Jules Evans of the University of London recently wrote a piece for the online publication Aeon, wherein he suggests that transcendent experiences, which he describes more often as moments of ecstasy, are not exclusive to religious endeavor, that they are in fact open and freely shared among all regardless of one’s personal beliefs. The article is well written and with his general point, I agree – one need not believe in God, or in a god, to receive some sort of transcendent experience. His larger point, however, is less well-argued and lesser agreeable still, which is not only that belief is not a requirement, but indeed that Divine providence is not a factor at all. Citing near death experiences, drug use, and everyday activity seemingly devoid of obvious spiritual involvement, Jules aims for the point that transcendent experiences are whatever the recipient makes of them, that they may or may not be real, but that they can, ultimately, be helpful.
Jules points out that such experiences are surprisingly common. Citing a survey of his own from 2016, he reports that 84 percent of respondents reported some sort of experience that fell within his guidelines. This is, in our materialist time, a shockingly high number. We are told at a high frequency that religious belief is false, foolish, and indicative of a profound ignorance. And yet, were we to assume that only half of Jules’ 84 percent were true across the wider whole of society, 42 percent is still a much higher number than one might expect. In essence, it is possible that two-out-of-five people in one’s life have had at least one transcendent experience. Wonder of wonders that such things are never spoken of.
Before returning to Jules’ contention, it will serve the reader well to define the terms we are working with – transcendence and ecstasy. Traced to its foundations, transcendent comes from the Latin transcendere, made up of the two parts trans- (across, beyond) and –scandere (to climb). Thus, to transcend literally means to climb across or beyond. One may notice that both “across” and “beyond” imply an object to overcome which, in turn, indicates that there are at least two different locations that one may occupy – here, and there. Ecstasy comes from the French extasie, meaning elation or rapture. Extasie comes from the late Latin extasis from the Greek existanai, which is made up of the two parts ex (“out”) and histanai (to place, cause to stand). Thus, ecstasy literally means to be out of a place. Thus is it clear that both transcend and ecstasy involves movement from one place to another.
Coming back to Jules’ larger point that religious belief is not required, because such experiences cannot come from a God who is not there, one might simply ask, from where do such experiences come? According to Jules, respondents most often report feeling a “connection” – to something higher, to nature, to those around them. Also quite common are feelings of immense wellbeing, comfort, and pleasure that do not register on our own temporal scales of sexual, culinary, or intellectual. As well, many report light that envelops all around them, and/or waves of energy that pulsate over them, which is either accompanied or followed by feelings of peace and joy.
Taken together, it is difficult to understand how else one might explain such similar experiences shared across such a wide expanse of time and place. Perhaps this is an inborn neural state that all are liable to experience, except that the brain, like the rest of the human body and indeed all of existence, is a reactionary organ; it only moves after having been moved itself. Yet, many people self-describe these experiences occurring with no common prior stimulus. Indeed, very often it seems that the only commonality aside from the experience itself is that it was apparently untriggered – but this is contrary to the nature of things.
Thought results from action, and action from thought, and so on back through the ages of one’s life or through the history of existence itself. Recall that both “transcend” and “ecstasy” imply movement, and movement implies both a start and an end point. Newton agrees with St. Aquinas before him that a body at rest must remain at rest until a force is exerted upon it. All motion, whether physical or mental, is the result of a prior motion. This is known as the Unmoved Mover (Aquinas) and the First Law of Motion (Newton). The brain is certainly a body, but no so the human consciousness, though it is seated, presumably, in the brain. Yet we know that thoughts, feelings, and all other mental processes result from something. At the very least, these experiences must share a common catalyst, however disparate the sample. So we are brought once again to the question, from where do such experiences come?
These experiences must come from somewhere, whether by Divine providence, or by personal experience, but more importantly they must lead somewhere. Returning to their etymology, both “transcend” and “ecstasy” involves the movement from one place (or state) to another, but can one move to a place or a state that does not exist? Surely not. One cannot possibly experience a place where there is no place, nor a sensation where there is no stimulus. What if, then, such transcendent and ecstatic experiences are intended for something, that is, to move us towards something?
Intent requires design. Either these experiences come from somewhere and someone, or else they are completely random. If from someone or somewhere, then they have a purpose. If random, then they are not at all real and, lacking reality, are meaningless. No amount of personally assigned significance can bring meaning to that which is inherently meaningless. When such experiences are received, they are by all accounts impactful, whether for better or for worse. If the meaning of such experiences is subjective, however, then one can just as easily choose to feel nothing, to possess no thought or opinion. As the waves of light and energy and peace wash over this skeptic, as every fiber of his being reaches out towards so higher ‘connection,’ our skeptic may choose to disavow the experience entirely – if the meaning is subjective. Yet in all the research I have seen, which certainly is not the full body but is nonetheless ample, there has not been a single person who said such experiences meant nothing to them. Likely, if it meant nothing, this skeptic would not have reported it for the purpose of cataloguing.
What relevance does this have to anything? Very little, and yet so much. Our time is one of a dark materialism. Such things of the spirit are considered the realm of the simple, superstitious, and unintelligent. It is fine to hold such beliefs, so long as they are kept private so we are told. And yet all around us we see signs of the supernatural knocking on the proverbial door. People are dying of a thirst for those deeper truths and higher purposes than our post-modern, materialist, individualist, and secular world has to offer.
Pope St. Pius X in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis wrote,
“It may be, Venerable Brethren, that some may think We have dwelt too long on this exposition of the doctrines of the Modernists. But it was necessary…to show that their system does not consist in scattered and unconnected theories but in a perfectly organised body, all the parts of which are solidly joined so that it is not possible to admit one without admitting all…And now, can anybody who takes a survey of the whole system be surprised that We should define it as the synthesis of all heresies? Were one to attempt the task of collecting together all the errors that have been broached against the faith and to concentrate the sap and substance of them all into one, he could not better succeed than the Modernists have done. Nay, they have done more than this, for, as we have already intimated, their system means the destruction not of the Catholic religion alone but of all religion. With good reason do the rationalists applaud them, for the most sincere and the frankest among the rationalists warmly welcome the modernists as their most valuable allies.”
In our modern world, the things of the Church, i.e., the intersection of the natural and the supernatural, the material and the immaterial, are hated and so are desperately sidestepped and avoided at any costs. The great belief of the modernist is that they are the most open-minded and accepting iteration of man the world has ever known, and yet in their open-minded acceptance of all things they dismiss out of hand any consideration that what they cannot explain can be attributable to the Unexplainable. It is thus unacceptable that something might be unknowable and so being beyond his understanding, he writes it off as a strange, inexplicable cognitive episode (perhaps), which has no meaning beyond what he alone ascribes thereto. It cannot be proven that such experiences trace their providence to Divine origin, but it is intellectually disingenuous to not at least consider the possibility in light of having no better explanations.
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