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Abstract

Denmark, Estonia, and Sweden are, if measured by certain sociological criteria, considered to be three of the world’s most secular countries. Nature—forests, pristine beaches, and the countryside—plays a specific role in the allegedly secular discourse of the mainstream populations of these nations. Not only is it almost without exception deemed as a positive asset worthy of protection, it is also thought of as holding certain existential qualities. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, this article suggests that Alfred Schutz’s conceptualization of transcendence—further developed by Thomas Luckmann—can be used to describe the existential experiences in nature of contemporary secular people. The article results in a suggestion for an operational definition of transcendence.
Nature and Culture Volume 14, Issue 2, Summer 2019: 190–214 © Berghahn Books
doi:10.3167/nc.2019.140205 ISSN 1558-6073 (Print) · ISSN 1558-5468 (Online)
The Relocation of Transcendence
Using Schutz to Conceptualize the Nature
Experiences of Secular People
David Thurfjell, Cecilie Rubow, Atko Remmel, and Henrik Ohlsson
i
Abstract: Denmark, Estonia, and Sweden are, if measured by certain socio-
logical criteria, considered to be three of the world’s most secular countries.
Nature—forests, pristine beaches, and the countryside—plays a specic role
in the allegedly secular discourse of the mainstream populations of these
nations. Not only is it almost without exception deemed as a positive asset
worthy of protection, it is also thought of as holding certain existential qual-
ities. Based on ethnographic eldwork and interviews, this article suggests
that Alfred Schutz’s conceptualization of transcendence—further developed
by Thomas Luckmann—can be used to describe the existential experiences
in nature of contemporary secular people. The article results in a suggestion
for an operational denition of transcendence.
Keywords: Estonia, nature, nature experience, Scandinavia, Alfred Schutz,
secularization, transcendence
o
“My experience has been that if you have a forest, you don’t actually
need a church. The church then becomes completely irrelevant.
(Estonian interviewee)
“My hypothesis has always been that we Swedes are different
somehow. We nd our refuge in nature. It absorbs us.”
(Swedish interviewee)
“For me, eternity is when I watch the horizon. The sea
induces hope, a sense of new possibilities.
(Danish interviewee)
Introduction
In one of his notebooks, the Austrian sociologist and philosopher Alfred
Schutz (1899–1959) presented a phenomenologically grounded concep-
tualization of transcendence as a multileveled mode of human experi-
ence. Thomas Luckmann, a student of Schutz, who compiled Schutz’s
notes into a book (Schutz and Luckmann 1983), later developed the
191
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
idea of multiple levels of transcendence. When discussing secular-
ization, he argued that religion is not disappearing from the modern
world but that the span of transcendence is shrinking from the great to
the intermediate and small levels. In this article, which is based upon
empirical ndings from three of the world’s most secular countries,
we question Luckmann’s (1990) conclusion and suggest an alternative
application of Schutz’s terminology to the secularization process.
Our empirical point of departure is a number of interviews with
self-proclaimed secular people1 who visit recreational natural areas in
Denmark, Estonia, and Sweden. Based upon sociological data, these
three countries are often described as belonging to the group of “least
religious” countries in the world. This makes it intuitive to think of the
populations of these countries as being less inclined to look for experi-
ences of transcendence in their lives. However, our interview material,
collected as a part of a joint research project in 2017 and 2018, sug-
gests otherwise: our interlocutors, while distancing themselves from
organized Christianity in different ways, still frequently speak of what
we recognize as experiences of transcendence. When we ask about
experiences in “nature,” dened in the methodological design as recre-
ational forests and beaches, answers concerning undramatic everyday
experiences related to rest, health, aesthetics, and social interaction
are most common, but they also speak of a sense of a greater connec-
tion—a sense of being absorbed in another world, a sense of losing
themselves. This—alongside the prevalence of similar expressions in
public discourse about nature—indicates that there is an existential,
spiritual, or religion-like dimension to the nature-oriented practices of
our interlocutors, a dimension that, we will argue, can be discussed in
connection to Schutz and Luckmann’s ideas about transcendence.
We will suggest that there is an interconnectedness between our
interlocutors’ experiences in nature and that of previous generations’
experiences in church. We also suggest that some of the previous gen-
erations’ experiences of the nation-state may also belong to this type of
experience, as may their experiences of romantic love, music, dancing,
or art. The interconnectedness hence reects a development that can
be described as a relocation of transcendence between the different
societal locations like those of church, nation, and nature. In contem-
porary Scandinavia and the Baltic states, the public discourse suggests
that nature is a prominent setting in which to look for transcendence.
As we shall see, nature is also in numerous ways interconnected with
both national identities and the Christian church. Historically, institu-
tionalized Christianity, with its array of settings and rituals pointing to
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
192
otherworldly realities, has been the foremost setting for experiences of
transcendence in Sweden and Denmark. This is true also for Estonia,
but in the case of this country the role of Christianity has dwindled
more dramatically during the last century. Here, it is the nation, and
the institutions that celebrate and uphold it, that have constituted the
more important locations for transcendence, often, as we shall see, in
close conjunction with nature. Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia hence
offer comparative ground for the intertwinement of nature, nation,
andchurch.
While our main focus is transcendence located in and prompted in
“nature,” that is, in recreative areas, locally apprehended as examples
of “real” or “pristine” nature, we will recursively include also “church”
and “nation” in our discussion, not only in order to contextualize what
we understand to be a surge of affection for nature, but also to sug-
gest that a phenomenologically inspired notion of transcendence may
pave the way for an understanding of experiences of transcendence
as transversal. Phrased differently, we will show how experiences of
transcendence are not conned to settings that we generally recognize
as religious. Instead, settings that our interlocutors recognize as secular
are permeated by transcendence in a way that we and our interlocutors
easily recognize as like religion.
