Transcendence Without the Bull

by Lawrence Rifkin.


A rush of powerful, transforming emotion. A bolt of altered perspective. A love that overwhelms. An unmediated encounter with pure beauty. A profound realization of significance—or insignificance.

When a humanist has a “wow” experience, by what name should we call it? Transcendence?

Transcendence is a word that makes many who embrace humanism and naturalism recoil. And for understandable reason, with its connotations to both supernaturalism and mumbo-jumbo. Can transcendence be expressed and understood in a way that is humanistic, rather than supernatural?

The answer is yes. For humanism to not explicitly embrace such experiences risks limiting humanism’s appeal and reducing its potential for personal meaning. If a culture does not provide explicit links between such profound experiences and a naturalistic interpretation, these powerful and possibly transformational experiences can easily be misinterpreted, by default, as being part of a provincial religious story.

The rush of naturalistic transcendence is available in several ways: when we glimpse universals, when we treasure particulars, and when we expand our consciousness. All these types of experiences can be both transcendent and fully understood as naturalistic phenomena in a naturalistic world.

One common understanding of transcendence is an encounter with a world beyond ourselves, beyond full comprehension. But why must this be interpreted as supernatural? A naturalistic world offers an abundance of experiences and understandings beyond our individual lives. There is deep time, extending unfathomably into the past and unfathomably into the future, with our entire lives constituting but a blip. There is deep space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies separated by incomprehensibly vast distances, in which Earth is but a speck. There are concepts of energy, mathematics, human history, and evolution. There is joy in the idea that consciousness even exists. There is the experience of love. Neither a deity nor a complete loss of individuality to a greater power is necessary to experience the grandeur of these great mysteries. There’s an awful lot that is bigger than any of us. And when we get it, really get it, when intellect and emotions come rushing together, transcendence seems a powerful word for that experience. After he survived a heart attack, Abraham Maslow felt as if “everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things…every single moment of every single day is transformed.” Charles Darwin, in a letter to his wife Emma in 1858, described the following experience: “I fell asleep on the grass, and awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me…and it was as pleasant and rural a scene as I ever saw, and I did not care one penny how any of the beasts and birds had been formed.”

Transcendence—experience beyond the ordinary—is perhaps most powerfully felt not in our encounter with universals, but when we are overcome by particulars, experiences that are supremely individual. For some, it is triggered by new romance, an exercise high, the culminating moment of a particular song, knowing in the core of your being that you are doing something good, sudden acceptance of profound insight, or sex. It’s a very personal thing. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I’ll look at my children doing something commonplace—playing sports, sleeping, or just laughing—and I’ll feel it. The wow of being a parent. The rush of life’s transience and joys. The sense of meaning. It’s the highest of highs tinged with sadness all at once. It’s intensely personal—these are my children, my life. Supernatural explanations at such times are as unnecessary as they are factually inaccurate.

Then there are transcendent experiences of consciousness that are not “about” anything in particular. These take many forms, from contemplative awareness, to hallucinogenic consciousness expansion, to self-actualized acceptance of self and world. Regarding the possibilities of meditation, Sam Harris notes a feeling of being utterly at ease in the world, a state which fully transcends the apparent boundaries of the self. “There are states of consciousness,” Harris writes, “for which phrases like ‘boundless love and compassion’ do not seem overblown.” Regarding his experience with psychedelic drugs Harris writes “It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it.”

Humanists need not de-emphasize all these types of powerfully real human experiences. The important thing for those having the experience is to not discount reason, and not misinterpret the experience as part of some supernatural tale. Those who seek transcendent experiences and understandings need not seek religious or new-age groups as their only option. Numinous is not synonymous with miraculous.

Transcendence properly understood—a naturalistic transcendence—embraces the non-rational, not the irrational. For the good of individuals and society, irrationality must be confronted and kept out of public policy. Non-rational transcendent emotions, on the other hand, are harmonious with reason, evidence, and naturalism. They can be cherished as supreme human experiences.


Originally appearing in The New Humanism.