Recently, there was a conference held by the non-profit group TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is a think thank group that’s main mission is to spread ideas. TED’s own website declares that they are quote, “…a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other. ” 
In the most recent conference, a Sociologist named Jonathan Haidt made a speech entitled, “Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendence.” Here is the 20 minutes talk below.
The talk itself was an interesting one. Had it been a few years ago when I was studying Sociology at a University and seeking meaning and purpose in life, I would have thought this video makes a whole lot of sense and is the forefront of intellectual thinking. But as a follower of Jesus, there were some important things to consider with his talk.
His main point is that by presupposing an evolutionary framework of group, one is able to understand why we have the capacity for self-transcendence. Haidt begins his talk by asking who in the crowd considered themselves religious. Only a few hands went up. He then asked how many would consider themselves spiritual, and a majority of the hands went up. He then used a phrase coined by French Sociologist Emile Durkheim, “homo-duplex” to describe the difference between the profane or everyday experience of self indulgence, and the sacred level where one’s own desires are sacrificed for the well being of the group, or whole. He gave several examples of how this spiritual, or religious experience has been demonstrated to be achieved through several religions throughout the ages, but also that people find self-transcendence through drugs, raves, and other social phenomena.
He makes the analogy of the staircase to demonstrate this point. Downstairs is the profane, everyday, selfish life. But when you go up the staircase, you find self-transendence. So then he poses this question, “is this so-called staircase a feature of our evolutionary design, or is it a bug?” He reckons that the new atheists would argue that it is a bug, while others attune with the spiritual realities say it is real. Haidt doesn’t really take one position over the other, but it’s obvious he tends to believe that latter, that it is part of the “evolutionary design”.
So as a Christian, there a couple things I would like to point out. First and foremost, this talk is basically asserting that my personal experiences with God are merely just a part of an evolutionary design. In other words, it’s just me going up the staircase into self-transcendence and nothing more. A mere sense of letting go of my self, and opening up to larger realities which flow the feelings of love, empathy, and the feeling of an overwhelming desire to be compassionate and caring to all the living. These all sound tremendous, and certainly, being someone who studied sociology, it makes complete sense in that it analyzes the social reaction to such phenomena.
Haidt gives several examples of this including the soldier who found self-transcendence in war by having to work together and knowing he will live on through his fellow soldiers, the people of the United States during the 9-11 attacks on the WTC and a sense of unity, and the feeling of anger which have been seen in the Arab Springs. He then states quote, “So the real question is what do all these very different examples of transcendence actually have in common? Answer: the elevating idea that self can become unimportant–and that can be a good thing.” In other words, Haidt is suggesting that there is an inherent good in the coalescence of individuals into a team which results in something far more than the sum of our own parts. But therein lies the problem. The desire to “transcend self” and “coalesce” is in itself, a selfish desire. Let me explain.
From the existential point of view, a desire to transcend the self is a desire to reach beyond your own boundaries of understanding and experience. Therefore, when Haidt uses examples of raves, drugs, meditation and other mystical practices to “let go of the self”, what he is describing is a hedonistic desire, in other words, ultimately a self serving experience whereby one can pat him or herself on his/her own back and say, “I am so compassionate, loving, generous, caring…I have eliminated all desires of the self.” Notice, where these things are said of ones self, to ones self. Contrary to this form of thought, what having God as the central point of reference does is true self-transcendence. That is because the purpose of seeking such experience and understanding is not a product of our own doing, but rather the doing of an external force, namely God. And from that an understanding, we are able to draw infinite amounts of love, grace, forgiveness, compassion, hope and truth and externalize it into the world.
Haidt is correct that uniting for a cause and working together in community are powerful things for the human race, and seemingly in general, nature as he uses bees and the hive mentality as an example. But by omitting God and simply suggesting that it’s part of the evolutionary design still has the problem of not having any true purpose beyond overcoming opposing groups in the working of natural selection. The purpose becomes nothing more than survival. Insert God into the equation, and a similar thing happens as to the individual. The purpose of doing anything good will be for the glory of an all mighty Creator God who gifted us with life.
I believe the most humbling stance one can take is that of complete surrender. This is where the conflict lies. While Haidt promotes a self-transcendence that is achieved by the individual for the purpose of the group, complete surrender to God posits a stance where nothing is possible without God, and nothing is impossible with God. It’s the difference between empowering one’s self and surrendering one’s self. But if we are to model the Creator of the universe becoming a mere human being, Jesus, then we are to subscribe to the latter. Total and complete surrender to the all powerful, all knowing God. And the irony behind it all is that this submission ultimately empowers the individual. This might be the ultimate definition of self-transcendence.
Some of you might be thinking that the entire Christian worldview still falls under hedonism, whereby an individual is seeking heaven, or avoiding hell. But that’s only true if you’re looking at it from the outside in. When you are in the position of total surrender to Jesus, what one realizes is that one’s own salvation is only the beginning. It is the launching pad to serve the world which is in dire need not for the purposes of self gratification, but for the grand purposes of God. This is where faith comes in. We don’t always know what God’s grand purposes are for our individual lives. But, we can know it’s for good…ultimate good. Again, to me, this transcends a mere desire to transcend the self. An infinite God has no limits, and therefore, connecting and having a personal relationship with the infinite provides an infinite amount of love, generosity, grace, forgiveness, compassion, and all the good things, which is not something we can produce on our own. When one is able to grasp this, it is no surprise that one will fall on his/her knees, praise, and worship this infinite being because in no way have we earned such grace.
In concluding this post, I would like to also suggest that the entire idea of self-transcendence in the way Haidt describes it echoes the Luceferian Doctrine which states that humans will be gods, and create our own reality. Haidt is suggesting that by having mystical experiences, one is able to shed the profane and attain the higher plane. But the point of my post is that a mystical experience is not necessary to achieve what is labeled transcendence. I want to be clear that I say things like that, not to be judgmental, but just to point it out. It’s not an easy thing to say, and certainly, I will be labeled the closed minded, primitive thinking, bible thumping, irrational barbarian. I have no problem that we as a humanity are progressing and thinking and making strides. But as a Christian, my main message to these people is, proceed with caution. Why the rush to attain such goals? Why not do what the body of Christ is doing in helping the needy, the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten? And lastly, if these people truly consider themselves spiritual, how do they know that their spiritual agenda is being led by truly good intentions?
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”- MATTHEW 7:7