We will begin by presenting our main concept, that is, transcen-
dence, in a way that is inspired by Alfred Schutz and Thomas Luck-
mann’s treatment of this notion. Having done this, we will present some
cases of how the relocation of transcendence takes place in the recent
history of the three countries in question. This will lead to a presenta-
tion of our ndings, an operational denition of secular transcendence
in “nature,” and a conceptualization of the relocation of transcendences
for further research.
The Notion of Transcendence
The notion of transcendence has been at the center of both philosoph-
ical and theological discussions, with a historically marked tendency
to dene the “transcendent” as a metaphysical “other” in realistic or
symbolic ways. The focus of our discussion, however, is the individual
experience and the discourse that surrounds it. We base our discussion
on Alfred Schutz’s exposition of the structures of the life-world. Schutz’s
phenomenological understanding of everyday experience and his con-
ceptualization of transcendence offers, in our opinion, an overlooked
193
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
potential for getting a grasp on the diversication of transcendences
across secular and religious domains. Let us start by briey introducing
his conceptualization of transcendence.
Schutz’s point of reference is the everyday experience of know-
ing that the world is bigger than the present “here and now” and that
much of it is out of reach: “Everyone knows that he lives in a world
that must have existed before him, and no one doubts seriously that it
will continue to exist after him” (Schutz and Luckmann 1983: 99–100).
On the basis of this awareness of the boundaries of one’s life, Schutz
conceptualizes three levels of transcendence. Small transcendences are
“characterized by a person’s encountering spatial and temporal bound-
aries of his experience and his action that are in principle crossable in
further experiences and later actions” (ibid.: 106) For instance, Schutz
explains, if I have forgotten a book in another room, it transcends me
because it is not within my actual reach. It is, however, within my
potential reach, and the boundary is crossable when I am reminded of
it. Here, I have “run into a little transcendence” and I will cross it if I go
and collect the book (ibid.: 109).
Schutz outlines two more types of transcendence—the inter-
mediate and the greatthat are particularly helpful for understand-
ing the interactions within the world that we consider in this article.
Whereas small transcendences are characterized by the fact that they
can be experienced directly, intermediate transcendences concern
other human beings, whose inner worlds we cannot know in the way
we know our own. However, in everyday life we constantly cross the
borders to others: “In our understanding and communication bridges
are thrown across to the Other person’s alienness” (ibid.: 131). As Luck-
mann explains, societies deal with the intermediate transcendences in
various expressive forms, with more or less systematized social norms
(Luckmann 1990: 130). Great transcendences, nally, refer to experi-
ences beyond the everyday, such as those of theoretical thinking, art,
religiosity, myth, and dreams. Here, you withdraw from daily life into
different states of consciousness—for example, when half-awake, day-
dreaming, or in ecstasy—in a more or less self-guided or institutional-
ized turning away from the everyday. Most interestingly, Schutz’s palette
of social locations for great transcendences spans from union with God
after ascetic discipline, dancing dervishes, and drugs and rock and roll
to the “exhilaration (with or without pantheistic interpretation) when
mountain-climbing” (1983: 125), and he argues that we constantly cross
over from our direct experiences of the everyday world into a swarm of
subuniverses (ibid.: 266).
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
194
In the analysis published in 1990, Luckmann develops Schutz’s
framework in order to show how different societies organize and
communicate transcendence differently. Luckmann’s main argument
is that—contrary to the claims of mainstream secularization theory—
experiences of transcendence are persistent and thus “religion” does
not disappear. However, he states that the span of transcendence is
shrinking in “the modern world” in general, leaving out the great tran-
scendences in favor of the intermediate (manifested in the social order
of politics) and small levels. In Luckmann’s analysis, this leads to the
bestowal of an almost sacred status to the individual’s search for self-
realization (Luckmann 1990: 134–137).
In our analysis, we follow Luckmann’s suggestion that experiences
of transcendence move back and forth between different societal
locations. This, we argue, happens on many levels. Sometimes, the
location—whether it be nature, nation, church, or other realms such
as art, family, or consumption—may offer techniques and idioms for
experiencing and expressing small transcendences (in particular, culti-
vations of time and space), while at other times they may harbor inter-
mediate transcendences (i.e., play a crucial role in community- and
identity making on local, national, and global scales), and they may
also be the location for great transcendences (in experiences beyond
the everyday). The nation, for example, offers small transcendences if
it functions as an administrative entity that circumvents everyday life;
intermediate transcendences if it functions as the social community that
denes one’s identity; and great transcendences if it is construed as
granting an extraordinary connection to the eternal, the sacred, or the
ultimate. Importantly, though, we depart from Luckmann with regard to
his social analysis. Luckmann claims that small transcendences connect
to modern “egoism” and “hedonism,” but in our understanding, modern
experiences of small and intermediate transcendences may also provide
the starting point for leaps into greater transcendences. In contemporary
society, Luckmann only sees the possibility for great transcendences in
the “ecological components in the ‘New Age’” (ibid.: 138) where they
mix into small and intermediate transcendences. We will argue that
great transcendences also show up in the contemporary self-proclaimed
secular settings of nature love.
We make this claim based upon ethnographic eldwork and inter-
views carried out with self-proclaimed secular people in Denmark,
Estonia, and Sweden. In order to contextualize both our interlocutors
and our analysis of them, we will in the following present some major
societal processes pertaining to nature, religion, and secularization that
195
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
have taken place in the recent history of these countries. Secularization
has, as we shall see, unfolded differently depending upon the varying
settings that these societies provide.
Nature and Religion in Sweden, Denmark, and Estonia
The search for landscape experiences around the Baltic has roots that
extend back to the romantic tradition beginning in the late eighteenth
century, where “the landscape takes on the task of opening your soul
and the palette of your mind” (Löfgren 2000: 17). The search for the
picturesque, the awesome, or the pristine is known from all over Europe
and the United States, where mountains, forests, beaches, waterfalls,
and deserts have been praised by tourists, campers, and hikers for pro-
viding food for thought, setting the mind free, and opening the senses
(ibid.). Also around the Baltic, landscapes were sought out for encoun-
ters with “the sublime,” a sensation described by Edmund Burke as
a mix of awe (of breathtaking beauty and the wildly powerful) and
the delight of “not perishing in the vast and mighty forces of nature”
( Wamberg 2017: 22).
