Franciscan spirituality – Transcendent or Immanent?

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In my book, I often refer to God as being poor, which may seem a little confusing. Haven’t we been taught that God is all-powerful and omnipotent? Certainly, we can never entirely know God, we can only reflect on parts of his nature – those parts he has revealed to us. We can never entirely understand God – he is the Creator, we are the created. Nonetheless, in my book, I refer to God as minor, lesser. Like water, he always goes down. It might be more correct to say that God is humble. He is all powerful, yet he stoops down.

However, like water, God always goes up, too. In fact, if we use the analogy of water, God goes down – like rain, goes to the lowest parts and refreshes the earth; but like water evaporates and ascends; just so, God raises up, too. Then as the water builds up in the sky in the form of rainclouds, it once again comes back down again, so, too does the Holy Spirit continue to descend. We can look at the mysteries of the rosary – resurrection of Jesus, ascension of Jesus, descent of the Holy Spirit, assumption of Mary, coronation of Mary –themes of God going up; yet, like the descent of the Holy Spirit and some of the sorrowful mysteries, God goes down.

One of the aspects of organizing and accompanying pilgrimages to Italy is that I have had the opportunity to meet and work with all kinds of people. I have journeyed to Assisi and Rome with people from many different countries who are not only different ethnically and culturally, but many espouse quite diverse beliefs and understandings of our same faith. Having lived most of my life in suburban Atlanta, and having gone through RCIA and SFO formation in the same area, my religious and Franciscan formation naturally took on a certain quality. Some might call it ‘conservative’. Though I am fairly well-read, have a post-graduate degree, and read several languages, when I initially began my pilgrimage ministry, I assumed that most Catholics believed like I did. Despite my education and background, I was, nevertheless, a little naive.

When I first began this work, most of the groups were from the Atlanta area, or at least the southeast. Then I began working with groups from various regions of the US, as well as a number of countries outside the US. In the beginning, I naievely assumed most people believed like I did, or like most of the Franciscans in our southeastern region and the Italian friars I knew. But I found out very quickly that some people and groups had very different ideas of Catholicism and Franciscan spirituality. In fact, I initially concluded that there was not one Catholic Church, but two Catholic Churches, and everything in between. Each side felt strongly that they were correct and others were wrong. Initially I defined the two churches as liberal and conservative. But I was never happy with these words. They are political and should not be used to describe religious beliefs. Only recently have I come to understand that the groups are not liberal nor conservative, rather they have a different spirituality based on their focus on one form or another of the role of God in our lives. The correct words, I believe, should be transcendent and immanent.

Transcendence has to do with otherness, the fact that God is not human, but is above humanity, existing above the world and before creation. God surpasses physical existence and is independent of it. Transcendence focuses on God not only in his being, but also in his knowledge. Thus, God transcends the material world, indeed the universe and is also beyond the grasp of the human mind. God is seen to be outside – i.e. to “transcend” – our earthly experience. Transcendence is the spirituality of “up” and “above”.

Thus in terms of worship those with a transcendent understanding of God tend to focus on correctly worshipping the God who is above. The old Latin adage, “lex orandi lex credendi” would fit here (the law of prayer is the law of belief; or the Church believes as she prays). Thus, there is a focus on correct belief and, consequentially, the authorities whose duty it is to teach correct doctrine to and reprimand the faithful. Underlying all of this is a focus on morality and correct behavior; i.e. avoiding sin and living a virtuous life. Thus, it follows that Christologically Jesus is seen primarily as having been born incarnate to atone for sinful humanity; his death and resurrection served to expiate our sins. Finally, a transcendent view of God sees him in terms of truth and law.

