01/30/2015 12:21 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Searching for Transcendence: A Report

As far as I can tell, human beings seek transcendence. One of my favorite authors, the twentieth century Oxford and Cambridge literature professor C. S. Lewis (full disclosure: I just wrote a book about him), offered this simple, logically compelling phrase:

If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.

Lewis believed that this argument from desire constitute one of the strongest proofs for God's existence. (Lewis even wrote an autobiography about his this search for something beyond this world, which he named "Joy," and called the book Surprised by Joy.)

Desire for something more leads to God. I'm currently teaching a college class on Transcendence and Human Knowledge. In it, we read selected great books that track human desire for something beyond normal human experience, and as I begin this class I wonder if all human beings search for transcendence and whether this leads to God. Throughout this class, I'll be keeping in mind that we live in a world where 30% of emerging adults (18-30 year olds), by some measures, profess no religious affiliation.

And yet, as I look back in intellectual history, I see signs of this search. As Augustine in his early fifth century Confessions, "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." He gives a natural yearning for God both an existential caste.

Certainly, there are counter examples, like the ancient Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius, who quite confidently chided his readers that this kind of search was nonsense. As the introduction to my Penguin edition of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things comments, his philosophy "is a strict materialism, which denies the existence of anything magical, mysterious, or transcendent." Though his materialistic philosophy had its moments of despair--"Life is one long struggle in the dark"--he was also able to find respite from the problems of transcendence. In fact, he turned this search on its head and denied its goodness, arguing that looking beyond this world leads directly to anxiety about dying and the related question of immortality. Instead, he argued, "death is nothing to us nor does it concern us a scrap, seeing that the nature of the spirit we possess is something mortal." Ultimately, he found happiness elsewhere, "But if one should guide his life by true principles, man's greatest wealth is to live on a little with contented mind; for a little is never lacking."

To take two, later examples, the famous (or infamous) Protestant theologian, John Calvin--one whose humanistic roots we often forget--wrote similarly of the "awareness of divinity." Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. In his vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, "There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity." This awareness of divinity or sensus divinitatis is "beyond dispute" according to Calvin.

A just a century after Calvin, at the flowering of modern science, the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered another proof for God. He began, in a similar vein to Augustine with our existential search: "By nature, we all seek happiness." But where do we seek it? "Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure." Pascal continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:

What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him... since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

Read a certain way, Pascal's famous Wager challenges his readers to stake their lives on the existence of a God who brings ultimate joy into eternity. In other words, Pascal argues, we need to bet that this search for transcendence has its fulfillment in God.

(Speaking of great scientific thinkers, I can't help but note the death this week of the UC Berkeley professor Charles Townes, the Nobel Laureate creator of the laser, who expertly brought together scientific discovery with religious transcendence. But perhaps I digress....)

The question for me--as work through these texts with my college students--is how we understand this search and its future. For my money, I don't think the desire for transcendence is going away. But I do wonder if students will bet their lives that the answer for this search lies beyond our world.