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In religion, transcendence refers to the aspect of God's nature and power which is wholly independent of the material universe, beyond all physical laws. This is contrasted with immanence, where God is fully present in the physical world and thus accessible to creatures in various ways. In religious experience transcendence is a state of being that has overcome the limitations of physical existence and by some definitions has also become independent of it. This is typically manifested in prayer, séance, meditation, psychedelics and paranormal "visions".
It is affirmed in the concept of the divine in the major religious traditions, and contrasts with the notion of God, or the Absolute, existing exclusively in the physical order (immanentism), or indistinguishable from it (pantheism). Transcendence can be attributed to the divine not only in its being, but also in its knowledge. Thus, God transcends the universe, but also transcends knowledge (is beyond the grasp of the human mind).
Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some theologians and metaphysicians of the great religious traditions affirm that God, or Brahman, is both within and beyond the universe (panentheism); in it, but not of it; simultaneously pervading it and surpassing it.
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Bahá'ís believe in a single, imperishable God, the creator of all things, including all the creatures and forces in the universe. God is described as "a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty." Though inaccessible directly, God is nevertheless seen as conscious of his creation, with a mind, will and purpose. Bahá'ís believe that God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including through a series of divine messengers referred to as Manifestations of God or sometimes divine educators. In expressing God's intent, these manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world. Bahá'í teachings state that God is too great for humans to fully comprehend, nor to create a complete and accurate image.
In Buddhism "transcendence", by definition, belongs to the mortal beings of the formless realms of existence. However, although such beings are at 'the peak' of Samsara, Buddhism considers the development of transcendence to be both temporary and a spiritual cul-de-sac, which therefore does not eventuate a permanent cessation of Samsara. This assertion was a primary differentiator from the other Sramana teachers during Gautama Buddha's own training and development.
Alternatively, in the various forms of Buddhism — Theravada, Mahayana (especially Pure Land and Zen) and Vajrayana — the notion of transcendence sometimes includes a soteriological application. Except for Pure Land and Vajrayana, the role played by transcendent beings is minimal and at most a temporary expedient. However some Buddhists believe that Nirvana is an eternal, transcendental state beyond name and form, so for these Buddhists, Nirvana is the main concept of transcendence. The more usual interpretation of Nirvana in Buddhism is that it is a cessation - a permanent absence of something (namely suffering), and therefore it is not in any way a state which could be considered transcendent.
Primordial enlightenment and the dharma are sometimes portrayed as transcendent, since they can surpass all samsaric obstructions.
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The Bible teaches that God made the physical world, declaring it to be good and demonstrating that God is involved in human history. While God transcends the physical, He also works in and reveals himself through physical means such as dreams, signs, miracles and the existence of beauty in the created world. Although Christianity considers the world to be fundamentally good (sharing the same basic theistic conceptions as Judaism, see Judeo-Christian), it also sees the human world to be corrupted by original sin with the result that man is alienated from God because he is serving the instinct of concupiscence, a form of idolatry inasmuch as it places the value of material things before the worship of God, their creator. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their love of wealth and privilege over concern with justice and taught his disciples to be unattached to material things and rather seek the kingdom of heaven. Thus Christianity was from the beginning of a more distinctly ascetic, metaphysical and mystical character eschewing material wealth in favour of poverty and prayer implying holiness as something apart from worldly things, see also the Evangelical counsels. Monasticism, the deliberate turning away from the things of the world has always been a central feature of Christianity but not of Rabbinic Judaism. Thus it could be argued, at first glance, that Christianity sees the transcendence of God as His primary reality. However, this is not the case. The common view of Christians is that God is also fully immanent. Though initially these two concepts seem contradictory to each other, the Christian view is that God is above creation (not being part of it), residing in the Throne of God in Heaven, and yet, actively involved in creation.
Transcendence is described and viewed from a number of diverse perspectives within Hinduism and its multi-faceted scriptural metaphysics. Some traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, view transcendence in the form of 'God' as the Nirguna Brahman (God without attribute - indeed even without "god-ness"), transcendence being absolute. Other traditions, such as Bhakti yoga, view transcendence as God with attributes - Saguna Brahman, the Absolute being a personal deity (Ishvara), such as Vishnu or Shiva.
Within the Bhagavad Gita, transcendence is described as a level of spiritual attainment, or state of being which is open to all spiritual aspirants (the goal of yoga practice) - the state at which one is no longer under the control of animalistic, base desires and is aware of a higher spiritual reality.
- "When the yogī, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in transcendence — devoid of all material desires — he is said to be well established in yoga." BG 6.18
The exact nature of this transcendence is given as being "above the modes of material nature", which are known as gunas (ropes) which bind the living entity to the world of samsara (repeated rebirth) within Hindu philosophy. (See BG 14.22-25)
Tawhid is the act of believing and affirming that God (Arabic: Allah) is one and unique (wāḥid). The Qur'an asserts the existence of a single and absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique and indivisible being who is independent of the entire creation. According to the Qur'an:
"Say: He is God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him." (Sura 112:1-4, Yusuf Ali)
Thy Lord is self-sufficient, full of Mercy: if it were God's will, God could destroy you, and in your place appoint whom God will as your successors, even as God raised you up from the posterity of other people." (Sura 6:133, Yusuf Ali)
According to Vincent J. Cornell, the Qur'an also provides a monist image of God by describing the reality as a unified whole, with God being a single concept that would describe or ascribe all existing things:"God is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; God is the Knower of everything (Sura 57:3)" All Muslims have however vigorously criticized interpretations that would lead to a monist view of God for what they see as blurring the distinction between the creator and the creature, and its incompatibility with the radical monotheism of Islam.
