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Transcendence and Immanence


TRANSCENDENCE AND IMMANENCE . According to Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, unabridged, to transcend is to "ascend beyond, excel." The term is used of the "relation of God to the universe of physical things and finite spirits, as being in essential nature, prior to it, exalted above it, and having real being apart from it." Immanence, defined as "presence in the world in pantheism is thought of as uniform, God equally present in the personal and the impersonal, in the evil and the good. According to theism, immanence occurs in various degrees, more in the personal than the impersonal, in the good than in the evil."

It is clear that transcendence is a value term expressing the unique excellence of God, because of which worshiputmost devotion or loveis the appropriate attitude toward the being so described. It is less obvious that immanence is a value term, but ubiquity, "being everywhere," comes closer to expressing a unique property. If God is everywhere in the world and also in some sense beyond the world, then God certainly surpasses all ordinary objects of respect or love.

"Prior to the universe" seems to suggest a time when God was alone, with no cosmos of creatures to relate tofirst a creator not actually creating, then one creating. But it also might mean that there was a different universe before our own. Origen thought God had created an infinity of universes in succession and never lacked relation to some actual creatures. We see a partial return to that position in Alfred North Whitehead's hypothesis of "cosmic epochs," each with its own natural laws. Whitehead held that having a universe, some universe or other, is, in principle, inherent in God's nature and not subject to divine choice. What may be subject to such choice are the particular laws that will govern a cosmic epoch about to arise. God's "real being apart from the universe" means, in such a view, a vantage apart from our current universe, not apart from all universes. Not every theologian agrees with those who think to compliment God by affirming divine freedom to have simply no creatures. The objection to this once-popular view is that since any creatures are better than none (that being as such is primarily good and only secondarily bad is a classical doctrine), God would be making the worst possible choice by not creating at all. Freedom to do this seems nonsensical when affirmed of God.

In what sense is God in the universe? The suggestion in Webster's, attributed to "idealists," is that the divine presence is "like that of a conscious self in the world of that self." Or, attributed to "realists," it is like "that of a self in its organism and its behavior." The latter suggestion makes Plato a realist, for it was he who in the West first thought of God as the World Soul, whose body is the entire cosmos of nondivine things and persons. This proposal (in the Timaeus ) was, however, seldom followed until recent times, and was rejected by Whitehead. In this I take Whitehead to have been mistaken. The relation of mind to body in human (and other) animals is the relation of mind to physical reality, to "matter," that we most directly and surely know. If our thoughts do not influence our behavior, then we know nothing of any influence of mind or spirit on the physical world. David Hume pointed this out in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion through the character Cleanthes.

Realistic Idealism

The idealist view referred to above is less obviously intelligible. Does our mere contemplation of the world make us immanent in that world? When we remember past experiences, does that put our present consciousness back into those experiences? If I think of someone in Hong Kong, does that put me in Hong Kong? The form of idealism referred to by Webster's definition is no longer widely held. It is the data of an awareness that are in the awareness, not vice versa. If this realistic principleaccepted by the theistic metaphysicians Charles S. Peirce and Whitehead, who in some respects are properly called idealistsis sound, then it is the creatures' awareness of God, not God's awareness of them, that constitutes the divine presence in the universe. And if God is universally present, then the creatures universally are, however inadequately, aware of God, who is the universal object as well as the universal subject. This implies, as Peirce and Whitehead held, as did Henri Bergson and some other recent theists, that every creature has some form of awareness, even if it be nothing more than some mode of feeling. For those of this persuasion, dualism and materialism are both inconsistent with a well-thought-out theism.

