Transcendence: inquiry into the extra ordinary


Course description

Is transcendence possible? Can humans experience something beyond the human? The claim that it is possible to transcend ordinary human consciousness is basic to most, if not all, religions. Whether in the form of a shaman’s journey, ritual ecstasy, devotional rapture, meditative insight, in trances, dreams, or visions, the ineffable transport of the mystic, or the privileged status accorded to “revelation”, transcendental experience appears repeatedly as a leitmotif of religiosity. This course inquires into the meaning of transcendence as a claim to extra-ordinary experience across its diverse manifestations within world religions and in the contemporary context of a modern “disenchanted world”. 


Course objectives

The theme of “transcendent experience” will be examined using a comparative-phenomenological approach with a psychological focus. In the initial stages of the course “experience” as a category will be used to resist and critique reductive explanations. In later stages, we will undertake a critical exploration of “experience” as itself a potentially reductive category. The notion of ‘experience’ as subjective & individualistic will be critically discussed using Maslow’s influential articulation of “peak experiences”. Clearly the notion of ‘transcendent’ as an altered state of consciousness will figure centrally as a theme in the course. As well reductive explanations of that experience as biologically-based, e.g. neurological (a guest lecture by Heather Looy), will be addressed. Focal will be how to discuss transcendent experience as irreducible to its conditions, to appreciate it in the richness and depth of its own terms, to understand the tension between tradition-specific experiential content and the comparative approach, and to engage the significance of the transcendent as an extra-ordinary category in our contemporary context.


Required Texts:

Maslow, A. (1994). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. Arkana: Penguin. (Original work published in 1964.)

Course Pack:

Eliade, M. (1982). A history of religious ideas, Vol. 2: From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. (pp. 44-106) Trans. by W. Trask. Chicago & London: University of Chicago. 

Hughes, Glenn. (2003).  Transcendence and History. (pp. 1-37) Missouri: University of Missouri Press. 

Joas, Hans. (2008). Do we need religion? On the experience of self-transcendence. (pp. 3-19) Boulder & London: Paradigm publishers.

Otto, Rudolf . (1950). The idea of the holy : an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. (pp. 1-32) Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published in 1923.)

Sayer, J., & Rabin, J. (1997). The neural substrates of religious experience. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 9, (3), pp. 498-510.

Torrance, Robert. (1994). The spiritual quest: Transcendence in myth, religion, and science. (pp. 149-168 & pp. 228-257) Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Underhill, Evelyn. (1955). Mysticism: A study in the nature and development of Man’s spiritual consciousness. (pp. 298-375) New York: Meridian. (Original work published in 1911.)


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