September 2, 2022

The Power of Transcendence and Spirituality in a Modern World

Pamela King reflects on the church of her youth and considers lessons from her current research findings about spirituality for the future.

Growing up, I had experiences of what psychologists call transcendence—feeling a loving God, deeply connected with me, but also expansive and beyond me. In my own life, transcendence was often experienced in particular moments that turned into a lasting sense of being loved by God. Whether I was in church, at camp, in nature, with others or alone, I had profound emotional responses, a sense of connection to and an awareness of God’s caring presence. My experiences of God and learning about God through the life of Christ informed how I saw myself in relationship to God, others, and the world, and these experiences deepened my faith and created a sense of fidelity to God and His work. Transcendent experiences gave my life meaning, and pushed me to live into that meaning. As a psychologist, I’ve researched transcendence which often results in heartfelt changes in people’s identities, sense of meaning, and behaviors as people bring their lives into deeper coherence.  

What Research Says About Spirituality and Transcendence

A recent study funded by the Fetzer Institute, conducted with my colleagues, Dr. Sung Kim and Dr. Stephanie Trudeau shows that transcendent experiences help people make meaning in their lives. These experiences motivate people to live in alignment with their sources of meaning. In our research we examined how people described their spiritual lives and how they experienced the transcendent. Our study shows that people experience transcendence and spirituality in three distinct and overlapping areas:

  • by engaging their understanding of the transcendent,
  • through relationships with family, friends, and community, and
  • through self-reflection.

For some, being with and serving others is how they experience spirituality. For others, spirituality comes from a personal connection with God or higher power, whether that be in a profound experience or in a more day to day practice. Most people experience transcendence through reflection and the accumulation of smaller moments of seeking God and offering God’s love to others. All of these beyond the self experiences open us to the transcendent love that brings about transformation. The more traditional religious setting of my youth provided opportunities for me to explore all of these aspects, and were particularly formative for me.

What are Transcendent Experiences?

The Fetzer Institute found that 86% of Americans surveyed viewed themselves as spiritual. People described transcendent, spiritual experiences as “… deeply moving,” “I couldn’t explain,” “lifted me out of myself,” “made me feel a sense of wonder,” “made me feel a sense of belonging.” Themes that arose in this study included senses of awe, belonging, clarity, connection, discomfort, love, peace, mystery, presence, scale, self, significance, and transformation. According to the Fetzer Institute, “[s]piritual experiences…fuel people’s faith, propel them to act in the world in loving ways, and influence how people give themselves to others.”

Moving to 21st Century Spirituality

With such power to transform and motivate lives, how is it that our traditional institutions are losing headway? What might be missing in this modern age? We could blame technology or the scandals and abuses within religious communities. Maybe churches are simply focusing on the wrong things. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I believe the church should help people to thrive. There is not a one size fits all formula. A cookie-cutter approach and focusing on sin or the afterlife is not a thriving approach. A thriving approach looks at what propels us into action now. Providing opportunities to experience transcendence is a powerful resource for faith communities. From a Christian perspective, it is about experiencing the love of God, and living out God’s love through our own constellation of strengths and passions in our particular communities for God’s purposes.  

A More Loving and Hopeful World

A thriving approach suggests that faith communities should help activate people toward God’s love and His work in the world. My research shows that the hope that comes from faith, even in times of great difficulty, helps people to thrive—hope for ourselves, our families, our communities, and a better world.  The disconnection and despair people are currently experiencing has much to do with a lack of hope, meaning, and love. People are searching. I suggest that the church provide opportunities for connection to each other and the divine, and a vision for how God will use all of us to build a better, more connected, and loving world. My hope is that God continues to work through us and in us toward something beyond ourselves. 

Author’s Note

This post is the second of a two-part series. View part one here.

Pamela Ebstyne King Executive Director, Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science


Continue Exploring


Transcendence (Part 1): The Beauty of Transcendence and How it Informs our Spirituality


Transcendence (Part 2): How Transcendence Can Lead the Way to an Open Heart


What is Thriving and Why is it Important?

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