Unfortunately, the term idealism is still often applied to the now antiquated doctrine presupposed by the editors of Webster's. Few changes of opinion are more definite or important than the shift, in this century, in the way the relations of mind or experience to its data are conceived. Indeed, the alternative to idealism is no longer realism but the choice between dualism and materialism. A "realistic idealism" makes perfectly good sense. And Plato was both realist and idealist, except insofar as, like all ancient Greeks, he was unable to escape dualism and materialism entirely. No one in the West knew how to conceive mind, or awareness, as a universal property of creatures until Leibniz, the true founder of realistic idealism, made his distinction between dynamic singulars and aggregates or groups of singulars. (The singulars he called monads, but this term tends to connote some further doctrines peculiar to Leibniz that are no longer accepted, even by those strongly influenced by Leibniz, so far as the problem of mind and matter is concerned.) In Asia, where Leibniz has not as yet had much influence, there seems to be no comparably well-articulated doctrine of realistic idealism that can be called theistic.

The distinction between dynamic singularsall of which are sentientand their groups or aggregates depends, for Leibniz, on the primitive form of the atomic theory then entertained by physicists and also upon the discovery by Leeuwenhoek of the realm of microscopic animals. With a stroke of genius, Leibniz generalized this and held that larger animals consist of smaller animals (in a generalized sense), thus anticipating the cell theory established much later. Leibniz may well have realized the philosophical meaning of Leeuwenhoek's discoveries better than some philosophers do now. He made a realistic idealism at last possible and thereby freed theism from one of its greatest difficulties, enabling it to give a positive explanation of the divine ubiquity.

God's Dually Transcendent Love

Whitehead's theory of prehension (or "feeling of feeling"), applied to God and all creatures, makes God the universally prehending and universally prehended subject, feeling all and felt by all. Hence God is in all and all is in God. Since creaturely prehensions are those of subjects in principle inferior to God, they feel God inadequately, whereas God, in principle superior to all, feels the creatures and their mostly unintellectual feelings with ideal adequacy. Although each creature contains God and God contains each creature, the divine containing is unqualified, but the creaturely containing is more or less drastically qualified. Thus, for theism, God is present "in various degrees" in the parts of the universe, but the creatures are wholly present to God. As Berdiaev urges, the most pertinent question is not "Is God in the world?" but rather "Is the world in God?" The Pauline saying, that in God "we live and move and have our being," can be taken literally without necessarily implying pantheism.

To say that God feels the feelings of all creatures is to contradict the doctrine of classical theism that God is impassible, wholly unaffected by others. Anselm said that God was not compassionate, although the effects of the divine being were as if God were compassionate. What this amounts to, for some of us, is that the New Testament saying "God is love" is untrue, yet the effects of God's nature upon us are what they would be if God loved us. We here confront a deep divergence between that theism pervasive in Scholasticism (with Bonaventure producing the most thoroughgoing attempt to interpret divine love), and found also in medieval Islamic and Jewish writings, and the theism that I call neoclassical, which has been set forth by some recent philosophers and theologians (e.g., Nikolai Berdiaev, Alfred North Whitehead, Rudolf Otto, Otto Pfleiderer, John Oman, Alfred Ernest Garvie, and Edgar S. Brightman). Whitehead's assertion that "to attribute mere happiness to God is a profanation" hints at this rejection of Anselm's doctrine, and his further statement that "God is the fellow sufferer who understands" makes the contrast quite clear. Berdiaev is no less plain on this point.

The denial that love, however generalized, can characterize deity is implied by Plato, who, in his Symposium, interprets love as the longing for absolute beauty and hence a confession of imperfection. The nearest Plato comes to attributing love to God is to say that there is no envy in the divine nature, and hence God is willing to have creatures sharing existence with him. Plato does definitely attribute to God knowledge of the creatures, whereas Aristotle denies this. All his deity thinks is the generic nature of thinking itself, totally free from the contingency and particularity that go with individuals in the world.

