The Presence of God: Immanence and Transcendence

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…


16 thoughts on “The Presence of God: Immanence and Transcendence

  1. John-Julian, OJN


    I decided to be a priest when I was eight years old, so I was soaking up theology from a very early age—and I remember the simplest thing from when I was about ten years old: my priest drew a small circle on the blackboard. “This,” he said, “is our world.” Then he drew a larger circle around that circle and said, “And this is God. Is God in our world? Yes. Is God outside our world? Yes. Is God inside our world? Yes. Is God beyond our world? Yes. Does God fill our world? Yes.”

    That still pretty much solves it for me.

  2. bls

    I understand what you’re saying about the “foregrounding of transcendence” in AC worship. But consider, too, >this quote from an article at the website of Newark’s Grace Church:

    The Reformers, having failed to recognize important implications of the Incarnation, had displayed distrust for the senses, reducing worship as far as possible to words alone. They had abolished use of lights and incense, eliminated all but a few gestures, and discarded all liturgical vestments except the surplice.

    IOW, Anglo-Catholic worship in a very real way appeals to God come among us – via our very earthly senses. I actually find other – i.e., I guess: “Protestant” – worship way too abstract and “up in the head.” To me, it’s worship at a very poor remove: talking about God rather than experiencing God.

    So for me, AC worship actually is the best of both “transcendence” and “immanence” together, and doesn’t privilege the former over the latter at all.

  3. Derek Olsen

    That’s an excellent point, bls. The direction I’ve been fussing from is “how do we believe that the sacred interacts with the material?” What you’re bringing up is the way that our worship practices engage the material in order to facilitate the experience of a God who takes incarnation seriously. I think our points are complementary; maybe the way to say it is that we engage a transcendent worship experience in a very incarnational and immanent way.

  4. Lee M.

    Hi Derek,

    I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie lately, and he argues that something like a doctrine of the Trinity is needed to do justice to the polarity, or dialectic, between divine transcendence and divine immanence. In other words, once you start talking about God being “beyond” the world, but also “in” it, you’ve introduced a principle of internal differentiation within the Divine.

    This seems to be confirmed to some extent by the patterns of Christian prayer and spirituality. We pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, for instance. And this suggests a more complex mode of divine presence.

  5. aredstatemystic

    Thanks for your thoughts. I can’t remember where I read it, but I think it was an Orthodox Priest who said something like, “Only those who know God, know that you can’t know God.”

    “We feebly struggle . . .” and all that.

  6. Derek Olsen

    Interesting, Lee! I haven’t read Macquarrie and my initial concern would be how to structure the internal differentiation in a way that doesn’t fall into modalism.

    But again—what does this look like where the rubber hits the road? I’d agree on “a more complex mode of divine presence” (“more complex” than what, though?) but how do these modes enable me to better experience the complex God?

  7. Vicki McGrath

    Hi Derek,

    Thanks for this post. I may have said it before, but my sense is that we very much need both transcendence and immanence. The phrase that describes this in shorthand for me is: if you don’t pray up, you can’t pray down – i.e. if you’re not open to the transcendent experience of God, you won’t recognize God in the inner depths or the day-to-day. But to your question of how to teach Christian disciplines that make this real for people: I make Sunday and holy day worship as beautiful and reverent as I can (funerals and weddings, too), and then keep looking for ways in conversations, committee meetings, pastoral visits, Bible study, etc. where I can help people recognize God at work in their lives and in the world. Sort of like when you “catch your children being good” it’s a better lesson than punishing them when they’re being naughty. But that involves a willingness on my part as a priest to be comfortable in the role of wise teacher/spiritual counselor in a wide variety of settings. It can be as simple and basic as offering to pray with someone on the spot, or just pointing out that a particular insight or good arrangement of circumstances is the Holy Spirit at work. While this is not a program, it is an approach to Christian life that is as much modeled as it is directly taught. I also think it helps a great deal to teach basic liturgical theology to the people in the pews whenever you can. They want to know the meaning of what they are participating in. And then you loop it back to corporate worship (and especially festal worship) with an increased awareness of the presence of God in all areas of life, so that the Christian experience really becomes a spiral, moving ever more deeply into God.


  8. Ormonde Plater

    I’ve just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s *Atheist Delusions*, in which he frames the discussion in terms of logic, “transcendence as God’s perfect freedom from limitation, his ability to be at once infinitely beyond and infinitely within finite reality; for a God who istruly transcendent could never be confined merely to the top of the hierarchy of beings.” BTW, this is a pretty good book, especially if you like his style of writing.

  9. Christopher

    I remember encountering a similar approach in diagram to that of Fr John Julian in theology courses. For me sensual, Incarnational Anglican worship–identified as high Church or Anglo-Catholic, not only leads me “outward,” beyond myself to others and the Other precisely through the senses, by mediation of sound and light and smell and touch and taste and silence to the One Who is always more than we can imagine but never less than or in contrast of character to his self-revelation, Jesus Christ, but precisely because of color explosions, incense, candles, icons, statues, and recognition that we are related to the Saints, and the entire creation (also at praise as in the Psalms), and indeed to all beings and things, precisely because we are all related to God through Christ is also then a recognition that that same Other is among us and to be met in all beings and things, all creatures. Precisely in the Incarnation of our Lord is key for me on this: The older I get the more transcendence is in the immanence, and vice versa. And so Blake could see eternity in a grain of sand, or I at poor remove from his genius, can be inspired to praise by a lone silverfish as in this piece I composed for my growing manuscript:

    Go therefore into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.

