Transcendence (religion)

Transcendence (religion)

In religion, transcendence is a condition or state of being that surpasses physical existence, and in one form is also independent of it. It is affirmed in the concept of the divine in the major religious traditions, and contrasts with the notion of God, or the Absolute existing exclusively in the physical order (immanentism), or indistinguishable from it (pantheism). Transcendence can be attributed to the divine not only in its being, but also in its knowability. Thus, God transcends the universe, but also transcends knowledge (is beyond the grasp of the human mind). Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some theologians and metaphysicians of the great religious traditions affirm that God, or Brahman, is both within and beyond the universe (panentheism); in it, but not of it; simultaneously pervading it and surpassing it.


Jewish theologians, especially since the Middle Ages, have described the transcendence of God in terms of divine simplicity, explaining the traditional characteristics of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Interventions of divine transcendence occur in the form of events outside the realm of natural occurrence such as miracles and the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Divine immanence, in contrast, describes the Godliness suffused within all of creation, celebrated and recognized through the practice of Sabbath observance.

In Jewish medieval cosmology, God is described as the "Ein Sof" (literally, without end) as reference to God's divine simplicity and essential unknowability. The emanation of creation from the Ein Sof is explained through a process of filtering. In the Kabbalistic creation myth referred to as the "breaking of the vessels," filtering was necessary because otherwise this intense, simple essence would have overwhelmed and made impossible the emergence of any distinct creations. Each filter, described as a vessel, captured the emanation of this creative force until it was overwhelmed and broken by the intensity of God's simple essence. Once broken, the vessel's shards, full of absorbed "divine sparks," fell into a vessel below. This process ultimately continued until the "light" of Godliness was sufficiently reduced to allow the world we inhabit to be sustained without breaking. The creation of this world, however, comes with the consequence that Godly transcendence is hidden, or "exiled" (from the immanent world). Only through the revelation of sparks hidden within the shards embedded in our material world can this transcendence be recognized again. In Hasidic thought, divine sparks are revealed through the performance of commandments or "mitzvot," (literally, the obligations and prohibitions described in the Torah). One Jewish explanation for the existence of malevolence in the world is that such terrible things are possible with the divine sparks being hidden. Thus there is some urgency to performing mitzvot in order to liberate the hidden sparks and perform a "tikkun olam" (literally, healing of the world). Until then, the world is presided over by the immanent aspect of God, often referred to as the Shekhinah or divine spirit, and in feminine terms.


Christians pick up on the historical dynamism of the future-oriented plan of the Old Testament and follow the immanent workings of the transcendent God in the story of Christ. They too believe that God's existence is ontologically distinct and fully independent of the material universe, and yet that He interacts directly with it. As with the Jews, this distinction is articulated in the notion which some believe to be unique to the Semitic religions: creation. Theologians thus have the onus of showing how God can still be regarded as infinite, although there exists, through creation, something that He is not, but which does not thereby limit Him. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, argued that although after creation there are more beings (plural) than before, there is still no more being (singular), because all that exists other than God shares in the one being of God, although in a particularized way. Jesus Christ is believed to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but incarnate in the humanity received corporally from the Virgin Mary and a divinely-created human soul. Thus, transcendence and immanence interpenetrate in an exceptional manner in the Christian faith, practice and theology. The mysterious and paradoxical nature of Christ provides a bridge between the infinite Deity and finite man.


Muslims share the belief in God's (Allah's) transcendence, but emphasize it in a manner which does not invite the contrapuntal accent on immanence characteristic of Christianity. For a Muslim, divine transcendence must be protected, and all talk of incarnation or even attempts at figurative artistic representation of the divine, or even of holy persons, are regarded as culpable detractions from God's absolute unicity, supremacy and transcendence. There are some passages in the Quran which are misunderstood as indicating the Immanence of Allah, such as: "And to Allah belong the East and the West. And in whichever direction you turn, there is the Presence(Face, Ar. Wahj) of Allah. Truly Allah is Vast, All-Knowing." Quran 2:115 "We did indeed create the human being and We know what whispers in his soul and We are nearer to him than the jugular vein." Qur'an 50:16. However, these verses are actually in reference to the Omniscience of God, not Immanence. In Islam, God is absolutely and unequivocally transcendent.