In India, the Advaita Vedāntins, often regarded as the orthodox Hindus, thought of the highest and only genuine reality as beyond anything that could be called love. The latter is a social relation, presupposing a plurality of subjects in space and time, whereas brahman is without temporal or spatial plurality. In India, however, there are also various proponents of pluralism. Ramanuja and Madhva are the most obvious examples, but there are others whose views show striking analogies to the Western "process" view, the greatest single representative of which is Whitehead. To appreciate adequately the strength of the worldwide effort to find something greater and better, or more real, than love at its best, we need to relate the issue to the problem of anthropomorphism. We human animals are social, and it has with some justice been said that an absolutely nonsocial animal does not exist. God, however, is in principle superior to any animal. God is uniquely excellent, without possible rival or equal.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to have it both ways. In some sense, the Son and Holy Spirit are equal to God the Father; in some sense God is supreme. The three divine persons could love each other, even were there no creatures. This doctrine is too paradoxical to be defended apart from revelation. Apart from some such doctrine, either God does not love anyone or the being in principle superior to all conceivable others loves these lesser beings. Even with the trinitarian doctrine, the question remains relevant: must not God, conceived by analogy to what we know of ordinary beings (and how else can we conceive anything?), cherish the creatures? If we can sympathize with children and other kinds of animals, must God view them and us with mere indifference? If so, was not Aristotle right in saying that God does not know particular, contingent individuals because they are "not worth knowing"?

Extremist and Middle-Ground Strategies

History shows two ways of approaching philosophical disagreement. One way, in practice taken by some of the wisest philosophers, is to suspect extreme views and look for a "middle way" between opposite extremes. Some of the ancient Buddhists did this explicitly. With regard to transcendence and immanence, one extreme is gross anthropomorphism, taking God to be, as Matthew Arnold put it, "a magnified, nonnatural man." The opposite extreme is to say, as Karl Barth once did (he later partly rescinded the statement), that God is "wholly other" than ourselves. The middle way is to look for a difference in principle between God and all else and yet also, consistent with this, a resemblance in principle between God and all other beings. Many philosophers and theologians have more or less consciously proceeded in this fashion, and two of these, Plato and Whitehead, have been especially successful (at least according to some scholars strongly influenced by Whitehead). However, conditions in the ancient world were unfavorable to this side of Plato; and for many centuries a quite different way was taken in the West (beginning with Aristotle and the theologian Philo Judaeus).

In India, also, it was not a middle way that was the mainstream of thought. Instead, an extremist strategy was followed, though with some inconsistency. It was taken for granted that truth is an extreme with error its opposite. The maxim, without ever being so stated, perhaps, was "Let us find the view that is most hopelessly wrong and affirm the opposite." That the God of all the worlds is like a localized and mortal animal, dependent for its very existence on an environment, is clearly wrong, the absurd error of anthropomorphism. So, let us deny of God, or the supreme reality, all traits that animals and still lesser beings have in common, and, by achieving the opposite of anthropomorphism in characterizing God, we will come as close to the truth as is in our power. All animals and lesser beings are finite, changeable, subject to influence by others, complex, and have feelings as well as thoughts (if they have the latter). Let us say, therefore, that God is infinite, unchangeable in every way, wholly impassible, immune to influence by others, wholly simple, incapable of feeling, but with purely intellectual knowledge (whatever that may be). It was David Hume who first indicated the possible fallacy in all this. What is to guarantee that, when we have denied all that constitutes reality as we experience it, anything is left to distinguish God from mere nonentity? The famous negative way, the via negativa, must, after all, be supplemented by something positive, or we may end up worshiping a mere nothing or a mere verbal formula.

As a matter of fact, the premise of the negative wayits characterization of beings in the worldis seriously inaccurate. What is common to ordinary individuals is only inadequately or ambiguously described as finite, changeable, subject to influence by others, and complex. Furthermore, the distinction between awareness as feeling and awareness as pure thought or knowledge is problematic. What thought or knowledge would be without feeling is not something that our experience makes transparently obvious. Finally, we animals are not simply finite; each of us is a mere fragment of the finite. The entire cosmos may be spatially finite; and even a beginningless past would be in a sense finite compared to the infinity of all that is conceivable. It is very well arguable that no knowledge of finite things could, without contradiction, be considered absolutely infinite. Hence an all-knowing God must be in some sense or respect finite.

