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Transcendence and History by Glenn Hughes
Robert Cheeks transcends history.
While explaining Eric Voegelin’s critique of gnosticism in her book Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics, Baylor Professor Elizabeth Campbell Corey also indirectly describes the postmodern condition: “the gnostic has misapprehended the structure of reality and, furthermore, this misapprehension is not naïve, but deliberate. Because the gnostic lacks the strength to exist in the metaxy (which is the middle ground of human existence between the divine and the material realms) and to endure the anxiety that comes with faith in a transcendent order, he denies transcendence altogether and attempts to save himself.” The need to attempt self-salvation is also a problem for postmodernism, which holds that there are no ultimate objective values. Postmodern philosophy, I would argue, is a joyless glop of undisciplined ‘freedom’ saturated with nihilism and presented to the public without benefit of a metanarrative, that is, without higher justification, the result being the sort of state Bob Dylan may have had in mind when he wrote, “it’s an empty, hungry feelin’ that don’t mean no one no good.” But what is the transcendent order, how have we lost it, and can we get it back?
Answers to these questions are deftly provided in a book appropriately titled Transcendence and History, written by Glenn Hughes, Professor of Philosophy at St Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas. Hughes begins by announcing that his thesis will be to clarify and ‘retrieve’ the idea of transcendence, a concept long derided by postmodern philosophers. Professor Hughes’ exegetical dissertation is a delightfully-rendered effort to bring order out of postmodern chaos by reinstating the notion of the transcendent – to explain the current Western condition as predicated on the historical loss of transcendence, and to argue that without seeking the transcendent, divine ground of being, man is immersed in a pseudo-reality that produces little more than disorder and deviance.
Transcendence and History is concerned not only with philosophy but also history, science, culture, and literature, because Hughes is seeking to engage in conversation about the ‘whole.’ As such, the author’s dissertation soon reaches a point where the argument simultaneously becomes broad and in-depth.
In his introduction, Professor Hughes takes his readers on an intellectual journey detailing the causes and effects of the Enlightenment, one of which effects is the desire on the part of secularists to develop man as a self-fulfilling creature dwelling in an immanent spacetime continuum – that is, in a very visceral physical world from which we cannot escape. The results of this ‘Enlightenment project’ are gross distortions and deviations in human cognition. To overcome them requires transcendence.
Hughes has chosen to use the work of two modern philosophers, Eric Voegelin and Bernard Lonergan, as his ‘guides’, because both have dealt at length with the problem of transcendence. In fact Professor Voegelin wrote that transcendence constitutes “the decisive problem of philosophy” while Dr Lonergan’s expertise lies in “the structure of human cognition and the explanatory power of an accurate philosophical exposition of that structure …” Hence Hughes’ selection of Voegelin and Lonergan reveals a decided acuity.
For both philosophers, the common intrinsic element in man is the desire to understand – to ask questions. This is a notion that goes back to Aristotle and, I’m sure, to Plato. Man’s inherent desire to know produces knowledge, which ironically produces more questions… As Voegelin points out, man is thus seeking his identity within observable reality, and (so) he needs to understand his past. But upon raising the question of history, man desires to know “the meaning of the drama as a whole” – and soon enough, this questioning searches and stretches beyond the finite here-and-now reality of the spacetime we observe.
Hughes further tells us that finite reality fails to explain the ‘ultimates’ because finite reality is ‘contingent’, that is, dependent on a “nondependent – a necessary – reality as the intelligible basis or ground of its existence.” He argues that man must rationally believe there must be a first cause – a non-contingent reality: that our world is “emergent from a necessary, nonfinite reality that is self-sufficient and self-explanatory.” This belief leads to belief in the transcendent.
Hughes then expounds Voegelin’s and Lonergan’s ‘three crucial points’ concerning arguments for God: (1) There is no direct knowledge of God: the transcendent being is a mystery; (2) Formal arguments for the existence of God are the “consequence of – not the means to – the discovery of transcendence” and (3) Formal arguments serve only to “clarify and strengthen our awareness” of the mystery of the transcendent. This reasoning leads to a metaphysical point where the question of God goes beyond its ability to be answered in our “finite and contingent reality.” It is at this point that man becomes ‘the Question’ – that is, we appropriate a particular way of looking at things. This way of looking as ‘the Question’ Voegelin explains as follows: “the core of one’s existence is a desire to understand that which is both the most real reality and also not fully comprehensible under the conditions of human existence.” Hence transcendence is a connection with reality outside physical conditions. Thus Transcendence and History takes us on a journey through the human condition, with our penultimate destination the last outpost of spacetime. Beyond this lies a great abyss. So, utilizing intellectual inquiry, buttressed by the genius of Lonergan and Voegelin, Hughes’ book recognizes the failures of the philosophers of ‘groundlessness’ then points to the ultimate transcendent truth of the Divine mystery!
Transcendence and History, is, I think, a delightful metaxical primer. That’s not to say it’s a puerile book, because it’s rather complex, although the author does go to great lengths to define unfamiliar words and concepts. Actually, Hughes’ presentation covers the historical and philosophical ground so thoroughly that he provides both the knowledge necessary to enjoy a delightful intellectual journey, and an intellectual tool with which to continue one’s examination of the postmodern decline. Transcendence and History is also a joyous book, a celebration and recognition of the sanctity and uniqueness of human life – a book that intimates what all human beings are capable of becoming if we hold firmly to the Question.
© Robert Cheeks 2009
Robert Cheeks is a freelance writer whose recent work has appeared in The University Bookman, Crisis, Touchstone, The New Oxford Review, Kritike, The South Carolina Review and The Global Spiral.
• Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity by Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, Hdbk, 249 pgs, 2003, ISBN: 0-8262-1476-2