Immanence Vs. Trancendence: Reflections from a Mormon Feminist
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?