Similarly, knowledge of the contingent must be contingent. What we are and what God cannot be is fragmentary. The divine finitude must encompass at least the world's finitude and also its infinity in whatever sense the world is infinite. Yes, we are affected by others, but it is just as true that we affect others. We are cause and effect; the question is, does it even make sense to view God as the cause of all and the effect of nothing? As Aristotle said, knowledge of contingent things is conditioned by the reality of the things known. The all-knowing cannot be simply and in every sense uncaused, unconditioned.

The alternative to the negative way is the doctrine of dual transcendence, according to which God in principle excels over others both in the sense that the divine nature is uniquely absolute and infinite and in the sense that it is uniquely relative and finite. If we could not be absolute (independent) or infinite in the divine sense, neither could we be relative or finite in the divine sense. Nor need it be contradictory to attribute both of these contrasting properties to God. Contradiction occurs only if a subject is said to have a property and a contrary property in the same respect; otherwise contradiction does not obtain. And if it be said that since God is simple, God cannot contain a duality, the reply is ready: the divine simplicity is itself only one side of the duality of transcendence. In Whitehead's view, God's "primordial nature" is simple (I would say even simpler than Whitehead makes it) but God's "consequent nature" is the most complex reality there is. The complex can include the simple.

It was said above that "changeable" is an inadequate or ambiguous characterization of things other than God. There are changes for the better, for the worse, and neutral changes. Animals are open to good changesgrowth, enrichment of experiencebut also to bad onesdecay, impoverishment. To demand that God be, in every respect, immutable is to imply that there is no form of the capacity to change without which a being would be defective, or even a mere abstraction, not a concrete, actual being. The divine excellence requires immunity to negative change, to loss or degeneration; but does it require an incapacity for any and every kind of good change, every kind of increase in value? Plato (not the scriptures) proposed the argument "God must be perfect, hence any change would have to be either for the worse or without value, meaningless." This argument presupposes for its force that we have a positive idea of a maximum of value such that no additional value would be possible. Plato's phrase for such an unincreasable, unsurpassable value was "absolute beauty." What this is neither Plato nor anyone else has told us. An analysis of aesthetic principles strongly suggests that given any conceivable beauty there could be a greater beauty. If this be so, Plato's argument proves nothing.

Another ambiguity or problematic concept in the negative way was the idea that dependence was necessarily a defect distinguishing ordinary things from God. This excludes knowledge from God, if indeed Aristotle, or anyone else, can tell us what "to know" means. In addition there are two kinds of dependence, only one of which is obviously a weakness, this being dependence for very existence and essential properties. Denying this radical dependence of God for very existence leaves quite open the possibility of a dependence for qualities not necessary to the divine existence. If there is any genuine freedom in the creatures, they will do things they might not have done. God will know what they have done, but (as the Socinians saw long ago) this knowledge cannot be essential to God's very existence. Rather, had a creature done something other than what it did, God would have had correspondingly different knowledge other than the knowledge he does have. If the word knowledge is given an honest meaning, one can consistently assert the compatibility of creaturely freedom with divine knowledge only if one admits divine knowledge without which God could and wouldhad the world been otherwisehave existed as God, incapable of error and ignorance. Total independence of others entails not knowing these others. Plato did not know us and was independent of us; we know Plato and therefore are not wholly independent of Plato.

Step by step, the reasoning of simple or nondual transcendence has been examined by this and other writers. It seems lacking in cogency. To understand the steady loss of support by philosophers (beginning with Hume and Kant) for classical theism (which denies dual transcendence), this lack of cogency is important. Belief in the divine uniqueness can survive the admission that it is not change but certain kinds of change, not dependence but certain kinds of dependence, that are excluded by the divine excellence. That the issue is worldwide and intercultural is remarkably well illustrated by the following coincidences.

