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Radical Trinitarianism: §5.1: Transcendence & Divine Non-competitiveness

We come now to an examination of an all-important issue in Christian theology, that of the issue of divine transcendence.  Central to the Christian faith is the confession that God is the “creator of heaven and earth”; all that is exists simply and entirely because of God.  The Jewish and Christian confession that the God of Israel created the world is the theological revolution that forever dispensed with the idolatrous mythologies of the ancient world.  The confession of God as creator, and thus completely transcendent over all created things was and remains a theological revolution.  In all times and places a theology of immanent and instrumentally mediated divinity remains the center of idolatry.  This is perhaps even truer in our age of global capitalism in which the immanent flow of capital is effectively seen to function as the mode of divine action in the world. 

This is seen, for example in Slavoj Zizek’s Marxist diagnosis of global capitalism.  Globalization is yet another religion of immanence in which the Hegelian movement of geist has become equated with the economic flow of capital.  Thus, in the wake of September 11, when America was confronted with a great ideological disaster, when we tasted the khora of our western ideology of free enterprise, what were we encouraged to do?  What any good religious person should do, attend the sacred liturgy, of course!  This is to say, Americans were sent by the highest priests and patriarchs of their land into the liturgical processions of the shopping mall and Wall Street.  The theological perspective inherent in a culture which, in the face of tragedy encourages its citizens to shop is a theology of immanence from beginning to end.

The point of all this is simply to underscore the way in which theologies of immanence tend toward the most rampant forms of idolatry.  At the heart of the evangelical allegiance to capitalism lies the negation of the confession that God the Father almighty is the creator of all things.  For if God is outside of created being, as creator he is not a “thing” among other things (Or as Robert Jenson would say, some sort of “analogously thingy thing”).  He is not simply a more powerful agent that exists on the same plane with other created agents which they may come into competition with.  The God who is both Father and Creator cannot be sublimated into any theological construction of immanence.

However, this notion of divine transcendence means anything but the absence of God.  The fact that God is not a competitive agent alongside created persons in no way implies his absence from the world.  On the contrary it is the very condition of his presence in everything.  Because God is not related univocally to creatures as a being among beings, he is able to be present to all creation precisely in his non-competitive transcendent relationality.  The God who is the Creator cannot be spoken of except as Father.  God is not an immanent agent alongside other agents, rather he is the reason that there are any such things as agents in the first place.  It is precisely because of God’s radical and uncreated freedom that he is always-already God-for-us and God-with-us: Immanuel.

The transcendence of God means that his being is not an instantiation of a wider category of “being” to which God and creatures belong.  Rather, God is radically other than created being.  God’s being is ineffable and inexhaustible.  It cannot be analogized or univocalized with human be-ing because it always-already transcends it.  However, the fact of this radical otherness between God and creation is not the occasion for divine absence, but the condition of God’s intimate and redemptive presence in the world.  This is so because God’s being as transcendent is non-competitive.  God’s will and action do not inhibit human freedom and action precisely because it is God’s will and action that freely create and sustain all created being.  God, as the “wholly other” does not compete with created being in any way as he is the ground of all being and overabundantly and inexhaustibly exceeds any limit or interval that created being might seek to impose on God. 

This is simply one way of talking about the reality of the resurrection.  In the resurrection we see that the “unholy distance” of sin which is transposed into the divine life cannot sublimate or condition the inexhaustible riches of the infinite Triune being.  Triune life, being overabundantly transcendent is free, in Jesus to allow all manner of interruption and disruption into the life of God, precisely because God’s being cannot be delimited or overcome by creaturely being.  Because God’s being is infinitely transcendent, and therefore non-competitive, any attempt to introduce competition and strife into the life of God, as we see on Good Friday is always-already overcome by the overabundant resumption of life that is instantiated in the light of Easter.

In contrast to common instincts among many Christians, the reality of the transcendence of God does not put God at a distance from the life of the world.  Rather it is because of the divine Triune non-competitiveness that in Christ God makes his own life the Heart of the world (Balthasar).  The confession of God’s transcendence is not a confession of his distance but rather of the irreducibility of the divine being that we experience in God’s coming to us in Christ.  Thus, God’s transcendence is a reality that is known only in covenant.  In God’s redemptive act of uniting himself to humanity in Christ we have to do with the God who is “the Mystery of the world” (Jüngel).  In God’s act of bringing us into covenant communion with himself, we meet the transcendent Creator in whom sheer and infinite distance becomes the occasion for the fire of the divine love, who is the Holy Spirit to bring us into non-competitive union with the God who loves in freedom.

It is only in communion with the transcendent Triune Lord that we are free.  In contrast to the theologies of immanence, particularly the modern narrative of global capitalism which lives off of a theology of freedom as participation in the immanent flow of capital, we are given a share in the non-competitive symphony of the God who is freedom.  God’s transcendent being, his inalienable, inexhaustible difference is the occasion neither for divine absence nor divine oppression, but liberation and life.  Only the transcendent Triune Lord can bring freedom.  Because only in the One who is beyond all strife and competition can our own inherent antagonism and violence be overcome and purged by the fire of the Holy Spirit into a crucible of infinite love.  


