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God’s transcendence and immanence in nature

"I’ve become convinced that the incarnation of Jesus in the world was not just about God becoming human but, in a larger way, about God becoming part of creation itself."


Photo by Andreas Schantl on Unsplash

I’m reading a book recently published by my friend and Presbyterian minister Talitha Amadea Aho titled In Deep Waters: Spiritual Care for Young People in a Climate Crisis. About midway through the book, she describes the importance of the earth as a source of beauty (as distinct from and equally important to it being a source of nourishment), and she quotes a Catholic deacon from a neighborhood in Chicago whose religious community made it a mission to maintain a beautiful garden of flowers, bushes, shrubs and trees in the city. The deacon said, “Do you know what it’s like to walk through your neighborhood and see nothing beautiful? Or to see ugliness? It gets to you, man.”

I feel very fortunate to have lived in places throughout my life with easy access to natural beauty. I grew up in an area of Pennsylvania right near the Appalachian Trail. 10 years ago, I lived near Lake Erie. Now I live near Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes of New York. Throughout my life, I have learned to love hiking, kayaking, camping, star-gazing and a little gardening. I can’t imagine not having beautiful things outside to observe, smell and taste. As I’ve been reading Aho’s book and thinking about my own experience with nature, I’ve been feeling more about the importance and urgency of conserving the earth and its beauty. I’ve also been thinking theologically about the earth and how it relates to God.

Theologians sometimes talk about transcendence and immanence as being attributes of God. When Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth wrote about God’s transcendence, they referred to it as God’s “infinite qualitative distinction.” In other words, God is not simply a better version of humanity. God is something entirely different, both with regard to God’s nature and God’s greatness. We sometimes think of God’s transcendence as what makes God “distant” or “inaccessible.” God is big enough and wise enough to create the universe. Who can truly know a God like that? God’s immanence, on the other hand, describes God’s ever-presence — the fact that God is always nearby, even when unperceived. Within humanity (as God’s image-bearers) and in history, God is present.

These two attributes – God’s transcendence and God’s immanence – are sometimes thought of as opposed to one another. How could God be both distant and nearby? How could God be both infinitely big and infinitely small? Yet, oddly, it is precisely these two attributes of God that I become most acutely aware of when I am in nature.

When I hike the massive gorge at Watkins Glen, New York, and see the tall waterfalls and the loud rushing waters of Glen Creek that cut deep into the layers of shale, sandstone and limestone over 10,000 years, I feel so small in comparison to the ancient power of that water and the infinite and powerful God who made it. Yet, feeling the cooling mist off the waterfall and seeing a river otter swimming across the creek to its den makes me feel at peace and that God is attentive and knowing. This is often my experience of God in nature — that God is both a mysterious and numinous being who also knows and loves me intimately.

Richard Rohr says that what makes God a “mystery” is not that God is unknowable but, rather, infinitely knowable. I think that is precisely what I feel when I’m attentive to the earth, and it makes me wonder: What if transcendence and immanence are not separate, distinct attributes of God? What if it is because God is nearby and deep within every created thing in the universe that God is unlike anything in creation and, thereby, infinitely distinct from it? What if it is because God is immanent that God is transcendent? Creation itself is a medium that communicates to us that God can be – at the same time – powerful, beautiful and loving.

In his book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr states his belief that “God loves things by becoming them.” I’ve reflected on this statement, and (although this isn’t the exact point he seeks to make in his book) I’ve become convinced that the incarnation of Jesus in the world was not just about God becoming human but, in a larger way, about God becoming part of creation itself. In the incarnation, God took on matter with all its properties. In the incarnation, God became atoms and molecules. That’s amazing!

We need the earth. We need to love it, respect it and conserve it. It is a source of beauty and wonder; it tells us the story of God; and God loves it deeply — deeply enough to share in its nature.