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9 /NE Childhood, Transcendence, and Art Curious though it may seem, the most illuminating way to begin a study of the spiritual uses of art in contemporary life is through an account of the historical “discovery” of transcendence. To make clear why this is the case, we must examine precisely what was entailed in that discovery, which, in turn, requires that we consider the most important common feature of all ancient worldviews. Throughout the world, up to a certain point in history—roughly, the first millennium b.c.e., when decisive discoveries of transcendent reality took place in China, India, Israel, and Greece—the human perception of reality did not include any sharp distinction between the realm of the natural world, on the one hand, and the realm of divine powers or sacred reality, on the other.1 These two realms were perceived as interpenetrating, and reality was experienced as, using the Greek term, a cosmos—literally, a “oneness,” an “ordered whole,”which encompassed all of being, including divine being. Thus for early human consciousness, there was no explicit thought of a“God”that was explicitly , radically distinguished from what we would call the natural world or the physical universe. To put this somewhat more technically, for the ancient Sumerian or Egyptian , for the early Celt, for the Aztec or the Mayan, there had not yet occurred any explicit conceptualization or articulation of an ultimate or divine reality absolutely unconditioned by space and time—a radical “beyond” of the finite 10 A More Beautiful Question world. Sacred being and the world of sensory objects-in-the-world were still merged, still interwoven, in imagination and thought. Lonergan writes that, for such a consciousness, there is not a distinction between the world of the profane and the world of the sacred. There is the sacralization of the profane and the profanation of the sacred , so to speak, and it is spontaneous. . . . Everything is open to the divine, a manifestation of the divine. . . . [T]here are not separate worlds of the profane and the sacred. The two interpenetrate. . . .2 Thus reality was perceived by the consciousness of early peoples as permeated by the sacred, as a unity, and as a completeness. All of reality, including sacred reality, was in some sense felt to be “nearby.” What should we call this form of consciousness—notably unlike our own—with its distinguishing characteristic of “not yet feeling or conceiving an abrupt separation between the sacred and profane realms”? Voegelin, with others, suggests that it be called “cosmological” consciousness, since its fundamental trait is that it experiences the cosmos—the wholeness of reality— as a more or less undifferentiated unity. He also explains that we would do well to remember that this is, historically, the “primary experience of the cosmos ,” that is, the original way that human beings experienced reality, before ideas emerged that, in an explicit way, conceptually and imaginally inserted a sharp separation between the two realms of the “natural” and the “divine,” the profane and the sacred. And because the cosmos of the “primary experience ” entailed a constantly felt interpenetration of the natural and divine realms, Voegelin writes, “the world” was for all ancient peoples a “charmed community,” where divine powers and personages were both identified with, and manifested themselves in, earth and sky, celestial objects, winds and waters , animals and plants, sacred persons, and any number of palpable objects and events.3 I have indicated that “cosmological” consciousness is different from our own type of consciousness—and so it is, insofar as I am referring to the typical consciousness of those of us who have left childhood behind. For us, the “reality”of which we are conscious as teenagers and adults is one that has long since been shaped, or informed, by the imaginal, linguistic, and conceptual separation of the profane and sacred realms, of the “natural world” and “divine reality” (or “divine transcendence”). This conceptual distinction holds true whether or not one is religious. If one is religious, then God (or ultimate sacred reality—Brahman, the Tao, Nirvana, etc.) is clearly distinguished from Nature. If one is not religious, then divinity is an illusion, and Nature—or the astrophysical universe—is all that there is. In either case, due to philosophi- Childhood, Transcendence, and Art 11 cal and spiritual insights that, in Western cultures, go back to classical Greece and to the world of ancient Israel, for us world and divinity have been sundered in our mature conception of reality...


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