In titling this blog, I thought about many words rather than transcendence. I thought of apocalyptic, divine distance, heaven, etc. as these are somewhat synonymous. In the end, however, I chose transcendence because it is the most flexible term, that can cover a wider-array of theological thinking than the other terms. However, in talking about transcendence, I am not talking about the “objective” claims we are making about God or the world when we talk about transcendence. but rather why it is that people choose to think about transcendence or other synonymous concepts and the impact the concept of transcendence has on them.
In Images of Hope, William Lynch says the following about transcendence in terms of hope:
This great traditional meaning of hope as that which helps us transcend our endless forms of impossibility, of prison, of darkness, is complemented by an equally classic understanding of the word imagination. For one of the permanent meanings of imagination has been that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem. Imagination, if it is in prison and has tried every exit, does not panic or move into apathy but sits down to try to envision another way out. It is always slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried, and that it is defeated. It is not so much that it has vision as that it is able to wait, to wait for a moment of vision which is not yet there, for a door that is not yet locked. It is not overcome by the absoluteness of the present moment.1
While not a theological treatise2, this paragraph on hope and imagination provide a bit of insight into the significance of transcendence. Transcendence is the routinely the realm where we imagine3 where things are different than they are in the present. Some transcendent being, object, or place is not enslaved and controlled by the regular, compulsory rules of reality; what is in our experience can be different in this realm of the imagination. As such, transcendence provides the possibility of thinking and believing there is something more, something better than what is currently the truth. Whether it be the Jewish apocalyptic that envisioned a day of freedom from its foreign oppressors, or the Christian apocalyptic vision of the New Testament where the truth would be free from the ruling powers of Rome and Jerusalem, or Barth’s neo-orthodoxy that was in protest to the terrors of Nazi Germany, transcendence becomes something we call forth because it enables us to think there is a possibility that things can and will be different. Transcendence allows the possibility of hope, when hope is otherwise seen to be far from the immanent, ever present, painful order and routines.
During my time in seminary, as I had been harassed and discarded, as every avenue I took to try to address and get help for the situation or myself were met with unfulfilled promises, meaningless platitudes, laughter, gaslighting, lies, projection. neglect, spying, slander, and veiled threats, as I felt the weight of shame coming from being so isolated and not seeing much clear evidence of genuine care without harmful agendas (although, I sense some people were unaware of the harm of the agendas they had), my theology took a much more starkly transcendent turn. I routinely criticized the theological beliefs of others as contained projected self-interests, applying a critique stemming from Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, while also having resonances with later, Barthian theology. I did not reduce God to simply projection or wish-fulfillment, but I saw the correspondence between many beliefs about God and people’s own behavior, emotions, and expressions; it was a way of saying they were wrong about so much. It was the notion that people were projecting on this God and that this God was only knowable in revelation that allowed me to operate with a subtle theological protest; it allowed me to resist the power of falsehood from overtaking my own sense of who I was and what I would hope for life to be. I prayed and hoped for a day that the terror would end and everything would resolve itself, believing that somehow, somewhere God would act and put an end to the evil that was occurring. Transcendence was the theology of my hopeful protest. And the reality never changed, and I lost not only my hope but much of anything that made me who I was.
While not everyone’s transition towards theologies of transcendence are so deeply personal and painful, I would surmise that there is a common ground for most people who find such theological beliefs compelling: transcendence allows for hope when what is immediately present would undercut that hope. As I look back on my experiences after the fact, with the benefit of later psychological knowledge, I can extrapolate at least three psychological processes I saw consistent with my own experience that I also see play itself out with other people who appeal to transcendent theologies. While these are often times labeled as defense mechanisms, I do not use that phrase as it has the unfortunate baggage as being “distortive” and leading to false beliefs about reality; I prefer to think in terms of emotional reasoning, with the sense that emotions can very well be rational, well-grounded, and in line with reality.
1) Denial – First, theologies of transcendence function to allow the person to deny the truthfulness or the degree of power of those who are in control. Transcendence has a way of letting the person find a grounds by which they can dismiss the claims of evil power. Whether it be denying the ultimate power of the rulers as in 1 Enoch 38:3-6, Paul’s claim the leading philosophers and rulers of the time did not understand God’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 2:7-8, or the Barthian protestant of Nazi Germany, theologies of transcendence have an intellectual justification for saying “No” to the claims and ultimate control of those who in evil ways control discourse and people, if not even destroy. As humans, we are naturally inclined to be submissive to those who have authority over us, but transcendence has a way of countering that natural tendency. The lies of those with great power are ultimately rejected by appeals to transcendence. Instead, faith in something much better can be realized.
2) Wish-fulfillment – Transcendence also allows for believing and expecting that something good can come in the midst of pain, suffering, and/or evil. The depth of the worst pain has a way of “seducing” the mind into entire apathy if not even the idea one should not and will not ever have a good life or have people to care, but even moderate versions of such pain can temporarily suffocate any sense of positive expectations. Transcendence has a way of saying what is real in this moment isn’t all that is true and real. In this space, one can allow the instinctual impulse for life and betterment to find a place where things can and will be different. Thus, the Apostle Paul can have hope for a redemption of the human body and all of creation in Romans 8:18-39. Transcendence allows for the barren soils of human existence to be fertilized with hope.
3) Sublimation – When the realities and powers in play prevent life as it deemed it should be, transcendence allows the space in which a person can imagine the realization of a different way of living. This isn’t just about passive hoping, but an active imagination of what one as powerless may do in the future. Transcendence allows the space to consider different ethical futures. Often times, it can sublimate the impulses of violence, such as the vivid apocalyptic wars in the scrolls of Qumran, in the safe space of imagination, looking for a day to bring these impulses into realization. However, another response is that transcendence can sublimate the opposite feelings of love; in Romans 11, Paul has confidence in the future redemption of all of Israel, this despite the fact that he had been and would continue to be the object of scorn and abuse from many of his fellow Jews. Thus, in seeing the possibilities of new realities stemming form transcendent power, one also sublimates one’s own impulses, whether to hate or love. Therefore, in conformity to the life of Christ, transcendence sublimates love into existence, even if showing that love wouldn’t be the “rational” thing to do in that world.
Hence, we may say that through denial, wish-fulfillment, and sublimation, the theology of transcendence in the New Testament allows for the manifest expression of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. However, let it be stated that while denial, wish-fullfillment, and sublimation in transcendence is not inherently distortive, one can appeal to transcendence as simply a way to deny, wish-fulfill, and sublimate even when truth does not allow for the specific ideas one wishes to hold onto. The cognitive power of beliefs in transcedence leads us to truth not because transcendence has any inherent truth-value to it, but because there is already a transcendent reality that we happened to stumble upon, or happened to come upon us as in revelation. In other words, the imagination of faith, hope, and love in a theology of transcendence is true only insofar as the ideas that have been formed inside us somehow comes from the Truth impacting us.