The Two Antipodes of Transcendence

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Many attempts have been offered to defend the theory that only physical reality is real (so-called ‘naturalism’). Although embarrassingly feeble and unabashedly ideological, their main thrust has been to claim that there is no conclusive evidence within the world around us that anything beyond mass and energy need exist in order for it all to make sense. And they’ve got a point, to the extent that one can conduct revealing scientific experiments and produce technological marvels without attending, explicitly, to any extra-cosmic causality (that there is more implicitly at work here – for instance the clearly essential but non-material reality of mathematics – needn’t detain us for our purposes here). But even the explicit point must steer clear of a Scylla and Charybdis that could shipwreck its cogency. There exist two extremities of human experience which periodically invade our world, and when they do, promptly engulf the logic of naturalism in a drowning swoon of either jubilation or desperation.

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Most of our lives are navigated on a sea of light, moderate and somewhat stronger experiences of either satisfaction and pleasure, or of discomfort and pain – or an interval of limbo between the two. We try to ply these waters as best we can. However, probably in infancy – and certainly soon thereafter – everyone comes face to face with experiences that are not light, moderate or somewhat stronger. We encounter instead an overpowering joy, a jaw-dropping exhibition of beauty, a fleeting glimpse of unworldly and mesmerizing glory, or some other spectacle that refuses to find welcome in our mind’s concepts, or utterance in even our most vaunted language. It may have been a sunset, the bewildering and enchanting mystery within the face of a small child, a rush of inexplicable well-being, or perhaps a serious listen to Berlioz’ Te Deum–whatever it was, it lifted us for a brief moment into a strangely busy factory of dreams within our imagination, with a surge of crazy hope and anticipated bliss that the passing phenomenon seems unable to account for.

But, sadly, the alien visitation may also have come from the other pole. It may have been the gut-wrenching news of the death of a loved one, or the witness of the cruelty of an incurable disease ravishing someone’s (maybe your own) body, or a news report on the civilian victims of warfare, burnt and deformed by the horrors of the modern science of maiming and killing. Whether happy or horrific, we all know the moments when something out of the ordinary befalls our little circle of life, but we also feel that our immediate world seems an unlikely mother of such marvels and monstrosities; it seems instead that something beyond has just intruded, producing a fleeting episode of noumenal ecstasy or horror.

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These invasions are the experiences of what we might call the ‘antipodes of transcendence’, that is, the two extreme apertures through which uncommon energies penetrate our world with an unmistakable message of ‘more’. It is the extremely evil that haunts us, as it is the overwhelmingly good and beautiful that entrances us. When we witness the real and troubling existence of an unrepentant murderer, and then the equally obvious existence of a thaumaturgic saint (a Charles Manson, and then a Padre Pio), we notice a similarity:  both breathe the air of another world. The two worlds from which their singularity draws sustenance have in common only their transcendence – the one, a bottomless pit of suffocating negativity; the other, a towering summit of radiant being.

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Dante wrote an inspired poem about those domains, but anyone with a human heart can take note of their brief epiphanies in even the most modest of lives. The ultimate discomfiture of naturalism is that our natural world continues to have its transparent moments, and so allows us these temporary peeks into perpetuity.