Northern European nature romanticism and its recurrent intertwine-
ment with nationalistic sentiments comes in many versions, and it is
also found in the less dramatic evocations of the pastoral recreational
landscapes closer to the cities. Throughout the twentieth century,
people’s nature-oriented practices have been deeply impacted by soci-
etal changes. For the majority of people around the Baltic, spending
time in the forest has gone from being part of family subsistence to a
popular leisure time activity. According to a survey carried out by the
World Wildlife Fund in 2013, 60 percent of Swedes reported that they
had visited a forest during the last week and 40 percent had spent more
than 10 hours there during the past month. A survey carried out in Den-
mark by Friluftsrådet in 2014 found that the forest and the beach were
the two most frequently visited natural environments all year round,
with 27 percent of the respondents replying that they go there on a
daily basis, 45 percent on a weekly basis, and 6 percent less often than
one time per month (www.friluftsraadet.dk). The survey shows that 53
percent of those who answered “use nature” (forests, beaches, the sea,
lakes, heaths, etc.) to go for a walk, 31 percent do so to experience the
place itself, 22 percent to walk their dog, 17 percent to ride a bike, 15
percent for taking a run, 15 percent to take photographs, 12 percent to
watch animals, 11 percent to watch birds, and 10 percent for picking
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
196
berries (Friluftstrådet 2014). There are no detailed statistics available
for Estonia, but according to theEstonian National Forest Management
Center people used the facilities 2.7 million times in 2018 only. Given
the fact that thetotalpopulation of the country amounts to 1.3 million,
this number is strikingly high (RMK 2019).
Discourse concerning outdoor activities has also changed over
time. Klas Sandell and Sverker Sörlin (2008: 258–259) have divided
the history of outdoor activities (friluftsliv) in Sweden into four main
phases. The rst began around the turn of the nineteenth century
and was characterized by ideals of individual achievement, scientic
expeditions, and the romantic critique of modern civilization. In this
period, such activities mostly involved the upper strata of society. In
the second phase, which took place during the interwar period, oppor-
tunities to participate in outdoor activities became more evenly dis-
tributed through the regulation of labor and leisure time. The romantic
appreciation of nature for its beauty and sublimity became less artic-
ulated and emphasis was instead put on its social functions. The third
period started in the 1960s, with a massively expanded consumption
culture, of which outdoor activities became a part (Ahlström 2008:
168–182)—while, at the same time, a growing awareness of ecology
and environmental problems also made organized outdoor activities
an arena for teaching both children and adults about ecology (Klöfver
2008: 156–166). Finally, by the turn of the millennium, when the focus
turned toward individual experiences, in tandem with increased mobil-
ity, consumption of such experiences is becoming less dependent upon
the local environment (Sandell and Sörlin 2008: 206–207).
What, then, has the role of Christianity been in this development?
Here, the Scandinavian countries differ from the Baltic countries and
need to be discussed separately. Over the last couple of centuries, both
Sweden and Denmark have had national churches with which a vast
majority of their populations have been afliated. The Lutheran theo-
logical orientation of these churches, as well as their close connec-
tion to the formation of the Scandinavian nation-states, have secured
a place for them in the patriotic imagination of these countries. The
epithet “folk church,” which is used for both the Danish Church and the
Swedish Church, reects this ethos. This means that nationalism rooted
in romantic ideas about nature is essential to the prole of the state
churches in Scandinavian Christianity. The church towering over the
trees and rooftops in the middle of the village is an inborn part of the
nationalist and romantic pastoral imagination, and most of the popular
hymns share traits of the romantic celebration of nature.
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THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
Lately, increased ecological awareness in society has also been
followed by such an orientation within the church. For instance, the
Church of Sweden hosted an Interfaith Climate Summit in 2008, declar-
ing the work for sustainable development to be on the top of its agenda.
Nature-oriented spiritual practices such as pilgrimage walks and forest
meditations have also increased as a part of the church’s ritual practice.
At the same time, there have been many challenges. The nineteenth
century’s romantic search for the sublime in untamed nature, the twen-
tieth century’s growth of non-Christian spirituality, and the twenty-rst
century’s growth of radical ecology have all posed challenges to a tra-
ditional Christianity that is no longer able to uphold its unquestioned
position as a central authority in all things religious.
Compared to the Swedish case, Danish Lutheranism, due to a
general tendency to maintain an existentialistic human-centered theol-
ogy, only shows a marginal group of people incorporating nature and
ecological awareness into their theological engagement and into local
ecclesiastical affairs (Grøn Kirke 2018; Ishøj 2009; Jensen 2011). More-
over, the Danish Church has been less pronounced with its ecumenical
orientation than its Swedish counterpart, and its connection to national-
istic sentiments has been both stronger and more persistent.
In Estonia, the relationship between Christianity, the nation, and the
romantic celebration of nature is even feebler. There exists a strongly
pronounced discourse about a special connection between Estonians
and Estonian nature that can be traced back to the early nineteenth
century and the Baltic-German romantic enlightenment project, which
idealized ancient Estonians and Latvians as “noble savages” who lived
in harmony with their surroundings. The role of Christianity in this story
is ambivalent—Estonian history is seen as being divided by the Nordic
Crusades of the thirteenth century, when the country was conquered
under the banner of Christianization. The time before is presented as a
“golden age,” whereas the time after is described as being corrupt. The
Estonian national narrative became characterized by the same ideas
and motifs: a violent Christianization by “re and sword,” and a subse-
quent “700-year night of slavery” (Tamm 2008: 505–506). These ideas
made sure that no connection between Estonian nationalism and Chris-
tianity could be established. On the contrary, “the survival of ancient
animistic beliefs” was presented as proof of popular resistance against
Christianity (Jonuks 2013).
