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From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence

04/13/15

Because I’m in the middle of teaching our Building Your Own Theology class and inviting the participants to look deeply into themselves and their experiences in an effort to name what they believe; and because I am moved and inspired by what they are saying in class; and also because it’s been a hard few months here at UUS:E and I am looking for my own sources of grounding, comfort, solace, and peace; and also because our ministry theme for April is transcendence; and finally because it’s just plain fun for me—for all these reasons I’ve decided to share with you this morning my current thoughts on God—how I believe.

There’s a story floating through the sermons of many ministers—it’s often attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church, though I’m not sure it’s original to him—in which the parishioner says to the minister,” I try and I try and I try, but I find I just don’t believe in God.” The minister responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” It’s possible some ministers tell this story as a way of saying “I know, there are many versions of God out there—jealous, angry, punitive gods; capricious, whimsical, unpredictable gods; callous, arrogant, selfish gods; homophobic, sexist, racist gods; imperialistic, nationalistic, violent war gods—but I know who God really is, and after I’m done listening to you tell me about the god you don’t believe in, I’m going to tell you about a god you can believe in.” To be clear, that’s not my intention here. I don’t move through the world harboring the secret conviction that the God I believe in is somehow right when all those other Gods are wrong. I don’t come to a sermon like this with the assumption that if you just open your heart to what I have to say, you’ll get it, you’ll see the light, you’ll believe.

However, there is a religious impulse in humanity: a longing to connect and commune with a reality larger than ourselves; a yearning to serve, to help, to heal, to be good; a drive to imagine, to conceive, to create, to shape, to build; an instinct to worship, to praise, to offer thanks; a hunger for a better world—a more fair, just, peaceful, loving and sustainable world. Human beings express and act on this religious impulse in countless ways, through the construction over time of countless religions, theologies, spiritualties, rituals, practices, holidays, festivals, folkways, and self-help regimens— a vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous, always multifaceted testament to humanity’s longing to encounter the Holy. When I speak to you about God in my life, I am not attempting to extract the one true belief out of the whole and then proclaim, “Here it is!” When I speak to you about God in my life, I’m simply adding one more, small voice to the vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous landscape of human religion. I hope not that you will believe as I believe, but that you will be inspired to respond to the religious impulse that moves you and thus make your contribution to that vast, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrendous human religious whole.

Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a term often given as a quality of God. Transcendence hangs out with its close friends otherworldly, supernatural, ultimate, boundless, sublime, infinite, absolute, eternal. In his Handbook of Theological Terms[1] Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[2]

Radical transcendence. Sit with that for a moment. A radically transcendent God exists ‘over and above’ the world, over and above humanity. A radically transcendent God lives somewhere else. A radically transcendent God is distant, separate, detached, beyond, unreachable, unknowable, inscrutable, wholly other. I read earlier from the introduction to the twentieth-century, Neo-Reformed—sometimes called Neo-Orthodox—Swiss theologian, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the Apostle Paul Barth says “However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange.” Barth often used the Latin term deus absconditus, the hidden God.

There are religious people of all sorts who are quite comfortable with a radically transcendent God. I’m mindful of a quote, also attributed to the late Rev. Forrest Church: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being.” We might call this a liberal version of deus absconditus. I find it enormously and refreshingly sane and wise to locate God in mystery, to believe in a God we cannot explain or know or name. Such belief requires us to admit our own limits; to acknowledge we don’t know everything; to find peace in the darkness; to accept that we cannot control every outcome; to accept that we must, at times, let go, that we must, at times, surrender. This is humility. At its best a wholly other God leads us to humility in our interactions with others and with the world.

The problem is, I’m not sure most gods like being radically transcendent. It seems difficult for them to remain distant and unknowable, shrouded in mystery. It’s hard for them. All too often transcendent gods leave their otherworldly home and visit earth; they descend; they come down to play, provoke, punish—to send plagues and swarms of locusts, to cause droughts and floods. One of my favorite stories of a radically transcendent God who makes himself known is the Hebrew Book of Job, a somewhat unique piece of Jewish wisdom literature from which we read earlier. Job was a righteous man—God-fearing, obedient. Satan wagers with God that he can induce Job to curse God. God accepts the wager, and Satan proceeds to destroy Job’s life, ruining his livelihood, killing off his family members and livestock, afflicting his body with horrible diseases. Job never curses God, but when he wonders why he’s been made to suffer so horribly, God becomes angry and sarcastic saying, essentially, “You didn’t make the world. I made the world. I can do whatever I want, it’s not your place to question, and you wouldn’t understand anyways.” One of the enduring critiques of transcendent gods is that they do whatever they want, that they’re capricious and arbitrary, that they mis-use and abuse their power without feeling a need to justify their actions—at least without justification we mere mortals would understand. They don’t stay radically transcendent. They descend.

But perhaps the problem doesn’t lie so much with the gods themselves, as with the people who speak for them. Many people don’t find an unknowable, radically transcendent god all that helpful or interesting. They’re uncomfortable with theological silence, uncomfortable with mystery, often because they need a God who can help them achieve certain social or political goals on earth. They want a transcendent god with all the power and the glory, but not the radical version. They want a knowable God who, more than anything, instills fear.

