Immanence, Transcendence, and the Individual

With the coming of the Hellenistic and Roman empires and with the spread of Christianity, the stage of the Greek form of collectivity was over, and the responsibility for thinking and acting in accordance with the differentiational insights came increasingly to rest on the individual.

The insights of what Voegelin calls the metaxy, as radiating from the philosophers and prophets, had long shaped the ethos of the collectivities, but the starkness of the tension in which the individual had been placed now became more evident. With the new social, cultural, and political significance of the individual, the awesomeness of the experience of transcendence, the clarity and depth with which its demands on the individual were revealed, made the latter even more aware of the imperfection both of the order of the wordly sphere, including its political structure, and of his own human nature. He stood ever more inescapably before a new chasm between the perfection of transcendence and the imperfection of immanence. And it was only he himself who perceived it; it was only in himself that their intersection was apparent. Reaching towards transcendence through his spiritual nature, the individual was yet conditioned and bound by his physical nature to the sphere of contingency, transience, sin, and evil.

But further, vast issues of how the two spheres were related had also inevitably arisen in the process of differentiation. To what extent could the experience of transcendence influence the world? What was the nature of divine immanence and its relation to divine transcendence? The experience of the metaxy did imply a duality, but could not simply be translated into a philosophy of man in relation to a new stark dualism.

Despite the adverse cultural conditions of the collapsing Roman empire and the lands beyond its borders, it was possible through the spread of the new revelation of Christianity to establish socially and institutionally much of the awareness of the metaxical human condition. The legacy of the differentiational cultural history of Israel and Greece thus shaped the emerging post-classical civilization of Europe. The new teaching of the Incarnation made the polar opposites seem to have been in a certain sense or in a certain way harmonized. In one decisive instance, the dichotomy was overcome through God’s grace. It became clear that through the instantiated grace, it was possible for the human individual successfully to live in two worlds, or between them. The difficult identity of human individuality became easier to accept, the identity which required acceptance of the tension and the responsibility of freedom.

In this space of freedom opened up by differentiation, and through the existential and moral choices exercised in it, personal individuality could thus begin to emerge. Through the translucent personal concreteness of the life of Christ, it became clear that divine transcendence stood in relation to the individual human being, not to the impersonal structures and institutions of the earthly order. It became clear that the individual had gained a new independence. He should no longer fall back into the pantheistic, cosmic unity, no longer be reduced to a mere dependent cell in its organic, impersonal whole. He was individually open to transcendence; religiosity no longer consisted in identification with the smaller or larger group; it was something that addressed his own existence, potentialities, decisions. He alone could be saved. It was seen that he was now really dependent primarily upon transcendence. It was not that divine immanence was denied. Voegelin’s discussion of this seems incomplete; divine spiritual nature was certainly still seen to permeate the created or natural world. But it was no longer simply identical with it.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi