The varieties of divine transcendence
There has been some concern recently that defenders of divine transcendence are attempting merely to perpetuate a dead concept, one that has long-since been obliterated by modernity (for various reasons). I have a vested interest in this debate, insofar as I agree with those who wish to dispense with metaphysics, mythology, and other forms of theological discourse that only reinforce the ideological confinement of religious God-talk. For the sake of discussion, I will accept that the burden of proof rests with those like myself who wish to continue to speak of a transcendent God after the death of God (understood in both its christological and modern-historical senses). What follows then is a very brief list of the varieties of divine transcendence, beginning with the two versions to be rejected. It also goes without saying that these are not all mutually exclusive. Finally, I do not claim that this list is exhaustive, and I am happy to add further items based on suggestions in the comments.
- Metaphysical (or analogical) transcendence. This is the form of transcendence as posited by the via triplex and other forms of classical analogical modes of God-talk. Here transcendence is defined either as the projection or the negation of some mode of finite immanence. Both of these modes are grounded in the more basic form of metaphysical transcendence, which is causal: God is here the Prime Mover or First Cause.
- Mythological transcendence. I take this point from Bultmann, who famously defines myth as representing the transcendent as “spatially distant,” as in the three-tiered cosmos. Myth is understood thus as a crude, primitive version of metaphysics.
- Reformational transcendence, or transcendence as deus absconditus. The transcendence of the “hidden God” is a prominent theme in Luther’s theology, and it appears in Calvin and others as well. Here there is a sharp distinction between the hidden and revealed God that corresponds to the distinction between law/wrath and gospel/grace. Transcendence in this sense is posited on the basis of our human sinfulness, rather than our finitude. God is transcendent in the sense that God is removed from us as our judge.
- Mystical transcendence. The description “mystical” is hotly contested and I use it tentatively, but in essence I refer to the notion that God is transcendent as “wholly other” in a timeless and ahistorical sense. It often takes a Platonic or Neoplatonic form, as in Meister Eckhart, and in this sense overlaps with metaphysical transcendence. But the crucial difference is that this form of transcendence is not simply an idea to be posited and analyzed through the faculty of reason; it is instead a transcendence to be practiced and experienced through forms of spiritual ascesis. Mystical transcendence is primarily a mode of orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.
- Dialectical-eschatological transcendence. What I call dialectical-eschatological transcendence is the form of divine transcendence represented by Bultmann and the early Barth, where God is understood as “wholly other” but in a concrete and historical sense. Transcendence is here not a “realm” to be reached by reason or experience; it instead refers to the fact that God cannot be objectified or mastered. God is not an object available for our investigation, neither a “thing-in-itself” nor a thing as it appears to us, to use Kantian distinctions. Instead, God is a particular event or encounter within history and only perceptible to faith. Bultmann writes: “The idea that divine action is unworldly or transcendent is preserved only if such action is represented not as something taking place between occurrences in the world but as something that takes place in them .... God’s act is hidden from all eyes other than the eyes of faith. The only thing that can be generally seen and established is the ‘natural’ occurrence. In it God’s hidden act takes place.” This notion of transcendence is thus set wholly against all forms of supernaturalism, which attempt to identify places within history where God is directly accessible, i.e., where a miracle occurs. Dialectical-eschatological transcendence reserves no space for the supernatural. It therefore also excludes all natural theology, since there is no way from “here” to “there,” because there is no “there” as an identifiable place or object. The “there” (or the divine) occurs within the “here” (or the worldly). Eschatological refers to what is qualitatively different from the world as available to scientific and historical research. Some opponents might also refer to this as fideistic transcendence, since there is no proof for such divine action; certainty only comes within faith, not outside of it.
- Dialectical-analogical transcendence. What I am labeling dialectical-analogical transcendence is that form of divine transcendence often associated with the middle-to-later Barth—though whether rightly or wrongly is still a matter of much debate. It refers to the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity as a dialectical and analogical relation. Three features of this model make it differ from the metaphysical model noted above: (a) the basis for the analogy is strictly located in Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation; (b) there is nothing about God’s immanent transcendence that is not revealed in God’s economic immanence; and (c) the entire relation between transcendence and immanence is known only to faith. This version of transcendence is grounded in what Barth calls the analogia fidei, as opposed to the analogia entis that grounds the metaphysical version. What makes this model differ from the dialectical-eschatological model is that what occurs in time and space is identified as a communication or manifestation of what is already actually the case in eternity.
