In the beginning, God - transcendent, immanent
Imagine that your job was to write down an account of the beginning of the world. You are at your desk, a steaming mug of coffee at the side to keep you awake, some chocolates to nibble on for energy, a blank document open on the computer and your fingers hovering above the keyboard.
Where would you start? How would you write it?
It is diffficult to imagine isn’t it? You weren’t there; in fact no-one was there. So we can’t really know. But we desperately want to know.
Stephen Hawking is a celebrated British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author wrote this in a Brief History of Time, “We yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.” His approach was to try and discover a scientific explanation, a grand theory of everything.
Like a history – this happened and then this happened and this happened
Like a novel – here is a character and this is what he did, and this is how the plot unfolds
Like a scientific theory – this is the hypothesis and this is how we tested it
Like an instruction manual – first you do this and then you do that
As a mythology – a body of cultural myths often developed by ancient religions
Prof Brian Cox of TV and D:Ream fame recently trailed a new documentary with the question, “What’s the difference between a rock and me?” Which is another way of asking a similar question.
I don’t think Genesis is a history book or a novel or a scientific theory (science as a way of thinking came along a couple of thousand years later) or an instruction manual or even a mythology.
I think the first chapters of Genesis are written as a parable – similar to Jesus’ parables. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The events in that parable may or may not have happened as Jesus describes them but that is not what is important. What is important is what it tells us about God and man. Likewise the creation account of the beginning of the world may or may not have happened just like that but what is important is what it tells us about God and man.
It is a parable to help us understand the doctrine of creation. It introduces two main characters: God the creator and man whom God created. It sets us up for the rest of the bible and indeed for the rest of time , with a way of understanding God and man and their relationship.
Another way of looking at Genesis is to think of it as the overture to the symphony – introducing the major themes of life and death and the answers to Hawking’s questions, “Why are we here and where did we come from”.
Christians believe in one God who created the universe and us within it. We believe this because we have come to trust the bible as a source of revelation to help us grope our way towards an answer to Hawking’s question.
If you would like to delve into different ways to understand the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2, I would refer you to David Wallace’s resource materials on our website – a pod cast and some papers which are simply brilliant at analysing the text and how to read it. Just plug “creation” into the search engine on the website.
At the end of his book Hawkings concludes that we haven’t yet got a theory of everything but when we do it will be the “ultimate triumph of reason because we would know the mind of God”.
I like his honesty and his ambition. If I may be so bold I think there is a flaw in his approach in that his search for the scientific theory relies on an order and a predictability that infers the hand of a creator – exactly as is implied in the Genesis 1 creation accounts. In other words, the fact that I believe in a God who created a world with order and direction allows me to be a scientist and pursue knowledge and understanding. If there is no God, just chaos and an indefinable beginning, then reason can’t get going because the very order it needs is missing.
In contrast, if you were to examine the creation stories of other religions you would find yourself taken in a completely different direction where gods are in a battle over the created order and where their capricious whims direct the creative urges. The result is a need to satisfy fickle deities with the hope that man can do good and be good.
The bible teaches us something completely different.
There are different views about who wrote Genesis and when. I am working from the assumption that it was written mainly by one or two men or small groups of men who took from several sources, not least a very strong oral tradition. They were probably writing around 1000 years BC and were priests or close to the priestly tradition.
They were inspired man, directed by God’s Holy Spirit to put the belief of the Jewish tradition into writing for the generations that followed and for us. Jesus would have known these verses backward. These writers knew what they were trying to communicate and they did it very carefully.
This first chapter and a bit is an extra-ordinary work of writing. You can tell some of it from reading it in the English translation but you have to read the original Hebrew to understand just how carefully and deliberately this passage was written.
An example of its careful prose look at the way 2:1-3 mirrors 1:1
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is reversed to become “the heavens and the earth were completed … God finished the work”.
It is a very deliberate way of writing to enclose the passage with bookends so that we know that it comes as a package. And to these writers the number 7 is really important as a way of saying this is from God: so in verse 1 there are 7 words (in the Hebrew), in verse 2 there are 14 words (2 X 7). In the last verses, the other bookend, there are 35 words (5X7).
In the passage:
“God” is mentioned 35 times
“Earth” is mentioned 21 times
“It was so” is mentioned 7 times
“God saw it was good” is mentioned 7 times
And if you look deeper it gets even more intricate. Which is as much to say that every word is deliberate and careful and weighted with meaning. God wants us to understand important stuff through each phrase. It’s not just a random story.
