December 6, 2020

Immanence and Transcendence

Theologians talk about the immanence and transcendence of God. In primitive terms, immanence means His closeness to us, and transcendence His distance from us. How thankful I am, not only to see these features revealed in Scripture but to have experienced, consciously, both of them.

Immanence refers to just how near God is to creation at the level of humanity or lower. This isn’t pantheism or panentheism, in which God is part of creation; instead, though distinct from creation, His presence is intimately close to it. “‘Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the Lord, ‘and not a God far away?’” (Jer. 23:23).* Paul told the Athenians that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27, 28). Daniel told Belshazzar, “You did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Dan. 5:23). If that’s not immanent, what is?

But God is also transcendent to our world. He exists outside and above it, sovereign over and in control of not just the earth but the cosmos. Inherent in God’s transcendence is the promise of a reality, of a meaning, greater than this world’s ashen dolor and, as some atheists have conceded, the only place to find hope. (“This world,” wrote Albert Camus, “has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but these worries.”) The Bible brims with declarations of divine transcendence. “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Ps. 97:9). “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers” (Isa. 40:22). “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth” (Dan. 4:35).

Daniel 2 reveals both His immanence and transcendence. Nebuchadnezzar has a dream (verse 1), a God-given dream, that he can’t remember, but a dream that, in “visions of the night” (see verse 19) God reveals to Daniel. Closer to us than our thoughts, nothing is as intimate, interior, and as near to us than dreams, so intimate, interior, and near that they often vanish from memory moments after we have them, though they remain buried within. (Ever have a dream you forgot, only to see something that brings it back?) Yet the God who guides the constellation Orion through the cosmos reached into Nebuchadnezzar’s head, then into Daniel’s, putting in one head the dream and in the other the dream and its interpretation. It hardly gets more immanent than that.

And the dream? The history of the world from ancient Babylon to the present, then to the eternal future. When we read about the feet and toes of the statue, symbolic of nations partly weak, partly strong (verse 42), nations of which “the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay” (verse 43), we’re reading not only an accurate depiction of contemporary Europe but rational evidence for God’s transcendence. Only a God greater than, outside of, and in control of our world could have revealed our world so accurately more than 2,500 years ago. Scripture tells us about God’s transcendence, then proves it.

Though over decades I have experienced God’s immanence and transcendence, about 40 years ago my life was changed by both. In 1979, after looking up at the sky and declaring, “God, if you exist, I need a sign!” (see 1 Cor. 1:22), I met a guy with my same name, Clifford Goldstein. He came from Miami Beach, where I came from. He was on the same Kibbutz in Israel that I had lived on months earlier. He stayed in the same room that I had stayed in, slept in the same bed (there were two in the room). He had, on the bookshelf over the bed, some of the same books that I had left on the shelf, but they were his books, not mine. When I asked if he was a writer, Cliff said that he wanted to be a writer, which I was. As we were talking, a girl, whom I had never seen before, walked into the room. It was his blonde Danish girlfriend, named Tine; when, on the Kibbutz, I had a blonde Danish girlfriend named Tine.

“You asked God for a sign,” someone had said to me. “Man, what more do you want? The Lord is calling you by name!”

What but transcendence could have arranged such a confluence of events, starting with two sets of parents, both named Goldstein, and both about 20 years earlier naming their sons “Clifford,” and both ending up in Miami Beach, which, in my family’s case happened only because of marital infidelity? And two Danish sets of parents each named their newborn “Tine,” and both girls about 20 years later end up in Israel, on the same Kibbutz, girlfriends of Clifford Goldstein. Only a transcendent God could not only have known all these things but, despite the free-will choices of fallen souls, have worked through endless variables, any one of which could have changed on a human whim, in order to have brought about these providences—and all when I asked for a sign?

And immanence? Nothing I had read that year in that room had impacted me more than Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. I used to make people (whether they wanted to or not) listen to me read her poems to them, something that I did with no other book. And among the books on the shelf over Clifford Goldstein’s bed was Ariel, his copy. Only a God who knew me so well, so personally, and was so close could have known what that would mean to me. But if the “very hairs” on my head “are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30), why be surprised that God knew my taste in literature?

God’s transcendence. God’s immanence. I can’t begin to understand them, but they’re real and comforting, especially in a world where chaos seems to rule, and evil is never far away.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His most recent book is Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.

* All Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.