  1. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I endorse everything you’ve written, Halden, but I would add that you have to give the devil his due, to an extent. While you rightly excoriate the “theology of immanence” that underlies global capitalism, let me suggest that its attractions are predatory on our desire for a sacramental way of being in the world. The problem with “consumerism” (and I’m frankly bored with a lot of the high-minded moralism that passes for prophetic insight when that word is used) is that it feeds on our very real and very venerable longing for God’s presence in the world. Our relationships with the natural world and with each other are mediated via matter, and so our material lives can and should be sacramental — but that also suggests why and how we can be beguiled by commodities. What Marx called “commodity fetishism” — the theology of capitalism, as it were — is the “theology of immanence” you mention.

    Monday, September 17, 2007 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    That is an excellent point, Gene, and I thoroughly agree. The “theology of immanence” is driven by the natural longing for the supernatural (de Lubac), which is as you say, derivative of our longing for a sacramental way of being that we experience in our materiality. In fact, this is perhaps why capitalist culture is so obsessed with sex. In a world of comodity fetishes which sacralizes immanentism and banality the most ecstatic and “sacramental” experience people can imagine is the orgasm.

    I definitely agree with you, contra Novak, Weber, et al that capitalism is a reenchantment of the world that endows the bodies it controls with an idolatrous sacramentality. And thus we continue swimming in an ocean of simulacra. I also agree regarding consumerism. I’m utterly tired of the many “radical critiques” of “consumer Christianity” that ultimately do nothing more than toss around platitudes like “moderation in all things”. The fact taht such statements pass for prophetic critique is problematic indeed.

    Monday, September 17, 2007 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  3. Excellent post, Halden! I like the way you’ve brought Barth, Jüngel, Jenson, Tanner, and D.B. Hart together in your own constructive thought. But I would like to hear more:

    1. How would you critique the current interest in panentheism, especially as articulated by Jürgen Moltmann?

    2. How might you construct a trinitarian theology of divine transcendence? That is, how are the distinct triune persons — Father, Son and Spirit — each involved in the relation between creation and Creator? Most of your talk is of “God,” apart from the occasional reference to the “Father” and “Christ.” I expect you will deal with this in more depth later, but I just wanted to point this out here.

    3. You are quite right to mention the covenant, but I think a lot more needs to be said about the role of the covenant. Something missing from your account is the notion of obedience, which Barth rightly notes is the heart of true freedom. That is, true freedom is found in obedience to the Lord. You focus here on freedom as participation “in the non-competitive symphony of the God who is freedom.” This is a start, but I think more attention to the category of covenant would be especially helpful here. In particular, I would suggest a covenantal ontology, in which freedom is found in the ontological identity established in the covenant of grace accomplished by Jesus Christ.

    All in all, great stuff here. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Thanks David. I think those are important questions and I’ll do my best to give some brief answers.

    1. I think the current incarnation of panentheism is implicated in my critique of the “theology of immanence”. I think it falls into the same trap of univocalizing being, particularly in Moltmann’s thought where divine persons and human persons are only distinguished in the most superficial ways. Or, to put it another way, my critique of panentheism would be much the same as von Balthasar’s critique of Moltmann. Such theologies entanle the Trinity in the world’s fate rather than locating history “within” the transcendent freedom of the Trinity as revealed in Christ. So ironically, panentheism, by univocalizing being and making God into the pathic subject of the world (Moltmann’s suffering God) in an attempt to locate God intimately in the world, effectively banishes him therefrom in any significant sense.

    2. On a triniatarian theology of transcendence, I would begin with the resurrection of Christ as the disclosure of the immanent Trinity. That is what I was hinting at with my statements about the “overabundance” of the divine life. From the cross and resurrection we see how the Son hands himself completely over to the Father and then recieves himself back from the Father in overabundant life. Likewise the Father “loves the Son and has given all things into his hand”. The Father hands over the whole of his being to the Son and recieves it overabundantly back in the Son’s refusal to do anything but the Father’s will or speak anything other than the Father’s word. I think similar statements could be made about the Spirit.

    This notion of the divine overabundance of love, to my mind is the context of any theology of the God-world relation that is Trinitarian. In other words, I think we must locate God’s transcendence in his infinity, his gratuitous excessiveness (the “much more” of grace). This infinity is nothing other than the outfolding of the eternal relationship of kenosis and plerosis that is the relationship of the Father to the Son. That is at least where I would begin.

    3. I agree with you about the covenantal ontology. I would have liked to develope that more. What I would say is that central to my articulation of a covenantal ontology and freedom-in-obedience would be doxology. Our “particiation in God” cannot be seperated from obedience because we participate in God’s being only and always as worshippers, i.e. we participate in the Trinity liturgically. Thus, my covenantal ontology would be distinctly sacramental.

    I hope that clarifies somewhat.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

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