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Immanence Vs. Trancendence: Reflections from a Mormon Feminist

By Caroline (painting by Michael O’Brien)

Have you ever heard of the debate about immanence vs. transcendence? This is a topic I’m reading about this week in my Introduction to Women’s Studies in Religion class. Fascinating stuff.

In a nutshell, there are these two somewhat contrasting ideas about God. One that God is transcendent – that is, a Divine Other, apart from us, separate, different. The other is that God is immanent – that is, all around us, inside of us, in every living and non living thing.

Several scholars have argued that women favor thinking of God in immanent ways, and men tend to favor thinking of God in transcendent ways. Buddhist scholar Rita Gross posits that this may be because Western theologies tend to emphasize the transcendent and patriarchal, and women are reacting against that.*

Whatever the reason, this made me take a stand back and ask how I like to think of God. And I must say, just as the scholars point to, that I as a woman am very compelled by the idea of God’s immanence. God’s divinity in me and you and every person and thing in the world. This is rather thrilling to me. It’s so, well, democratic. So egalitarian. It reduces the distance between me and God. It makes everything and everyone holy, and I think that’s lovely. 

In my experience as a Mormon, God’s immanence doesn’t get stressed as much as God’s transcendence. I think that we tend to think and talk about God as a transcendent, embodied, Divine Other type of being. However, perhaps one way we Mormons do connect to the idea of God’s immanence is in our ideas about The Spirit, that divine entity which can reside in everyone and everything. We also have the idea of the light of Christ, that spark of divinity that lives inside all creation and that gives humans their consciences.

Buddhist scholar Rita Gross discusses how these concepts of transcendence and immanence can be applied to the way we relate to the world. Do we long to escape it, to soar above our mundane tasks of cooking, cleaning and working, to change our existence, to find the Truth and Reality that is apart from this humdrum life we lead? If so, she’d say that’s a transcendent way to approach life. Or do you find peace in the daily tasks of life? Do you find them holy? Do you feel that what you have and what you are is sufficient and ‘throbbing with fullness’? Do you wish to change nothing? If so, you approach life in an immanent way. (Personally, I’d say I definitely lean towards the transcendent approach to life.)

In Buddhism, Rita Gross sees the two concepts working together as people journey towards enlightenment. One must first have that dissatisfaction, that longing to transcend conditions in life in order to embark on that journey that brings humans home to equanimity and peace with the present.** This concept of the journey towards spiritual maturity, a journey which encompasses questions and dissatisfaction but which ends with peace, is appealing to me. It’s one I hope to make. 

How do you conceptualize God? Do you focus on God’s transcendence or God’s immanence? Which is more inspiring to you and why?

Do you approach life in immanent or transcendent ways? What value do you see in relating to the world in these two various ways?

* Rita Gross. Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary and Religious Issues. 
** Sounds a bit like Fowler’s ‘stages of faith,’ doesn’t it?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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  1. Isaac says:

    Great thoughts!

    I think God’s transcendence is especially emphasized in Mormonism not because (or just because?) of the patriarchy, but also because of the focus on the individual, both of the individual adherent and the individual of God. God is a physical being, with a body, separate and unique. I agree with you that I think The Spirit is connected to immanence, but even then, The Spirit is an individual and distinct personage, merely one without a corporeal body. And those who are worthy can attain their own divine station, which can make God seem more a facilitator or benefactor than divinity infused in everything.

    I also think that Rita’s distinction in daily life is a little unfair and arbitrary. If you were to assume that the dichotomy is appropriate, I think the immanent approach is more like: can you appreciate the necessity of the tasks of life, both tedious and enjoyable? Perhaps I am just using different words, but I think I dislike the “do you wish to change nothing” bit, because I think that you can be surrounded with the fullness and wonder of daily life, here and now, but still find ways to make it better.

  2. Douglas Hunter says:

    Caroline, What a fun post. I agree with your summary. I think that Mormon theology has elements of both the transcendent and the immanent. In my own thought I tend to favor the immanent, specifically through the point of entry of the face of the other (playing on Levinas). On a simple level the immanent surrounds those who believe that humanity is made in God’s image. It is found in the face, or even just the presence of the other. There is no human interaction in which we cannot recognize the trace of the divine.

    You mentioned the spirit, and I think that is also important. When we seek guidance for the performance of priesthood duties, such as blessings, we are seeking a closeness with divinity that I think has more resonance with an immanent concept than it does with a transcendent concept of the divine.

  3. Variable says:

    God: Transcendent
    God’s influence: Immanent

  4. Caroline says:

    Hi Isaac,
    Yes, I can see why you’d think Rita Gross’s distinctions in every day life are a bit arbitrary. I wasn’t too comfortable with that phrase “wish to change nothing” but it was a direct quote from her article. (What human ever alive has absolutely nothing they’d like to change? And how could that be a good thing?)

    Douglas, nice point about finding God in the face of the other. I had never thought of it like that. Neat.

    Variable, sounds like you’re a transcendence person.

  5. Variable says:

    It’s quite simple. Physically, God has a body of flesh and bone. God is confined to stand in only one place at a time, though God’s influence is felt throughout and is not bound by physical presence. Caution: cheesy mission analogy!! Much like the sun, whose warmth is felt in multiple places, though is in only one place at a time.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    Oh, I am so excited to live vicariously through your grad work, Caroline!

    I think that when things are going well, I’m an immanence sort of person. I see the Divine in the mundane (albeit far less likely than I’d like).

    But, when a crisis comes about, I search desperately for a transcendent God because I want someone to help me (or family/friends) get out of that horrible predicament. So, I look for God to talk to me. People will say something to me or do something for me, and I’ll get a little teary as I think, “Oh, God sent you to do that.”

  7. AnaCA says:

    That’s a dichotomy that applies really well to the idea of God as parent … which is oh-so-Mormon, isn’t it? The parents we know on earth are bigger, older, other. Powerful and patriarchal in general. But they are also part of us in undeniable, inescapable ways. As we grow we hear their words coming out of our mouths and catch glimpses of them when we look in the mirror.

    So it is also, I think, with our heavenly parents. They might seem hard to find or relate to, particularly our Mother, but we’re their children. They’re us as we could be in the future. They’re represented in the best parts of each one of us.

  8. Kiri Close says:

    I have sensed him as both.

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