The idea of an Estonian connection to nature has hence been
difcult for the church to build upon. With the exception of certain
Orthodox Christian folk practices in the Setu region, nature-oriented
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
198
spirituality or romanticism has not found any expression in—either
Lutheran or Orthodox—Estonian Christianity. As an institution, the Esto-
nian Lutheran Church is still largely uninterested in ecological concerns,
although there are some pastors whose recent interest in such matters
may indicate a change of stance here (Salu 2018). Lately, Christianity
has become more outdoor-oriented due to the popularity of pilgrimage
practices on a grassroots level.
Despite its cultural marginalization, however, Christian terminology
is sometimes used to signal intimacy and solemnity in connection with
nature and nationality—as can be seen in expressions like “the forest is
the church of the Estonians” (Pilvre 2017) or “for Estonians, walking in
the forest and owning a country house are religious practices; the forest
is the substitute for religion” (Mikita 2015: 48).
The idea of a special connection existing between the Estonian
people and nature has been put forth in a semireligious way by the
neopagan movement Maausk (Earth belief). Conceptualized as an ani-
mistic, indigenous nature religion developed “together with Estonians’
ancestors,” this movement presents itself as the defender of natural
sacred sites (Västrik 2015) and it has brought about a consolidation of
the nationalistic “forest nation” identity. Sociological data show that
63 percent of ethnic Estonians believe in “souls of trees” (LFRL 2015),
a belief that is generally interpreted as the continuation of ancient ani-
mism, while 61 percent believe that Maausk is the “true religion” of the
Estonians. This gure, however, must be construed as an expression of
cultural afnity rather than as an expression of religious beliefs, since
only 4 percent of the respondents considered themselves to be follow-
ers of Maausk (RTE 2014).
The Ambiguous Processes of Secularization
The intertwined processes of change within the spheres of Christianity,
the romantic celebration of nature, and nationalism are also connected
to another prominent process in these countries, that of secularization.
Today, alongside China and the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, and
Denmark top the list of the world’s least religious countries, and the
secularization of these countries is apparent and measurable in many
ways. According to polls, only 16–19 percent of Estonian, Swedish, and
Danish respondents agree that “religion is important” in their daily lives
(Crabtree 2010).
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THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
This is not the place to present the vast body of research that has
delved into the driving forces behind this societal development. Sufce
it to say that secularization may not be fully as dominant as people’s
statements about themselves indicate. In terms of church membership,
for instance, the rates are still high in the Scandinavian countries (Den-
mark: 79 percent; Sweden: 70 percent), and although these gures
may indicate different things depending upon what is meant by being
a church member, they show a continued loyalty to institutionalized
Christianity. In Sweden and Denmark, Lutheran state churches still hold
a strong position as providers of rites of passage, and they continue
to have a strong connection with national identity. This situation has
been described as “cultural religion” (Kasselstrand 2015) or “vicarious
religion” (Davie 2007). Nonetheless, participation in church services
has fallen more rapidly than the membership gures in the last couple
of decades; this implies that even those who stay members are less
active in the church’s traditional rites(Bromander and Jonsson 2017;
Nielsen and Iversen 2014). In Estonia, the Soviet antireligious policy
was success ful in breaking the continuity of church traditions (Remmel
2017), and today only a minority (29 percent) regard some religion
“their own” (Estonian Census 2011).
If construed from the point of view of classical secularization theory,
these gures may be seen as indicating that religion is about to die
out soon in these countries and that people will “succumb” to religious
indifference (Bruce 2002). Yet, secularization is a multidimensional phe-
nomenon (Dobbelaere 2002). Most surveys can be criticized for being
Christo-centric, since the questions are formulated with the Christian
religion as the implicit prototype. The gures can therefore also be inter-
preted as pointing to the growing irrelevance of organized Christianity
rather than of religion as such or, to put it differently, as indications of
the postinstitutionalization and individualization of religion. There are
other survey questions that would speak in favor of such an analysis. For
instance, according to Eurobarometer (2010), 50 percent of Estonians, 47
percent of Danes, and 45 percent of Swedes agree with the statement
that “there is some sort of spirit or life-force,” indicating a wide spectrum
of potentially (semi)religious experiences, beliefs, and practices. These
gures point to the fact that “secular” and “religious” are neither clear-
cut entities nor are they unavoidably opposed to eachother.
Indeed, the dichotomy between “religious” and “secular” has been
challenged more and more in the study of religion. In order to tackle
the consequences of this insight, one frequently employed strategy has
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
200
been to use religion-related concepts that overlap both areas. Examples
include “holistic alternative spirituality” (Heelas and Woodhead 2005),
the “secular sacred” (Knott 2013), “horizontal transcendence” (Streib
and Hood 2016), “post-Christian” (Thurfjell 2015), and “spirituality as
a cultural construct” (Huss 2014). Abby Day’s (2006) notions of a “sec-
ular supernatural” and “anthropocentric belief systems” may serve as
further examples, as may the recent conceptualizations of “nonreligion
(Lee 2015; Quack 2014). Another strategy has been to use universal
areligious concepts such as “consumption” (Roof 1999; Stark and Bain-
bridge 1985), “self-development” (Heelas 1996), “existential health”
(Demarinis 2008), “existential cultures” (Lee 2015), “worldviews,” or
“ways of life” (Taves and Asprem 2018).
Nevertheless, when our interlocutors try to articulate how and why
their experiences of the natural world are important to them, they do
so in a society where the position—not only of organized religion but
also of religious language in general—is contested, and connected to a
highly ambiguous situation.
The Forest and the Beach: Experiences of Transcendence
Now, given this historical background, let us turn to our interlocutors
and their experiences of nature. In this section we will suggest a line
of interpretation of their experiences and illustrate it with ndings from
our interviews. By using random sampling and snowballing methods,
we identied nature lovers in the secular context of nature trails and
beaches (anonymized in the quotes below). In all cases, we sought out
popular locations acclaimed to be “real or pristine nature” in or close to
major cities, in order to approach urban people with a secular outlook.