In a yearI think the very month or weekin which I was thinking and writing about how God in some senses is changing, yet also in other senses unchanging, a man from India delivered a sermon in the chapel of the University of Chicago, with which I was connected for twenty-seven years. He was Radhakamal Mukerji, a leading sociologist of India, but also a writer on mysticism. He said in his sermon that God is unchanging in "ethical" goodness but increases in "aesthetic" value, which I took to mean in the richness or beauty of the divine experience of the world as new creatures come into being. This distinction between ethical value as capable of an absolute maximum and aesthetic value as an open infinity with no upper maximum was exactly the conclusion I had come to before hearing or knowing Mukerji. Also before this, I had had a somewhat similar intercultural experience, which was confirmed again long after Mukerji's visit. It involved two monks of the modern Bengali sect of Hinduism whose views harmonized with the idea of a deity both unchanging and yet in some respects changing. One of these monks, Ma-kanam Brata Brahmachari, who did his doctoral dissertation under me, quoted a representative of his sect who wrote of God: "Lo, the cup is eternally full, yet it grows without ceasing." When this man began talking to me about "love" as a theological term I asked him what he meant by the word. "I mean," he said, "the consciousness of consciousness, the thinking of thinking, the of." I am not sure, but he may have said, "the feeling of feeling." If he did, the analogy with Whitehead was close. In his dissertation he writes: "God is more than the absolute." Of course, for a mere negative like nonrelative by itself constitutes no sufficient account of any actuality. Plato is not relative to us, but that is Plato's total ignorance of us; we constitute nothing of Plato's being, whereas, by his knowledge of and hence relativity to them, Parmenides and many others whom he did know contributed much to his wonderfully comprehensive awareness.

The Reality of Divine Love

Finally, I want to focus on the proposition "God is love." Mortimer Adler has recently explained why, although he is convinced that an intelligent divine being exists as creator of all, he does not think it can be demonstrated that this being is benevolent or loving. One may, however, question the distinction drawn here between divine intelligence and divine love. If God is to know us, God must know our feelings. How can feelings be known except by feelings? Can mere intellect (whatever that isperhaps a computer) know feelings while having none of its own? And if God has feelings, what kind of feelings? Envy, malice, conceit, hatred, inferiority complexes? What have these to do with all-encompassing intelligence? For me, this is a wholly absurd combination of ideas. By embracing in knowledge all the qualities of reality, God possesses all that anyone possesses by way of value, so what could envy mean? Hatred would be baseless, since by willing the suffering of creatures God would be willing divine sharing in these sufferings. Whitehead's wonderfully simple formula of "feeling of feeling" as a basic element in knowledge excludes any ground for Adler's dilemma. To know others without intuiting their feelings is scarcely knowledge at all, and such an ability would hardly seem likely as an essential quality of an indestructible cosmic subject upon which all others radically depend. Simple atheism would be more reasonable than affirming such a God, so far as I can see. To give intelligence cosmic and everlasting scope, but to deny such scope to love, seems a discordant mixture of notions. Or is Advaita Vedānta and the doctrine of māyā the alternative to love? We think we exist as individuals, but really only brahman exists, spaceless and timeless. We are appearances of brahman, although brahman is unaware of us. Or does brahman constitute us by dreaming us? I have a different theory of dreams, and so had Bergson. Perhaps we can leave the doctrine of māyā to the Indians, who are by no means in agreement on the subject.

It is fair to add that there is no agreement in the West on the reality of divine love. Can a fragment of reality comprehend the encompassing? I feel entirely confident that if love cannot encompass all, including creaturely hatred as a degenerate case of love (the total lack of which is mere indifference), then nothing positively conceivable by such as we are can do so either.

If no form of theism escapes difficulties, puzzles it cannot solve, questions to which it finds no convincing answer, this is perhaps to be expected. A god easily understood is not God but a fetish, an idol. Dual transcendence removes some of the traditional paradoxes, especially if we include a clear doctrine of freedom as well as of more or less humble forms of sentience and feeling for all dynamic singulars in nature. Peirce had already done this before Whitehead took creativity as the ultimate category, applicable in the uniquely, divinely excellent form to God and in humbler forms to all creatures. But still there are puzzles. Change in God seems to imply, and Berdiaev hints at this, a divine kind of time. But how to relate this timelike aspect of God to worldly time is a problem that overwhelms me with a sense of incompetence. Physicists have their own difficulties with time, and without a mathematical competence beyond that of most of us one can scarcely begin to understand these difficulties, let alone overcome them.

