By Huston Smith
Wheaton, IL: Quest Books. 1982/2003.
Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time. Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs. So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.
In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.” As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise. But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.
In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent. Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent. But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence. But you can’t choose both.
In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith. I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.
Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.” Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:
Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.
The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration. The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions. While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.
Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further. In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something. Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.” Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension. Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:Higher than the senses are the objects of sense. Higher than the objects of sense is the mind; And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi). Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman). Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta). Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person. Higher than the Person there is nothing at all. That is the goal. That is the highest course.
Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.” The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in. In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us. It’s there for the taking. We just need to notice it. Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.” In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.” He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”
What a mix up! How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”? A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same. They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning. That’s an experience we humans can all share. So let’s not get hung up on semantics.” This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience. But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.
The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.” In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions. This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.
In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia. We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.” This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.” Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.
But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic. No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:
For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul. This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”
In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:
What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being. For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.
Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience. In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.” If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world. In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”
Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents. On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear. Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:
As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple. Same rush, same rapture.
The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise. From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension. Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness. Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.
 See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.
 Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.
 Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.
 Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
 Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.
 Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.
 Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.
 Romans 7:22-24
 Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.
 Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.
 Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
 Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.