Transcendent God

Thinking about God. I had an email from someone worried about eclecticism, about picking and choosing from the various religious offerings. It set me to thinking about God and how we persist in believing in simplistic concepts which, after a little thought, could not possibly be true. Miracles, for example. If God worked a miracle he would not be God. Miracles are divine interventions which alter the natural course of things, usually to some particular person’s advantage. For God to work a miracle he would have to choose to help one and not to help others. The idea of a god who has favourites, who chooses to help some, the few, and allows others, the majority, to suffer and die is not one I can subscribe to. But I can understand why many people do. It is a lottery syndrome. You pray, make novenas and sacrifices etc. and who knows, maybe it will be your turn for a bit of divine intervention. Worse still is the idea, perhaps your prayers have not been successful, that Our Lady, or a saint, will be more kindly disposed towards you and intervene on your behalf persuading God to change his mind. This may fit the picture of a fickle despot but it does not resemble what I recognise as God.

We tend to see God as up there somewhere, in heaven –  a transcendent Being set over and against the world. I think for many people this transcendent dimension is like another universe. We can only get there after death, how is never made clear. From time to time God does cross this gap and intervene in our affairs. The most important occasion when this happened was the Incarnation. Catholics also believe that God intervenes through the Sacraments – though nothing is ever perceived. This is not what transcendence means. Louis Nordstrom puts it well.

‘To paraphrase from the Mahayana classic The Heart Sutra: to have gone thoroughly beyond is to have gone beyond beyond. The point is that true transcendence leaves no conceptual (or conceptualizable) trace – no trace of what has been transcended, what it has been transcended toward, nor any trace of the experience itself. True transcendence can neither be understood in terms of anything else nor in terms of itself: the former because it cannot contain any trace of the relative, the latter because it is, like all things, empty or devoid of self-nature.’*

God is not a being, i.e. a member of the category ‘beings’, or ‘entities’. He is not the most powerful being, not even an Absolute Being. Although he is referred to as Absolute Being this is not, strictly speaking, legitimate. God is not, cannot be an item of experience, not sensible, not emotive, not conceptual. God is ‘beyond, beyond’ any sort of experience it is possible to have. But it is possible to experience the effect of God’s ‘presence’. This is an experience which Stace calls ‘both something and nothing’.

 It is negative, nothing, in that nothing is experienced. It is something in that there is an awareness that this ‘nothingness’, this empty experience, is of profound significance. It is not the nothingness of dreamless sleep, or absent mindedness, or vacuity. It is a nothingness pregnant with meaning. This experience comes with no labels. It cannot be categorised. But it does come with the conviction that, somehow, one is in touch with Reality, with what is not ephemeral, not empirical, not contingent. Christians interpret this experience as an experience of the Divine, Buddhists as an experience of Sunyata. 

The intriguing question which emerges from this is, ‘What is the ‘relationship’ between this totally transcendent God and the human person?’ I put ‘relationship’ even though, as Nordstrom pointed out, God ‘cannot contain any trace of the relative’.

*[Mysticism without transcendence: Reflections on liberation and emptiness, Louis Nordstrom, Philosophy East and West, Vol 31 No. 1 January 1981 Pp.89 -95. Cf. Forman, RKC., Meister Eckhart: Mystic as Theologian, Element Books, Shaftsbury, 1991 p. 111]

2 Responses to “Transcendent God”

  1. christine robinson says:

    Hi william
    We are just back from India- Calcutta ( where Christopher was born ) and then Goa.
    I had a real struggle with the problem of beggars and whether i was still’me’ when i ignored them.
    But this is to tell you about a book i am just finishing called’Code name God’ by Mani Bhaumik ph.D (Pengin2005) who is a scientist.I cannot possibly paraphrase the book which is now talking about ‘fields’ and quantum this and that.
    BUT I think he is saying something important about our perception of ‘God’
    thanks for the BLOG we are off to mediatattion tonight at Frsh Horizons in westcliff.
    Christine

  2. Sheelagh Pickles says:

    This chimes with a discussion we were having recently at an ecumenical housegroup which Tony and I attend. We’re reading John Humphrey’s book ” In God We Doubt”. I like Stace’s idea in relation to experiencing the effect of God’s presence.The question of the relationship between God and human beings – I can’t even begin to fathom – that’s where I turn to Jesus -I can only try to develop a relationship with Him and trust…

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