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The Problem of Transcendence and Immanence in Religion: Is Religion mere Sociology?: a Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-01-13 11:10:11
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I have already written on religion conceived as a dirty word with a negative connotation of sorts, a la Voltaire, (see, http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/9427). As the reader may remember, it raised some combative comments by a certain anonymous Mario and others which is likely to happen again, in any case, I’d like to return to one of the thorniest problems in today’s philosophy and descriptions of religion, that of reducing religion to mere utilitarian sociology. By that I mean the consideration of religion as another social phenomenon to be studied to determine whether or not it is useful and advantageous to society. If it is found to be not useful, then it will be defined in negative terms such as “the opium of the people” (Marx), or simply “poison” (Mao). If it is found to be useful to mitigate crime and corruption, let’s say, then it will be advertised as integral part of a people’s culture to be protected and tolerated together with Buddhist monasteries and pictures of holy monks. What is lost sight of is that in the first place religions seems to be, from time immemorial going back to the very origins of human civilization, integral part of civilization, and that religion possesses something that distinguishes it from all other social phenomena, namely the concept of transcendence. In that concept is the crux of the matter.

The problem of transcendence vis a vis immanence is in fact one of the most critical issues in the philosophy of religion. Traditionally transcendence and immanence have been viewed as mutually exclusive. Transcendence expresses God’s otherness and distinctness from man, immanence his presence with (Emmanu-El or God with us). Some scholars have gone to extremes in stressing either the immanence of God at the expense of His transcendence, or vice versa.

Culture analysts, psychologists, sociologists and others who probe the content and the dimension of human society have worked diligently to define the concept of transcendence. According to them, transcendence aims at total life fulfillment. They acknowledge that human life is not at all that it can be, and they attempt to devise ways to bring about total human fulfillment, using the categories appropriate to their particular scientific discipline. Transcendence means therefore the concrete resolution of social, economic and political problems as well as spiritual and psychic wholeness. Thus the desire for wholeness is understood as a basic human characteristic.

Whatever may be the definition of transcendence given by these scholars, the objective is the same: to bring into being that which the human condition demands, i.e., the perfection of being. And it is more or less the same objective which contemporary theologians intend with their affirmations about the being of God and the nature of His activity in human history. When contemporary theologians speak of transcendence, their language is very much analogous to that of the humanists and other secular thinkers.

Generally speaking, the quest for the understanding of transcendence demonstrates that the critical issue for theologians is not to attempt a description of the nature and being of God but instead to attempt an exposition of the consequence of God’s activity in human history. In other words, when theologians affirm faith in the transcendent God of the scripture, they are affirming faith in the God who has acted in human history to make human beings whole and redeem them from their sins. Transcendence is not just the description of the inner metaphysical being of God. Rather it refers to an event, that historical event witnessed to in the scriptures, which brings about the restoration of health, i.e., reconciliation, to humanity. As William Johnson suggests, "transcendence has little to do with the nature and attributes of God but has everything to do with the consequence of God’s activity in history, that is, to introduce a transcendent dimension to human life."


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

As already mentioned in the above referred Ovi article on religion, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer examined in depth the concept of transcendence in religion. Some of those reflections were conducted in a Nazi jail where he had been imprisoned and where he was eventually executed as one of the co-conspirator who had planned an assassination attempt on Hitler. In any case for Bonhoeffer the perfection of being is achieved through the transformation of human life by the redemptive activity of the transcendent God, who identified himself with human beings in order to effect wholeness. He offers a view of transcendence which is not identical with a particular metaphysic, but which leaves the human being in free play within the reality of his historical existence. It is crucial to his thinking that the unbridgeable gap between the transcendent God and the created order is bridged by the incarnation. Neither announcing the death of God and atheism, nor reducing theology to anthropology, Bonhoeffer is trying to protect a very specific and concrete understanding of the incarnation from either dualism or immanentism. He interprets transcendence in terms of human sociality. For Bonhoeffer, the other human being, as an ethical subject in community, is the form of both the otherness and the presence of God. The Christian God is He who is other in His being -- for and being -- with man. He speaks of God not above reality, but at the point of hidden presence in reality. The incarnation is in one place where the Christian can understand God’s transcendence. As a result transcendence does not create a division between earthly appearances and heavenly essences.

Bonhoeffer reformulated the concept of transcendence in such a way by replacing it with an understanding of transcendence which is focused upon the humanity of Christ and the participation of the disciple, through Him, in the life of the world come of age. Faith in the transcendent God is not a fleeing away from the affairs of this world, on the contrary it is taking full responsibility of the reality of this world.

We shall now see how Bonhoeffer spoke of the transcendence of God as he expounded in his Christology. According to Bonhoeffer, Christology is utterly concrete in its orientation. In Christ the Centre Bonhoeffer asserts that ”God in timeless eternity is not God, Jesus limited by time is not Jesus. Rather, God is God in the man Jesus. In this Jesus Christ God is present. This one God-man is the starting point of Christology.”