By attributing freedom as well as minimal sentience to even the least single creatures (particles, atoms), the classical atheistic argument from evil loses its cogency. The details of nature are decided not by God but by the creatures concerned, by atoms, molecules, bacteria, single-celled animals, and many-celled animals, including human beings. And if it be said that God, in deciding to have free creatures instead of unfree creatures, is indirectly responsible for evil, the reply is that for the new type of idealism "unfree creature" is an ill-formed formula. As God is supreme freedom, ordinary singular beings are instances of less than supreme freedom, not of total lack of freedom. To be is to create, to decide what is otherwise undecided. Decision making, freedom, cannot be monopolized. Supreme freedom would have nothing to do were there not also less exalted forms of freedom. Genuine power is not power over the powerless. No single agent ever decides exactly what happens. The new physics (and even classical physics as interpreted by Clerk Maxwell, Reichenbach, Peirce, Whitehead, Sudarshan, and others) seems to harmonize better with this doctrine than did classical physics as it was usually interpreted by philosophers.

The present climate of opinion suggests the need for reconsidering many an old controversy and for questioning not only certain assumptions of classical theologians but also some of those of classical atheists or agnostics, including Hume, Kant, Marx, Comte, Russell, and Nietzsche. Not all contemporary forms of theism can be refuted by antiquated forms of skeptical argument.

Religion is a two-story affair, to adapt a phrase from James Feibleman. It is in part an empirical and historical matter, concerned with contingent fact about human nature and traditions. The idea of God, however, is nonempiri-cal and metaphysical. Dealing as they do with what is eternal and necessary, including the eternal and necessary aspects of God, metaphysical statements are true if they make coherent sense and false otherwise. To admit that one has no idea of the answers is to imply that one has no idea of the question; for they are either self-answering or else confused. It is humanly difficult to admit this confusion. If one could clearly see that and how one is confused, would one still be confused? I feel confident there will be other writers in this collective enterprise whose confusions will contrast with mine. And there is something to be said for making one's partialities explicit.

See Also

Anthropomorphism; Attributes of God; Pantheism and Panentheism; Sky; Supreme Beings; Theism.


My article "Pantheism and Panentheism" in this encyclopedia deals with closely related topics; its bibliography is relevant here. My Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, N.Y., 1984) is a somewhat popular, nontechnical presentation of my own version of the idea of God as supreme love exalted above ordinary love by dual transcendence. My article "Transcendence" appears in An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm (New York, 1945), pp. 791792; see also in the same work my articles "Hume, David," "Omnipotence," "Omnipresence," and "Perfect, Perfection," as well as Herman Hausheer's "Fechner, Gustav Theodor."

For a distinguished Jewish theologian's idea of God, see John C. Merkle's The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York, 1985); see also Heschel's God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York, 1955). Heschel's view is remarkably close to the neoclassical view, although both doctrines were worked out independently. Edgar S. Brightman's The Problem of God (Nashville, 1930) is an approximation to the dual transcendence view; see also Brightman's A Philosophy of Religion (1940; Westport, Conn., 1969), especially chapters 7, 10, and 11, for a fine historical sketch of the idea that God must have finite as well as infinite aspects. Brightman's conceptualization is in line with the trend to turn away from the extremist strategy that prevailed from Aristotle to early modern times toward a middle-ground strategy, in which God is neither exclusively infinite nor exclusively finite but is, in suitable divine ways, both.

New Sources

Faulconer, James E., ed. Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion. Bloomington, 2003.

Hyland, Drew A. Finitude and Transcendence in Platonic Dialogue. Albany, 1995.

Polakola, Jolana. Searching for the Divine in Contemporary Philosophy: Tensions between the Immanent and the Transcendent. Translated by Jan Veleska. Lewiston, N.Y., 1999.

Roy, Louis. Transcendent Experiences: Phenomenology and Critique. Toronto, 2001.

Seligman, Adam B. Modernity's Wager; Authority, and Transcendence. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Stone, Jerome Arthur. The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Relgion. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Charles Hartshorne (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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