The Bible is filled with passages confirming God as transcendent. “In the beginning, he created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1: 1) “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other…. To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. ‘Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength.’” (Isaiah 45: 22-24) God called Moses from the midst of a bush that burns without being consumed: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God revealed his name by saying “I am who I am (in Hebrew-Yahweh).” The name is mysterious, just as God is a mystery. God is unique; there are no other gods besides him. He transcends the world and all of history. He made heaven and earth: “They will perish, but you will endure; they will all wear out like a garment…but you are the same and your years have no end.” (Psalm 102: 26-27). God is almighty in heaven and earth because he is the creator of heaven and earth whose order he established, and which remains subject to him and at his disposal. God existed before the world, and is, thus, outside of the world. Thus, the transcendent God reveals himself as a God who is holy, creator, mysterious, incomprehensible, all-powerful, omnipotent, and providential.

Yet, at other times God has revealed himself “down here” with us. In this other seemingly contrasting view of God, God reaches down, even stoops down, from heaven to be with us. He is not merely a being up in heaven somewhere; he is down with us. This I would refer to as immanence. The word is derived from Latin “in manere” (to remain within). Immanence has to do with closeness of relationship; with the aspects of relationship that produce unity. While transcendence refers to what is above or on the outside, immanent spirituality focuses on what is “down here” and within. It refers to the presence of God, in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or present in the material world.

Even in the Old Testament, God began to reveal himself in an immanent manner. He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve and spoke with them. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God at once sought to save humanity; he gave a covenant with Noah after the flood. Later he chose Abraham in order to gather together scattered humanity; he made Abraham the father of a multitude of nations. Then he formed his people, Israel, and revealed to them his law – the commandments. However, the fullness of all God’s revelation was made most clearly apparent in the Incarnation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16). Christ, the Son of God, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is made man. He is the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In Christ, God has said everything. So for us Christians, God has made his revelation full through the revelation of Christ.

Thus, those whose spirituality is predominantly immanent tend to have a strong concern for the world down here: they have a strong desire to help the poor and marginalized; they value ecology and are concerned for the environment; they focus on being together, community and fellowship; they believe strongly in individual conscience. For them God is not just an all-powerful “being” up in Heaven somewhere; he is with us here where we are – God is love.

So which side is right? As Franciscans, do we believe in the transcendent God or the immanent God? I believe they are both correct. One group is not wrong nor right, nor more wrong nor more right; they only have different focuses. As Christians (and Franciscans), we acknowledge that the only transcendent, almighty, and holy God, who cannot be approached or seen became immanent (incarnate) primarily in the God-man Jesus the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. We believe that God existed before and is distinct and fully independent of the material world, but that same God interacts directly with our world today primarily in the Church through Sacraments, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and ecclesial communities. Thus, transcendent and immanent are both correct.

Let’s again turn to Scripture: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2: 6-8). This is an immanent understanding of God. But what about the rest of the passage? “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Ph 2: 9-11) This is transcendent. We can also look at the prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1: 1-3). This is transcendent. Yet, the Scripture continues, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 4). Immanent.

So Jesus is both the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who existed before all creation and through which all creation was created; yet he was made incarnate and he received his humanity and a divinely-created human soul from the Virgin Mary. Thus, transcendence and immanence meet in our faith, practice and theology. The mysterious and paradoxical nature of Christ is the bridge between the infinite Deity and finite man, since we believe that Christ is both fully human and fully divine.

Let’s look at Francis and Clare to see how they responded to this mysterious, yet human God. We know that Francis was born into a wealthy mercantile family, and he sought to go “up” the social ladder as a young man by becoming a knight. After his conversion, however, he realized that he wanted to imitate Christ by going “down” the ladder and becoming poor. Further, he sought to be a servant to the poorest of the poor by serving lepers. This is how the immanent spirituality of Christ influenced his life.

I took some license by substituting some words of the previous Scripture: “Though he was born the son of a wealthy merchant, Francis did not deem his wealthy status something to be kept to himself. Rather, he emptied himself and gave away his money, taking on the life of a beggar, dressing like a pauper; and found poor in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of serving the poorest of the poor, even lepers!”

