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Safety, Transcendence, and the Imminence of the Crucified

In noting that several translations of the First Testament — from the LXX to the NRSV — tend to water down language that refers to God ‘birthing’ the world, John Goldingay writes the following:

Such alteration and watering down of the text may reflect a desire to protect God’s transcendence.  The First Testament offers much evidence that this is not a desire God shares, but human beings often prefer their God safely transcendent (Theology of the Old Testament: Volume One, Israel’s Gospel, 62).

Not only is this explicit disavowal of faith in a purely transcendent God found in the First Testament, it is also found in the Second Testament and, significantly, on the lips of Jesus himself.  Thus, as he prepares to depart from his disciples, Jesus engages in a speech in Matthew 25.31-46 that is intended to counter any future desire to locate Jesus as a transcendent (and thus rather safe) Lord.  Rather than projecting that his future location will be solely in heaven, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, Jesus states that he is actually to be found in the material and imminent existence of ‘the least of these’ — the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
Methinks that many Christians today may want to reconsider these things.  Jesus, for many, has become little more than a safely transcendent deity who doesn’t intervene much into our lives and who also doesn’t really ask all that much of us.  However, instead of piddling around in prayers to this distant Jesus, we might be better served to jump into the hard work of serving the Jesus who is found in ‘the least of these’.  In the end, our ultimate allegiance should not be to the conception of Jesus we talk to in our heads; rather, our ultimate allegiance should be to the crucified people of today, and the Jesus we encounter there.  Everything else — our faith, our values, our priorities — should be subordinate to that.

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  1. In the context, following two other extremely poignant (if not scary) parables of the way the Kingdom is not here at the present time, but is imminent (as opposed to immanent) and demands vigilance and a willingness to take risks, I think the speech of the Sheep and the Goats maintains a tension between the transcendence of Christ and his immanence. The Son of Man comes in his glory, accompanied by angels – a supernatural being who ‘arrives’ from somewhere else, or otherwise makes a climactic appearance – and also delivers judgment. Sitting on the throne and segregating humanity into these ultimate categories emphasizes the transcendence even as the nature of the final judgment reveals that his immanence is just as crucial.
    Also, peculiarly, the story emphasizes the unawareness of the sheep of the immanence of Christ! So it doesn’t look as though, pedagogically, Jesus was trying to tell us to focus on trying to find Him in the “least of these.” However the sheep came to be sheep, it wasn’t by taking the kind of perspective you’re advocating, where everything is done and said in light of Christ’s immanence as the primary fact.