Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

[12] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

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8 Comments

  1. Charles Upton said,

    April 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Transcendence, Immanence are totally, absolutely One; they are two names of the One God. Immanence is the indwelluing transcendence of God. God transcends every limited form because He is Absolute Reality. God is immanent within, and encompasses, every limited form because He is Absolute Reality.

    We can’t “choose” what Is.

  2. tim power said,

    April 12, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Isnt the tathagatagharba doctrine in The Awakening of Faith, for example, precisely that: an intersection between the immanent and the transcendental?

    • jeremylent said,

      April 12, 2010 at 1:09 pm

      Both the tathagatagharba “Buddha nature” doctrine and the “Advaita” Hindu tradition are, in my view, majestic attempts to reconcile the “transcendence” vs. “immanence” issues raised in this post, and are probably the major sources of Huxley’s “perennial tradition.” However, I think both of them may reflect ingenious metaphysical constructs by those who felt the immanence of the sacred in their moments of awakening, and then tried to synthesize their experience with the transcendental worldview around them.

      With reference to Walter Stace (mentioned in the post), you could think of this as “post-experiential cultural and religious categorization” on a large scale. Back in the days when these two great traditions evolved, positing a universe without an external sacred dimension was unthinkable. (At least, in South Asia; in East Asia, Taoist traditions offered an “immanent” interpretation of the sacred.) In today’s scientific worldview, however, this extra sacred dimension is both problematic and unnecessary. Sacredness, reverence and meaning may be seen as intrinsic to life without positing an extrinsic source.

  3. bwinwnbwi said,

    May 17, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Actually, being a Buddhist to some degree myself, I tend to disagree with the above statement,– transcendence or immanence, but not both. Using the Mahayana Buddhist formula– form emptiness, emptiness form, (b~b~bb), here’s how I understand the immanence and transcendence of God (thanks for the opportunity to post):

    God is both immanent and transcendent. As immanent, God is identical with all freedom and liberation, i.e., the evolution of the universe, life, and civilization. But, pantheism is not implied by this immanence. The boundary that separates God form not-God (as Whitehead suggests) is found in what perpetuates “good-healthy- feelings,” i.e., the freedom/liberation that perpetuates “good-healthy-feelings” (in this respect, as people suffer so too does God, as people fight against unnecessary suffering and injustice, so too God).

    God is transcendent because the structure that embeds God’s immanence is also the structure that logically affirms (implies) Godhead. This structure, logically speaking, can be described as ~~b (the immanence of God’s nothingness), ~bb (life liberated from God’s nothingness), and b~b~bb (the physical event of logical implication liberated from the biological existence of God’s nothingness). In other words, transcendent God is “implied” from the structure that embeds, separates, and connects everything to everything else via the space of logical implication. I understand God, but living one’s life in/through God means “always bringing oneself back to God, back from living outside the boundaries of God–and that is also another definition for struggle!

  4. David E. McKenzie said,

    June 30, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Immanence or Transcendence? How About Immanence and Transition?

    In the article, “Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…” the author objects to the notion that spiritual realization can be described as both transcendent (beyond normal worldly experience) and immanent (found everywhere and in everything). How can it be both? Simple answer: It IS both simply because the two seemingly opposing notions are talking about two different things; however, perhaps the word “transition” would be a more precise rendering of the concept embodied by the traditional word “transcendence.” But before I argue that, a brief review of how spiritual truth CAN be both “transcendent” and “immanent.”

    1. Spiritual truth is transcendent: of what? Of ordinary, “worldly” human consciousness. To quote Paul: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The thing to be transcended, no, that MUST be transcended: Paul referred to it as the “patterns of this world,” i.e. the unconscious, “sleeping” mind that recognizes nothing but the material universe it finds itself in, by nature of its ignorance devoid of any spiritual awareness of the Reality behind and within all things (the TRUE nature of all things, or God, if you will.)

    2. And, spiritual truth is, OF COURSE, immanent by nature. That is what defines it in the first place: God, or Ultimate spiritual reality, is the great ALL-ness of everything. God is every moment, every step, every breath.

    So when the word transcendent is used, one must simply bear in mind what the word is referring to: the necessary step toward understanding immanence. The step that must be taken is the step out of “sleeping mind” focused only on the material world into “awake mind” that is aware of the Great Spiritual Reality intensely permeating all things with its eternality. And perhaps ultimately the author is right; in reality there is no real “transcendence” involved, but rather the dawning of a new understanding, a light turning on, a click in the mind that says “aha! I get it now! All is miracle!” Transcendence? Maybe not. But definitely there is a transition to be made from one state of consciousness to the other. And if I may be so bold, I would assert that one state of consciousness is, if not “transcendent,” definitely to be preferred over the other. I would rather be “transformed by the renewing of my mind” than stuck in the materialistic, idol worshiping condition of tedious human consciousness, forever worried about what material playthings I have or do not have, or what my worldly status is or isn’t.

    To sum up, an orange is simultaneously rough and sour when referring to its outer skin and sweet and tender when referring to its inner flesh; likewise, spiritual truth is both transcendent from the spiritually unaware position and immanent from the spiritually aware position. Moreover, the attributes of a complex phenomenon are varied and even potentially contradictory depending on which particular aspect of the phenomenon is being observed, as well as the unique perspective (position) of the observer. Nevertheless, in a nod to the partial correctness of the author’s thesis, perhaps it is more useful to speak of the transition to a more spiritually aware state of consciousness than to the transcendence of one state to a “higher” state, which may confuse people into believing that such a state is impossible for them to achieve. It is not, it is merely a matter of choice: the choice for truth, God, and love over illusion, fear, and hatred.

  5. Tim Hardwick said,

    September 18, 2010 at 4:56 am

    If you can’t equate transcendence with immanence, then surely you have to deny the Buddhist’s concept of the Eternal Now, or time in eternity?

    Huston Smith’s conciliation of transcendence and immanence likely derives from his 1961 mescaline experiment, as recounted in his Cleansing the Doors of Perception (200), in which he directly experienced a neoplatonic form of emanationism. This leads him to equate, in buddhist terms, Samsara with Nirvana, in their ultimate realisation.

    In such a state, any apparently incidental ‘object’ or ‘particular’ in the world is seen as being ‘intrinsically meaningful’ and ‘simply its own point’, which is an intimation of its intrinsic lack of existence – it being wholly dependent on other ‘things’, including a perceiving ‘self’. In this manner, as every ‘thing’ is interdependent with everything else in the world, only empty ‘things’ exist, none which can be said to occur for the sake of any other. Each ‘thing’, or more accurately, each ‘event’ is whole and complete in itself, because although conditioned by everything else in the universe and thus a manifestation of it, for precisely that reason it is not subordinated to anything else but becomes an unconditioned end-in-itself.

    This harks back to Blake’s famous verse:

    To see a World in a grain of sand
    And Heaven in a wild flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.

  6. March 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Thank you for the deep lesson. I have been contemplating these questions for a lifetime.

    So the poet answers:

    We cannot have what isn’t ours. When tempted to the delusion of something else, the Buddha in his lotus slowly moved his hand toward the Earth and with outstretched fingers tapped the ground.

  7. RakeMeBack said,

    July 7, 2012 at 1:01 am

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