Gallery of 20th century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey
From left: Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For Bonhoeffer, Christology is a doctrine of God as well as of the humanity of Jesus, for Jesus Christ is God present in the humanity of Jesus. He expresses the difference between transcendence and immanence in terms of the two questions he introduces in his Christology lectures: “The question Who? is the question of transcendence. The question How? is the question of immanence. Because the one who is questioned here is the Son, the immanent question cannot grasp him. The question of transcendence is the question of existence and the question of existence is the question of transcendence. In theological terms: man only knows who he is in the light of God.” Here we find a Christological idea which is similar to the ‘religionless’ Christology of the prison letters I have examined in my previous article on religion: the very being of Christ is his "being there for others".

If Jesus Christ were not pro me He would not be God incarnate. This means that Christ cannot be thought in isolation, as a Christ in Himself, but only in his relation to us, because the purpose of God’s humbling Himself in Christ was to have this relation to us, to be pro me. This does not, however, mean that God and Christ depend for their existence on me. Bonhoeffer makes it clear when he says that Christ is both "the one who has really bound himself to me in free existence", and "the one who has freely preserved his contingency in his ‘being-there for you’."

In Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures, one point clearly stands out: only a person can be authentically transcendent. Transcendence, thus, is a personal-ethical, concept. This emphasis on the personal ethical aspect of transcendence is not new in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. From the very beginning of his theological career, Bonhoeffer interpreted transcendence in socio-ethical terms.

In an article written while he was in the United States, Bonhoeffer spoke of Christ as "the personal revelation, the personal presence of God in the world." There he brought together the three important conceptions --person, transcendence and God: “The transcendence of God does not mean anything else than that God is personality, provided there is an adequate understanding of the concept of personality... For Christian thought, personality is the last limit of thinking and the ultimate reality. Only personality can limit me, because the other personality has its own demands and claims, its own law and will, which are different from mine and which I cannot overcome as such. Personality is free and does not enter the general laws of my thinking. God as the absolutely free personality is therefore absolutely transcendent... Where can I find his inaccessible reality which is so entirely hidden from my thinking? How do I know about his being the absolutely transcendent personality? The answer is given and must be given by God himself, in his own word in Jesus Christ, for no one can answer this question except God himself, in his self-revelation in history, since none can speak the truth except God.

In the prison writings Bonhoeffer interpreted God’s transcendence in concrete, social, ethical, I-Thou terms. He believed that whatever is to be said of God’s transcendence is what we can say of the biblical Christ. This man provides us with a norm which is concrete and ethical. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer says that it is to Christ, and Christ alone, that we look to see God. Any apprehension of the ‘beyond’ of God is an apprehension of the ‘beyond’ which we see manifested in the man Jesus. Christ means that God is to be found in the midst of the world and nowhere else.

Because Bonhoeffer understands the world only in the light of its reconciliation in Christ he can speak only of a "this-worldly transcendence". "It is now essential to the real concept of the secular that it shall always be seen in the movement of being accepted and becoming accepted by God in Christ." The transcendence of God is to be understood by Bonhoeffer’s lifelong and characteristic metaphor "God at the centre of life". The ‘beyond’ of God is not only God-in-the world revealed in Jesus; it is God-and-the-world reconciled in Jesus. In Christ we not only see God in the center of life; we also see God as the reconciler of life. Divine transcendence is revealed in Christ, and it is revealed as reconciliation. The "beyond" of God is reconciliation at the centre of life. God’s transcendence in the realm of knowledge is the beyond in what man knows, not the stopgap in what he does not know. Bonhoeffer emphasizes this strongly when he speaks of Christ that "he certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems" The ‘beyond’ of God is not to be understood as metaphysical transcendence. The God who is to be understood in the man Jesus is "at the centre of life".

All that we know of God is the "being there for others" which characterizes the Jesus of the Gospels. This "non-religious" concept of Jesus as "the man for others" is certainly not a humanist or ethical reductionism. Rather, it is an interpretation of God’s transcendence in terms of the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, the transcendent is met in the concern for others as given to us in the life and way of Jesus. God is not to be found in an abstract belief about His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Feuerbach and Marx criticized that God as a projection of man’s ideals. As long as we place some abstract ideas in place of God their criticism holds true. God is not the idea we have of Him. Rather, we find the ground of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence in Jesus’ "being there for others".

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer insisted that human freedom be understood in strictly social terms as man’s freedom for others. According to Bonhoeffer, freedom functions as a middle term between transcendence and acts of love. Freedom is rooted in God and Jesus disclosed God’s freedom as freedom for human beings. This freedom provides the necessary human conditions for effectively caring for others. Jesus maintains this freedom to be for others even to the point of suffering and death. In this freedom from self, says Bonhoeffer, is to be found all that we can know of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

God’s transcendence is manifested not in ‘religion’ but in a new orientation of human being toward life: existing for others after the pattern and in the power of Jesus’ utterly selfless life.

