"The St. Francis Option:
Transcendent or Immanent?"
by Bret Thoman, OFS
On the one hand, I came into contact with people whose overriding concern in the faith was on liturgy and worship, church teachings and doctrine, morality and sin, truth and redemption. I noticed that they tend to be highly reverent during prayer, and they value traditional liturgical rites with incense and Latin. They frequently look to authority to resolve disputes and settle disagreements within the Church and are often irritated by those who flout Church teachings, particularly regarding certain aspects of morality. Their emphasis is on striving to live a just and virtuous life in this temporary world in preparation for eternal life.
On the other hand, I met groups and individuals who focused their time, resources and energy on issues concerning primarily the poor and needy, peace and justice, ecology and the environment. They are concerned mostly with serving and improving the living conditions of those who are marginalized from society either through economic factors, social stigmas, or other injustices. In issues of faith and morals, they rely primarily on the individual conscience to guide them and determine what is right or wrong, while their liturgies are often casual and oriented towards the community and encouraging lay participation. Their overarching concern is social justice and making our world a better, more Christian, place.
Initially, I understood the groups as either conservative or liberal. But I soon realized that those labels were inadequate, as they were political and did not reflect the religious component driving the two sides’ beliefs and actions. In time, I realized that the two, apparently contradictory, ways of living our faith arise from a particular understanding of Christology, and that two other words better described them: “transcendent” or “immanent.”
Transcendence focuses on “being” and the “otherness” of God -- that God exists outside of the world, before creation and beyond humanity, and surpasses the physical world and is independent of it. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and mysterious. In this, God “transcends” the material world, indeed the entire universe and is, therefore, beyond the grasp of the human mind.
In terms of spirituality, those with a more transcendent understanding of God tend to focus on venerating the God who is “above”; thus, there is a focus on liturgy, correct belief and, consequentially, submission to authorities whose duty it is to teach correct doctrine to and reprimand the faithful. Underlying all of this is a focus on morality and correct behavior; i.e. avoiding sin and living a virtuous life. Thus, it follows that Christologically, the Incarnation of Jesus is seen primarily as atonement for sinful humanity -- his death and resurrection served to expiate our sins.
Scripture confirms the transcendent nature of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:1-3). Here we see how Christ existed before the world, and is, thus, outside of the world; He reveals himself as the Second Person of the Trinity who is holy, mysterious, incomprehensible, all-powerful, omnipotent, and providential.
The immanent nature of Christ reveals itself most fully in the Incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:4). Christ, the Son of God, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is made man. The mysterious Word, the unsurpassable Second Person, the Son of the Father, becomes man and touches, redeems the world, and comes to be with us.
Thus, those whose spirituality is predominantly immanent tend to have a strong concern for the world down here. They have a deep and abiding desire to help the poor and marginalized; they value our world and are concerned for the environment; they focus on being together, community and fellowship; they believe strongly in individual conscience. For them God is not just an all-powerful “being” up in Heaven somewhere; he is with us here where we are. Fundamentally, God is love, for the Kingdom of Heaven is within.
I would posit that the Franciscan Option shows us that they are both correct. One group is not wrong nor right; nor more wrong, nor more right. Instead, they both reflect the nature of God.
As Christians (and Franciscans), we accept, by faith, that God is almighty, holy, and cannot be approached or seen. The God in which we believe existed before the creation of the world and is distinct and fully independent of the material world.
Yet, that same God -- the Word, Second Person of the Holy Trinity who existed before all creation and through which all creation was created -- reached down, stooped down, and touched our world by becoming man. He became immanent (incarnate) as the God-man, Jesus the Christ. And even today, Christ still remains intimately connected with our world primarily through Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He is always present “when two or more are gathered”, in the reading of Scripture, in the movement of the Holy Spirit -- in effect, in the Church.
So I would say that transcendence and immanence are really one and the same: Christ is both transcendent and immanent. In fact, the fullness of God meets in Christ who is both divine and man. It is (mysteriously and paradoxically) Christ Himself -- as both fully divine and fully human -- who is the bridge between the infinite and transcendent Deity and the finite and worldly immanent man, between Transcendence and Immanence. “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss” (Psalm 85:10).
Let’s look at Francis to see how he responded to this mysterious, yet human God-man. In my last article, I showed how how Francis alternated between the mountains and the valleys. He went up to the mountains to be with God in prayer and fasting. This is transcendent. Yet, he knew he could not stay there and he wanted to imitate Christ by going “down” and becoming a servant to the poorest of the poor: the lepers. This is immanence.
St. Bonaventure confirmed this, saying: “St. Francis never failed to keep himself occupied doing good; like the angels Jacob saw on the ladder, he was always busy, either raising his heart to God in prayer, or descending to his neighbor.”
Thus, the Franciscan Option is not transcendent or immanent; it is both. In this, the Franciscan Option is fully orthodox -- a total embrace of the fullness of the faith: the transcendent and immanent God.
