“Answer this question, a simple yes or no. If the human race becomes extinct (thanks to climate change, nuclear war, or any of the other modern doomsday scenarios science has made possible, snark snark), will “the transcendent” still exist?”

This question, right here, gets to the heart of our disagreement. That makes it a VERY GOOD QUESTION. My point is the transcendent transcends. It goes beyond dualities like existence/non-existence. It goes beyond questions like real or unreal. I think the reason you and others find much of the language science uses to describe our experiences of it problematic (and it often is from my perspective too) is precisely because science doesn’t study the transcendent. At best, it reports other people’s experiences of it without taking any position on their interpretations of those experiences. At worst it dismisses people’s interpretations as unlikely or impossible.

But, to be fair, if you’re going to say your experience was real you can’t be too upset when people ask why the aliens who abducted you (your example, not mine) didn’t show up on radar, didn’t leave any marks on your body, and nobody else in the area at the time saw anything. If we’re going with Occam’s razor and taking the simplest explanation that works to be the most likely actual explanation, actual visitors from outer space isn’t the simplest explanation that works. Furthermore, if you were really visited by aliens it was by definition an event that’s very much in science’s wheelhouse, so I find alien abduction an odd example to use in a discussion regarding spiritual experiences.

That said, no one really studies the transcendent. Even religions and mystical traditions don’t really study it as such. They provide various means of experiencing it for oneself. The moment we can describe the transcendent with anything like precision or accuracy it will, by definition, cease to be transcendent. So if I answer your question “yes or no” I am either denying the transcendent or revealing I don’t understand its nature. Yes or no is, after all, just another duality and the transcendent is beyond all dualities. It is this consistent insistence upon talking in terms of “real”, “existence”, “yes or no” that I have tried to communicate is the source of my frustration with your approach to spiritual questions.

Science, and religion too, can only dance around this topic. Both admittedly will at best approach it only clumsily — science will focus on the physical ways we subjectively experience the transcendent and will often dismiss/ignore entirely any spiritual implications the people having these experiences often feel they have for themselves and/or humanity writ large, while religion will often get caught up in the literal truth of its particular cultural manifestations of the transcendent (i.e., mistake its metaphors for the transcendent they are pointing to). So, to use my own religious upbringing as an example, assuming science is looking at all it is looking for physical reasons that explain why Joseph Smith “saw” or claimed to see the Angel Moroni. Meanwhile, Mormons are caught up in the conviction that the angel must be really out there somewhere for the experience to have any meaning or relevancy. So far as the transcendent is concerned they’re both missing the point, though to be fair to science it never claimed the transcendent was anything it was really concerned with or could actually study to begin with.

Sticking with my own tradition a bit longer, let’s say science demonstrated a physical cause, or at least a plausible/probable physical cause for Joseph Smith’s vision. One has actually been postulated by some scholars: ergot poisoning. As an aside, outbreaks of ergot poisoning also correlate strongly with the outbreaks of witch trials across Europe during the 15th-17th centuries. Ergot is a fungus that can infect grain crops and contains the same alkaloid from which LSD is derived. Thanks to fungicides and changes in food processing it’s not much of an issue today, but it used to be. Now if it turned out this ergot hypothesis could be proved to be the cause of Joseph Smith’s vision, does it follow that he didn’t have a profound spiritual experience? No. Indeed, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that it would have been even more spiritual had he properly understood its physical context. Intentionally taking hallucinogens for the purpose of getting in touch with the transcendent through visions, etc. has a long tradition that predates science. But even long ago those using these substances knew the experiences they were seeking required a physical trigger and none of them thought for a second that their reliance on this physical trigger in any way diminished the power of the experience. There is absolutely NOTHING that separates the physical from the transcendent. To say otherwise is to once again divide the world dualistically into this and that. Such categorizing is useful, even necessary, when it comes to day-to-day living and finding the proximate causes for the effects we witness or are trying to achieve, but it will doom us to failure if our goal is to have something akin to an experience of the transcendent. The perspective we take depends upon the goals we are trying to achieve. If you are trying to determine if something is real or how it works, use science. If you are trying to experience the transcendent stop categorizing the world as physical/non-physical, real/unreal, you/me, yes/no. The transcendent isn’t out there somewhere. It’s right here and right there where you are. To quote (perhaps slightly inaccurately) a verse from one of the Gnostic Gospels, “the kingdom of God is within you.” If you’re waiting for it to come/return, you’re doing it wrong. Stop waiting. If you’re looking for it “out there”, you’ll never find it.

The reason I left Mormonism was its insistence upon its own literal truth. Most religious institutions make the same mistake to one degree or another. My own spiritual journey is, of course, very imperfect, very complex, often contradictory and confusing, but at least it’s now mine to interpret and work out without fearing punishment here on earth or suggestions I’m risking eternal damnation. With regard to science, since I know where it is coming from and what it is grounded in and am at least somewhat familiar with its history, I can forgive the scientists who reach conclusions that exceed the evidence or that are perhaps too narrowly focused on the physical causes of this or that event to notice the potential power of the experiences themselves. My journey has likewise brought me to a place where I can take the gifts of various traditions without getting too caught up in their particular claims of having found literal truth. If they aren’t going to use their metaphors, I figure there’s no harm in borrowing them for a while to use in my own imperfect efforts to navigate the transcendent.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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