Transcend 1. to pass over or go beyond (a physical obstacle or limit); to climb or get over (a wall, mountain, etc.) Obsolete. 2. to pass or extend beyond or above (a non-physical limit); to go beyond the limits of (something immaterial)
Transcendence 1. The action or fact of transcending, surmounting, or rising above 2. Of the Deity: the attribute of being above and independent of the universe
Transcendent: surpassing or excelling --Oxford English Dictionary
Transcendence refers to the action or quality of transcending—of “going beyond the ordinary limits” (Webster). If our daily activities are usually confined to buildings, the parking area, and the car, a twenty-minute walk can be a transcendent experience, going beyond our ordinary limits of exposure to the outside and mobility. If we are shy, initiating a conversation can be a transcendent experience, taking us beyond our ordinary social limits. If we are usually plugged in, pulling the plugs out of our ears, putting the smart phone on a shelf, and turning off the television, radio, and computer can lead to transcending the ordinary limits of silence.
A year or so after first starting to run, I was in southern Chad for two weeks to work with translators. Without much to do on the weekend, I decided to try to go beyond my ordinary running limit of two miles. I sat behind the chief translator on his motorbike as we measured an out-and-back route of five miles over the dirt road lined by palm trees, past white-washed houses and small shops. It was hard to imagine running that distance, especially in the 90° heat, but I would try. And I made it: transcendence!
Following the trail blazed and developed by ancient philosophers, I believe that the minimal transcendence experienced during an activity such as that 5-mile run is related to the greatest degree of transcendence that can be experienced, known, or imagined. Whenever we transcend a physical limit—such as one imposed by lack of exercise, it gives us a taste, a glimpse, a grasp of psychological, social, political, intellectual, spiritual transcendence. The discipline and strain involved in following a twelve-week training program for a 5-K run is related to the discipline and strain involved in moving beyond barriers of self-doubt and fear, barriers between you and me, us and them.
The ancient philosopher Plato admired the discipline, strength and grace of athletes, but thought their performance to be a shadow of what is best in human relationships with self, each other, and the divine. Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote that gymnasia “training” of the body is beneficial but that these benefits pale in comparison with training that leads to eu-sebeia “good-awe/worship/respect”. This training would lead to transcending common barriers: ethnic-cultural-political (“Jew versus Greek,” as Paul put it), gender (“male versus female”), or social-economic (“slave versus free person”). Plato and Paul agreed that the training needed to be rigorous but that the results of unity and harmony with each other and the divine was well worth the effort. They also agreed that lack of transcending barriers in human relationships reflected a lack of transcending barriers between the human and the divine.
This week I have been questioning why we stop trying to transcend barriers, at personal, interpersonal, local, and national levels.
A friend I will call “Jill” was impressed by the wide-ranging knowledge of her co-worker “Jack” until she heard him talking about an area that she had studied in depth. Jack said the biblical book of Acts of the Apostles was written by Paul, who was “a Roman, not a Jew.” Jill started with an “I think…” to soften her correction concerning the author of Acts and the ethnicity and citizenship of Paul. But Jack replied, “No, I know I am right. I took a university course in religion.” Later in his exposition, Jack referred to the country of Jerusalem. Jill said, “Now, Jack. Jerusalem is a city, not a country.” Jack dismissed this and asked another co-worker, who readily agreed that Jack, as usual, was right. Jill suggested that they check with their smart phones. Jack did so with an impatient pout, which increased when he saw that there was a problem with the app: it referred to Jerusalem as a city!
Comical, yes, but before we laugh too hard, we might ask how we and the groups we are part of tend to cut off potential growth. Have we quit trying to transcend physical, intellectual or spiritual limits, having decided that our course in religion—or communication or psychology or politics or science—has taken us as far as we need to go? And when do we decide that our decision to no longer make an effort at transcending barriers should be the decision of others as well?
Jack’s satisfaction with his hazy memories of a course in religion and his dismissal of others’ help to transcend limits of knowledge and understanding have a troubling parallel at the national level. Polls indicate that so-called evangelicals are the biggest supporters of candidates who most support sticking within limits based on hazy recollections of religious instruction mixed with secular nationalism. These “evangelicals” (belying for many the ancient Greek sense of eu-angellion “good news”) seem to have forgotten the apostle Paul’s claim that the work of Christ and Christ-followers is to “break down the dividing walls of hostility” between groups of religious, cultural, and political differences; they roar in approval of one who promises to build up a literal wall of hostility or of one infamous for his inability to work with anyone except those who fully agree with him.
Brought up in a fundamentalist-evangelical family and graduated from an evangelical college, I well know the insecurities, fears, and sense of us-the-righteous against them-the-unrighteous that the politicians are stoking. I well know how nice, generous and helpful people claiming this label can be. I well know how smug and intolerant if not racist they can be—and I have been. I also know how hard it is to transcend the boundaries that such emotions and perspectives impose. Much harder than upping one’s mileage in 12 weeks! Much harder but also much, much more satisfying and healthy!
Some questions in this regard:
Trails we follow,