The Two Antipodes of Transcendence

Many attempts have been offered to defend the theory that only physical reality is real (so-called ‘naturalism’). Although embarrassingly feeble in argument and often unabashedly ideological, the main claim has been that there seems to be no conclusive evidence within the world around us that anything beyond mass and energy need exist in order for it all to make sense.

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 what is implicit, however, tells a different story is something I will deal with elsewhere. 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.

Most of our lives are navigated on a sea of light, moderate or somewhat more intense 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 just a teeny bit intense.

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 easy welcome in the concepts of our minds, or utterance in even our most vaunted language. It may have been a sunset, the bewildering and enchanting mystery shining from 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, accompanied by a surge of crazy hope and anticipated bliss that the passing phenomenon itself seems unable to account for.

Of course, 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 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 the small circle of our lives. We instinctively 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 of fiendish horror.

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 something more. Here it is something extremely evil that haunts us, presenting us with the weird counterpart of those things that are overwhelmingly good and beautiful that entrance us.

When we witness the real and troubling existence of an unrepentant murderer, and then the equally obvious existence of an almost  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.

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. This, then, is the ultimate discomfiture of naturalism: that our natural world continues to have its transparent moments, allowing us these temporary peeks into perpetuity.

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