God, called Waheguru, is the central idea of the sikh faith. In this faith, Guru Nanak described God as being transcendent, and is known as the creator. God can create any mountain, lake, etc with no effort. God is also known as an eternal being living outside this universe where the Good can only travel. Ik Onkar, meaning "One God" is the phrase sikhs take upon themselves to pray upon. God is a transcendent being, without fear, without hate. He is the water, the air, and he is in our hearts. (explained in the Guru Granth Sahib)


Transcendence is described and viewed from a number of diverse perspectives within Hinduism and its multi-faceted scriptural metaphysics. Some traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, view transcendence in the form of 'God' as the Nirguna Brahman (God without attribute - indeed even without "god-ness"), transcendence being absolute. Other traditions, such as Bhakti yoga, view transcendence as God with attributes - Saguna Brahman, the Absolute being a personal deity (Ishvara), such as Vishnu or Shiva.

Within the Bhagavad Gita, transcendence is described as a level of spiritual attainment, or state of being which is open to all spiritual aspirants (the goal of yoga practice) - the state at which one is no longer under the control of animalistic, base desires and is aware of a higher spiritual reality.

  • "When the yogī, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in transcendence — devoid of all material desires — he is said to be well established in yoga." BG 6.18

The exact nature of this transcendence is given as being "above the modes of material nature", which are known as gunas (ropes) which bind the living entity to the world of samsara (repeated rebirth) within Hindu philosophy. (See BG 14.22-25)


In the various forms of BuddhismTheravada, Mahayana (especially Pure Land and Zen) and Vajrayana — the notion of transcendence is of more difficult application. Except for Pure Land and Vajrayana (where a certain return to Hindu-like personifications of the spiritual world is countenanced), the role played by transcendent beings is minimal and at most a temporary expedient. The notion closest to transcendence, much in the spirit of Western "negative theology", is perhaps that of shunyata (emptiness, void). Suffice to say that one of the marks which set Buddhism apart from Hinduism in the beginning, and continues to serve as distinctive, is its reluctance to allow language to approach or speak of transcendence. For many, this appears to amount to atheism; for others, it would be better termed agnosticism. At any rate, for the Buddhist, if anything ultimate or transcendent is to be "known" at all, it would have to be directly experienced and not talked about.

Baha'i Faith

Bahá'ís believe in a single, imperishable God, the creator of all things, including all the creatures and forces in the universe. God is described as "a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty. Though inaccessible directly, God is nevertheless seen as conscious of his creation, with a mind, will and purpose. Bahá'ís believe that God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including through a series of divine messengers referred to as Manifestations of God or sometimes divine educators. In expressing God's intent, these manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world. Bahá'í teachings state that God is too great for humans to fully comprehend, nor to create a complete and accurate image.

Wicca and Neopaganism

Although the various branches of Neopaganism hold their own tenets and beliefs, it is generally recognised that the Divine (often called the Goddess and God, or, more simply, The Goddess) is both immanent and transcendent, constantly giving birth to, destroying, and rebirthing Itself. Physical reality is seen as one the Goddess' many manifestations, including visions and experiences found in trance states, which are considered Her transcendent aspects. However, pantheism is not generally found within modern Paganism as it was in classical pagan thought, as human interaction with the world has given birth to objects and things that are not considered Divine. Nevertheless, human beings are considered part of the Divine as a whole, and therefore carry the spark of divinity within them.

The Death of God and the end of Transcendence

Theologians Christian theologians Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, William Hamilton and Thomas J. J. Altizer, and the rabbi Richard Rubenstein.

In 1961, Vahanian's book The Death of God was published. Vahanian argued that modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence. He concluded that for the modern mind "God is dead", but he did not mean that God did not exist. In Vahanian's vision a transformed post-Christian and post-modern culture was needed to create a renewed experience of deity.

Both Van Buren and Hamilton agreed that the concept of transcendence had lost any meaningful place in modern thought. According to the norms of contemporary modern thought, God is dead. In responding to this collapse in transcendence Van Buren and Hamilton offered secular people the option of Jesus as the model human who acted in love. The encounter with the Christ of faith would be open in a church-community.

Altizer offered a radical theology of the death of God that drew upon William Blake, Hegelian thought and Nietzschean ideas. He conceived of theology as a form of poetry in which the immanence (presence) of God could be encountered in faith communities. However, he no longer accepted the possibility of affirming belief in a transcendent God. Altizer concluded that God had incarnated in Christ and imparted his immanent spirit which remained in the world even though Jesus was dead.

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