Clare, having been born of a noble family, decided to enter religious life. She, too, like Francis imitating Christ, sought to be a servant. Initially she entered a well-endowed Benedictine monastery, however, not as a noblewoman with privileges and servants, as was her birthright. Like Francis, like Christ, she renounced her birthrights – did not cling to them – rather, she took the form of a slave, a servant, and served the Benedictine women. However, she soon left the Benedictine monastery and formed her own community founded on poverty and service to each other as well as the poor who came to the community. Using the same license above, I modified some Scripture again: “Though she was of noble family, Clare did not regard her noble status something to be kept to herself. Rather, she renounced her status, taking the form of a servant to noble nuns; further, she humbled herself by becoming embracing poverty and serving her sisters and the poor of Assisi.”

Francis and Clare, each in their own right, were lifted up by their service. Their end objective was not to a life of servitude; it was to be lifted up. Thus, they sought to gain heaven and did, as we believe them to be saints. Through their imitation of Christ, their commitment to simplicity and poverty, and their service to the poor, they sought to ‘transcend’ this life and enter into everlasting life. So Franciscan spirituality is not transcendent or immanent; it is actually both.

St. Bonaventure said in his biography of St. Francis: “St. Francis never failed to keep himself occupied doing good; like the angels Jacob saw on the ladder, he was always busy, either raising his heart to God in prayer, or descending to his neighbor.” Thus, to be a Christian and Franciscan, we should balance concern for the immanent world with anticipation of the transcendent world to come.

Nonetheless, there are dangers of focusing too much on one side or the other. An over-emphasis on transcendence frequently leads to ignoring the needs of peoples and communities. When the focus is on a God enthroned in Heaven above who judges people’s behavior, morality, proper beliefs, etc. and is not moved by people’s personal problems and struggles, it seems cold, legalistic, and judgmental. In its worst forms, transcendent spirituality can lead to war: when complete belief in righteous causes and an all-powerful God who lives above the world mixes with a weak view of the human person who is considered sinful it is not difficult to justify past atrocities like the crusades or even religious terrorism that is prevalent today.

On the other hand, an over-emphasis on immanence – finding God in this world – tends to downplay or even ignore God’s Providence, omnipotence and omniscience. Their determination to strive for “the Kingdom of Heaven within” this world leads them to sometimes downplay or even forget the promise of a Heaven and afterlife. Whereas transcendent-types’ focus on sin, God’s redemptive role in human live, and their hope of a better world to come can lead to a certain complacency with regards to society’s ills, immanent-types firmly believe that all could be well in this world if everyone would only behave properly. Unfortunately, this can lead to irritation, anger, and scandal when they realize that no matter how hard they struggle, sin continues to persist, leading to burnout and cynicism. Further, too much focus on God’s presence on earth may lead to panentheism – God is in everything material – or worse, pantheism – God is everything material. It can also lead to astrology, cosmology, even nature worship and/or neo-paganism. Equally errant is a tendency to dislike, even hate, religious authorities or to outright reject the existence of sin and hell.

So, what is the ultimate good in this? I believe it is in order to focus on a better good – that of recognizing the divine and good in the “other”, even when we don’t agree with that person, or vehemently disagree, or when we recognize that person is in error. We don’t judge or hate them, because we know where they are coming from. We recognize their worldview, their understanding of God, which is correct. In effect, both sides are responding to a movement of the Spirit. Just as Francis and Clare sought to go “down” in imitation of the humble Christ, they were ultimately seeking to go “up” to Heaven where the transcendent God resides.

Comprehending these subtle complexities allows us to understand others and, if necessary, to help us guide them towards the truer, deeper understanding of God and his true nature, or natures.

