Saturday 18 December 2021

Solving the Immanence versus Transcendence paradox

The Immanence versus Transcendence 'paradox' is the unresolved, endless argument within classical theology about the nature of God, and consequently Jesus Christ: the argument about whether God is ultimately like-Man in his nature of being; or if instead God is ultimately infinitely higher than, and utterly different-from, Man. 

Immanence emphasizes that Men are Sons of God, that is children of God (and of the same kind) - and that Jesus became a Man, and Jesus was God - thus Man is God... 

Yet if Man is already God, why was Jesus necessary and what function did he perform. 

Transcendence emphasizes that God is unbridgeably greater than Man - thus Man never can be God; therefore Jesus always-was God... as well as becoming a Man... 

This is the I versus T mystery/ paradox, which is supposedly-solved by stating that Jesus is both God and Man, which are nonetheless utterly different... but Men can never be God, because Men are (ultimately) utterly different-from Jesus Christ.

So, the proposed 'solution' to the paradox of Immanence and Transcendence is that both I&T are true, simultaneously, and utterly true: God is both at once Immanent and Transcendent; fully, and without compromise; always was, is now, and forever shall be. 

The example of Jesus is taken to show us that this is so, and how this can be so - Jesus being conceptualized as having been conceived and born both fully divine and also fully a mortal Man - despite that God and Man are defined as being wholly- infinitely, un-bridgeably different-from each other.   

The promise for Men to become Sons of God is interpreted (following Paul) to mean that we are adopted children of God; that we are not full children and of the same kind - but infinitely lower beings who are (by adoption) given some (but not all, because that is regarded as impossible) of the rights and duties of heirs of God. 

The above paradox which has (apparently) plagued and/or divided Christianity since not long after the ascension of Jesus is that the Immanence v Transcendence debate is founded-in the assumption that Time is Not a factor

The difficulty is therefore rooted in the time-less perspective of 'classical' Greek-Roman pagan philosophy - metaphysical assumptions that saw reality as timeless and time as illusion - thus God (ultimate source of reality) is seen as necessarily 'outside' of time. 

In other words; this concept of God is of one who experiences past, present and future simultaneously - for God, in ultimate reality, there is no time; and God surveys all times, and acts on all times; all of the time.  

My understanding is that this already-existent set of classical pagan philosophical assumptions absorbed the new religion of Christianity, and applied its prior assumptions to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. 

This distorted the truth of Christianity - and led to several insoluble 'paradoxes' that were dealt with by declaring them 'mysteries', and the mysteries became dogmas.

But (in complete contrast); taken at face value (as described in the Gospels, but especially the Fourth Gospel) Jesus Christ happened in time; and his life and teachings implicitly assume that time is real and necessary

In other words, I regard it as both possible and true to see God, Jesus and man as existing In Time; and therefore the story of creation, incarnation, death and heaven is one that happens as an historical sequence of events - an 'ongoing process'. 

In other-other words: reality was changed by Jesus Christ - Jesus Christ himself changed through his life and after - and 'things-in-general' were different after Jesus than before. 

BC and AD therefore refer to a crux in cosmic history; and change is real and continuous. 

When the 'in-time' understanding is taken as a real assumption; then the apparent paradox of Transcendence versus Immanence can disappear. The apparent paradox (or 'mystery') is seen as an artifact of trying to explain the historical events of Jesus Christ without reference to Time - an artifact, therefore. of a misguided attempt to explain history, while asserting that Time is ultimately unreal.  

If, instead, we take it that Time is a part of basic reality - that time is inseparable-from basic reality; and that reality changes through time - then we are no longer looking for an eternal description of The nature of Jesus Christ, or God, or Man. All are expected to develop ('evolve') through time.  

At any particular time-slice; we would expect t find different degrees of Immanence and Transcendence; and indeed we may then discover that a trend to obliterate the I versus T paradox and distinction is the main thing about reality, the main purpose of creation

This is my conviction: That God's primary purpose in creation is to make it possible for Men (who are already gods, but 'immature', incomplete) to choose to become raised to full divinity. 

Jesus Christ is the example of this aim being achieved, and he provided (and provides still) the 'method' by which Men who came after could make the choice, and take a qualitative step, towards becoming gods of the same (fully-creative, fully-loving) nature as God. 

Eventually, in an Immanent sense: Man will be 'a god' as God - that is a god-like-God; just as Jesus Christ became, fully; and just as Jesus promised we could likewise become. 

