Historical Background of the Transcendence vs. Immanence Debate of the 19th Century

by Max Andrews

The closing of the age of Reason appeared to leave religion in a predicament. It seemed that the choices were to opt for the traditional Christian emphasis on human sin and divine salvation, maintained by appeal to the Bible and the church. Or one was forced to follow the modern skeptical rationalism that arose as the final product of the enlightened individual mind. Theologians of the pre-Enlightenment era agreed that one could not just return to pre-Enlightenment dogmatic orthodoxy, they refused to accept post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism as the only alternative. Thus, they began to search for new ways to understand the Christian faith. Thus they sought to move beyond the Enlightenment while incorporating the advances it has made, which could definitely have been to the detriment of the Christian Faith. More specifically, they attempted to establish a new relationship between transcendence and immanence in the wake of shattering the medieval balance.  Transcendence has to do with God being self-sufficient apart from the world; He is above the universe and comes to the world from beyond. Immanence has to do with God being present to creation; he is active within the universe, involved with the processes of the world and of human history. Before the period of the Enlightenment, transcendence was favored over immanence but this was permanently and radically disrupted with the balancing of transcendence over immanence being reversed. The Enlightenment started to put man at center stage in history instead of God. Enlightenment thinkers tended to determine the importance of God in terms of his value for the story of their own lives. God, then, was shifted from his lofty position in the heavens to which the gothic cathedrals had pointed, to the world of human affairs.

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