Concern for the poor
Ecology, concern for the environment
Focus on community
Politically: democratic –power of the people
Focus on conscience
Jesus came to show an example of living and to build community
God is love

Concern for worship
Morality: focus on behavior
Focus on sin
Politically: focus on leadership
Focus on authority
Jesus came for Atonement
God is Truth and Law

Which one do you agree with more? Write down A or B; if they are completely equal, write down both:

a. Being catholic means being obedient to the pope, the bishops and the magisterium (tr) or
b. Being catholic means being part of a universal church – a “catholic” body of believers (im)

a. If my parish had a surplus of money and the building were in need of repairs, I would prefer it be spent on fixing up and decorating the church because the church is a place of prayer (tr) or
b. If my parish had a surplus of money and was in a poor neighborhood, I would prefer to see the money be used to help the poor. (im) (in both cases the building needs repairs and there are poor people in the area)

a. I wish the bishops would speak out more on certain moral issues like pro-life, indissolubility of marriage, and against contraception (tr) or
b. I wish the bishops would speak out more on issues like the death penalty, poverty, and discrimination. (im)

a. Latin should be used more during Mass and liturgy because it is a universal language; it has its roots in the beginnings of the Church, and its words always means the same thing. (tr) or
b. Latin should not be used during Mass and liturgy because very few people understand it, and it is important to pray in a language one understands. (im)

a. If a monk or a nun were praying in community, and someone came to the convent or monastery door needing something of moderate importance, it would be more important to finish praying, because without prayer, they could offer nothing spiritually to anyone. (tr) or
b. If a monk or a nun were praying in community, and someone came to the convent or monastery door needing something of moderate importance, it would be more important to suspend prayer to serve that person. (im)

a. The bishops and pope should pray more in order to understand the issues facing the church and world today. (tr) or
b. The bishops and pope should consult the laity more in order to understand the issues facing the church and world today. (im)

a. I agree with the phrase, “lex orandi lex credendi.” (tr) or
b. Ritualistic prayers and rites are not important, any prayer is fine as long as it leads to a good relationship with Jesus. (im)

a. The Bible, creeds, and church councils were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are inerrant. (tr) or
b. The Bible, creeds, and church councils were written a long time ago and should be understood in light of the cultural and historical context in which they were written. (im)

a. The Second Vatican Council should be understood as a continuum of previous councils (tr) or
b. The Second Vatican Council introduced new theology and was a break from the past (im)

a. Mass is important because it allows me to receive Jesus in the Eucharistic host (tr) or
b. Mass is important because it allows me to take part in the community of faithful gathering together in worship (im)

a. Eucharist refers to the celebration of the Mass in which the bread and wine at consecration are transubstantiated (changed in substance) into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Lord and God. (tr) or
b. Eucharist refers to an assembly of God’s people who come together, under the leadership of a priest, to praise God, to hear God’s Word and to “break bread” with the firm belief that the Lord Jesus is present among his people. (im)

a. Eucharist is a sign of unity among Catholics, and therefore only Catholics without unconfessed mortal sin are permitted to receive communion (tr) or
b. Eucharist is a source of unity between Christians, and therefore all Christians should be invited to receive communion at Mass. (im)

a. I see Jesus as the King of kings (tr) or
b. I see Jesus in the face of the poor (im)

a. I see God as a Lawgiver, Father, Judge, Creator & Redeemer (tr) or
b. I see God as a friend, healer, liberator, even spouse. (im)

a. The saints are important because they intercede for us, cleanse our souls, and help us reach heaven (tr) or
b. The saints are important because they act as models of holiness and show us how to live our lives (im)

a. The Church’s main mission should be to teach people to lead a virtuous and moral life (tr) or
b. The Church’s main mission should be to serve the poor and marginalized (im)

a. The reason Jesus came was to redeem us from our sins and gain for us eternal life in heaven (tr) or 
b. The reason Jesus came was to heal, cleanse, reconcile, and invite us to deeper involvement in proclaiming God’s Kingdom, calling us to be his body in the world. (im)

a. God is truth (tr) or
b. God is love (im)

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