I have had the extraordinary pleasure of being friends with people from Africa and the Middle East. In some cases they have been self-identifying Christians while others Muslims. In both cases I have seen embodied the embrace of life in the body. And this beautiful simplicity has reinforced what I had learned through the study of Christian orthodoxy. Namely, that descending beyond transcendental religion is necessary to embrace the fullness of God’s Kingdom. For God created us as creatures who live through our bodies in the material world.
The most common form of philosophy or religion that people in America adhere to today is some version of transcendentalism. Transcendental philosophies, properly speaking, are associated with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his critique of philosophical methods (especially related to epistemology) and what has been called German Idealism. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) are famous for popularizing this philosophical perspective. I would add that transcendentalism is directly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. While there are few who formally identify with and give allegiance to these groups or their representative teachers I think that millions of Americans identify with the presuppositions of these philosophies. And further, they interpret other religious traditions through the lens of these transcendental philosophies.
Let me illustrate this. Americans generally believe that they can somehow be free from the burden of physical existence (except for the aspects of it that allow for the diversion from serious thought and avoidance of pain). Sensual or sexual pleasure or drugs is a common way for people to tune out whatever may be unpleasant or painful; eating (overeating) and consuming alcohol can become an escape; taking multiple prescription drugs to mask symptoms of emotional and physical pain; and getting lost in media entertainment—primarily visual (video games, movies, “surfing the internet”)—is frequently a way to avoid meaningful association with actual human beings. All these alternatives, which millions of Americans routinely seek refuge in, are a means of escape from routines, natural pleasures and discomfort of embodied existence.
In contrast consider the following activities: Physical exercise, team sports, reading of books, taking extended time to talk with friends or family while slowly enjoying a good meal, taking a nap or simply turning off the flood of noise from media sources. Each of these would be considered healthy behaviors by most people (and especially psychologists or psychiatrists). All of them involve the use of the body and the conscious experience of positively caring for one’s own self—that is, one’s own body. Further, even the very act of intentionally seeking solitude and quiet (thus limiting outward sound and distractions) requires a person to be aware of his or her embodied existence.
Historic orthodox Christianity, regardless of whatever else could be said to positively describe it, is emphatically and shamelessly embodied. Theologically this is expressed in the doctrine of humans created in the image and likeness of God and the Incarnation of God the Son. Ethically this is expressed in the fusion of the command to love God by loving one’s neighbor precisely because of the sanctity of human life (as image-bearers of God). We who are orthodox Christians, if we practice what we say we believe, should value human life in this world, the inherent goodness of work, necessity of intimate human relationships (friendship and sexual intimacy between husband and wife in marriage) and the stewardship of the natural environment; for all of this is part of the goodness of God’s creation. To affirm these things requires descending beyond transcendental religion with it pernicious self-centeredness and principled avoidance of embodied reality.
I vividly remember one day being at an African pastors’ house when he excitedly told me that they were going to kill a goat that day and then prepare the meat for a celebration. So I watched as they slit the goats throat, while it was alive, and then hung it up on a tree so that the blood could then drain out. The African men were very excited and with enthusiasm prepared the goat to be slow cooked and eaten by the whole community when they gathered for the celebration. I am a city boy and I had not seen anything like this before—not even when I traveled to East Africa. I found it difficult to watch this animal killed and even more difficult to understand how they could think that this was normal. But since then I have come to appreciate what they did that day.
Even though I was reared to be a Christian my general perception of religion was characterized by a yearning to transcend the physicality of life and avoid the need to mature into a disciplined adult. Like so many Americans, I have tended to try to avoid death, sickness and pain at all costs. The sight of the death of that goat reminded me that while living creatures have a remarkable strength and vitality in them they are also vulnerable. Life as we experience it on earth now is simultaneously beautiful and fragile and valuable. This truth has convinced me of the need for descending beyond transcendental religion because these so-called philosophies lead people away from engaging the reality of creation and life in this world.
Transcendental philosophy comes in various forms. However, in every example the core of Christian orthodoxy is always denied outright or redefined in a way that renders it meaningless. The affirmation of the physicality of human life and hope in the resurrected Lord Christ always goes first—for God (if he is allowed to have a place) is relegated to a kind irrelevant background seat while the self is deified. Jesus can be an enlightened teacher but never the eternal Son of God whose blood secures forgiveness of sin and full restoration of the image of God in human beings.
The mother of all transcendental philosophy roots back to the heresy of “Gnosticism” (1st to 3rd Century). The Gnostic teachers who identified with Jesus as (in some sense) “savior” categorized him as one who enlightens spiritually and leads the disciple away from the physicality of life; for the physicality of life is deceptive and must be transcended—the core of the person’s true identity (the spark of the divine) must be released from the prison of the body in order to experience the enlightenment of salvation. The Gnostics were unique and astonishing in part because they had a privatized spirituality in a time when religion was overwhelmingly understood as a public civic duty and to serve the purposes of the State.
For Gnostics the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus on his cross is not needed (nor did it actually happen) because Jesus only appeared to have had a body. Thus his death is not the gateway for spiritual life and hope—that has been shifted to the person seeking release back to the true God who must find the way through the unseen realms to God. Jesus or some other exalted figure would help guide the devotee through secret knowledge (employing the Greek term “gnosis”).
There are many spiritual teachers and authors peddling spiritual programs which include many of the features of the Gnostic theological system today. I would categorize these under the banner of transcendental religion. And it is these ideas which are partially responsible for the erosion of trust in the authority of Scripture and aversion to orthodox Christian teaching.
There are two main consequences of embracing Gnosticism (or some modern version of that) in whole or part. One is the denial the physicality of life and thus the value of communal life as we find ourselves in necessary relationship with other human beings. Reality is as much physical as it is spiritual and love encompasses both the seen and the unseen. The implications of gnostic religion (which I tie to Transcendentalism of 19th century in America) is a denial of love and responsibility for the physical well-being of our neighbors.
The Scripture repeatedly makes the point that God is attentive to and will hold people accountable for how they treat other people. This assertion presupposes the broader theological perspective and claims of Scripture regarding human dignity, value and purpose as image bearers of God. For example, in the Torah God commands:
“Do not curse the deaf or put obstruction before the blind; but revere your God; I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:14, Holy Bible: The Berkeley Version in Modern English [Zondervan:1965])
Just look around us (and at ourselves): How many people have adopted the new bland version of spiritual retreat from society and people? We know it as urban isolation—cities, towns, neighborhoods that are designed so that people do not even need to know their neighbors. The affluence of America makes this a luxury for many people to live in isolation from their neighbors. This is the new secular monasticism of our age.
The second is that people reject authority and make of the self an idol. And this is why they so confidently ignore the Bible, or selectively interpret it in the way that suits their preferred life-style choices. This current time in American and European (Western) countries is arguably without parallel in this regard.
Biblically informed historic Christian orthodoxy remains a steadfast alternative because it sheds light on the path of Christ—on the way of the cross and way of growing into practicing God’s love in community. Nothing but the Lord Jesus Christ himself can bind together human beings in genuine love and respect for one another. Orthodoxy proclaims and explains the meaning of the Gospel, calling upon the chorus of voices from Scripture and the wise teachings of Church leaders from the past. I for one need to stay grounded in reality and engaged in dialogue with those wise men and women who have gone before me in the Church. I have found Christian orthodoxy to be a reliable guide for descending beyond transcendental religion into fellowship with the Triune God who is Present in this world.