All in all, we refer to 131 interviews conducted in Estonia (32),
Denmark (46), and Sweden (53) between February 2017 and Novem-
ber 2018. Of these, 69 were impromptu interviews with a duration
of 5–25 minutes in the forest in southern Estonia, in forests close to
Stockholm in Sweden, and at a beach in northern Zealand, one hour
from Copenhagen. Eight interviews were prearranged with a duration
from 30 minutes to one hour, and 54 were prearranged and lasted
between one hour and three hours. In the short interviews we asked
the opening questions with some context-dependent variations: “What
brings you here?,” “What is the forest/beach to you?,” and “What does
the forest/beach do to you?” The in-depth interviews were guided by
questions around the interlocutors’ nature practices in forests and close
201
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
to beaches in a biographical perspective. In ve cases the interviews
were followed up several times and combined with walks along the
beach and in the forest. Among the prearranged in-depth interviews, 10
of theinterlocutors belonged to the category of expert, that is, people
who, through their profession, possess special knowledge; most of these
were biologists, nature guides, and national reserve workers. Half the
interlocutors were men and half were women, between 17 and 93
years of age, with the majority in their forties and fties. In most of
the short interviews no information was collected about the educa-
tional background; the in-depth interviews were almost all with urban
middle-class people with middle range training or university degrees.
The pre arranged interviews took place in the interlocutors’ homes or
elsewhere in public spaces. Let us now present some representative
and signicant examples of the type of material our interviews make
up, country by country.
Denmark: The Horizon and the Beachscape
As a thoroughly farmed country with only small patches of forest, the
beaches of Denmark are generally considered to be the country’s most
pristine natural settings and a privileged space for spending leisure time.
The season for swimming and sunbathing is, for most people, limited to
a period lasting from June to August, so for nine months of the year the
beach is less populated, but even so there is a constant ow of often
solitary walkers. They traverse the sand dunes and walk for an hour or
two, close to the water’s edge. Our ndings, which stem mainly from
the colder times of the year, clearly indicate that the beach offers a
transformative potential. Our interlocutors make statements like, “It’s
almost magical,” “It’s almost holy,” or “It’s regenerating,” or they use
terms such as “invigorating” and “life-giving.
On the northern coast of Zealand, a one-hour drive from Copen-
hagen, we meet Svend, a middle-aged academic, who is on a one-day
writing retreat in his family’s summerhouse. As always when he is in the
summerhouse, this morning he takes a walk of roughly ve kilometers
through a small forest and along the beach. He says: “It’s like a rite of
passage ... I get a kick when I depart from the forest and get the rst
glimpse of the beach and the sea and feel the wind.” He prefers the
beach to the forest, saying that “the beach is more ‘itself,’” also in the
way it changes all the time; “the beach is untouched and open, and
you see the horizon,” he declares. For him, the large open seascape
and the sky induce a sense of “hope”; he gets a feeling that there is
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
202
always “away out” and is reminded that you could “potentially travel
anywhere.” Lisa, a woman in her thirties, walks along the same beach
as Svend every day, she says, all year round, declaring it to be “a good
way to begin a day.” As a “nature lover,” she says that it gives her
both “energy” and “peace” as well as a “privileged feeling of freedom.
During stressful periods and times of sickness, Lisa tells us, it is crucial
for her to come to the beach and to the forest, where “there is plenty
of room” both for difcult feelings and for coping with her broken
body, which is aching from many years of horseback riding. Often in
the nearby forest, she literally loses her way and lets herself be totally
absorbed by her thoughts and the landscape. She says that it is a “little
sacred” and calls it “dazzlingly beautiful.
These two examples indicate how the beach is felt to have a
transformative potential for the solitary walkers. From our larger set of
interviews with regular beach walkers, we gather that they share a re-
markably similar experience on the beach (and for some, also in the
forest) that conveys the message that in this setting, you can escape
society—and your social self—and become one with another world.
Almost unanimously, our interlocutors highlight the wind and the sen-
sation of being “blown through” (in Danish, blæst igennem) as an ener-
gizing and cleansing feeling (so different from being indoors). Supported
by the soundscape—the rhythms of the wind and the waves—the ever-
changing colors of sea and sand, and the rhythm of walking, the beach-
scape is felt to transform both one’s mood and one’s sense of time and
space into a liberating experience of freedom, awe, and respect, which
induces sensations of greatness and innity. Thus, in our interpretation,
what Schutz called the small transcendences of time and space may
offer a leap into great transcendences. Here, the beachgoers explicitly
refer to the horizon as “an opening,” signaling “new possibilities,” “the
ultimate,” or “the universe,” or “the origin of everything.” At the beach,
we are told that “you can feel how little you are,” as if you were recali-
brated to a truer size than what “society” expects from you or what you
expect from yourself. The ickering light that meets your eyes and the
wind and the sand felt everywhere make up—in the best moments—a
vibrant, exhilarating, enchanting world beyond theeveryday.
Estonia: Forests to Help You See Yourself
Considering the fact that about 50 percent of the Estonian landscape
is covered by forest, it is no wonder that forests have become the fore-
most representation of “Estonian nature.” Forests are highly valued for
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THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
their recreational purposes, as providers of fresh air, silence, and rest,
or as a means for getting away from everyday troubles. Yet forests,
for our Estonian interlocutors, also seem to evoke some deeper exis-
tential meaning. Many express the idea that the forest is something
that “just needs to exist” or is something that “has always been there.
The forest is often conceptualized as something that is important for
survival, both on a personal and a societal level, as a hiding place from
existential or physical troubles and—this is a point in regard to which
the Estonian interlocutors stand out—as a guarantee for the survival of
Estonian culture. Cutting down trees is therefore often frowned upon
and spoken of as an attack on Estonian culture, an act that undermines
its sustainability.
Kadakas is a journalist for whom the forest has always been import-
ant. As a child, she traveled a lot in Estonia with her father, and on these
“cultural trips,” as she calls them, they also frequently visited forests.
