Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic Transcendence


As my wife and I slogged along on our bicycles, generally irritated at each other, suddenly there was a pop.  Her back tire went flat, and we were in the middle of nowhere on a Korean highway.  We had to find a repair shop, communicate our problem, and somehow make it home.

As we pulled through this minor crisis, a peculiar thing happened: we were no longer irritated at each other.  Through working together as a couple, each of us had moved from me to we.  In some small way, we’d experienced a tiny moment of transcendence.


The urge to transcendence

“Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and humans gotta be part of something greater than themselves.”

These are the words of social scientist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast.  He expands on this insight in a video interview:

“Happiness comes from between.  Happiness comes from being merged in, bound in, connected in the right ways to other people, to your work, and to something larger than yourself.”

In both of these quotes, Haidt links human nature to transcendence, feeling part of something greater or larger than yourself.  The first suggests a brute need for it, the second that happiness itself is the result.

This squares with evolution.  Multilevel selection theory observes that humans have a remarkable capacity to organize into groups, and well-organized groups out-compete others, leading to enhanced reproductive fitness for members.  Thus, it does not seem a stretch to speculate that our evolved capacity to form into groups may derive from a general urge to be part of something greater than ourselves.


Naturalistic transcendence

When I speak of naturalistic transcendence*, I mean an experience of something greater than you not only in degree but also in kind, yet in which you nevertheless participate.  In experiencing your participation in this something greater, you encounter something which challenges and transforms your whole sense of who and what you are, your way of being-in-the-world.

For example, stand at the foot of a mountain and you may be impressed by how much greater it is than you in degree, how alien it is from you in kind.  Climb that mountain and confront limits of endurance beyond which you thought yourself incapable, feel the relation between yourself and the mountain’s flora and fauna as part of one interdependent ecosystem, and discover how the experience of the mountain becomes part of you and changes who you are – then you may draw close to something like transcendence.


Symbols of transcendence

One of our recent Thing on Thursday polls asked what symbols of transcendence most appeal to our readers.  From these, I’d like to distill a set of symbols that may stand at the heart of a naturalistic path and embody its vision of transcendence.

Your personal symbol set may vary, but I’m going to pick out a triad that groups the most popular and vital together.  The three are:

  • nature
  • community
  • mind

The triad lends itself well to any kind of triple representation, like the triple spiral for example, but I prefer a series of concentric circles, like this:

Three Transcendents, by B. T. Newberg

Near the middle is a dot, representing the individual vantage point which makes up our conscious experience.  It is off-center to underscore that you are not the center of the universe.

The individual ego is transcended by the whole mind, conscious and unconscious (inner circle), each mind is transcended by its communities (middle circle), and all communities are transcended by nature (outer circle).

Concentric circles are also the pattern of ripples, which one can imagine radiating from any point in the mandala to interact with the other circles.

The three bear some similarity to John Halstead’s “kindreds” (the physical world, ancestors, and the deep self), ADF’s Three Kindreds (Nature Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods and Goddesses), and the first two of three of Brendan Myers’ Immensities (the Earth, other people, death, and solitude).

Since these are intended as symbols and not analytical constructs, they may be interpreted broadly.  Various alternative or elaborative terms may stand in, if they speak to you (e.g. cosmos for nature, ancestors for community, psyche for mind, etc.).

Also in keeping with symbols, these invite one’s own experiences to be reflected in them.  Insofar all are included in nature, and nature includes all that is, every experience and every thing can be found somewhere within this triad.  It thus forms a mandala for all experience.

The Three Transcendents share a few characteristics:

  • they are greater than us in both degree and kind
  • we participate in them even as they transcend us
  • when they manifest as challenges, they do so not as problems that can be solved but as predicaments that can only be confronted and integrated
  • there is no avoiding or escaping them for any human being; they are part of the human condition
  • they demand to be handled with care, so as to affirm rather than negate the individual
  • they are “Immensities” in Brendan Myers‘ sense, a term he borrowed from Yeats:

When we have drunk the cold cup of the moon’s intoxication, we thirst for something beyond ourselves, and the mind flows outward to a natural immensity

In parts 2-4 of this series, I’ll explore each of these symbols in depth.  For now, I’ll conclude with a final justification for why such symbols are needed at all.


Why symbols of transcendence?

“Ritual is the engine of shamanic ecstasy and symbol is the pilot.”  (Laughlin, McManus, & D’Aquili, Brain, Symbol, and Experience)

In my experience, what’s missing from Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and other such movements is a consciously-recognized, explicitly-articulated valuation of transcendence.  John Halstead has made a similar observation of Unitarian Universalism, identifying the missing element as the enthusiasmos of transformative experience.  The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be.

This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire.  The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect.  At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior.

They radiate the power to transform.

UPDATE:  John Halstead has posted a response to and extension of these ideas, which is well worth reading.

Continue to Part 2


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*I have not always been entirely friendly to the language of transcendence.  In fact, I have argued for non-transcendence as a key value.  What I meant, though, was non-transcendence of the physical universe, of this earth, this body, or this life.  Nowadays, I recognize that naturalism better sums up what I meant then.

This article first appeared at

4 thoughts on “Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic Transcendence”

  1. Just as nature encompasses mind and community, so too does mind encompass nature because to human consciousness there is only mind. All we have is neuronal firings occurring moment by moment, from which, amazingly and preposterously, we have a sense of self and the world. My symbol is of a person in a theater (the mind) watching a movie, hearing and otherwise sensing images, thinking he or she is someplace else (the outside world) when in fact they are sitting in a theater. What is being conjured in this theater that they are experiencing is pure fiction, no more resembling what is really out there than the word daffodil resembles the real object. And in fact, the person himself or herself that is in the theater is part of the conjuring, a complete fiction.

    And given this state of affairs, what else are we to do but take in the show, and if we're smart, enjoy it?

  2. Is there not a fourth circle beyond Nature, which is Mystery? Some naturalists have a hard time admitting to the mystery of it all, but the simple fact is nobody knows either how or why there is being rather than nothing (except the truism of the anthropic principle).

    The Mystery of Being is the ultimate pole of either the deep inward or the furthest outward — transcendence and immanence are ultimately one and the same. Thou Art That!

  3. Reply to Charlie Chase:

    Charlie, while I agree that in a sense mind encompasses Nature, I don't think the statement that what we are experiencing is "pure fiction" can really be justified. Our neurons do not fire at random, but fire in a highly organized way with the express goal of keeping us alive and allowing us to flourish. For survival to happen, our senses have to take in information from the world and our mind must interpret it as accurately as possible. While there is almost certainly a degree of fiction between what is in our mind and what is in the world, there must also be a large degree of accordance.

    I use the word "mind" above rather than brain, because we know for certain that we have a mind, but the brain and its neurons is only an idea in the mind, which per what I have said above is probably mostly a real and correct idea, but also partly a fictional idea. (The current fad of pop neurology is rather full of the fiction I think.)

    I do find it interesting that the while the mind is in the world it is also true that the world is in the mind. Although it is something of a dogma of naturalism that the mind/brain being in the world is primary and the world being in the mind is something of an epiphenomenon, I'm not so sure. That consciousness exists at all is mysterious.


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