The new life which is participation in the transcendence is experienced chiefly as powerlessness and suffering. God at the centre of life is revealed most clearly and decisively in the cross of Christ: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, in which he is with us and helps us... Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

All those in a ‘non-religious’ world, who out of full human responsibility for others experience weakness and suffering, participate in the cross and hence in the transcendence of God. Thus, Christian faith is not merely a belief in a concept called transcendence, but the appropriation of that transcendence which is "the experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that "Jesus is there only for others."

Marx and Bonhoeffer emphasized the autonomy of the human being. But in the search for such autonomy of the human being Bonhoeffer was not so much removing God from the world’s affairs as searching for God’s real presence in that world. This explains the appeal of a Pope Francis to atheists to become collaborator in alleviating the sufferings of the poor.

Marx found God as standing in the way of human freedom and autonomy, a barrier to human emancipation, Bonhoeffer on the other hand believes that God granted human freedom and autonomy by making Jesus the point of disclosure for His transcendence. Whereas Marx defined transcendence as the human beings’ possibility to move towards the future with freedom and choice, so that they could shape their own destiny, Bonhoeffer gave a this-worldly interpretation of transcendence in which the experience of transcendence is Jesus "being there for others". Transcendence therefore is an ongoing process. Accordingly, transcendence must be grasped, not as it has so often been in the past, in spatial terms referring to the God "up there" beyond the affairs of human life, but specifically in terms of what God has effected historically, and is doing now, on behalf of human beings.


The Oldest icon of Jesus the Christ (Pontocretor, 6th century A.D.)

The idea of incarnation is conceivable only where there is both transcendence and immanence. And yet, in the incarnation God has affirmed the world and history in such a way that it is impossible to confine our apprehension of Him to a mythological or metaphysical elaboration of the event of incarnation. There should be some logical way of interpreting that event to the modern "non-religious" man. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer does by introducing the concept of this-worldly transcendence. He makes use of the humiliation of Jesus as the basis of his plea for a this--worldly understanding of transcendence. Jesus is the man in whom God reveals Himself, and He reveals Himself by absenting Himself in His power and glory. In this way, God reveals to us the this-worldly nature of His transcendence. And faith, in the full sense, can be understood only as human response to this revelation. Our relation to God, then, is a new life and not ‘religion’ in the traditional sense of the term; it is freedom to act responsibly for our neighbour’s good, and not a ‘religious’ relationship to a metaphysical being.

The importance of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of transcendence is that he gave it a profound sociological, and thus this-worldly dimension. Instead of defining the relationship of the individual to the transcendent God solely in spiritual and individualistic ways, by employing the concept of this-worldly transcendence he challenged the individuals to a "transformation of all human life" and thus to struggle for the transformation of society by participating in Jesus’ "being there for others". The world isolated in its own autonomy, which does not take seriously the revelation of God in this Jesus Christ, is only a utopia a la Plato’s Republic. For Bonhoeffer "the world has no reality of its own, independently of the revelation of God in Christ".


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Lawrence Nannery2014-01-14 22:06:45
Plato's God, the god of transcendence, was reduplicated by Aristotle, and either man can be credited with a rational reconstructiion of any religion. They stayed away from immanence for a reason. Immanence is histroical, and therefore cannot also be transcendent. We see it in the great multiplicity of religions around the world. Bonhoffer tries hard to reconcile the two by using locutions that themselves are contradictory.
Beyond that, he fails to see, it seems, that if he goes beyond monotheism, there can be no reconciliation, never mind the irrational factor of revelation, about which there has never been any agreement. If Scriptures were divinely inspired they would all say the same thing. But in fact, they all contradict one another. But God, to be God, cannot contradict himself.

Emanuel Paparella2014-01-15 12:46:30
Quite right Larry, the Greeks had no use for history, it was too imprecise and messy for their philosophical Apollonian logical rational schemes. They left that to the Greek Dionysian theater. So we end up with the god of the philosophers or the idea of God which then is even rationally and idolatrously worshipped.

God for Jews and Christians is not a mere idea or a mere Creator (a la Deism), he is a personal God who cares about his creation and his creatures' mundane concerns.

For all their intelligence neither Plato nor Aristotle could have rationally and logically arrived at the paradox of the Incarnation, of conceiving immanence and transcendence as complementary and not mutually exclusive, of a god who leaves his transcendence beyond time and space and incarnates himself within immanence and becomes part of human history and of the human condition(Emmanu El).

We need to wait for the Jewish conception of God involved in human affairs and caring for his creation, and Paul and Christianity; philosophically we need to wait for Vico and Spinoza to introduce historicism into the equation and conceive of a God who is paradoxically both transcendent and immanent at the same time. Scriptures being within time and space, they cannot indeed possibly be the same for all people at all times since they all live in different times and spaces and therefore apprehend God differently.

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