So if you lean toward a more transcendent Christology and are irked by those “other” Catholics who, in their crusade to right the wrongs in this world, seem to have forgotten about the eternal world to come, remember St. Francis kneeling before the leper.
Or, on the other hand, if you think of traditionalists as too concerned with "form" and xyz makes them modern-day Pharisees, remember St. Francis kneeling before Pope Innocent III in 1209 seeking approval to live his new way of life, or the countless hours he spent in prayer up in the hermitages.
(And for both of you, remember that both transcendence and immanence equally reflect the true nature of God.)
Read the following questions and choose which statement, A or B, you agree with more. If you agree with both, choose the statement you agree with more.
a. Being Catholic means being obedient to papal teachings, the bishops and the magisterium.
b. Catholic means "universal," therefore being Catholic means being part of the universal church, the communion of saints -- both living and deceased, a truly “catholic” body of believers.
a. If my parish had a surplus of money and the building were in need of repairs, I would prefer it be spent on fixing up and decorating the church because the church is primarily a place of prayer.
b. If my parish had a surplus of money and even though the building were in need of repairs, I would prefer to see the money be used to help the poor, because church means primarily helping the disadvantaged.
a. I wish the bishops would speak out more against the main moral issues of the day like abortion, indissolubility of marriage, and against contraception.
b. I wish the bishops would speak out more against the contemporary issues facing us; i.e. opposing the death penalty, poverty, and racism.
a. Latin should be used more during Mass and liturgy because it is a universal language, it has its roots in the early Church, and its words always means the same thing.
b. Latin should not be used during Mass and liturgy because very few people understand it, and it is important to pray in the language one understands.
a. If I were deep in prayer, and someone came to me in need of something, it would be more important to finish praying, because without prayer, I could offer nothing spiritually to anyone.
b. If I were deep in prayer, and someone came to me in need of something, it would be more important to me to stop praying and see to the needs of that person, because the needs of others should take precedence over rote prayer.
a. The bishops and pope should pray more in order to understand the issues facing the church and world today.
b. The bishops and pope should consult the laity more in order to understand the issues facing the church and world today.
a. I agree with the traditional Latin phrase, “lex orandi lex credendi” (“the law of praying [is] the law of believing”); this is an old Christian motto meaning that proper prayer leads to proper belief; in other words, good liturgy leads to good theology.
b. Ritualistic prayers and rites are not so important; any prayer is fine as long as it leads to a good relationship with Jesus.
a. The Bible, papal teachings, and church councils were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are, thus, infallible and inerrant.
b. The Bible, creeds, and church councils were written a long time ago and, while containing certain truths, should be understood in light of the cultural and historical context in which they were written.
a. The Second Vatican Council should be understood as a continuum of previous councils.
b. The Second Vatican Council was a turning point in the history of the Church and introduced new theological teachings.
a. Mass is important primarily because it is there where I receive Jesus in the Eucharist.
b. Mass is important primarily because it is there where I take part in the community of faithful gathering together in worship.
a. Eucharist refers to the celebration of the Mass in which the bread and wine at consecration are transubstantiated (changed in substance) into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Lord and God.
b. Eucharist refers to an assembly of God's people who come together, under the leadership of a priest, to praise God, to hear God's Word and to "break bread" with the firm belief that the Lord Jesus is present among his people.
a. Eucharist is a sign of unity, and therefore only Catholics without unconfessed mortal sin should be permitted to receive communion.
b. Eucharist is food for the journey, medicine for the sick, and source of unity between Christians; therefore all Christians should always be invited to receive communion at Mass.
a. I see Jesus as the King of kings.
b. I see Jesus in the face of the poor.
a. I see God as lawgiver, father, judge, creator, and redeemer.
b. I see God as a friend, healer, liberator, even spouse.
a. The saints are important because they intercede for us and help us reach heaven.
b. The saints are important because they act as models of holiness and show us how to live our lives.
a. The Church’s main mission should be to teach people to lead a virtuous and moral life.
b. The Church’s main mission should be to serve the poor and marginalized.
a. The reason Jesus came was to redeem us from our sins and gain for us eternal life in heaven.
b. The reason Jesus came was to heal, cleanse, reconcile, and invite us to deeper involvement in proclaiming God's Kingdom, calling us to be his body in the world.
a. The best evangelization is in teaching others the truths of the faith.
b. The best evangelization is in witnessing through holy lives.
a. I feel closest to God in Eucharistic Adoration or at Mass.
b. I feel closest to God while serving the poor or in community with other believers.
a. God is truth.
b. God is love.
Now, add up the number of times you chose A and B:
A: 18-20: Fully Transcendent
A: 14-17: Moderately Transcendent
A: 11-13: Lean Transcendent
A/B: 10: You are a completely balanced, fully orthodox, Catholic!
B: 11-13: Lean Immanent
B: 14-17: Moderately Immanent
B: 18-20: Fully Immanent