- Analogical-ontological transcendence. This is the version represented by Radical Orthodoxy and its fellow-travelers, the most brilliant version of which is found in David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. The emphasis here is on the ontological plenitude of God’s transcendent being, which is analogically mediated to the world. The analogia entis is, on this account, the sine qua non of Christian theology. For the most part, this is a subset of the metaphysical transcendence mentioned above.
- Apocalyptic transcendence. This model, which I derive from Nate Kerr’s writings (particularly his 2009 essay in Political Theology), understands transcendence non-analogically. It opposes both the “univocal production of pure immanence” and the “analogical mediation of transcendence in immanence.” For this reason, apocalyptic transcendence is a thoroughly non-ontological conceptuality, leaving the sphere of ontology to materialist ontologies of immanence. As Kerr defines it, transcendence is here understood in terms of (a) the “priority of grace”—God is “beyond” as the free initiating action of God’s subversive reign within the world—and (b) the doxological response of the human person to this initiating action. Transcendence thus takes place as a form of theopolitical agency, simultaneously divine and human, initiating and following. The main point is that God’s transcendence refers to a particular mode of action within the world that suspends immanence and funds a new form of human action in response. It is therefore, in my view, a political and doxological variation on the dialectical-eschatological model.
- Postmetaphysical transcendence. A number of theologians could claim the label of postmetaphysical, but in this instance I define it according to Eberhard Jüngel’s theology, particularly as represented by Gott als Geheimnis der Welt. This work does not use the term “transcendence” very often in a positive way; this is because the book is directed against any notion of God as an ens necessarium or supreme being. Moreover, his analogy of advent is directed against thinking of God as “wholly other” or “beyond.” He repeatedly uses the line from Luther that quae supra nos, nihil ad nos: “things that are above us are of no concern to us.” And yet one can discern in the midst of all this a creative renewal of the language of transcendence in his radical identification of God with the dead Jesus, such that God is defined as the concrete unity of life and death on behalf of life. This (Hegel-inspired) unity of life and death in God that Jüngel posits allows for transcendence to be understood as the soteriological otherness of God in the word-event (Wortgeschehen or Sprachereignis). God is transcendent in the sense of being the word of address that comes from outside of us (extra nos) and so separates us from ourselves. God is the qualitative distance between the old self and the new self, between sin and grace. God’s transcendence is thus an existential distancing of the ego through the event of the word, in which God is present as absent, transcendent as immanent. As Jüngel puts it, “God is my neighbor. He comes nearer to me than I am to myself. Faith opens itself up to this nearness of God. ... In the word, God is present as the absent one. Faith allows God as the absent one to be present. ... Without a fundamental extra nos faith knows of no deus pro nobis and certainly no deus in nobis. God is only near to us in that he distances us from ourselves” (God as the Mystery, 182).
- I-Thou transcendence. By this I mean all of those conceptions of transcendence that locate the “beyond” in the neighbor or the Levinasian “Other.” The absolute alterity of the Other is the encounter with the absolute horizon of our future. The Other is the limit of our existence, and so the experience of transcendence. This of course need not be theological, insofar as such I-Thou transcendence can be thoroughly atheistic.
- Religionless transcendence. Bonhoeffer’s prison writings are replete with powerful insights into a post-metaphysical, post-religious way of speaking about God. I am calling his model religionless transcendence simply because he refers to the need for a “religionless Christianity.” But a more descriptive term would be socioethical transcendence. Of course, the seeds for this are sown already in his earliest works. In Sanctorum Communio, he speaks of the “transcendence of the You” as an “ethical transcendence,” and in Act and Being he refers to the “illusory transcendence” of the analogia entis formulated by Przywara. Then in his 1933 lectures on christology, he says that the question of transcendence is the “question of the neighbor.” All of this leads to his famous “Outline for a Book” written in prison in 1944. The description of the second chapter reads:
Jesus’s “being-for-others” [Für-andere-dasein] is the experience of transcendence! Only through this liberation from self, through this “being-for-others” unto death, do omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence come into being. Faith is participating in this being of Jesus. (Becoming human [Menschwerdung], cross, resurrection.) Our relationship to God is no “religious” relationship to some highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is no genuine transcendence. Instead, our relationship to God is a new life in “being there for others” [Dasein-für-andere], through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable tasks, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form! Not as in oriental religions in animal forms as the monstrous, the chaotic, the remote, the terrifying, but also not in the conceptual forms of the absolute, the metaphysical, the infinite, and so on, either, nor again the Greek god—human form of the “God-human form of the human being in itself.” But rather “the human being for others”! therefore the Crucified One. The human being living out of the transcendent. (DBWE 8:501)Here I think we find a version of transcendence that shares aspects with the dialectical-eschatological, postmetaphysical, and I-Thou models of transcendence. But that it remains a conception of divine transcendence is indisputable, however much it departs from the tradition.
