Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage.That's her core claim in a nutshell. Whether the "God" pointed to by various religious symbols was true, real, or exists, only became a preoccupation of theologians and nonbelievers after the Reformation and Enlightenment. Armstrong wants to recapture what has been lost, what she calls the "knack" of religion, a learned skill that could lead to "an ekstasis, that enabled you to 'step outside' the prism of ego and experience the sacred." In the glossary, she defines this Greek term as "going beyond the self; transcending normal experience." For Armstrong, the desire "to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic."
Transcendence seems to mean going beyond ordinary reality and the language we use to describe it. Armstrong uses art and music as examples of transcendence, and explains that "one of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence." Music, she says, "goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything." Transcendence could be used to speak of the enhanced feeling of being or joy we feel in nature, or at peak moments of experience, say, at a wedding or the birth of a child. Armstrong speaks of the Catholic philosopher Karl Rahner who taught that when we struggle to make sense of the world, we constantly go beyond ourselves in our search for understanding. "Thus every act of cognition and every act of love is a transcendent experience because it compels us to reach beyond the prism of selfhood." This results in a spontaneous feeling of compassion toward another which takes form in action rather than thought.
Above all, the habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule "all day and every day" demands perpetual kenosis [self emptying]. The constant "stepping outside" of our own preferences, convictions, and prejudices is an ekstasis that is not a glamorous rapture but, as Confucius's pupil Yan Hui explained, is itself the transcendence we seek.