Filed in Science

The Transcendent Imperative

At a time when our spiritual traditions struggle to remain relevant in a culture dominated by scientific materialism, Andrew Cooper considers the pros and cons of a new religious model based on the psychology of “flow.”

Andrew Cooper

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It is common when discussing transcendent experience to portray the self, the ego, as some kind of villain, or at least a bad sport. But the Freudian mythology puts the matter better. For Freud, the ego was a tragic figure, at once the reality principle and the seat of anxiety. Being saddled with the responsibility of mediating conflicting demands, controlling instinctive impulses, withstanding the superego's perfectionist recriminations, and negotiating the endless travails on the path of life is no picnic, even in the best of circumstances. And the best of circumstances never really obtain anyway.

Like any conscious entity, the self seeks to maintain and enhance its existence, yet that very existence is a burden from which it craves relief. It's enough to drive one to drink, literally. Indeed, it was in recognition of this state of affairs that Freud called alcohol the “universal solvent” for the anxious ego. Jung, as was his way, carried Freud's insight further, into the realm of religion, by locating in the roots of alcoholism a distorted expression of an innate spiritual impulse.

Alcohol is, of course, but one of many ways one might seek to circumvent the vicissitudes of selfhood through the dulling of consciousness. But freedom from the self comes not through the dulling of consciousness but through its refinement, not through dissolving the ego but through moving beyond it. And for this, any activity, in theory at least, will do; any activity can occasion the providential disclosure that the egoic self is but a small part of who one is and that to live entirely within its familiar confines is to experience only a small part of the life one is given. Just as we need a strong sense of self to function well, so do we need freedom from the self to function freely.

Throughout human history, religion has been the primary repository of the wisdom of self-transcendence. Religion has provided not only the ritual forms for eliciting transcendence but also the conceptual and social contexts in which such experiences are given rich elaboration and tied to a virtuous and purposeful life. But while the transcendent imperative has always been an essential concern of religion, it has never been exclusively defined by religion. It is something that is religious in itself. Indeed, for adherents of the world's esoteric traditions—Christian mystics or Islamic Sufis, Buddhist meditators or Hindu yogis—the transcendent imperative is the foundation upon which the doctrines and institutions of religion must rest, the inner core around which they must cohere.

Today, more than at any other time, we have greater and more ready access to humankind's rich and diverse legacy of wisdom about what Aristotle called the “virtuous activity of the soul.” But such wisdom cannot truly be said to be cumulative; neither is it easily passed from one culture to another. Its expression must be worked out in accordance with the particulars of the cultural and historical milieu in which, inevitably, it is embedded. If wisdom about the the means and meaning of transcendent experience is to remain vital, if it is to address, as it must, our deepest sensibilities, the body of insights developed in one cultural context must, as conditions change, be adapted to the exigencies of another.

Our traditions need, from time to time, to be revitalized. During periods when changes in our world and worldview are especially profound, that need becomes more acute. The religious historian Karen Armstrong writes that, when traditions cease to address adequately a society's spiritual needs, people will find “new ways of being religious.” It is in our nature to pursue and, just as important, confer meaning upon the transcendent imperative. But as Armstrong and others have observed, we in the modern period have yet to articulate comprehensively a religious approach that is equal to and definitive of the unique challenges of our times.

Today, science has replaced the traditional cosmologies with an indifferent universe, and social systems and institutions have been shown to be the creation of human beings and not expressions of divine will or natural order. We postmoderns, having experienced what Saul Bellow calls “a housecleaning of belief,” cannot rely on the certainties of the past, for most of them have lost their power. But, if we wish to live full and good lives, neither can we ignore the wisdom that the past affords. These are the two horns of the dilemma upon which modern religious consciousness is perched.

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