Something bigger than ourselves?

Many Naturalistic Pagans use ritual to connect to something greater than themselves. But theists and atheists alike may wonder how this is possible, since Naturalistic Pagans do not believe in deities or spirits. There are other things that can be understood as transcending ourselves, including the natural world, the community of life, and our deeper selves. For example, B. T. Newberg explains how the experience of transcendence can arise out of an encounter with nature:

“… 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.”

Typically, “transcendence” is understood as a movement beyond the human condition, beyond our embodiment, and beyond our connections to the world around us. But there is another kind of transcendence, what Phil Hine calls “lateral transcendence” or “horizontal transcendence” (and Luce Irigaray calls the “sensible transcendent”). Hine explains:

“Transcendence, in these terms, is not some unknowable absence, but a feature of phenomena as they announce themselves within a horizon. Transcendence means that what is perceived ‘always contains more than what is actually given’ – that any phenomenon has the capacity to surprise us, to broaden or even explode our horizons. Lateral transcendence can be thought of as a reaching-beyond the boundaries of isolated selfhood towards the web of relationships, and perhaps, an openness to novelty, surprise, the unexpected.”

B. T. Newberg identifies several of the common indicia of transcendents:

  • They are greater than us in both degree and kind.
  • We participate in them even as they transcend us.
  • When they manifest, they do so not as problems that can be solved, but as challenges to be confronted and integrated.
  • There is no avoiding or escaping them, as they are part of the human condition.

Examples of such naturalistic transcendents include the Earth and the Cosmos, the human community and the more-than-human community, and the “Big Self” (what Starhawk calls the “Deep Self”) as distinguished from the ego-self or our conscious identity.

3 Comments on “Transcendence

  1. Within the Humanist paradigm, as Humanists have explained things to me, the experiences you cite are simply inappropriate releases of neurotransmitters, and should not be accorded any importance at all. I’ve known more than a few atheists have who have spent years purging themselves of such “irrational emotional responses” so they could live an entirely Logical Positivistic, Rational life.

  2. Pingback: What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy – The Allergic Pagan


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