion of transcendence other than the transcendence of God.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 16, 2005 01:20 AM | Send

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