'Yet' in a Transcendent sense; God will always be 'above' Man - because it was God who created this reality within-which we dwell. 

Even when a Man (such as Jesus Christ) becomes a full-god, at a level with God - it will always be within that creation which (historically, in-time) was-made by God; and continues to be-made by God, by Jesus Christ, and by that-which-is-god in our-selves. 


Daniel F said...


How would you apply this way of seeing things in the context of the opening verses of John:

"In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. The same [the Word = Jesus, or at least the Son prior to his taken on human form] was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Would the answer be that the Word is an essence or principle that is uncreated and existing prior to creation but that it only inhabited Jesus the man upon, say, his baptism? Or that "the beginning" spoken of here is in fact the point at which Jesus took on divinity, which marked the beginning of creation in the sense of man being able to become god? Or some other interpretation.

(I know that you tend not to get bogged down in verse by verse thinking, and also that your theology is not limited by the dogmas and interpretations imposed upon Christendom by the early church counsels, so perhaps my line of questioning is simply beside the point in your schema. And to be clear: I'm not playing gotcha about ancient heresies or anything like that; I am legitimately interested in understanding how you might interpret these points.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - I am unsure as to the theological meaning of the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel. My guess is that eth passage is essentially poetic (wonderful poetry!), but I am not confident that it is structurally a part of the original Gospel. I has a qualitatively different feel from the main part of the Gospel, seems (in so far as it is substantive) to be making different - and metaphysical - points of a nature and which are not reprised or re-explained elsewhere in the Gospel - and, in sum I think it may have been added later by someone else. But - whatever the first verses 'mean' they cannot be taken to contradict the main Fourth Gospel - which is clear, and repeats its main points.

Daniel F said...

Thank you, Bruce.

Ryder said...

Bruce, I’m not sure how often you delve back into older post comments, but thought I would give it a shot. I came across this post trying to learn more about your view on how humanity qualitatively changes over time (it came up in one of your comments on a recent post about voting being a litmus test).

I would be very curious to see you revisit some of these passages in John, or at least flesh out what exactly you mean regarding the inconsistency between the prologue and the body of the gospel of John. Certainly, the language of the prologue is slightly different in its register than the bulk of the gospel, and the same tone comes up at the end of John 3 where Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus. As a result, critics are divided as to when, precisely, Jesus’s quotation ends and the narrator picks up (before or after the famous John 3:16?).

Despite this difference in register, the claims of the narrator and the claims of Jesus in, e.g. his extended discourse with the disciples in chapters 14-16, and again in his prayer in ch 17, do not seem to be materially at odds. The kinds of claims Jesus makes (before Abraham was, I am; I and the father are one; etc.) seem to fit well with the word who was before Jesus the man was born. Add to this the very consistent documentary history of the document (where spurious additions such as in John 7 with the woman caught in adultery) are well known, and I find it difficult to see what the difficulty is with the classic christological reading of John 1. I would like to understand better, since I am convinced you are right *that* it is Jesus who has overcome or rendered obsolete the immanence/transcendence distinction. I’m not sure I see why the prologue must be spurious though (of course, the evangelist is the one who put the prologue before the story, not Jesus himself, so in that sense I can see what you are saying). I think it’s right to say that in Jesus both humanity and God’s entire mode of relating to humanity are forever different, and living as if the Old Testament could be straightforwardly determinative of what God asks of man in this age would be anachronistic and sadly mistaken. The source of the revelation is good, but the context has changed (the original point I was seeking further detail on from your blog).

That is a point from this blog post that I think is worth emphasizing, that with the advent of Christ the world was fundamentally altered, never to return to the way it was. There is a reason history is divided into two parts (and not at Easter, mind you!).

Bruce Charlton said...


Did you see this?

" the word who was before Jesus the man was born. "

My understanding is that *All* Men, including Jesus, lived pre-mortally as spirits; before we were incarnated. What was different about Jesus was (presumably) that his will, motivation etc was wholly in harmony with that of God the creator. This complete harmony translates in double-negative theology as that Jesus had "no sin".

Thus Jesus could become a primary creator, fully divine, even while a mortal Man. And this was what made Jesus able to be the One who shows other mortal Men the path through resurrection to eternal life - other Men can be guided-by (as was Lazarus) and/or follow Jesus on this path.