"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.