Jesus and the Transcendently Immanent God

By John Drury

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There is an age old problem for thinking theologically at any level: the tension between the transcendence and immanence of God. Many wish to stress the transcendence of God: that God is above us, different from us, free from us and rules over us. Others wish to stress the immanence of God: that God is with us, like us, available to us and in us. The rest of us try to strike a balance: God is both far and near, over and in, different and alike.

This Christmas season I would like to stake a claim against this talk of balance. I contend that as long as the transcendence and immanence of God are treated as two abstract poles to be navigated by our own intellectual savvy, we will forever be plagued by this problem. Furthermore, this balancing act will necessarily keep us from realizing the full radical significance of either the transcendence or immanence of God. By trying to have both, we end up with neither.

So, what is the alternative?

The way of wisdom is to see where the transcendence and immanence of God intersect: the Incarnation. Here God is thoroughly immanent – Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh, God working miracles in our midst. And God remains transcendent – the man Jesus prays to God, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, he submits to death on a cross at the Father’s will. In other words, God becomes human without ceasing to be God. Here we see the immanence and transcendence of God intertwined into one concrete story.

And here is where it gets really interesting. Not only do transcendence and immanence intersect in the Incarnation. They also mutually characterize one another.

By becoming permanently linked to this one Jewish man, the transcendence of God takes on the form of the distance between any two creatures. We are distant from God in the way we are distant from one another: he takes up his own space and time as do we. We get to know him by patiently learning his story like we would anyone else. This is a thoroughly creaturely and therefore immanent mode of transcendence.

When God links his presence with the world definitively and fully to the man Jesus, the immanence of God takes on the form of a particular historical personage. We are close to God the way we might be close to any other human being: by a face-to-face encounter. But we can truly encounter another person only by overcoming cultural, spatial and temporal boundaries. In this case, the one person Jesus is able to overcome these boundaries by the divine power of his Spirit. This means that God is not just simply “available” to us in the world, but rather comes to us by his initiative. This is a thoroughly free and therefore transcendent mode of immanence.

So, in the Incarnation, God is immanently transcendent and transcendently immanent.


At 4:32 PM, December 24, 2005, Keith.Drury said...

Good condemnation of balance.

What I shall contemplate over Christmas is:

"By trying to have both, we end up with neither."

"...where the transcendence and immanence of God intersect: [in]the Incarnation."

"...a thoroughly creaturely and therefore immanent mode of transcendence."

"Jesus, the immanence of God
[God] comes to us by his initiative. "

..."[a] transcendent mode of immanence."

" the Incarnation, God is immanently transcendent and transcendently immanent."

(and it will take me all the holidays to ponder it...luckily you will be there as a guide ;-)


At 5:58 PM, December 29, 2005, Sniper said...

I am scheduled to preach the 8th of January. My working title is "Now in Flesh Appearing" (taken from O Come Let Us Adore Him). I am going to talk about starting out theology with the incarnation. 1) Why it matters in the first place (going to try and appeal to Christian tradition and why that is important) 2) What it tells us about God and 3) What it tells us about ourselves. Funny how your latest post treads along the same lines. My main objective is showing that what God does for us and shows us through the Incarnation is what is expected of us in relationships with others. To take what is transcendent and make it more immanent in the areas of darkness in the world. Any more thoughts on this topic would be wonderful!


At 6:12 PM, January 03, 2006, Just . Jay said...

love it! deciding whether God is obviously more immanent, or, clearly he is transcendant... well it is just one more in the long line of attempts to define and understand the mysterious and unfathomable. am i right? God is both. that's the point. that's the mystery... same as "God is Jesus and God is God at the same time." (i feel the urge to paste the wonderful quote by Rev Lovejoy here but I won't. Matt has given us so much wisdom with his pencil)

God IS. Immanent. Transcendant. Love. Wrath. He is all of the above...

I hope I didn't miss your point.