I decided to use the two theological terms in the title, knowing perhaps some of my readers will not have a clue what I am talking about ("Huh? Transparency or innocence? Transpandex or elephants?"). But then I’m hoping that your curiosity got the best of you and you decided to read the post, just to find out.
Transcendence means that God is beyond human experience and understanding, transcending the physical universe. Immanence means that God is actively involved in creation. I want to talk about how these two ideas have been kept separate for a long time (and especially how charismatic worship tends to over-emphasize one over the other – can you guess which one?), and how we can begin to integrate them.
So let’s talk about charismatic worship (also included here would probably be most conservative evangelical contemporary worship). I’ve noticed a trend that I think isn’t such a good one: a
flight from reality. There are way too many songs that talk about
leaving the world behind, forgetting my problems, or God "taking me
away", as if worship were an acid-trip or an alcohol binge that helps
us numb the pain and escape the dreariness of life. But worship is not
a drug. And this kind of thinking actually is more related to Gnosticism
than Christianity. Gnosticism believes in a remote, distant God, and
believes the "pure" form of life is immaterial, while physical reality
is the creation of an evil god. Thus it ends up being anti-creational,
longing to "escape the body" to find bliss in the spiritual realm. When
Christians inadvertantly adopt this viewpoint, it’s as if God looked at
all He made and said, "It is very good." And we look at it and say
back, "No it isn’t."
This is often reflected in how our worship spaces look as well. If we have an "escapology theology" we’re not going to care how things look or sound because we’re trying to escape the physical world, right? Thus many charismatic church buildings are simply warehouses with some audio equipment. No wonder we close our eyes to worship! Everything is just too hideous to look at! I’m not saying ugly buildings are always a reflection of poor theology, but I am saying that many times our buildings are ugly because of "escapology theology." Many times a cavalier attitude toward the environment is rooted in the same theology, but that’s another post.
Who knew the way we worship said so much about our theology, right?
You might think that charismatic worship would tend to over-emphasize immanence, with all the songs about intimacy with God, and having a love relationship with God, but it actually over-emphasizes transcendence. The basic idea behind so many "escaping the world and running into your arms" songs is that God is located outside the physical world, and so we must escape the limits of our physicality in order to experience Him. This the same reason there tends to be an emphasis on ecstatic experience – God is so completely "other" that when He is actually working in a place, it is a rare and unusual event, and thus weird things will be happening. I’m not saying weird things never happen, only that we can’t assume that God is only working when weird things are happening. And indeed we can’t assume that when weird things are happening, God must be working. Our theology has to be more subtle than that.
So if our worship emphasizes transcendence to the exclusion of immanence (traditionally conservative theology), we will tend to seek to experience unusual phenomena and escape the normal-ness of life. We’ll want each worship time to be filled with all the thrill and excitement that our normal life lacks. We’ll treat worship like a drug. But if we over-emphasize immanence (traditionally liberal theology), we’ll likely tend to be very unimpressed with God, seeing him as a guy who happens to like the same things we do, but pretty much as powerless as we are to bring good things to the world.
But what if we don’t have to choose one or the other? True worship holds on to both transcendence and immanence. Yes, God is beyond human comprehension (transcendence), BUT he has revealed himself, and chosen to work to redeem what he created (immanence). This is an over-simplification, but transcendence makes him worthy of worship, and immanence makes it possible to worship him.
So those who over-emphasize immanence need to experience the transcendence of the Creator. And those who over-emphasize transcendence need to learn to experience God in the mundane and normal aspects of life. Since I am guessing most of my readers would be in the charismatic/evangelical/too-much-transcendence camp, here are a few suggestions for integrating your theology:
Visit a cathedral. Look around at the stained glass, the icons, the altar, the carvings, whatever else they have. Think about how they have used creation to honor the Creator. There is a latent attitude in evangelicalism that bristles when money is spent making something "pretty", but beauty is not frivolous. Check out the world God made. It’s not just functional, it’s ravishingly beautiful. How does a cathedral reflect this aspect of God’s nature better than the "warehouse" church building?
- Bring God into your everyday moments. It’s not that He’s not already there, it’s just that we aren’t aware of him. Don’t save your praying and worshiping for special moments and special times. Post "breath prayers" (prayers you can say in one breath) in conspicuous places on your mirror at home, near the phone at work, on the dashboard in your car. Take brief moments in your normal life to remind yourself that God is with you and is actively working in and around you, even if nobody’s eyelids are fluttering 😉
- Seek beauty. Many people feel guilty when they are enjoying something beautiful, whether it’s a glorious sunset,
a well-seasoned meal, a heart-rending song, an elegant building, or a subtle painting. Many feel as though enjoying beauty is somehow the same as idolatry. But it’s not. The danger is there, sure, but everything that’s worth pursuing is probably pretty dangerous. Don’t let a fear of idolatry or the appearance of foolishness stop you from pursuing and enjoying beauty. In many ways, I think the pagan pursuing beauty is closer to God than the pagan pursuing reason and logic. Enjoy beauty, because it teaches you to rejoice with creation – and it speaks of a God who is intimately and actively involved in the world He created, redeeming and restoring it from within.