Transcendence in Mormonism
Borrowing the vocabulary of Jean Wahl (1887-1974) and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Levinas differentiates the transcendence of the other person from the transcendence of ordinary entities by speaking of our experience of the former as transascendence. In the experience of transascendence we find ourselves drawn out of ourselves toward and by someone infinitely higher, someone to whom we are indebted and obligated, and someone by whom we are judged. The other person is the figure of the transcendent God toward whom we transascend.
How, then, does the transcendence of God differ from that of other persons if God is himself an intelligence like me? In the language of Mormonism, every other eternal intelligence transcends me. But my transascendence toward any other intelligence is made possible only by God. Though he is "of the same species" as we (intelligence), he differs from all other intelligences in that he brings the rest of us into spiritual and then mortal life. Though he does not create intelligences ex nihilo in the traditional sense of the phrase, as persons intelligences are nothing without his creative act. Without that act, they would remain the analogue of mere "matter" (cf. D&C 131:7), not yet a me or an I, except potentially. That we are human souls—body and spirit (cf. D&C 88:15)—is a consequence of his divine grace.
Thus God creates us from outside ourselves and from a doubled infinite distance: he is infinitely distant from us in the same way that any other intelligence is, but the distance between us and him is also the infinite distance between the ones who are brought into life and the One who brings them. Neither of those distances can be undone, not even when a person attains the fullness of God's image. That person will always remain someone created by God. For Mormons, as for traditional Christianity, the Creator-creature distinction makes God divinely transcendent of us, even though we deny ex nihilo creation.
The infinite transascending relationship with the other person is an analogy to the infinite transascending relationship between God and myself. My relations with other persons who are infinitely other than me teach me about my relationship with God. Though God and human beings each have the being of intelligences, the infinite distance between the Divine and me is of a different order than that between myself and any other human being. He is the Creator and we are his creatures. Understanding our relationship to the other person and our relationship to God in terms of transascendence in different orders (the one infinite; the other doubly infinite) preserves both the "sameness" of God and human beings that Joseph Smith taught and the majesty of God that worship requires.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.