    A lone silverfish held captive in the dimple of an ice tray stored beneath

    tarnished exoskelatal shields her tribal colors show in sudden light

    I see her inmates lost to hunger and thirst in nearby cells leaving only dross

    She welcomes the stranger in her midst by antennae raised in curious thanks

    I gently tilt the tray past ninety-degrees proclaiming wide embrace:

    All bow All rise
    Captives free. Prisoners release.

    Go therefore into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.

    At the heart of Anglican worship for me, and by that I must include the sensual, the Incarnational is mediation, which flows forth from the Incarnation Himself and the sacraments, preaching, gathered people in turn…God works through and with and in creatures, matter. Our wider culture talk on this as a whole tends to bifurcate these. Either the material is all there is, or we can experience the Other unmediated–enthusiasm. As if any part of our existence is not made! Rahner writes of a proper sacramental understanding as mediated immediacy.

  10. Christopher

    If it is the Incarnation we are speaking of, and all that flows from Him (including the sacraments and our praise), then rather than balance of transcendence and immanence which implies to my mind .5+.5=1, it seems better to speak of paradox where infinity/Other and finitude/Among us are One in Jesus Christ as Person without infinity being exhausted or finitude being swallowed up, where 1+1=1. As the theological term Person connotes, Christ contains in Himself the whole of God (and indeed Personally, or Being-in-Relationship as the Three indwell one another and are One), and by his Incarnation, also of creatureliness, particularly, humanness.

    For each particular human being, transcendence/Otherness or immanence/Among us are more greatly experienced, depending on context, temperament, moment in life, even season of the Church Year, etc., but in Jesus the fullness of the Other is flesh, is among us, and promises to be the same by word spoken and sung, as bread and wine, and in turn, in sisters and brothers, indeed, in all of creation.

    Another way of saying this is the One who is outside ourselves also indwells us by virtue of Holy Baptism, and indeed, this requires not only Trinitarian thinking, but Trinitarian thinking on the level of the Cappadocians and such–perichoresis.

    Our worship, being common, for all, means to bring all to deeper relationship with and sense of Christ through the variety of means available to us so that each person in their complexity is nourished on Him whether they are more drawn to and by transcendence or immanence. Sensuous/Incarnational (High Church/Anglo-Catholic/Sacramental) worship does this precisely through the stuff of the everyday visioned through eternity. So I would not divide out sacred and profane as either/or or balance either. By our setting aside of common things for sacred use, our common worship makes of profane things, all everyday things, what they most are, sacred, that is created out of Love and meant for that same Love. Our worship becomes a lens for how to meet the entire universe, where common, ordinary, profane things are exceptional, extraordinary, and sacred.

  11. Lee M.

    Derek–“more complex” may not have been the best choice of words. What I was trying to get at is that in a trinitarian perspective, the modes of God’s presence to and in the world are specified by salvation history–which is (so we believe) the trinitarian life manifested in the sphere of history. So, this tells us to look for God in certain “places”–God is the origin of all things, God is the end of all things, God is the principle of rational order in creation (the Logos), God is present in the cries of the oppressed, God is present in the suffering of the innocent, God’s presence is Christ-like, and God’s presence is the empowering Spirit that forms us in the image of God’s Son, etc. I take it this is what, in a Christian idiom, gives “flesh” (there’s that incarnational language again) to what could be a “generic” transcendence/immanence dichotomy. A genuinely Christian spirituality has to have this trinitarian “economy” at its heart. And I also take it that this is why Christian spirituality can never be severed from Christian ethics–to experience God is to be transformed and conformed to the pattern of Jesus.

  12. Derek Olsen

    A lot of good stuff here; y’all have given me quite a lot of food for thought!

    Chris and Vicki—glad to hear that good liturgical catechesis is occurring!

    Christopher—as always, your poetry and theology inform each other in thought-provoking ways.

    Ormonde—thanks for the reference and I think this portion hits it right on the head: “his (i.e., God’s) ability to be at once infinitely beyond and infinitely within finite reality” which for me loops back into Christopher’s recognition that we are talking a 1+1=1 equation far more reminiscent of the hypostatic union than anything else.

    Lee—That clears things up for me and I really like this phrase: “the modes of God’s presence to and in the world are specified by salvation history”. I think there’s something in particular there that helps us drive from a systematic approach to the level of practices as well in the notion of specification.

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  14. bwinwnbwi

    ” I do believe that, largely speaking, some people are wired more towards an immanent understanding while others are wired for a transcendent understanding” Quote from above.

    Great post! I agree; God is both immanent and transcendent. Below is my description of God’s immanence but it is because of God’s transcendence that I am able to describe anything whatsoever. I also have a WordPress blog (actually two but bwinwnbwimusic is the easiest to read and most recent).

    God is the inescapable depth and center of all there is. The immanence of God is what I call freedom and this immanence is present as nature. When freedom achieves self-consciousness it is able to name and create truth and beauty. In fact, it calls us forward into life, love, and wholeness. The biblical Jesus was, most likely, so completely transformed by his awareness of the divine that his thoughts, words, and deeds were recognized as divine. Not surprisingly, the gospel writers saw him as the Son of God, and translated his story into the Passion Play that it was, — it is. My religion has nothing to do with ‘revealed truths,’ and it is not about heavenly rewards or punishments. Rather, it is simply a way to perceive and process the God experience, the experience that pulses in every human being. As far as proselytizing goes, all I want to do is open people’s minds to the idea that ‘terra firma’ is hallowed ground. I mean that both literally and figuratively. In our relationship with others we share that ground, and that ground becomes sacred or profane depending on how it is shared. Again great post!

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