Anyone who has spent any time visiting different Catholic parishes, associations, or organizations – or better, surfing Catholic sites and posts on the internet or social media – is aware that there are divergent ways of understanding and living out the faith. Many Catholics have quite different ideas of what it means to be Catholic.
On the one hand, there are those whose spirituality is centered on correct forms of worship, morality and virtue, doctrine, and sin and redemption. Liturgically, they tend to be highly reverent, they value traditional rites, and their spiritual focus is on otherworldly mystery and wonder. Within the structure of the Church, they are deferential to religious authorities to whom they look to clarify Church teachings and quell disputes.
With regard to other faiths, they believe it is paramount to witness to the truth of their own for the salvation of others. Evangelization means bringing the Gospel to other cultures. They believe in the fleetingness of the world in which one’s short life should be used wisely to grow in virtue and prepare for eternal life.
On the other hand, there are groups and individuals whose emphasis is on this life and this world. Their focus is on social issues including peace initiatives, ending racism, alleviating poverty, and ecology. They work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others through service as well as by highlighting factors that contribute to injustice.
In issues of faith and morals, they believe in the primacy of the conscience to guide them and determine right from wrong. Their liturgies tend to be more casual, oriented toward the community, and with a high amount of lay participation. Regarding other religions, they seek unity and dialogue. In encountering other cultures, they look for signs of charity and truth already present. Their overarching religious concern is social justice and making the world a better place.
Conservative or liberal?
On the surface, it would appear that these groups would be pigeonholed as either conservative or liberal, traditionalist or progressive. Yet these labels are inadequate and do not reflect the religious components underlying the two sides’ beliefs and actions.
Instead, these two forms of religiosity arise from a particular Christological understanding of the faith. There are two better words to describe them: “transcendent” and “immanent.”
In short, did Christ come to save humanity and bring man up to heaven (transcendent)? Or did Christ lower himself to be with humanity where man is (immanent)?
Transcendence focuses on the supernaturalness and otherness of God. It emphasizes God’s existence outside of the world, before creation, and beyond humanity. It is the idea that God surpasses the physical world and is independent of it. God transcends the material world, indeed the entire universe and is, therefore, beyond the grasp of the human mind.
In terms of spirituality, those with a more transcendent understanding of Christ tend to focus on venerating the God who is “above.” There is a focus on correct liturgy, right belief, and submission to authorities whose primary role should be to teach doctrine and reprimand the wayward faithful. Morality, form, and proper conduct and behavior are paramount.
They focus on the Incarnation of Christ — followed by his Passion and death — as divine atonement for humanity’s sins. God is above the world and came into it to bring man back up with him. God is holy, omniscient, omnipotent, and mysterious.
This is transcendence.
On the other hand, Christ revealed himself “down here” – in the world with humanity. In this seemingly contrasting view of God, God reaches down – stoops down – from heaven to be with mankind. God is not aloof somewhere up in the heavens; he is down with us. This is immanence.
The word is derived from Latin in-manere, meaning to remain within. While transcendence refers to what is above or on the outside, immanent spirituality has to do with relationship and unity. It focuses on what is within. It refers to the presence of God in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or present in the material world especially in the poor and in creation.
The immanent nature of Christ reveals itself most fully in the Incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:4). Christ, the Son of God, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is made man. The Word, the Second Person, the Son of the Father, becomes man and touches the world to be with us. Other Scripture revealing the immanence of God: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2); “Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he said in reply, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you'” (Luke 17:20-21).
Consequentially, those whose spirituality is predominantly immanent have a strong concern for the world. They have a deep and abiding desire to help the poor and marginalized, they value creation and are concerned for the environment, they focus on being together, community, and fellowship, and they believe strongly in conscience. For them God is not an all-powerful king or judge reigning up in heaven somewhere; he is with us here where we are. Instead, the primary attributes of God are love and mercy.
Which side is correct?
Is Christ primarily transcendent or immanent?
In fact, neither group is completely right nor wrong. Both aspects reflect the nature of God.
As Christians, we accept by faith that God is almighty, holy, and cannot be approached or seen. The God in which we believe existed before the creation of the world and is distinct and fully independent of the material world.
Yet that same God – the Word, Second Person of the Holy Trinity who existed before all creation and through which all creation was created – came down and became man. He became incarnate as the God-man, Jesus the Christ.
Still today, Christ is intimately connected with our world through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He is always present “when two or more are gathered,” in the reading of Scripture, in the movement of the Holy Spirit – in effect, in the Church.
So transcendence and immanence are really one and the same – the “seamless garment.” The transcendent and immanent nature of God meet in the mysterious revelation that Christ is both God and man. It is paradoxically Christ himself – who is both fully divine and fully human – who is the bridge between the transcendent deity of infinity and the immanent man of the world. God is both transcendent and immanent.
In fact, many heresies originate in an exaggerated emphasis of one side to the exclusion of the other. Pope Francis has sometimes referred these excesses as forms of neo-pelagianism and neo-gnosticism.
Those who lean predominantly toward one side or the other and are perhaps irritated by those in the other group, would do well to recall that Christian spirituality encompasses both, Christ himself embraced both.