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How can a naturalist seek transcendence?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Three Transcendents, by B. T. Newberg

In the last post, I suggested naturalists can connect to something greater than themselves.  Without literal belief in deity or afterlife, they can achieve transcendence.  How?

There are myriad ways of naturalistic transcendence, but I'm going to concentrate on three major ones: through nature, community, and mind.  I'll illustrate each with a story or example, then tie them together at the end.


Standing at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, I beheld how much greater it was than me in degree, how alien in kind.  It soared above the island; wrapped itself in mist.

Then, as I made the long, two-day ascent, I confronted limits of endurance beyond which I thought myself incapable.  Beyond the timberline, I felt the thup, thup, thup of my heart pounding some two-hundred times per minute.  The altitude and chill showed me a body I'd never known before.

At the peak, I discovered the experience of the mountain changed who I was.  It was not that I became greater than the mountain, but the greatness of the mountain became part of me.  It became part of my life story.  Ever after, I felt a bond with it and a humility before it that endures to this day.

Finally, contemplating this and other such experiences, I saw the relation between myself and the mountain as one interdependent ecosystem.  Nature is vast, and we are part of that vastness.  We come out of it, belong to it, and contribute to it with every thought and action.

This kind of experience can arise whether looking into the eyes of a wolf, as in Aldo Leopold's hunting experience, or gazing at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, as in Neil deGrasse Tyson's "most astounding fact."

Nature is explored more deeply here.


As my wife and I slogged along on our bicycles, generally irritated at each other, suddenly there was a pop.  Her back tire went flat, and we were in the middle of nowhere on a Korean highway.  We had to find a repair shop, communicate our problem, and somehow make it home.

As we pulled through this minor crisis, a peculiar thing happened: we were no longer irritated at each other.  Through working together as a couple, each of us had moved from me to we.  In some small way, we’d experienced a tiny moment of transcendence.

There are also big moments.

On August 28th, 1963, over 200,000 men and women descended upon Washington, D.C.  This collective unit, shouting with one voice, was also a gathering of individuals.  Hundreds of thousands of unique personalities joined to demonstrate commitment to something greater than themselves: the ideal of justice.

The march expressed deep rifts in the community, frustration at the systematic disenfranchisement of an entire race.  The footfalls of each individual rang with suffering, and hope against all odds for something better.

Our species has a deplorable capacity for cruelty, especially toward outgroups and deviants within-group.  At the same time, we also have the power to cooperate and achieve great things when we come together.  In doing so, we take part in something greater than ourselves.

Community is explored more deeply here.


I sat down at my altar to Isis with an emotional knot I'd been working on for days without resolution.  It wasn't an intellectual problem with a logical solution, but an emotional one.  Life had grown confused; I was unsure what I was doing with my career and my marriage; I felt closed off and restricted.  Within minutes of chanting and talking to Isis about it, the knot loosed.  Suddenly, I felt clear and open, like there was a way forward.

This happens to me regularly.  Somehow, an unconscious process is facilitated by the images and actions involved in devotion.  Perhaps the image of a supernormal mother figure like Isis and the bodily actions of rhythmic chanting, gift offering, and intimate confession are props that aid cognition.  Ritual devotion may not be unique in its ability to facilitate this, but it appears to be one way to do it, and an effective one in my experience.

I'm sure other people's experiences with ritual may be quite different.  Regardless, this example demonstrates, like a pebble cast into a well, just how far down the unconscious mind goes.  It can do things that "I" can't.  It is not "me"; it is radically "other."  To sound its depths is indeed to discover something greater than oneself.

Mind is explored more deeply here.

Characteristics of transcendence

When I speak of naturalistic transcendence, I mean an experience of something greater than you not only in degree but also in kind, yet in which you nevertheless participate.  In experiencing your participation in this something greater, you encounter something which challenges and transforms your whole sense of who and what you are, your way of being-in-the-world.

Some Pagans are somewhat wary of "transcendence", including T Thorn Coyle ("transcendent thinking") and myself not long ago.  But these mainly object to that kind of transcendence which opposes immanence.

In contrast, naturalistic transcendence explodes the traditional theological dichotomy between transcendence and immanence, which asks whether the divine is outside or inside nature.  That question makes no sense to a naturalist.  Nature is all there is; nothing could be outside it.  The divine, whatever that may mean, either is within nature, or is nature.  Naturalistic transcendence, then, manifests in a context of immanence.  It is transcendence of the individual self or ego within a wholly-immanent universe.

The three ways of transcendence outlined here share a few characteristics:

  • they are greater than us in both degree and kind, representing higher levels of organization
  • we participate in them even as they transcend us
  • when they manifest as challenges, they do so not as problems that can be solved but as predicaments that can only be confronted and integrated
  • there is no avoiding or escaping them for any human being; they are part of the human condition
  • they demand to be handled with care, so as to affirm rather than negate the individual
  • they are “Immensities” in Brendan Myers‘ sense, a term he borrowed from Yeats:

When we have drunk the cold cup of the moon’s intoxication, we thirst for something beyond ourselves, and the mind flows outward to a natural immensity

What's missing?

Has something important been overlooked or left out?  No doubt it has.  Your personal experiences may differ, and I'd love to hear about them.

How do you seek transcendence?

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B. T. Newberg is the editor of Humanistic Paganism, a community blog for naturalistic spirituality.  For eleven years and counting, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  He is a member of ADF, and frequent contributor to Patheos, Witchvox, and GoodReads.  Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, and Japan, B. T. Newberg currently resides in South Korea with his wife and cat.


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