Immanent or Transcendent? – January 2003

Question: I’m a member of one of the protestant churches in Holland. I’ve read Thomas Merton and some books about Zen. In my tradition God is ‘very transcendent.’ The things I’ve read are more ‘immanent.’ How do you (i.e. process theology) see God; immanent or transcendent?

Publication Month: January 2003

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The issue of immanence and transcendence is crucial for religious thought. One reason that it never gets settled is that it has so many meanings and turns up in so many different contexts. A view that emphasizes immanence in one context may emphasize transcendence in another. What the terms mean depends in part on the metaphysical assumptions, usually unconscious, of those who use them. 

One important distinction is between epistemological and ontological discussions. For some the crucial question is whether God can be conceived and talked about in a more or less coherent way. Those who deny this call God “transcendent”. The human mind, they believe, is capable of dealing with ordinary mundane things but is not capable of understanding God. God is mystery, and that mystery is not like detective stories that call us to use our wits to solve the mystery, or like the extremely puzzling questions that confront physicists. It is inherently and necessarily mystery, a mystery before which we can only stand in awed silence.

Some of those who emphasize this epistemological transcendence believe that there are forms of mysticism through which God can, nevertheless, be experienced. The experience is ineffable, but there are expressions that come from it that in some way point to the mystery. Others believe that the utterly mysterious God is revealed in particular events. For Christians, these are events recorded in the Bible and especially the event of Jesus Christ.

There are some who emphasize the divine mystery without allowing for either mysticism or revelation as a bridge between creatures and God. This is the most extreme form of epistemological transcendence. David Hume pointed out that one can hardly distinguish this form of belief from atheism, since nothing intelligible is actually affirmed in asserting belief in such a God.

With respect to epistemological transcendence, process theology is strongly on the immanentalist side. Whitehead taught that God is not an exception to the metaphysical categories.  God is an actual entity as are all the creatures; so that God exemplifies all the features that pertain to actual entities as such. When we say that God loves us, we mean that there is a real similarity between God’s relation to us and the most ideal aspects of a mother’s relation to her daughter.

Of course, God is very different from the creatures. All the other actual entities are actual occasions, that is, have finite
spatiotemporal locations. God does not. In important ways, God remains very mysterious. God’s everlastingness and relatedness to all things boggle the mind, and we are far from having a fully coherent doctrine of God’s being and activity. But the mind is boggled by what we are learning of subatomic entities and of cosmic origins and by the relation of brains and personal experience as well.  t seems that the more we know the more mysterious our world becomes. But this is not the kind of radical, impenetrable mystery that accompanies views of epistemological transcendence.

The denial of radical epistemological transcendence has implications for ontological transcendence as well. Usually the
affirmation of epistemological transcendence is connected with the idea that God’s being and nature are of a wholly different order than that of creatures. I have already indicated that process thought is at an opposite pole in this respect. It seeks metaphysical categories that are applicable to both God and the actual occasions that constitute empty space, as well as all our human experiences.

But sometimes the meaning of immanent is more spatial than qualitative. Is God to be found inside nature or inside human experience in contrast to outside? If one supposes that the world is made up of substantial things each of which occupies a distinct space, then that question has a quite straightforward meaning. The idea that God is immanent then means that God is an element in the constitution of some or all of these substantial things. For example, God may be identified with the true self of every person, so that by going beneath the superficial flow of experience one may find God.

It is hard to see how pure immanence can be affirmed even in this case. If God is the true self of every person, then God as a whole seems vastly to transcend each individual person even if God is to be found within each. The alternative would be a vast plurality of gods, one in each person, that would make the use of the word “God” extremely problematic. In fact this doctrine as historically developed in India leads to the identification of the true self, Atman, with the ground of all being, Brahman, and Brahman is in many ways transcendent. Nevertheless, the movement toward God, when understood in this way, may be purely immanent.

When transcendence is affirmed in this spatial sense, God becomes very remote. If God is not present in the creatures, and the creatures jointly occupy all space, then God is outside of space. What we call “deism” often pictured God in this way as outside the universe acting on it from without or simply leaving it alone. It has become extremely difficult to fit such a vision with the picture of the universe emerging from ongoing developments in science. Nevertheless, much Christian language suggests that God acts on creatures from outside them. Sometimes this is the meaning of “transcendence”. In this sense, process thought rejects “transcendence.”

What it means to be immanent or transcendent changes when one thinks, with process thought, of the world as made up of events or occasions of experience. These are largely constituted by their relations to past events or occasions of experience.  These relations are internal rather than external in the sense that the relations participate in constituting the occasions of experience. But these relations are to occasions that are external, that is, to occasions that have their own, different, spatiotemporal standpoint. Whitehead’s most original contribution, the idea of “prehension”, explains how what is external becomes internal, how that which is spatiotemporally transcendent becomes immanent.

Do we then seek God within or without? The answer is both/and and neither/nor because the language of external and internal comes from a metaphysics that process thought rejects. God is a truly constitutive part of our experience moment by moment.  But the God who is constitutive of our experience is a present in this way throughout the universe,
drastically transcending us.

Process theologians see this relationship as the one that the church tried to express in its idea of incarnation and in the way the Holy Spirit works within us. The God who was incarnate in Jesus radically transcended the finite Jesus but was truly constitutive of Jesus’ being. The Holy Spirit that indwells believers is radically transcendent of believers but is truly immanent with them. In the process vision, there is nothing especially mysterious about this. Everything that is immanent is transcendent, and everything that is transcendent is immanent. Immanence and transcendence are mutually implicatory. 

Nevertheless, in relation to the teaching of divine transcendence in many churches, there is no question but that the emphasis of process theology is that the transcendent God is immanent in every creature and especially in human experience. We think that both the Gospels and the Pauline letters support this way of thinking. Jesus address God as Abba, in a way that does not suggest divine remoteness or utter mystery. When Paul says that Christ is in us and we are in Christ, Christ cannot be only a transcendent being.

We may seek God in our own quiet immediate experience. We may seek God in the stories of the Bible and especially in Jesus.  We may seek God in the ongoing life of the church.  We may seek God in cosmic evolution. We may even try to imagine what it is like to be God.  However we approach God, it is the same God, both immanent and transcendent, whom we approach.