A Theology of Reverse Transcendence

Inevitably, one is bound to ask, “Why is there a basic human desire to run away from who and what we are? If God created us as embodied creatures, why do we so persistently spend our lives trying to experience and exist in a state that is beyond how we were created?”

Why do we seek to escape the way we experience reality? Why can’t we simply enjoy and live in the present moment and in our present physical and mental state? Why is there this yearning for something beyond? Can’t we be sufficiently satisfied with who we are, when we are, where we are, what we are and why we are?

When our default way of existing as a human is not enough we seek to break free from our limits. We seek to self-transcend our human limitations – to leave our mind and body behind. We seek a default way of existing that is beyond ourselves. But we perpetually seek and, since we never fully achieve self-transcendence, we are prone to feel trapped. We may feel we are trapped in our bodies, trapped in our minds, and trapped in humanity.

Photo by Olenka Kotyk

When we long to move beyond the physical limitations of existing in a human body in a physical world we can tend to think in terms of being trapped or caged inside and, thus, we yearn to be out. Are we seemingly spirits or souls that long to be disembodied from humanity? Do we engage in self-transcendence in order to achieve and/or return to our seemingly truest (unbodied) state?

As Scott Cairns says in his book, The End of Suffering, “[Transcendence] sometimes attests to a disposition of spiritual fervor that tends to discount the material world and its bouquets of lovely stuff, in favor of the immaterial. Our specifically Christian undertaking of is decidedly not one of transcending. It is, rather, the intentional rein spiriting of the body and its lowly matter- as manifested in the incarnation of Christ.”*

Photo by Jairo Alzate

We do still have a choice: to embrace our embodied state and remain within contentedness so as to not move towards escapist tendencies (running from reality). The courageous path means that, since we experience (and cause) pain and evil (it is the inflicting of pain and evil that destroys our souls), we must do our best to fight against causing pain and evil in the world and use everything within our limits (our bodies) to work towards an end of pain and evil in the world.

But not on our own. We are always longing for what we don’t have already; longing for what we have not already experienced. To think that we desire to live in a way that our bodies cannot experience begs the question: Why is the default way of living – the way we exist, think and act –not enough?  Why did God create us this way?

As a Christian, I believe that I am limited in my ability to do things like end of pain and evil in the world, and so, I must rely on Christ to help me in my limited, embodied state to work towards this end. I am not to work towards an end of self-transcendence as I would be prone to do in this day and age. I must make a decision. Just as we, Christians, believe that God chose to become incarnate -God chose to become human- so we must daily choose to live into our bodily limits. God chose reverse transcendence for our sake; existing and experiencing within the normal and physical level. He decided the best way to save humanity was to become an embodied human and live among us.“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) God also believed that He would bring about His kingdom partly through human means and ultimately, it would be Jesus Christ, the God-made-man, who would be the very King to rule that Kingdom.   

Photo by Dingzeyu Li

I was talking with a friend who spoke about her slow epiphany that drew her to Christianity and how it pertains to a dynamic, embodied life. “What I love about Christianity is the fact that it is a dynamic life; it’s not about being a person who is constantly existing and meditating in complete peace- where if, big waves come through, I am still calm water. I was frustrated that I was never able to achieve that. I realized that the life that Jesus represented- and why I was drawn to Christianity- was that it is a powerfully dynamic life of loving. And that includes weeping and laughing and feeling lost and feeling confused, and trying really hard and not succeeding; a whole dynamic range of colors and life and passion. … ‘Blessed are those who mourn! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!’ Jesus’ life exemplified that in a beautiful picture. But his life includes pain, longings, and unfulfilled desires. That was the picture of the life of the spiritual person; not that you are above it all: pious and impervious. I don’t want to be impervious. I want to be deeply engaged.”

I realized that I, too, had a similar perception of being spiritual. I felt that well-practiced spirituality alluded to the ability to enter a state of ecstasy, meaning “to stand outside of one’s self.” I imagined myself alone in the woods- or at least alone in nature- sitting in the lotus position with legs crossed and arms open and hands facing up to receive the spirit. I desired to be a meditative person who could have absolute control of my mind, flip a switch and turn off all the chatter in order to simply exist in silence and thus, begin to communicate with God- to successfully hear what God was telling me- just by sitting in perfect stillness both physically and mentally. I had the image of spirituality within my mind as regarding someone who was able to self-transcend his or her body through ascetic means or extreme mental focus.

Photo by Alejandro Alvarez

We cannot achieve transcendence through our own mortal attempts at spirituality; that is to say complete self-transcendence is a fruitless endeavor. In fact, even after death, our spirits do not leave our bodies, allowing us to exist in a disembodied (transcended) state. No, the Bible says we will be resurrected with new bodies. Scripture tells us that the transcendence we seek exists within our lives as embodied creatures; it is, in fact, a reverse transcendence. We must emulate God, who took on flesh and became man. He sought to enter into existence and experience within the normal and physical levels. We must open ourselves to allow Jesus’ spirit to transcend our own lives.

Following Christ down the path of reverse transcendence and allow His spirit to indwell our hearts requires making room; it is the slow, daily, laying down of our physically human will. To “daily take up the cross and follow [Christ]” (Lk 9:23).

Matthew 16:25 says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

Galatians 2:20  “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God”

Galatians 5:24 “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.”

Romans 6: 6-8 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Photo by Tim Marshall

These verses all speak of the long, often painful, act of making room in our hearts and lives; the act of letting our self die. That is to say, to let go of our intrinsic human desires that are concerned with the health, continuation and fulfillment of one’s self. Our innate desire to transcend our bodies must especially be let go; it is a perpetual grasping for something beyond our reach like a man literally reaching for the stars. Our preoccupation with self-transcendence occupies our hands and prevents us from a receiving of Christ’s identity which He continually gives.

As dynamic creatures who are always changing, we can become obsessed with the pursuit of understanding our own identity because there are always new things to discover about our ever-changing selves. Instead, we must constantly receive Christ’s identity as life. To cling to our identity as individuals is death. To receive Christ- that is, to give up and let go of our intrinsic self identity as a human- is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

The serpent preyed on our parents in the garden, convincing them of scarcity with the words left unspoken as much as the words spoken. In between the spoken words, the serpent was saying: “If you don’t eat of the fruit, you will not be like God but you will be lacking – you will be ignorant and unfulfilled.” ** We are faced with the same choice today. We must not believe the god of scarcity who is whispering us lies that what we have is insufficient and that we need more. We must not believe that we need to break free from our human limits to be fulfilled. We must not believe that we can attain permanent and eternal self-transcendence. God, instead, offers another path. It is the path of emulating our very creator, practicing reverse transcendence: taking on flesh and carrying and sharing His love with others through the thoughts and actions of our embodied, limited lives on this earth.

*Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering
** Genesis 3:5
Cover photo by Oscar Keys

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