Last time I discussed the relationship between the concepts of Ascent and of transcendence. I think there’s more to say about the latter. Last time I had noted two forms of transcendence: an Ascent beyond the physical world, and the “transcendence by descent” endorsed by Martha Nussbaum in which one transcends one’s own limits. But I think there’s also a third type found between them, one which I’ve spoken of before in other terms.
A key feature of any kind of transcendence, it seems to me, is dissatisfaction: something appears wrong with that which one is trying to transcend. In Nussbaum’s transcendence-by-descent, one is dissatisfied with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. In an Ascent, one is in some sense dissatisfied with the whole world. But what if one is dissatisfied with the whole world in a way that motivates one not to step outside the world, but to change it?
Such a formulation immediately calls to mind Karl Marx, whose gravestone reads “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Such a view is at the heart of radicalism; it is directly opposed to any form of literal conservatism, where the point is to keep the world more or less as it is. But Marx is hardly alone in holding such radicalism. Modernism itself is radical: the celebration of the modern is a celebration of change, a break with the past.
But what I’ve repeatedly been noticing lately is the similarity between a Marxian radicalism or modernism, on one hand, and Ascent traditions on the other. Both aim for a transcendence of the world – because both hate the real world as it happens to be. (“Hate” might be too strong a word, but I’ll use it for now at least.) One hates only what the world is now and not what it could become; the other hates it entirely and seeks to leave it behind. But both reject the world as it is, both reject any sort of conservatism.
The thought of Simone Weil, as I understand it, is deeply motivated by this kind of anti-conservative “hatred of the real world”. I keep returning to her quote that “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” There are only two options in this quote, each one aiming at some variety of transcendence. To say something like this, it seems to me, Weil must blind herself to the very possibility of a genuine conservatism. What if human life could be oriented not to an absolute good, but to a flawed and imperfect life in the real world as it is? What if we left transcendence behind?
It is such an anti-transcendence view, one that rejects an absolute good in either the future or in an other world, that draws me to the conservatism of Front Porch Republic. They take up Eric Voegelin‘s term Gnosticism to express either form of transcendence – Gnosticism, for them, is found in any rejection of the existing natural world, whether Buddhist or Marxist. What’s surprising about the FPR writers, though, is that the majority of them are expressly Christian. (Voegelin, as I understand him, was somewhat ambiguously so.) An aspiration to transcendence has always been strong in Christianity – but at FPR it is startling to note how little that aspiration expresses itself. There is little discussion there of eternal life in heaven, only of our life below, set within divinely ordained limits. Telling is the following quote from an article by Mark T. Mitchell:
Religion speaks of the reality of God and His doings with the world of men. But, more precisely, religion speaks of a transcendent realm that includes obligations pertaining to human action. These obligations exist prior to any human will, which is to say, we are obligated to an order we did not create or even consent to. There are limits that exist and to which we are obligated by the very nature of things. To live well as a human being is to respect those limits that we know intuitively, that are taught by religion, and that are manifested in the particularities of culture.
Mitchell speaks here of something “transcendent”, but not of “transcendence”. The difference between the word forms matters. “Transcendence” suggests a process, the act of transcending, becoming transcendent. But in Mitchell’s view of the transcendent there is no becoming, only being. God is ever transcendent, and we are not. Like non-Sufi or anti-Sufi Islam, Mitchell emphasizes the gulf between creator and creation.
The FPR emphasis on the goodness of the limited, imperfectible natural world – God’s creation – seems to me in some respects more Jewish than Christian. If that seems a stretch, I could at least say their Christianity is much more Aquinas than Augustine. Those two thinkers express what I think is a key but often ignored distinction within Christian tradition. Augustine’s world is full of literal Gnostics, and for him the world (not least human nature) is a dark, flawed, fallen place, one redeemed by a saviour who can take us out of it. Aquinas – though deeply influenced by Augustine – still manages to make the natural world normative, a source for understanding the God who created it. Mitchell’s Christianity is much closer to Aquinas’s: more down here than up there, a site to be embraced more than transcended, even given its manifold imperfections and limits.