In order to explain the complexity of unity of God and of the divine nature, the Qur'an uses 99 terms referred to as "Most Beautiful Names of Allah" (Sura 77:180). Aside from the supreme name "Allah" and the neologism al-Rahman (referring to the divine beneficence that constantly (re)creates, maintains and destroys the universe), other names may be shared by both God and human beings. According to the Islamic teachings, the latter is meant to serve as a reminder of God's immanence rather than being a sign of one's divinity or alternatively imposing a limitation on God's transcendent nature.
Tawhid or Oneness of God constitutes the foremost article of the Muslim profession. To attribute divinity to a created entity is the only unpardonable sin mentioned in the Qur'an. Muslims believe that the entirety of the Islamic teaching rests on the principle of Tawhid.
Jewish theologians,especially since the Middle Ages, have described the transcendence of God in terms of divine simplicity, explaining the traditional characteristics of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Interventions of divine transcendence occur in the form of events outside the realm of natural occurrence such as miracles and the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Divine immanence, in contrast, describes the Godliness suffused within all of creation, celebrated and recognized through the practice of Sabbath observance.
In Jewish medieval cosmology, God is described as the "Ein Sof" (literally, without end) as reference to God's divine simplicity and essential unknowability. The emanation of creation from the Ein Sof is explained through a process of filtering. In the Kabbalistic creation myth referred to as the "breaking of the vessels," filtering was necessary because otherwise this intense, simple essence would have overwhelmed and made impossible the emergence of any distinct creations. Each filter, described as a vessel, captured the emanation of this creative force until it was overwhelmed and broken by the intensity of God's simple essence. Once broken, the vessel's shards, full of absorbed "divine sparks," fell into a vessel below. This process ultimately continued until the "light" of Godliness was sufficiently reduced to allow the world we inhabit to be sustained without breaking. The creation of this world, however, comes with the consequence that Godly transcendence is hidden, or "exiled" (from the immanent world). Only through the revelation of sparks hidden within the shards embedded in our material world can this transcendence be recognized again. In Hasidic thought, divine sparks are revealed through the performance of commandments or "mitzvot," (literally, the obligations and prohibitions described in the Torah). One Jewish explanation for the existence of malevolence in the world is that such terrible things are possible with the divine sparks being hidden. Thus there is some urgency to performing mitzvot in order to liberate the hidden sparks and perform a "tikkun olam" (literally, healing of the world). Until then, the world is presided over by the immanent aspect of God, often referred to as the Shekhinah or divine spirit, and in feminine terms.
God, called Waheguru, is the central idea of Sikhism. "Gu" means darkness and "ru" means light, so the word Wahe'guru' is used to describe the unfathomable force which can inspire beings from spiritual darkness or ignorance, to a state of spiritual light. This state of "transcendence" is a primary goal of a Sikh (meaning student). In this faith, Guru Nanak — the founder of Sikhism — described God as being transcendent, and is known as the creator. God, being a source of infinite imagination, is described as not only the creator of the cosmos, but as being the cosmos (while simultaneously transcending its creation). God is also known as an eternal being living beyond this universe in spiritual realms of transcendence where only people who are "awake" to this truth experience. Ik Onkar, meaning "One God", is the phrase Sikhs take upon themselves to pray upon. According to the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy scripture of Sikhism, God is considered a transcendent and omnipresent being, without fear and hate. The experience of transcendence is described as universal, as everybody holds the potential to experience this unfathomable and indescribable state of being and wholeness.
The "Death of God" and the end of Transcendence in secular culture
In 1961, Christian theologian Gabriel Vahanian's book The Death of God was published. Vahanian argued that modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence. He concluded that for the modern secular mind "God is dead", but he did not mean that God did not exist. In Vahanian's vision a transformed post-Christian and post-modern culture was needed to create a renewed experience of deity.
Paul Van Buren and William Hamilton both agreed that the concept of transcendence had lost any meaningful place in modern secular thought. According to the norms of contemporary modern secular thought, God is dead. In responding to this denial of transcendence Van Buren and Hamilton offered secular people the option of Jesus as the model human who acted in love. The encounter with the Christ of faith would be open in a church-community.
Thomas J. J. Altizer offered a radical theology of the death of God that drew upon William Blake, Hegelian thought and Nietzschean ideas. He conceived of theology as a form of poetry in which the immanence (presence) of God could be encountered in faith communities. However, he no longer accepted the possibility of affirming his belief in a transcendent God. Altizer concluded that God had incarnated in Christ and imparted his immanent spirit which remained in the world even though Jesus was dead. It is important that such ideas are understood as socio-cultural developments and not as ontological realities. As Vahanian expressed it in his book, the issue of the denial of God lies in the mind of secular man, not in reality.
- "The Bahá'í Faith". Britannica Book of the Year (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica). 1988. ISBN 0-85229-486-7.
- Effendi, Shoghi (1944). God Passes By. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 139. ISBN 0-87743-020-9.
- Hutter, Manfred (2005). "Bahā'īs". In Ed. Lindsay Jones. Encyclopedia of Religion 2 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. p737–740. ISBN 0-02-865733-0.
- Cole, Juan (1982). "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings". Bahá'í Studies. monograph 9: pp. 1–38.
- Ariyapariyesana Sutta - "'This Dhamma (of Alara Kalama) leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness (one of the four states of formlessness).'"
- Bible (Genesis 1).
- Bible (1 Corinthians 1:25).
- Vincent J. Cornell, Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol 5, pp.3561-3562
- Roger S. Gottlie (2006), p.210
- D. Gimaret, Tawhid, Encyclopedia of Islam
- Asma Barlas (2003-2007) Believing Women in Islam. University of Texas Press, p.96
- Tariq Ramadan (2005), p.203