My first post for the Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, which I have joined as a regular contributor, is up this morning. It is an attack on the vulgar understanding of religion as the experience of transcendence. I prefer what William James dismisses as religion’s “dull habit.”
The occasion of my Good Letters post was a review by Alan Lightman, the novelist who doubles as a physicist, in which he advances transcendence as the religious emotion. Transcendence is religion’s “high,” but like a drug-induced ecstasy, it grows blunt and less keen over time. Larger and more frequent doses of the original stimulus are necessary to revive the experience, which will never be as good as the first time. Or, to say the same thing in a different metaphor, the “acute fever” of religion, which James defends against its dull habit, is a condition in which no one can live for very long without suffering hallucinations.
In the death camps, the German Nazis perfected a system for destroying the mind’s basic quality of transcendence. Améry recalled a winter’s night upon which the prisoners were being marched back from the I. G. Farben factory. The waving of a flag in front of a high-finished building caught his attention, and immediately it reminded him of a favorite poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted it aloud; nothing happened; he quoted it again, louder:
The function of transcendence in the religious life is to lay the foundation of an unalterable idea. The framework, though—the daily commitment to the idea—becomes what Lightman calls the “most persuasive evidence of God.” Transcendence is a glimpse of the reality created and sustained by dull habit.
No one in the literary culture understands this better than Christopher Beha. Without giving too much away—I plan to review it at length elsewhere—Arts and Entertainments, Beha’s second novel, turns on an experience of transcendence, just like What Happened to Sophie Wilder, his brilliant first novel. For Sophie, however, the experience of transcendence mandated a reorganization of life. Eddie Hartley, the hero of Beha’s followup novel, goes through something similar:
Everything that happens to Eddie in the sequel is a consequence of his failure to make “that feeling” the basis of action or belief. Like so many of his contemporaries, he prefers the fever to the habit.