Even today, hiking in the forest is still an important part of Kadakas’s
life, and she often organizes nature walks for her friends or other groups
of people. She identies herself as “religious in some way,” and she
regards her attitude toward nature as “semireligious.” She perceives this
attitude as somewhat animistic and inherently Estonian, passed on from
one generation to another. The idea of a special connection between
the forest and Estonian-ness is a very common implicit assumption for
our Estonian interlocutors. An illustration of this from the interview sit-
uation is that it is taken for granted that all Estonians share this and that
one Estonian would not need to explain to another what this relation-
ship is about. For Kadakas, the forest is a place for recreation, walking,
and picking berries or mushrooms, but—as is also the case with the rest
of our Estonian interlocutors—it also carries the meaning of connected-
ness with the past. Kadakas describes it as follows:
I think I have an emotional connection with the forest. It gives me some kind
of experience, it gives me rest, it gives me a possibility to leave my work
behind, it gives me ... a feeling of something ... I don’t know ... some
Estonian-ness, or my Estonian roots or something ... It’s like you go into
history when you enter the forest... . The stories I have been told, some
of them are already from the nineteenth century, and in the forest that time
seems to be much closer. For some reason, I get this feeling only in the forest.
Just like the beaches in Denmark, the forests of Estonia are spoken of as
having a transformative potential between this realm and otherworldly
ones. They are often referred to as being “magical” or “sacred,” or
simply “different” places outside of everyday life that evoke experi-
ences and feelings—frequently of connectedness with “something” that
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
204
is hard to put into words but that is referred to as being “bigger.” “In
the forest, I can completely forget where I work or what I do. It’s like
I’m in a completely different world,” says Kadakas. Sometimes poetical
expressions like “the tree of life” are used to name this different world.
For Tõnu, a writer in his twenties, the forest is mainly a source of peace
and happiness:
You can nd peace also at the beach or in a park, but solitude in the forest is
more concentrated, more intense. It is the place where you can change the
state of your mind, either intentionally or unintentionally. I see the forest as a
unique and irreplaceable place for connecting with the juices of the tree of
life. ... It is the feeling that the world exists in one piece. It is the reconcili-
ation of the apparent opposition between subjectivity and objectivity, like a
joyful feeling of unity in the middle of a loud buzzing sound or falling snow.
Luule, a poet in her fties who regards herself as a follower of Maausk,
something which she describes as a “normal state of being Finno- Ugric,
recounts her experiences of the forest in more explicitly religious terms,
and compares it to a church:
My most intensive religious experience has been in an old pine forest, in
July or August, when the sun starts to go down, and all these pine trunks are
golden, and the air is full of buzzing, and then I feel that the Creator is near. I
don’t feel that in church: there’s a roof above, and none of that stuff works at
all. But it has absolutely been the most sacral experience ever, with all those
bees buzzing and this light ... Then I cry a bit, but it’s not bad. It’s liberating
and very, very happy.
Our material thus indicates that the forest is not only ripe with the small
transcendences its sheer size and its perceived references to the past
indicate, but that it also resonates in a powerful way with the processes
that shape social and cultural identity and is hence connected to the
level of intermediate transcendences. Finally, when it spills over onto
the level of great transcendences it is felt to induce a border-crossing
feeling of unity and joy beyond the everyday. The interlocutors’ com-
parisons with churches and frequent mentions of the forest as a place
for connectedness attests to this, whether a connection is established
to “the Creator,” “the tree of life,” or as just an unarticulated “other,” be
it “secular” or “religious.”
Sweden: The Nature of a Special Connection
Much of what the Estonian interlocutors say is also true for the Swedes
whom we interviewed. For them too, the forest is a place where all
205
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
the demands and responsibilities of everyday life are left behind. It is a
place where the ego is felt to become irrelevant in a way that conjures
up a feeling of deep rest and relief. Just like in Denmark and Esto-
nia, nature is consistently described as invoking a sense of connection
with something greater than oneself. Most of our Swedish interviews
took place in the recreational forests that can be found on the out-
skirts of Stockholm. These forests have been made reachable and more
usable with clearly marked hiking routes, parking lots, and wheelchair-
accessible trails. The Swedish Right of Public Access—which makes
hiking and camping legal even in privately owned forests—has ensured
that a large number of people can visit them on a regular basis. This
occurs mostly on weekends. According to statistics collected by the
Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, women, older people, indi-
viduals without children, and ethnic Swedes are those who most often
visit the forest (Fredman and Hedblom 2014: 27). Our interlocutors t
this categorization well. We approached many of them while they were
walking their dogs or were having a cup of coffee by themselves in the
cafés that are commonly found near the trails. Many of our interlocutors
seem to have the feeling of being connected to something bigger, which
is often difcult for secular Swedes—who are reluctant to use religious
terminology—to articulate.
Margareta is retired after having had a long career as a newspaper
correspondent and political advisor. Since retiring, walks in nature have
become an important part of her life, and she sometimes organizes such
excursions for groups. She feels a need for contemplation and existential
reection, and she wants her walks to be something more than just
physical recreation. Although she denes herself as non religious, she
uses religious or semireligious terms when trying to put the experiences
she has of walking in nature into words:
It’s not just a walk with your legs. It’s a walk inside yourself at the same time,
where you get the time to reect upon things, different things. And then
nature has a, it also has ... not a message, but a context together with me
as a human being. Nature isn’t just there as a backdrop. It’s something that is
alive. There is also a, a kind of ... religion or spirituality in nature.
Later in the same interview, she relates a particular experience from a
visit that had a strong impact on her:
There is a .. . well, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but there was
something there that ... made me feel that ... there was something that ...
I don’t know what it was. But it was the kind of feeling of harmony and ...
closeness to something, to nature, to what is created around me, which is not
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
206
created by humans, which is nature. There were little pigs running around,
and there were little sheep and there was ... something, something peculiar
that was there.
Per is another interlocutor. He has reected extensively about the
impact his experiences in nature have had on his life and worldview.
