Transcendence or Transimmanence? Theology for Critical Movements of Resistance

This is a recently updated excerpt from a response I wrote (here is the original) to Mark L. Taylor’s powerful and creative paper on the subject of mass-incarceration, “Sing it Hard,” (see a more recent edition of the paper here) for a forthcoming publication with Orbis Books based on the Claremont Graduate University conference, “What are the Most Compelling Theological Issues Today?” held in April of 2012, edited and compiled by Anselm K. Min.  What I’ve included below is only a drafted portion of my response — and not my review of the essay itself, which has also been significantly revised — that considers the differences between and adequacy of a traditional theology of “transcendence” and Taylor’s appropriation of Jean-Luc Nany’s ontology of “trans-immanence,” respectively.  For context then, it may be helpful for those interested to familiarize themselves with the links above.  Basically though, to put it in very crude terms, I think the difference comes down to whether one has faith in a real God that is active in the world and evokes worship — i.e., A God who is transcendent and “personal” — or not (transimmanence).

The notion of transimmanence denies that the “unlocking of the world’s continual unfolding of itself to itself,” or opposition to “those structures that would lock it down [in its] place” need reference a transcendent God. But then transimmanence, as Nancy has it, is necessarily an open immanence, not a closed one.[i] In fact, it is resistance to closure, and as such constructive and surely a viable concept for thinking resistance. Transimmanence for Nancy is conceived as “ex-positional through the arts, works to clear passage ways, moving deftly, creatively, to make place(s) and space(s) of world.”[ii] It “names within Nancy’s project the dynamic, ceaselessly flowing sense of the world, liberating world continually into itself, evolving and revolving into even more textured and artfully ex-posited complexity . . . a ‘revolt of bodies’ toward ‘freedom.’”[iii]  Nancy’s transimmanence is “not simply a matter of having done with both . . . Nancy, instead, strikes a neither/nor to transcendence/immanence, recasting both in the discursive milieu of transimmanence,” with art as its supreme expression.[iv]

Transimmanence further connotes a dialectic with transcendence, though the latter is not a necessary precondition for thinking the former. At this point one may be left wondering what ontological role, exactly, transcendence really has, other than as that which, while referenced, is refused and declared a failure.  Like Laclau, “Nancy’s refusal is a deliberate working amid the ruins of transcendence.”[v] Transimmanence, then, is a crossing, but only to another world “within.”  While the intention in transimmanence is not to accent pure immanence, or to think “world” as opposed to “God,” the account may leave some less than persuaded of this. A synonymous concept to transimmanence might be “non-reductive immanence,” but this hardly equals “neither immanence nor transcendence.” [vi] For transimmanence remains immanent, and transcendence is still repudiated. Thus, a question arises for me here: Once on a totally immanent plane, despite being able to traverse, slide, or pass through it, does one not suffer from having to choose between saying either too little or too much – too little because human efforts to achieve their ideals are futile, and too much because, when means for striving to achieve these ideals are absolutized, the cost to human life is often immense?

In his book, Critica de la Razon Utopica, Franz Hinkelammert makes a distinction between transcendental imagination and transcendental concepts that may be instructive. Transcendental concepts, for Hinkelammert,

“begin with the objective social relations between subjects and take them to the limits of concepts of institutional perfection. Transcendental imagination, in contrast, begins with the effectively experienced mutual recognition between subjects, [and] transcendentalizes them in a situation of perfection. In the face of the rigidity of the perfect institutions there appears the fluidity of great joy.”[vii]

Transcendental concepts are conservative by nature, always working from within the limits of the present political apparatus for the transformation of society. The transcendental imagination, however, is critical of the prevailing structure, because it “places human subjectivity at the core of what is possible, which, in turn, relativizes institutions.”[viii] Consequently, utopian imagination is like a transcendence from below, which believes that the world can be different, and “emerges from alternative concrete experiences, bring[ing] with it what the biblical tradition calls a revelation.”[ix]

The notion of transimmanence may seem near to the idea of transcendence from below at first glance, but whereas transimmanence denies divine transcendence, I find in God’s otherness tremendous recourse to both criticism of oppression and energy for opposing it.  Until now, though, this analysis risks conflating the political and theological. While inseparable, for clarity purposes I propose a distinction between political transcendence on the one hand and God’s transcendence on the other. Concerning political transcendence, the employment of transimmanence may both resonate with and be enhanced by what Rieger, Miguez and Sung argue in their work, Beyond Empire – namely, that transcendence should be humanized, but not immanentized. For Sung in particular, the question is less about whether transcendence, but which, and how much such transcendence says human beings can achieve for themselves – that is, how realizable their utopia is for a given transcendental horizon. Eschatologically and politically, Sung understands transcendence, as utopia, to be an essential dimension to all human belief and life. According to Sung, that

“we cannot think and live without a utopian horizon that provides meaning for our journey and measure and norms for interpreting and judging reality and also the recognition that our utopia, however desirable it may be, is not realizable in its fullness, are fundamental conditions for our reasoning not to be lost in confusion and not to be carried along by the perversions and sacrifices imposed and demanded in the name of a the full realization of utopia.”[x]

For theorists Hardt and Negri, as with Nancy, “Empire” itself is described as thoroughly immanent. Empire is the nature of the “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance or “transcendence” of the nation-state, according to Hardt and Negri. Sung retorts, however, that Hardt and Negri have misdiagnosed Empire, and it’s possible Taylor has done the same with the carceral state. In other words, maybe the specter of systems of domination and exploitation are too pervasive and ideologically “transcendent” itself – albeit a false transcendence – to be offset with mere transimmanence. Maybe a robust and imaginative eschatology could make the specter less haunting and expose its futility. But this is still to speak of political transcendence the historical or horizontal, as it were. I now turn to theological transcendence.

For Nestor Miguez:

If Jesus the Nazarene is, somehow, the presence of the transcendent in the everyday world, of the universal God who is expressed in peculiarity, of the absolute incarnate in the temporary and limited – that is to say, shown as the material – and, moreover, the creator of the human exhibited on the cross as the dehumanized of the system, this marks one complete break between glory and human wisdom (which reaches its culmination in Empire) and glory and divine knowledge. But this break is not in the distinction between the transcendent and the immanent, between faith and politics, because the transcendent is included in the immanent, but in its most oppressed way – he became a slave… (italics added).[xi]

Appreciating the historical, political and social dimension of Jesus’s ministry and death is essential for stirring a counter-carceral Christian theology.[xii] The danger of ideological abstraction from the concrete significance of Jesus’s death cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration in my estimation to assert that, without embodying Jesus’s own adversarial resistance to dominative structures, the gospel message itself will be misconstrued. Furthermore, the mere establishment of a liberal community of difference and tolerance would also miss the mark.

Having said this, is it not also true that the greatest power of Jesus’s life as a critique of the political and religious establishment is principally derived from the early Philippians hymn about the incarnation of divine transcendence in the immanence of a human being? To be sure, as Miguez maintains, the transcendent must make itself accessible to the immanent and from the immanent. This is why I have employed the terminology of transcendence from below. But the immanent would cease to be immanent if it could transcend itself, which is what seems to be proposed in the idea of transimmanence.

If, traditionally, transcendence and immanence only have a binary relationship, and if the objective of credentialed theology is primarily directed toward organizing doctrine, the church, and human life in reference to the transcendent Other, then I join others who wish to abandon the enterprise. If transcendence inhibits creative, artistic expression and its coming forth from the liminal realm of agonistic politics – that is, from the subalterns who experience and bear most intensely the weight of the world and the full force of socially imposed suffering[xiii] – then I too want little to do with it. As I see it, though, a notion of transcendence restricted to the immanent plane is not inadequate, but less adequate, by comparison, to infuse and ultimately sustain the energy and vitality of counter-hegemonic movements. This is true for the victimized and their communities, but even more so for those benefiting from privilege who would be hailed (Dussel) to participate in the trials and liberating struggles of those haunted by the specter of the penal state.

