This all relates to an argument going on in some comments earlier. Let's get the dog gripping the bone.
When someone who is faced with a difficulty can almost automatically put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of an other, we might say that such a person has touched transcendence: reached transcendent values that show the highest ideal, and thus what God should be(should God exist).
However, it is never easy to put a value on this; for example, what about the person in a previous supernaturalist culture with some of the not universal last-days belief who then goes into the hotbed of a capital city and becomes arrested, thinking this is his demonstration for God to bring about those last days? On the one hand, such is a powerful, personal witness of self-sacrifice that doesn't have to be given, whereas on the other hand here is quite an ego at work where more might have been achieved more slowly and patiently.
There is the, in some ways counter-intuitive, human activity of the one who pauses, and clears the mind, so that that the clutter is lessened and lessened until an open awareness is released, and that awareness produces a joyful attitude seen to pierce through the transient: and yet if you want that joyfulness, it becomes as transient as the rest. There is something clearly transcending about this Buddhist Dharma, but it is not the whole of what is potentially transcending.
When you look at a profound painting, that somehow breaks through what exists at a more humdrum level, it points to some kind of transcendent value. There are sublime pieces of music like this too: some of which can be rich and romantic and others minimalist and some deliberately mathematical in precision.
Yet you can never get away from the fact that such values are subjective. Whatever we might think points to some overarching objective transcendent value, there is still that subjective interpretation that says no.
One can sit and see the beauty of a sunset across an estuary, with refracting colours across the clouds and reflecting off the river, bringing a moment of the sublime. All those colours break from the white light of the source. The same can happen in a morning, with a sharper light. And yet, however it is perceived by some people, others might not even notice. This is how transcendence can be to some, but not to others.
It seems that some of our most important scientific realities can be summed up by clear, beautiful equations, equations that get discovered with hard work and flashes of human inspiration, and yet go on to have predictive power. That simplicity, elegance and beauty can be at the heart of what ticks in the universe surely has transcendent value. Equally, the complexity of natural shapes that have a simpler form is reflected in the iteration of fractal equations, the symbols being quite short and precise. Little rules have huge outcomes. But perhaps some of the fundamentals of the universe remain complex.
This coming week on television Professor Brian Cox will guide us into looking at the patterns in the sky, patterns that stretch out into billions of light years. The further you look the more you go back in time. Also we hear that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, and it seems to be expanding unevenly, as if there is some attraction beyond anything that kicked it off in the first place - yet another unexplained that makes astrophysics problematic.
Time itself is inextricably linked to space, and time is not some uniform passing by, but something to be experienced individually according to how rapidly space is being penetrated. And in the universe of gravity attracting objects, the quickest line between two points is curved.
Human consciousness (and some animals too in degrees) involves the ability to understand the me-ness of me. Each one of us sees ourself as if from some sort of me control centre. It could just be the product of a self-referential checking nature of the brain, but many think that artificial intelligence will never produce such centres of sentience and feeling, from which human rights and animal rights must follow. If we have pain, and we experience that we have pain, we have rights to prevent such pain being inflicted unnecessarily. Consciousness may just be a by-product, but it is an experience so profound that it is also a signal of transcendence.
Intelligence is something that is late to the evolved universe. We don't need a conundrum of an intelligence that set off simple things to produce intelligence again later on (why not cut out the middleman?), but simplicity is yet profound in that it can build and build, thanks to the chemicals and rules of physics.
Human culture, that collective mind in operation, that can take so many forms, is like a library of variable richness. We know that some animals behave symbolically (and some behave altruistically because these collectivised groups of animals win in the evolutionary struggle), but no animals but us maintain a historical record. Our records acquire different shapes of understanding. At one time some believed in last days and a coming Kingdom of God, and now we think that we produce solutions to problems we ourselves produce and also which come from the affected natural universe. We think technologically. Cultures change through time and through space. We can send social anthropologists from one culture to another through space, to try and explain one to the other, but none can travel in time and really explain what a previous generation thought. Still, such collective richness suggests a transcending value. Or perhaps this is just fanciful talk.
