Looking up I saw an architectural dome with Jesus in the center. Surrounding him, ascending architecturally from the building walls to the dome itself, are towering depictions of the Old Testament Prophets. The theological reality these icons are “writing” is that Jesus is the culmination of Jewish history, theology and prophecy. These and several other icons were incorporated into the worship space, immersing the community’s hearts and minds in the theological tradition of which they are a part. In order to engage the worship service, I followed along in their liturgical book which was the Liturgy of John Chrysostom. This liturgy is widely (universally?) used across the spectrum of Greek Orthodox Churches and has been for centuries. This gives the worshiper the sense of a worship experience that literally transcends time and space.
I had the pleasure of visiting this Orthodox Church a month or so ago. I loved it. The history, the depth, the attention paid to theology and tradition. We in the Protestant Church reject a lot of these things as stuffy or lifeless. However that’s not what I witnessed. I saw people who genuinely worshiped God. The service was actually filled with people of multiple races and nationalities who spoke different native languages. Not to mention that every generation was represented. Most protestant churches would sell their youth pastor for that kind of diversity on a Sunday morning. I don’t know that I could ever be Orthodox, but maybe I came away glad that someone else is.
Draw whatever lines you need to make yourself feel comfortable; I worship the same God as the Orthodox. We read from the same Gospel passages, both pray the same “Lord’s Prayer” and recite the same Nicene Creed (I somewhat mourn that this was the first time I’d recited any creed in a corporate worship gathering). As I later reflected, I realized that there was something powerfully transcendent about my experience there. I was reminded that God is really, really big.
Back to the Protestant world. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t make God out to be too small. We’re always trying to fit him into these minute spaces based on people’s affinities. Similarly we’re always trying to draw immediate application for other people’s lives. Sometimes I feel like I’m simply trying to drag God into our smallness. Our churches are packed with sermonizing and programming that attempts to make God small enough and manageable enough to fit into the particularity of circumstances.
I’m not really condemning the Protestant Church in favor a more traditional, Orthodox expression. There is a very real theological tension in the Bible between the Transcendence of God and the Immanence of God. Maybe the Orthodox do “transcendence” really well while we Protestants do “immanence” really well. However that’s a pretty broad brush to paint to incredible large Christian movements with and we certainly don’t want to assume that either tradition is incapable of doing both well.
This all reminds me that we cannot be one without the other because God is not one with out the other. For God to be seen, understood and experienced as God, we need both. College students and youth will probably be lost in a theological tradition that is all transcendence and no immanence. But they may become coddled and handicapped in a tradition that is all immanence. Honestly, I think either extreme would be boring in some way. What is the closeness of God if there is not also awe? Conversely, what is the grandeur if there is not also intimacy?
In order to create environments where real spirituality and discipleship are taking place, we need to maintain both. Transcendence and Immanence are big theological words which express a whole series of concepts that we, and our students can and will relate to. God created the foundations of the world, invented wisdom and is the author of all truth. We should be wowed by that. But he also upholds those who suffer, cares deeply for the lonely and somehow fits into the simpleness of our lives. And we should be deeply moved by that.