When we think about the “presence of God” or “the holy” or “the sacred” in the world, I think that there are two main directions from which we can approach it that generally fall under the rubrics of immanence and transcendence.
The transcendent tends to identify God as “out there” or normally distant and God reveals himself to us through big events and moments. The immanent tends to identify God as “in here” and intimately related to us, present in every moment and action, and thought—one of my mentors used to regularly weave into prayers Tennyson’s phrase “Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”
Another way that this gets framed is where do we find God: in big church events or in the commonplace action of everyday life ( the second a view that heartily believes that ironic scare quotes are needed in the phrase “secular” life).
These two positions tended to be pitted against one another. I don’t think that you can authentically read Scripture and the Tradition without seeing that both revealed wisdom and spiritual learning affirm this to be both/and not an either/or. Heck–it’s hard to read far in the psalter without both things being affirmed.
The preferable way to see it is as a spectrum. Immanence and transcendence take their sides but there’s a healthy relationship between the two. On the ends of the spectrum would be pantheism and (a little closer in) panentheism for immanence and gnosticism and (a little closer in) docetism for transcendence.
At this point, however, is where I’ve got to stop or at least pause. This is as far as Ican go before I have to consider exactly what kind of discussion we’re having and why. Where I get irritated and edgy is when people try to make grand statements about these two terms on some sort of dogmatic level. As I’ve said before, I’m not a dogmatic or systematic theologian. I simply don’t have the tools to wrestle with these terms on an abstract basis. I have no choice but to come at it from the direction of ascetical theology. Thus, the way that I have to frame the issue is something like this:
God is both immanent and transcendent; to base a relationship with a too-exclusively immanent or transcendent deity is to mischaracterize the relationship. If one of the goals of the spiritual life is to cultivate a habitual awareness of the presence of God, what are the disciplines needed to cultivate an openness to the presence of God and what is the relationship between them? I.e., do we start with disciplines of transcendence to learn to recognize God in the big moments so that we can recognize him in the small? or do we begin with disciplines of immanence in order to comprehend and affirm the qualities of God that also appear in the transcendent moments? The true answer (once again) being a balance of the two, are there ways that the balance tends to shift through a “typical” spiritual life—and in recognizing that there’s little “typical” in a relationship with the Living God, to what degree is this balance informed by a given person’s temperament and dispositions?
I do believe that, largely speaking, some people are wired more towards an immanent understanding while others are wired for a transcendent understanding. In a marketplace of religions like we have now in post-Constantinian America, I suspect that some of our inter- and intra-denominational groupings may reflect certain preferences one way or another (among other sorting factors) and are reflected in certain worship styles and practices. Thus—as in this piece in an earlier attempt to fool around with these issues—I think that the guitars vs. chant debate is deeply related to this topic.
I think it’s fair to say that your standard Anglo-Catholic Mass foregrounds transcendence. The environment created by the vestments, the music, the candles, the odd liturgical objects we favor presents a cultural experience that is profoundly different from our everyday cultural experiences. (By contrast, a potted-plant concert hall with a guitar-wielding shirt-sleeved and goateed praise team leader presents a cultural experience that is profoundly familiar to our everyday life.) However, Anglo-Catholic spirituality doesn’t stop at the end of Mass, either. As Fr. Gerth always reminds his herd of servers in the sacristy on the really big feast days, these services have meaning not by themselves but in relation to all of the other, lower, simpler Masses and Offices that fill out our daily/weekly/monthly/yearly round.
So, to begin to head in the direction of an answer, I’m going to suggest that contemporary Anglo-Catholic practice foregrounds disciplines of transcendence through a focus on God’s particular presence in the sacraments, the deliberate cultivation of a transcendent religious culture, and emphasizing distinctions between sacred (space, objects, people [sometimes running to the crazy extreme]) and the secular. A lively Anglo-Catholic spirituality needs to supplement this with disciplines of immanence like breath prayers and practices of the presence of God (a la Br. Lawrence and others).
I’m thinking out loud here—does this make sense? Thoughts?
I’m feeling the need to go back to Thornton and Underhill to see if/how they approach this…