He is also more articulate than most people when he talks about these
things. Per, who is in his midforties, is a teacher and a part-time tour
leader in one of Sweden’s national parks. In one interview, he describes
what he usually does when he visits the forest on his own: “I go out
there and just lay down for a nap on the moss somewhere,” he says,
“and when I wake up, I usually feel utterly clear-minded and lled
with calmness.” Per explains that he is particularly intrigued by the bio-
diversity of the forest:
The trees! Just the fact that there are creatures like that, that are so tall that
you can look upward at them. And then, if you look down in the moss,
everywhere you will see the abundance of life in a thousand nuances, a
complexity that encloses and embraces you. That makes me feel a deep,
deep calmness.
Per explains that he feels that the trees and the rocks of the forest are
present in a special way and that he experiences a connection with
them. He continues:
It is a mystery that all these things exist and actually are there in their full
expressiveness. Everything is an expression of the universe. It manifests itself
in differing qualities that resonate with each other and also with me. ... Take
a rock [for example]. I could say that it has a soul in the sense that it exists,
that it is there in its own unique quality, and I can feel a resonance with this
quality within myself. There is something in it that I recognize also in myself.
I am not completely alien to what the rock is. There is a rock-ness also within
me somehow. It is difcult to explain this.
The quotes from Margareta and Per exemplify a type of experience
that many of the Swedish interlocutors—with varying degrees of elo-
quence—express. As is also the case with the Estonian interlocutors, the
most common idea that they express, often using this particular word
in English, is “connection.” In the forest, they feel a sense of connec-
tion to the world around them, an experience of greater transcendence
as a transformative moment of connectedness that points to an order
beyond language or logic. Whether it is a connection to a particular
tree, to the forest as a whole, or to the universe itself, it is a feeling that
they take seriously, appreciate, and sometimes actively seek out.
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THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
An Operational Denition of Transcendence
We have thus exemplied how our predominantly secular Danish,
Estonian, and Swedish interlocutors talk about their experiences in
nature and have suggested that by approaching these experiences
through Schutz’s transcendence categories we may open ways to con-
strue them in a way that does justice to the interlocutors’ own under-
standings and that avoids having to position them on the problematic
scale between the religious and the secular.
We are not suggesting an essentialist understanding of transcen-
dence as something that, so to speak, exists sui generis. Our mate-
rial instead points to a type of human experience that lies in between
and is affected by physical, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of
experience. As we have approached our interview material, we have
identied these experiences of transcendence through the discourse
that surrounds them. As shown in the examples above, descriptions
of experiences of a greater connection that is deemed to be out of the
ordinary is what we have chosen to construe as experiences of great
transcendences in a Schutzian sense.
In the interlocutors’ descriptions of such experiences, they come
across as being complex and multidimensional. Their experiences of
great transcendences are physical in the sense that the interlocutors
feel their bodies in these experiences. They speak about their sore or
tingling limbs, about breathing heavily, about the way the wind feels on
their faces. They are also emotional since they include feelings of seren-
ity and calmness, or of being moved. The experiences are also cogni-
tive since they involve elements of reection and reality interpretation
as indicated, for instance, in the statement that the universe “exists in
one piece.” Moreover, they are aesthetic in the appreciation of nature’s
beauty. The experiences of transcendence thus constitute a category of
experience that combines several dimensions of being.
As our examples in the previous section show, it is difcult for
the interlocutors to articulate their existential experiences in words
other than those borrowed from Christian tradition. At the same time,
they are not entirely comfortable with this terminology, and thus use
expressions such as “almost holy,” “religion-like,” or “a little sacred,”
or metaphors like “the forest is my church,” when talking about their
overwhelming experiences of nature. Diminishing conjunctions such
as “like,” “almost,” and “-ish” are signicant here, since they are used
to express that the interlocutors are not entirely satised with the word
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
208
that they—despite their hesitation—choose to use. These expressions
indicate that the interviewees understand their experiences in nature to
be similar to what they think of as religious experiences but that they are
uncomfortable labeling them as religious or sacred in a conventional
sense. Instead of using explicitly Christian or religious terminology when
speaking about their experiences, this group speaks of connection to
the material, living reality within this world. They feel that they connect
to nature, to other living beings, to the ecological system of which they
are a part, or to this universe.
Thus, based on our interview material, we suggest the following
operational denition of great transcendence. Our denition is based
on Schutz, but makes his ideas more specic, operational, and ana-
lytically helpful by (1) anchoring it in ethnographic material and (2)con-
necting it to a list of identiable features. It reads thus:
Great transcendence is a mode of experience that reaches beyond the
boundaries of the everyday in a way that is referred to as special. It is an
emotional, aesthetic, sensuous, and embodied experience that places people
at, or across, the border of the world they usually inhabit and makes them
conscious of a larger cosmos.
Transcendent experiences, as we dene them, share a cluster of fea-
tures. They are:
described as momentary;
spoken of as transformative, life-afrming, cleansing, or liberating;
spoken of as related to existential questions and ultimate meaning;
spoken of as giving a sense of connectedness, trust, or confi-
dentiality;
expressed through metaphors or symbolic speech;
felt to be beyond the reach of language or denition;
prompted, sought after, or celebrated by people in semiritualized
ways.
Despite its imprecise character, this denition enables one to look for
great transcendences in different locations. Instead of focusing on spe-
cic words that connect to an established vocabulary for the extra-
ordinary—such as Christian theological terminology or words such as
“spiritual,” “sacred,” or “mystery”—one can look for utterances about
emotional, aesthetic, and sensuous border experiences in general. If an
interlocutor speaks of a feeling of “losing herself,” of “connectedness,
209
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
of “transformation,” or of being at “the edge of the world,” for example,
this will be sufcient for us to think of the particular experience in terms
of great transcendences. This disconnectedness from a traditional reli-
gious language is also the reason why we have chosen the term “tran-
scendence” rather than concepts such as “spirituality” or “the sacred.
