The I-T Axis
Updated: May 1, 2021
Nope, this has nothing to do with information technology. It is not a reference to weird Stephen King movies. It is the axis of balance for Christians, both in our individual lives and in our churches. It is the immanence-transcendence axis. To know God rightly, an understanding both that God is transcendent and that God is immanent is necessary.
First, the terms. That God is transcendent means that God is completely other than any created thing. He stands over against all the works of His hands, surpassing all in majesty and glory and holiness. He alone is God, and there is no other. Nothing else comes close.
To say that God is immanent means that He is close to us - He is not far off and unconcerned with what He has made. He is loving and gracious, and ultimately He has come near in His Son, Jesus Christ. He has so identified with His creation, that He has taken upon Himself the frailties and limitations of our flesh. We call it the Incarnation.
So, God is completely other than we are, and yet He has come near and walked as one of us. He is ineffable and unknowable except as He has chosen to reveal Himself. But yet, He has chosen to reveal Himself - ultimately in Jesus. He wants to be known in the most intimate way possible. Some have said that the goal of our redemption is the Beatific Vision, or union with God.
But back to the axis. Maintaining a balance between transcendence and immanence in our worship and devotion is difficult. Most of us tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Churches tend to likewise gravitate toward one or the other. I have been in cathedrals that have massive stone arches supporting ceilings so high, you can't help but look upwards. On the ceilings are beautiful paintings of angels and archangels surrounding Christ seated in glory upon His throne. The windows might be of stained glass that send shards of beautiful colored light through the sanctuary. The altars are covered with valuable furnishings and are generally either beautifully ornate or majestically stately. One tends to feel small and as if one should be very quiet upon entering such a space. Not surprisingly, the music is often large and majestic as well. Organ and choir fill the space with otherworldly, glorious beauty that calls to mind angels singing the praises of the God in whose presence they dwell. The choir and ministers are vested in robes. This is the transcendent expression. Holiness, majesty, glory. The infinite grandeur of God that dwarfs everything else. The one who is Other and who rules over all and who discerns our inmost thoughts from afar. Reverence and awe and some godly fear seem appropriate. No wonder people want to kneel when they pray in such a place.
But a person can feel unimportant in a towering cathedral. Judged by God and condemned perhaps, wondering if their prayers will get any higher than those intimidating arches. The fellowship there is also likely to be formal. Best clothes, best manners. High society might feel at home there, and that same high society might look down on any riff-raff that dares to wander in. People can hide behind the formality. If God is so unlike us as to seem unapproachable or unknowable, then that can translate to our horizontal relationships. We don't really approach each other or really know each other. But we know the liturgy by heart, by gum.
And then there is the immanent expression. I've also been in churches that felt like I was in someone's living room. Or in a concert hall or movie theater. The lights are dimmed, the seats comfortable, sometimes even the windows are blacked out or covered. You can bring your coffee into church. Before the service, there is the happy sound of many conversations throughout the worship space. Background music that is upbeat and familiar. Similar to what I might listen to on the radio while driving to work. The pastor is dressed casually and preaches from a pub table while sitting on a stool. The messages are aimed at what I am dealing with in my life. The music is catchy and often focused on my relationship with God and how my heart is feeling in that relationship. The church is warm and inviting, and there are small groups and lots of opportunities for fellowship. Etc.
But something is missing. I don't feel like I've gone to worship the God who made the heavens and the earth and everything in them. I feel like I've had a lovely morning with my friends. I feel like I have folks who will listen and walk with me in difficult times, but I feel like I could remain just as I am and it wouldn't make a whit of difference. Plenty to engage my head and my heart, but Communion seems an afterthought. Optional, and on the table by the exit doors. Baptisms are accompanied by nice testimony videos, but they take place in a plastic baby pool. Maybe at the beach if you're lucky. Worship services consist of lots of music and a sizable message with applications. Oh, yeah – and coffee. Often with donuts too. Nice touch.
Transcendence and immanence. Hmmm. It's like peanut butter or chocolate. Some prefer one and others the other. But wouldn't it be great if we could get the two together? It might just be the sweet spot we were made to stand in and feel most alive. The power and the glory of the infinite, eternal, unchanging, all-knowing Lord God Almighty, and the nearness, forgiveness, acceptance, love and mercy of the humble Servant, the Incarnate Son of God. The completely Other, and the One who is like us in every way, yet without sin.
Church architecture may suggest one or the other. But we don't have to be constrained or limited by that. Our souls need both the transcendent and the immanent. May God give us wisdom and grace by His Spirit to know Him and honor Him rightly in our worship. It's not an either-or. It's a both-and.
Oh - and since we need both expressions of the Reality that is our God, perhaps we shouldn't throw rocks at each other. Learning from each other might be a better idea.