One of these cultures now is the information age. This is both a vast worldwide shrinkage of space into a virtual small-space, and a collapse of time within that space, and yet a worldwide human community still breaks down into micro-cultures of tribalism more embedded than ever as a billion publishers emerge. If there is one constant about humanity, it is its ability to form into tribes. If there is an ideal of the free exchange of information, and of reaching out, then recent communication developments suggest the coming way forward: and yet, despite its low cost of operation, the new age further exposes poverty and difference. But one thing this information age asks and that is the need and duty to be clearer about what we mean, even if we understand that so much is symbolised and postmodernised into the misinformation of advertising, the Baudrillardian world of simulcra. And yet, even simulcra has a kind of transcendence about it.
What I am getting at here is that if there is divinity, if all these signals of transcendence come together, then it is vast and complex and yet can be at heart simple and expansive.
This is why I have a problem with a religion that states that a single man in Palestine some 2000 years back in an oppressed land is 100% God as well as 100% man. I grant that he, like Gandhi, like Buddha, and countless others, might give some insight into the divine, in the sense of using symbolism and being self-sacrificing, but certainly he doesn't give all the other insights into the nature of transcendence that covers so much more ground. That's not 100% God. Plus, I don't accept his moral exceptionalism or even superiority (in a kind of league table of better humans). We just don't have the evidence, and texts of early Churches do not give that kind of evidence. Humanity is always muddy. So even on this basis, there is no 100% God.
It is purely relative that some empire based committee of the religious and secular came to a view that a God has history-intervening abilities and guiding characteristics and that the wisdom of creation was reproduced in this one man God Jesus.
Of course, as a story, and in parts as fragments of history, there are insights into the transcendent from the culture of the events of this activist healer, preacher and teacher. But these are some insights, and not 100%.
I simply fail to understand why one even wants to maintain something that, subjected to the smallest analysis of the range of what can make the transcendent, becomes a cult of an individual.
Leonard da Vinci is an individual of profound insight, for example, pointing to the potential transcendent in his field. Michaelangelo does the same. But we don't say, because these characters stand out, that they are 100% of the transcendent. We don't have to because a committee didn't say so, but for some such a declaration would be obligatory.
What I then fail to understand is that, having a religion claim that Jesus is the actual 100% man who is 100% God, that there is, somewhere (though I don't find it as such) such a scope for interpretation so that individuals in the religion are free to interpret that the 100% man is perhaps 80% or 50% or some figure unknown of God - yes, it's through a glass darkly.
I was under the impression that those who thought that Jesus was between 0 and say 99% man but 100% God were attacked as heretics, usually Gnostics. I was under the impression too that those who thought that Jesus was between 0 and say 99% God were attacked as Arians and Unitarians and the like. I wasn't aware that, historically, there was a given room for interpretation.
But now, rather as with the Trinity, there is a new situation where brilliantly you can say that Jesus is 100% man and 100% God, but actually just think what you want, or that you maintain the Trinity, but actually the interpretation of that is some sort of internal social love within the Godhead - meant symbolically, of course. The trick is to continuously declare the doctrine, while thinking what you like.
I admit that the Church of England only requires a solid nod by clergy towards its Thirty-nine Articles, and lay people just repeat baptismal promises, but I've not seen anything that states that one must keep to doctrines in a headline contractual-like manner, but actually you can more or less think what you like. Yes, many books have been written of sophistication but the whole point of something like The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977 was to declare its hand. Jesus obviously was not, it said (though some did wriggle), 100% God.
Let's put it like this. For all the mystery that is in the field of religion and claims to the transcendent, you cannot make a narrow doctrine and then just toss it overboard as one wants. Otherwise the emperor has no clothes.
I say I do not believe it, because I don't. What I think is that there is plenty in our life and our culture that commands our awe. There is the vastness of nature, and yet the possible simplicity of its origins, and there is the incredible variety of human behaviour, including some acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, and some deliberate training towards becoming egoless. So much can indicate what the transcendent might be, and one of these is even to be able to think on such lines. Our reflection as religious people is part of these signals of transcendence. And such, in the end, is my position.
Of course some really do believe that a man discovered a middle way strategy to answer the problem of the stickiness of desire, by meditation, and that from this a whole religious response is appropriate and built up into schools of philosophy. There are those too who think a man in Palestine really was God on earth and in full. But what if you think that Buddha was just a therapist and Jesus was just a bloke, and either or both give just profound insights? Or what if they were of the transcendent in some more fundamental causal way, but each only some of that transcendent?
Let us at least be clear about what we mean when we communicate and represent our beliefs; it's to do with integrity but then no one can ever practise full integrity because here is yet another transcendent value, somewhat just out of reach.