Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

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Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.