My mind wanders to Jonathan Edwards’ infamous 1741 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, which became the model for American hell-fire and brimstone preaching: “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty.”[3] (I think this sermon should have been called God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher!). There’s often a political dimension to this kind of knowable, transcendent God—he’s a king, an autocrat, a dictator, a tyrant. He rules from the top of a hierarchy. People who promote such a God on earth often occupy parallel social and political positions—or would like to—and they favor this kind of God precisely because his power, anger and arbitrariness engender fear not only to keep a populace from rebelling, but also to motivate sufficient numbers of followers to commit violence in God’s name.

I’m aware there are ten thousand other versions of knowable transcendent God, many of them quite friendly, but knowing how easy it is for transcendent God to be coopted into the service of selfish human aims, I’ve tended in my life to seek God not in some otherworldly place, not in some higher realm, but right here, among us, around us, within us, infused in the dark, brown earth, thawing with the lake ice as winter turns to spring, sinking into to early April mud, tunneling with the earth worms, falling warmly with early April rain, rolling and crashing with the great ocean waves, rising and setting with the sun and the moon, coursing through our bodies, pulsing with our blood, beating with our hearts, breathing with our lungs.

I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos—a still, small voice, speaking from that place within me where I know my truth, where my conviction resides, where my voice is strong.

I’ve longed for a God not beyond knowing, not unapproachable, not in Heaven, not on Olympus, not in the underworld, but right here in meaningful human interaction: the helping hand, the smile, the caring gesture, the thoughtful gift, the offered prayer, the full embrace, deep listening, meaningful conversation, the good night kiss, “I love you,” “thank you,” “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” “What can I do?”

I’ve longed for God not ‘wholly other’ but wholly familiar: in the music, the rhythm, the harmonies, the hymns, the silence spaces between the notes, the beat that goes on and on; and in the holy quiet, in the ritual words, in the heartfelt sharing, in the chalice flame.

I’ve longed for God not to punish and judge and condemn, but to urge us in all manner of ways to build the beloved community, to welcome, to include, to be curious and adaptable, to apologize and forgive, to work for a more just human society, to work for a more sustainable earth, to work on behalf of the generations to come , to love, to love, to love.

I’ve longed not for a transcendent God, but an immanent God. In his Handbook of Theological Terms Van Harvey says “Immanence is the technical term used to denote the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in the creation. It is usually contrasted with Transcendence.”[4] Often God is both transcendent and immanent, so I don’t want you to draw too fine a distinction. The point I am making is very personal: Transcendent God, the God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father—none of that has ever appealed to me. It may be because I don’t feel strongly about the afterlife. I’m not longing to see God after I die. I’m longing to live the best life I can live now, and thus I long for an immanent God—God here and now.

Those of you who’ve been listening closely to me over the years know that as much as I tell you I long for immanent God, I never say I know God is real, mainly because I can’t prove it. And I rarely say I believe in God, mainly because so many people confuse what they believe to be true with what they know to be true, and I don’t want to do that. Remember: we know something is true when we have some way of proving it. We believe something is true when it’s really important to us and we have no way of proving it. When someone says I believe X about God, what I hear them saying is “I really want X to be true,” or “I long for X to be true.” Belief isn’t knowledge. It’s longing. It’s wanting. It’s desire. I long for immanent God to be real, and I’ve learned through experience that the best way to satiate that longing is to live “as if” immanent God were real; to live as if every inch of the earth is sacred and matters; to live as if every human being is sacred and matters, every creature, every drop of water, every stone, every blade of grass is sacred and matters. Live as if it were so. You won’t prove anything God, but that’s not what matters. Living well, living the best life we can live here and now matters.

A final thought about immanence. Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms mentioned radical transcendence, but not radical immanence. If radical transcendence is the extreme otherness of God, radical immanence must be the extreme sameness of God. My mind wandered, again, this time to the passage from Daniel Quinn’s The Holy which we read earlier. The main character Tim is sitting in the dessert, perhaps sleeping. He wakes up to discover what he first imagines is “an alien creature towering over him—a visitor from the stars, bristling with silver spikes and armored in glossy green.” Soon “he saw that the creature meant him no harm—accepted him as an equal, seemed to enfold him in its own aura of vibrant power and dignity, as if to say, ‘It’s all right. I see you too are alive. No more is required. We are comrades.”[5] Eventually Tim and the reader realize the visitor is a cactus and Tim is somehow able to see—for a brief moment— into its essence, the “vibrant, sublime energy emanating from within.” Eventually he runs up a hill so he can peer down into the valley and behold the same energy coursing through the entire landscape: “Every leaf of every tree was radiant, lustrous—incandescent with power that was unmistakably divine.”[6] This passage struck me as a description of radical immanence.

I’ve never had an experience like that, though I know people who have. And I have certainly had those kinds of spiritual experiences—sometimes in nature, sometimes in response to music, sometimes in the midst of prayer—when I feel utterly related, when I feel at one with all there is. Such experiences are short-lived, fleeting, but they offer powerful opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp one’s connectedness to the whole of life; opportunities to sense, to intuit, to grasp the reality of our interdependence with the whole of life. Extreme sameness. Radical immanence. Is it God? I don’t know. But I promise you I will strive to live as if it were so.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992).

[2] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[3] Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, 1741. Read the text at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992), p. 127.

[5] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 378.

[6] Quinn, Daniel, The Holy (New York: Context Books, 2002) p. 379.

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