Transcendence, Immanence, I-Thou, I-It

Exploring God as Transcendent and God as Immanent, I began to wonder how this might relate to Buber’s formulation of I-Thou and I-It. Having decided that I don’t think they map on top of each other, I am experimenting with a matrix like this:

I’ve called it the T2-I2 matrix—Transcendence-Thou-Immanence-It. The T2-I2 matrix stimulated some interesting thoughts.

1. Th-Tr: I-Thou & Transcendent God (top right box)

Th-Tr represents ecstatic, mystical, out-of-body experiences but might be dangerous and impractical as a permanent state. People looking for momentary spiritual highs might be attracted by this. But the mystics of the Merkavah tradition would warn that the traveller into the meditative-dream realms needs a companion in the physical world to keep them safe during their trance, and help bring them back. Other shamanic traditions counsel that there is no merit in staying in this box; the whole purpose is not only to make a tikkun (repair) in Non-Ordinary Reality (kabbalistic thinking here), but also to bring back practical wisdom and insight to benefit the self, community and world of Ordinary Reality (the idea of bringing back a Boon in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey). This is the spirituality of devotion-numinosity (4 worlds Judaism: Atzilut).

2. It-Im: I-It & Immanent God (bottom left box)

The It-Im combination can produce a form of humanism. Perhaps this is also the world of halachic observance, and that, in its own way might lead to intimations of transcendence. It-Im could include the academic and definitional boundary setting work of denominations creating their forms of ritual and community organisation. But there could be a sense of something lacking, because of possible distancing from, exclusion or denial of, or disconnection from the numinous. It-Im can attract some people for its pragmatism, and for some might lead to the spirituality of activism (4 worlds: Assiyah).

3. It-Tr: I-It & Transcendent God (top left box)

It-Tr feels like the lonely place of galut (spiritual exile or disconnectedness). God is ‘up-there’ or ‘out-there’, and very distant from the world and us: an It, a God we talk ‘about’. The primary perspective-experience might be separation from the world, and separation from God. But this might be too negative an interpretation of this box. For example, I can imagine fruitful activity in the intellectual world of the spirituality of Torah study (4 worlds: Beriah) (some overlap here with the academic element of box 2 It-Im?)

4. Th-Im: I-Thou & Immanent God (bottom right box)

With the I-Thou element, we stay in immediate relationship with God:

    • Shviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I have set God before me at all times” [1]
    • “There is no place empty of God” [2]
    • “Where can I flee from Your Presence?” [3]

With Immanace to the fore, we can see and amplify God in the world, and amplify that. God is ‘here’, ‘in-me’, ‘in-you’. Part of the practical theology of the Kaddish is our commitment to playing a role in ‘enlarging’ God’ presence and impact in the world:

    • “[W]e are the way God writes symphonies and bad checks, … the way God cries over newborns and last breaths, … the way God is God.” [4]
    • “To pray … means to bring God back into the world.” [5]
    • “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” [6]

While there may be some overlap with box 1, this seems to me the spirituality of devotion-emotion in action (4 worlds: Yetzirah).

I am drawn most to Th-Im (box 4)—the combination of I-Thou relating and an Immanent God—as my way of moving through the world. At the same time, I see myself in the whole matrix. I flow between the boxes, and maybe that is OK, even healthy. It allows for a flexible response to life and God. Perhaps we are each the whole matrix, albeit preferring a particular box. And we need to take care that we don’t create a hierarchy or snobbery around which box is ‘better’. All can lead to God.


[1] Ps. 16:8
[2] Tikkunei Zohar 57
[3] Ps. 139:7
[4] Rami Shapiro, Ethics of the Sages: annotated and explained, 2006, p.36
[5] A.J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, p.62
[6] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, 7th Book