Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Transendence and Immanence

I recently started reading Paul Laughlin's book, Getting Oriented: What Every Christian Should Know about Eastern Religions but Probably Doesn't. I picked this up because I had previously read Laughlin's Remedial Christianity and found it a good mental exercise. I disagreed with a lot, but he worked through some good topics. I came into this book expecting more of the same.

The thing that had bugged me most in Remedial Christianity was Laughlin's rather uninspired exploration of the ideas of transcendence and immanence. And, to my chagrin, I got more of the same in Getting Oriented -- exactly the same.

I think it would be fair to say that one of the things Laughlin is dissatisfied with about traditional Christianity is that it has too much transcendence and not enough immanence. He wants to reinvent Christianity to fix that.

But I think the real problem is that Laughlin's insistence on rigid categories blocks him from seeing the immanence of God that is proclaimed in the Christian tradition.

Laughlin offers two definitions each for transcendence and immanence. He defines "high octane" immanence as a view wherein God (or Ultimate Reality) permeates, saturates or infuses everything and everyone "as their very essence" while "high octane" transcendence is a view wherein God is wholly Other. He complements these definitions with a "low octane" immanence that is God present in the world "but only in a manner of speaking: as an agent acting upon it" and "low octane" transcendence as a God (or Ultimate Reality) that is beyond comprehension. Using these definitions Laughlin claims that Christianity offers a view of God that involves high octane transcendence but low octane immanence.

He says the traditional Western God "must impact the Universe from beyond it through creative acts, rather than as an abiding, inherent, indwelling, intelligence" (his emphases). I don't think this is right. I think traditional (and especially pre-Enlightenment) Christianity describes God precisely as an abiding presence in the world.

After describing the high octane versions, Laughlin says, "In a perfect world, that would be that: 'transcendence' and 'immanence' would each have a single, univocal meaning...." I think this statement reveals more than he would like. He allows that this being an imperfect world they each have a "second" meaning. What he doesn't seem to allow is that they each have ranges and shades and subtleties.

Laughlin's conclusions about Christianity seem to follow from Christianity's firm and non-negotiable insistence on the ontological difference between God and Creation. Combine that with his narrow categories, and you can't conclude other than he does. But throw out the categories, and we have all kinds of possibilities. What is needed, I suggest, is an acceptance of the fact that Christianity wants to proclaim both high octane transcendence and high octane immanence, even if we lack the terminology to do so simultaneously.

Laughlin dismisses Christian mysticism as an insignificant minority report, but I wonder if he realizes he is throwing all of Orthodox Christianity in that statement along with some very deep and influential streams in the West.

He says the "weaker sort of immanence does not allow for God to become the world or anything in it." Now you would think that statement alone disqualifies Christianity for this type of immanence. But Laughlin kind of dismisses it as "the exception that proves the rule, perhaps" and in any event says Christians "would not see it as a theological compromise, simply because of its unique, once-and-for-all character." In other words, we're committed to transcendence over against immanence and aren't going to let the Incarnation distract us from that.

Now here's where he really gets my goat. He says, "every other Christian theological issue and topic including the understanding and treatment of the cosmos, time and humanity, must begin with [the insistence on God's ontological transcendence] and continue to honor it, in order to maintain the basic monotheistic framework of the faith, at least as it is traditionally understood" Ummm, Dr. Laughlin, that was the boat. You just missed it.

In point of fact, I would maintain to the contrary that every other Christian theological issue and topic, including our ideas about God's immanence and transcendence, must, absolutely must, follow from the Christian proclamation of the Incarnation.

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