Such words, we reckon, lead connotations in a traditionally religious
direction, whereas transcendence, at least in its Schutzian sense, allows
for describing a category of experience and discourse that may or may
not be connected to traditionally religious settings or metaphysical
ideas. It also follows that transcendence can then be directed toward,
or framed within, differing settings. If transcendence is about losing
yourself in something, then that something may be any of the settings
or situations that induce a sense of border crossing, dissolution, and
absorption: love, music, dancing, art, or intense ideological engagement
may all induce experiences of transcendence in this sense.
Conclusions
The point we want to make in this article is that although the distinc-
tion between the secular and the religious might be helpful in some
situations, it is not suitable to describe the intense experiences in nature
found in our ethnographic material. With our Schutz-inspired notion of
transcendence, we have suggested another way of conceptualizing the
experiences in nature that self-proclaimed secular people have. Argu-
ing against Luckmann, we suggest that transcendence is not shrinking
but moving. The fact that fewer seek and express great transcendences
through the practices and language of organized Christianity does not
mean that this mode of human experience is disappearing. Rather, our
material suggests that it relocates outside of the church to, among other
areas, nature. It is only if we see transcendence as connected to a
certain theological position (for instance, that of theistic realism) that
we can say that it is shrinking. But, since it seems as if people in this
secular environment have experiences in nature that resemble those
that others have in church, nature, to some extent, has come to have a
similar function to that of organized Christianity in society: it provides
the sense of security inherent in something that “always is there” and “is
bigger than you”—and just like church buildings, it works as an arena
for private thoughts, a backdrop for existential considerations, a place
for rest and separation from the stress of everyday life, and a bridge to
iDAVID THURFJELL, CECILIE RUBOW, ATKO REMMEL, AND HENRIK OHLSSON
210
experiences of self-dissolution and a greater connection. This relocation
of transcendence is what our interlocutors allude to when they, through
various formulations, tell us that “the forest is their church.
The border-crossing experience that we refer to as great transcen-
dence has thus here been relocated to the silent domain of nature. It
is here, in the forest or at the beach, that our secular Northern Euro-
pean interlocutors experience those transient, transformative, existential
moments of connectedness that point to an order beyond language or
logic. They do so on their own, and they do not seek to formalize their
experiences in dogmatic superstructures or to connect them to any form
of social organization. Such things—worldviews and a social life—they
pursue at other times in their lives, separate from their moments of tran-
scendence. These moments are thus individualized, non dogmatic, and
as otherworldly as they can be. Secularization does not, as Luckmann
once argued, entail the shrinking of transcendence. It does, however,
relocate great transcendences to an arena that is different from “religion
proper.” In countries that historically have been dominated by Christi-
anity, this relocation may be mistaken for disappearance, but the fact
that transcendence is severed from ontological, legal, and organiza-
tional or societal dimensions of organized religion does not mean that
it cannot endure among self-proclaimed secular people in what are
claimed to be some of the world’s least religious countries.
i
David Thurfjell is Professor of the study of religion at Södertörn University,
Stockholm, Sweden. His research spans several empirical elds and con-
cerns themes pertaining to religious revivalism, religion as a means of social
mobilization, and the discursive authority surrounding religion and secularity.
His publications include Living Shi’ism (Brill, 2006), Faith and Revivalism in a
Nordic Romani Community (IB Tauris, 2011) and The Godless People (Molin
and Sorgenfrei, 2015). E-mail: david.thurfjell@sh.se
Cecilie Rubow is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology,
University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Since 1992 she has published in Danish
and English on the anthropology of rituals, belief, identity, and authority in
the context of the Danish state church, Folkekirken. From 2007 her research
interests have been directed toward Christianity in Polynesia and broader
topics in the history of anthropology in the Pacic. Based on eldwork on
Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands, her focus shifted in 2009
to the local responses to climate change. Presently, she is orientating her
research interest toward the interface between the study of religion and
nature ethics in a Scandinavian context. E-mail: cecilie.rubow@anthro.ku.dk
211
THE RELOCATION OF TRANSCENDENCE o
Atko Remmel’s main eld is the study of religion. His research interests
include Soviet antireligious policy and its impact on religious life, relation-
ships between nationalism and (non)religion, methods in the study of (non)
religion, and present-day developments of religion and nonreligion, including
“the greening of religion”—nature as the source for sacredness and meaning
making. E-mail: atko.remmel@ut.ee.
Henrik Ohlsson is a PhD student working on a thesis in the eld of nature,
health, and spirituality. His earlier interests include secularity in the post-
Soviet sphere, particularly in the Central Asian republics.
E-mail: henrik.ohlsson@sh.se
o
Note
1. By “self-proclaimed secular people,” we refer to individuals who refer to them-
selves as nonreligious. This has been the central characteristic of the target group of
this study. We recognize, however, that the identication as nonreligious may carry
different meanings for different people. Our targeted informants are not necessarily
averse to all forms of spirituality or religious tradition. Dening oneself as nonreligious
in the cultural context around the Baltic Sea often implies a reluctance to adhere to
specic dogma associated with organized Christianity.
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... Here the aim was, for the first time, to conduct a randomized control experiment of the effects of a spiritual versus a secular ritual on social bonding, focusing on psychological (affect) and biological (pain) mechanisms. In addition, we examine selftranscendence (Thurfjell et al., 2019) as a potential mechanism through which certain religious/spiritual rituals may be better able to induce social bonding than secular rituals. ...
... This experience is also called self-transcendence (Yaden et al., 2017) when focused on the experience of a singular individual. While self-transcendence may often be considered a term reserved for intense religious experiences, it extends beyond the religious sphere, as secular individuals also experience self-transcendence (Newson et al., 2021;Thurfjell et al., 2019), where it may be operationalised as awe (Chirico & Yaden, 2018;Van Cappellen, 2017). Awe, or a sense of intense wonder, is the experience of a strong positive emotion which includes feelings of connectedness and the perception of vastness, much like self-transcendence (Yaden et al., 2017). ...
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