The dictionary defines transcendence as “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” For all human beings, self-transcendence is a constant and profound spiritual need. We only learn about the world, about things, by reaching out with our senses. But contrary to widespread assumptions in our culture, sensory experience alone will never satisfy beings constituted as we are, who seek truth, beauty, love. We reach out to other people and grow inestimably in the process. The richest part of our human growth comes from this kind of reaching out to others, and ultimately to God.
Millions of people, however, are constantly engaged in trying various inauthentic ways to transcend their everyday circumstances. Whether by using a bit of the hundreds of tons of illegal drugs being brought into the country year after tear, or similarly huge amounts also being manufactured here, or by abusing alcohol. (There is a whole underworld of drug addiction and drunkenness inhabited by broken individuals and destroyed families, which never really gets adequate recognition.) And we forget that this same desire for escape often lies behind more familiar, seemingly harmless things like listening to deafening music, driving too fast, or other adrenalin-producing diversions.
People are, clearly, desperate to change by whatever means they find available. They do it to escape, to briefly find an outlet for their self-loathing or their rage. And we haven’t even mentioned the whole “better-sex” industry.
They want to transcend their situations, but – and here lies the main problem – they want to do it on their own terms. The terms they choose are almost always material ones – this drug, that sexual technique, being possessed by some new material possession, or some new definition of fun. The spiritual side of life and its innate order, the real remedy, is ignored, when it’s not outright denied. People want to hand over their consciousness – the distinctive quality and pinnacle of their humanity – to a bottle or a drug or some sexual weirdness or consumerist fantasy in the hope that they can shed their responsibility as conscious individuals, if only for a few moments. It is much like repeatedly hitting oneself over the head in the hope of being unconscious for a while.
Of course, the Church has an authentic and satisfying way to real self-transcendence. That is why it is here and it doesn’t take much seeking to find it – or at least the beginnings of that perennial way. The Christian idea of transcendence is based on what we know about God and human beings from divine revelation.
The Church knows that true self-transcendence is found, not in a drug, or in using someone, but in the fact is that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”(I John 4:16) Sorry, but abiding in love is precisely not transcendence on our own terms. It has in its favor, however, that it is the kind of transcendence that fits with our natures as intersubjective creatures and with our growth as human beings. The Church’s option is not the materialist one, but it is the most real way for us to transcend ourselves.
To the “we’ve already heard all that Christian stuff, so let’s move on” crowd, I can only say: learning to love is a lifetime project and it is a different lifetime project in each relationship that we build and at each stage of each relationship. Loving involves slowly learning the good of the other person, not what I imagine is the good for this person, but what God has in store for him/her – and then participating in helping that good to come about in someone’s life. This is the only method of social interrelationship that humanely works.
And it’s something quite other, worth serious consideration, in a culture that blithely goes along, trailing behind it a broad swath of suffering and death caused by the chaotic pursuit of artificial paradises.
Benedict XVI began his encyclical Deus caritas est with God’s love for us, saying: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, [meeting God as a loving] person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Our learning to love comes from God who loved us first. He adds: “Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.”
We learn how to love people through God’s selflessness, generosity, and concern for our good. True self-transcendence is consequently selfless, generous, and seeking the good of the other. This is positive self-transcendence, the kind that God showed in sending Christ into the world, and its only collateral effect is to enrich the lives of everyone it touches.