As already suggested, rather than making a tired evaluation of eloquent and promising politio-historical readings of the gospel, which I applaud as subversive, incisive, and inspired, I simply hold that a transcendent reference may remain even more potent for kindling critical movements of resistance. Discard the perverse forms of transcendence, yes, but not what is so central and enlivening to the tradition that has incited great resistance throughout history, even if it has also been co-opted and abused. Genuine transcendence is not the cause of Christendom, colonialism, neoliberalism and the like. On the contrary, it may be the best source for challenging these things.

Most appropriate, then, I submit, is neither the rejection of divine transcendence nor an immanentization of it, but a critique of its distorted expressions – those that reinforce or ossify the status quo of power relations and neo-colonialism, most notably in the form of mass incarceration. This includes both conservative neoliberal (anti-)utopias and religious ideologies that cease to be liberative. The fundamental problem with such ontologies, I would urge, is not that they appeal to transcendence, but that they are closed off, totalized and risk-averse. Transcendence doesn’t have to mean “outside.” A critical transcendence, from the “below” of the crucified, does find its hope in the divine “beyond,” but not because this divine is guaranteed to save us from our social apathy or material irresponsibility. Nor is the beyond an invisible hand that reckons necessary sacrifices (capitalism’s “creative destruction”) of other people’s well-being and bodies disposable to serve the interests of the elite few. The “from beyond” of transcendence is precisely what guards against the common human mistake of putting too much stock in what can be accomplished “from here,” and by our own power, within history. At the same time, the paradox of faith and politics is that radical love and liberating justice for “the wretched of the earth”’ (Fanon) must be courageously sought in the midst of tragedy and in the face of an uncertain future.

For Christians, the depth dimension of this mission flows from God through Christ, as a power beyond history, experienced in history, in solidarity with history, making a critique of history, and giving hope for history. Hence, what should be opposed, theologically speaking, is not divine transcendence, but conservative, neoliberal utopias, which is the type of transcendence that has indeed failed and come to ruins. Is God’s attribute of transcendence an inherent and inalienable part of revealed Christian doctrine? I think it probably is.  So yes, even if it were a bad idea, it would be difficult to challenge.  But on the other hand, is the God of the poor and the oppressed a failed transcendental signifier? Maybe so; one can only answer in faith, and admittedly, simple, traditional rejoinders will not do.  At the same time, I am not sure that the right criteria for Christian theology is a straightforward calculus of political feasibility.  I can say this though as one who still trust that Christians can live into their faith in such a God as cause for renewed hope and strength to rise up and “sing it hard.” For this God, Christians profess, whose character was revealed in a poor, self-sacrificing, executed Hebrew Nazarene, judges the proud and gives grace to the humble.

It was a resurrection eschatology that at least partly empowered Paul and other early Jesus followers to live so boldly for their faith, and with such a counter-narrative to the “lockdown” anti-utopian spirit of Rome. The story of the risen Jesus instilled courage for confrontation with death and suffering. Once more, it seems to me that the problem is not with transcendence per se, but what kind. There are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic theologies of transcendence. Whatever else resurrection means, it is the promise of a future in God for victims. In Sung’s concluding words, “where the reduction of immanence is avoided, there appears the potency of the eschatological claim, of the meaning of justice (Phil. 2. 5-11). To renounce the transcendent is to be left with no standpoint for the radical critique of history.”[xiv]

To stress once more, the claim here is not that transimmanence is an inept concept as far as it goes.  Thus, there may well be defensible grounds for a transimmanent ontology, but insofar as these grounds depend on the conspicuous advantage of transimmanence over a critical and christologically-rooted transcendence from below, I would consider it a hasty dismissal of what the Christian theological tradition has to offer.

[i]B. C Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 167.


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]Mark L Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 184.

[vii]Franz J Hinkelammert and Juan Antonio Senent de Frutos, Critica de la razon utopica (Bilbao, Spain: Desclee de Brouwer, 2002), 343.

[viii]Néstor Oscar Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key (London: SCM press, 2009), 122.

[ix]Ibid., 123.

[x]Ibid., 118.

[xi]Ibid., 196-7.

[xii]Mark L Taylor, The Executed God: the Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001).

[xiii]Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 7.

[xiv]Míguez, Rieger, and Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire., 200.

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