For now I just want to draw your attention to two beliefs, which emerge from this passage. Two really important ideas that we should understand and around which we should orientate our lives. They are crucial to all our other beliefs and understanding and they drive us toward the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. They are the foundations of our doctrine of creation.
Transendence and Immanence
Transcendence describes how God is above us, greater than us, before time, uncreated, separate, holy.
Immanence describes how God is creator and is creating and is close to us, with us and giving us breath.
Transcendence makes sense – if God is truly God then of course he is so big and so far apart from us.
But Immanence also makes sense because we can sense his presence with us, we can hear his voice.
Hawking’s question, "We yearn to know why we are here and where we came from" is answered in these two words:
Where came from – a transcendent God created us.
Why are we here – an immanent God seeks relationship with us.
There are other ways of understanding transcendence & immanence
An atheist will try and explain God out of the picture all together. So they have a materialist explanation – there is no God, the material universe is all that there is.
At the other end of the spectrum are pantheists who say that everything is God. He is not transcendent but part of everything – changing, indistinct, good and evil. This is what many eastern religions such as Buddhism believe.
Another spin is called dualism. There is a God but he is separate/transcendent from the created universe. They exist in conflict, side by side. This is popular in modern culture and often called New Age. An example would be Star Wars where you have the Force – with a good side and an evil side.
And then you have deists who believe that God is transcendent and created the world but a bit like a clock maker, he is wound it up and now lets it go and stands back.
We believe that God is transcendent and immanent. That he was not created but created everything but that he also breathes life into us and re-creates in our world every second of every day.
See how St Paul describes it when he is in debate with the philosphers of his day: Acts 17:24,25
So what? What difference does it make what you believe about God? What does it matter whether God is transcendent and immanent?
What Difference Does It Make?
If there is no God, if you have a materialist outlook then all that matters is self and earning money and having a good time. There is no point to anything else. So if you expend your life on earning money, accumulating things, getting comfortable and having a nice time - you might as well be a materialist.
A Buddhist-type pantheist outlook drives you toward a denial of human personality as you seek to blend into the universe. As there is no holy and separate God there is no need to live in a holy or moral way.
A dualist, new age, world view leads you to think of the world as somewhat evil. People sometimes become aware of a spiritual dimension and accept that it can be good and evil. But without an understanding of the power and presence of a loving God evil can be deemed equal to good.
Deists will believe in a God, maybe even a good God, who created the world but without an involvement in our daily lives. If you are aware of God but don’t have an active prayer life, worshipping Him and in moment-by-moment reliance on His presence then you are really living as a deist.
Christians believe that God is transcendent, in other words he has not been created. He was there before the B of the Big Bang. He is holy and separate. There is no evil in Him, He does not change. He is all-powerful, everywhere, at all times.
He does have a distinct personality and he has made you with an individual and distinct personality. There is a spiritual dimension to the universe and God is the all-powerful force of good who will defeat evil.
Understanding God’s transcendence allows us to understand where we came from, gives us hope that although man is obviously sinful there is a loving, sovereign God who has a better plan for our lives than collecting stuff.
Christians believe that God is immanent, in other words that he is involved. He isn’t far away but nearby. Although holy and sovereign, he is also close and facing us.
We find that there is more to life than accumulation, there is no danger of being subsumed into everything else because He knows you personally and individually.
The spiritual world comes close and ignites our spirit but with the goodness and joy of God. He hasn’t left us to wind down to a stop but is breathing life into us every day and seeking to share every minute and metre with us.
Gen 1:26-28 tells us that we are created for relationship with God. The creator blesses us. Understanding God’s immanence allows us to understand why we are here. Our God created us for a purpose, to know us and we have hope of forgiveness and acceptance by a loving God.
God is on a mission to create the universe as a transcendent God and loving man as an immanent God – God’s mission is pursued through the pages of the Old Testament and reaches its peak of expression in Jesus.
When John sits down to write about this he connects those opening words of Genesis with what he has learnt about Jesus and says, using the word Word to talk about Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.... The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace of truth.
God, transcendent, creates the world and when the time comes to rescue man from his sin and waywardness, this transcendent God becomes one of us in the form of Jesus His Son. How is that for immanence? Becoming human? Offensive to many, salvation for us.
The Holy One died, uncorrupted, for us and as a transcendent God beat the power of death and was resurrected to newly created eternal life. And in so doing provides us with a way back to God and an eternity with him.
Genesis is a parable that helps us understand that creation is the act of a transcendent God and that this God is immanent, dwelling with us and seeking us out, searching for ways to know us. We are invited into relationship with the king and creator of the universe.
We worship and serve a great God and a personal God, a creator God and a saving God, a transcendent God and an immanent God.