Transcendence and Immanence

In both the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12) and the account of Jesus’ prayer thanking his Father who has “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealing them to infants” (Matthew 11:25-27) we have examples of what theologians call both the “transcendence” and the “immanence” of God.

The awesome reality and the “otherness” of God which we call “transcendence” is described in the first of our 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” (BCP 867)

This was the initial experience of Moses near Mount Horeb when he heard God call from the burning bush “Moses, Moses…Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It was also Jesus’ experience who begins his prayer, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…”

We do ourselves no favor, as believers, if we ignore or trivialize this “transcendent” reality we call God. God is not our “buddy.” God is the Source of all that is! In this God – and only in this God — we “live and move and have our being.” We exist solely because God’s love and grace allows us to “be!” 

And yet, that’s not all the story! Not all of the truth about God. Because, as Moses stands – sandal-less – in the presence of this awesome God, he also hears these words, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob…I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them…”

And the occasion of Jesus’ prayer to his “Father (who is) Lord of heaven and earth” is to offer thanks because “you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…for such was your gracious will.” Never one to domesticate or trivialize God the Father, Jesus was also adamant that God had to be available and accessible to the youngest and simplest among us…to the last and the least. “Knowledge of God,” and the healing and liberation that come with it cannot be reserved only for scholars and priests – but must be available to all!   

This “immanence,” this presence and availability and inward experience, of God is what Jesus celebrating in his prayer. But it cannot be separated from God’s transcendence. Both must be held together, in some kind of creative tension.  That should come as no surprise to Christians like us – who confess Jesus Christ as human and divine, receive Sacraments which are both outward and visible and inward and spiritual, and Christians like us who are both saints and sinners!

Paradoxes like these lie at the heart of Christianity. And in the heart of God – who is both transcendent and immanent…at the same time!



One Response to “Transcendence and Immanence”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    one of the things which most frustrated me in my (now essentially completed) career in academic philosophy was the way that philosophers-who-don’t-understand-religion would utterly fail to get this idea! and i don’t mean that they had a philosophical objection to it; i mean that they simply fundamentally failed to get that this sort of thing might be what christians actually believe. sigh!

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