- Eschatological transcendence. Under this heading I include all those theologians who understand God’s transcendence as his eschatological futurity. God is transcendent as the coming horizon of the future that transforms our present. There are a number of variations of this view. Robert Jenson and the early Moltmann embrace this form of transcendence. But it is the early Pannenberg, with his affirmation of the retroactive ontological significance of God’s eschatological future in Jesus Christ, that is the most extreme form of this model.
- Maqom transcendence. The most recent works by Jürgen Moltmann speak of God as the Maqom (מָקוֹם)—which means, in its fullest theological sense, “sacred dwelling place,” though Moltmann generally refers to it as the “broad room” or “living space.” The word has its traditional home in Jewish theology of the temple, and it is associated in the Hebrew scriptures with everything from the Israelite tabernacle to sites of theophanies to the promised land itself. God as Maqom is the “broad room” who invites us into covenantal fellowship, who proclaims the mystery of divine grace: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God” (Exod. 29:45). Jürgen Moltmann adds to this the notion that God not only dwells with creation but creation dwells in God. He thus speaks about an asymmetrical mutual indwelling of Creator and creature: “God’s indwelling in the world is divine in kind; the world’s indwelling in God is worldly in kind” (God in Creation, 150). This version of transcendence is thus dependent on a certain kind of panentheism.
- Transcendence as wonder. In her excellent new blog post on “Thinking Otherwise,” Mary-Jane Rubenstein summarizes a key point from her book on Strange Wonder as a way of overcoming the impasse between the religious and the secular. The religious perspective (she uses RO as the key example) advocates for transcendence as the way to justify and ground a theocratic imperialism; divine transcendence legitimates a tyrannical theology and politics. The secularist perspective cuts itself off from the surprising encounter with anything new; it makes everything that is all there is. The “third way” is to see “the extraordinary in and through the ordinary.” Following Heidegger, Rubenstein calls this “wonder” (thaumazein), which is a way of seeing the world that marvels “at the strangeness of the everyday.” There is a remarkable similarity between this account of transcendence and Bultmann’s dialectical-eschatological account described above, which is to be expected considering Bultmann and Heidegger were friends and colleagues who learned much from each other. Interestingly, Bultmann has an essay on “The Question of Wonder [Wunder]” (Glauben und Verstehen 1:214-28; Faith and Understanding, 247-61) where he articulates a non-miraculous conception of divine action which makes it “really possible for the Christian continually to see new wonders.” For Bultmann, anything in the world at any moment can become the shocking occasion for encountering “the extraordinary,” which he understands as God’s action in the world.
- Noncompetitive transcendence. Many of the above models could rightly claim the label of “noncompetitive,” but I include it here to acknowledge the distinctive contribution of Kathryn Tanner to the conversation about divine transcendence. Tanner’s work intends to show the radical political potential in classical Christian concepts, and transcendence lies at the heart of her project. Her position is opposed to competitive or contrastive notions of the divine-world relation: “Divinity characterized in terms of a direct contrast with certain sorts of being or with the world of non-divine being as a whole is brought down to the level of the world and the beings within it in virtue of that very opposition: God becomes one being among others within a single order. Such talk suggests that God exists alongside the non-divine, that God is limited by what is opposed to it, that God is as finite as the non-divine beings with which it is directly contrasted” (God and Creation, 45-6). Against the competitive model (which I would identify with the metaphysical and ontological models), she argues that “an extreme of divine involvement requires, one could say, an extreme of divine transcendence” (ibid., 46). Divine action and creaturely action do not function in a zero-sum game. God’s increase does not require our decrease, nor does our increase require God’s decrease. It is precisely God’s absolute otherness from the world that allows God to be absolutely with the world. This way of understanding the transcendence of God allows Tanner to argue in Christ the Key that grace is not some “extrinsic addendum,” but is rather more “natural” to us than so-called “nature”; the gratuity of grace is not a function of some presupposed contrast between creatures and God, between nature and grace. It is this absolute transcendence of God that funds Tanners account of radical politics, particularly her understanding of a noncompetitive economy.