Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions

Living Edition
| Editors: Henri Gooren


  • Víctor Hugo LavazzaEmail author
  • Pablo Wright
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08956-0_34-1


Immanence Transcendence Religious systems Symbolic status 


In this entry, the role played by the categories of immanence and transcendence in religious systems is explored. Even though these categories seem to appear in every single religious institution and/or tradition, however, in terms of doctrine, meaning, and ritual life, they could have quite remarkable differences. The symbolic status of immanence and transcendence is analyzed, regarding world traditions such as Christianism, Judaism, and Mystic Islam, as well as less widespread ones, like Theosophy and the Brazilian cult of Santo Daime.


From the point of view of anthropology of religion, in religious experiences, there can always be found, either explicitly or implicitly, conceptions of (1) how a person who participates in sacred practices should behave during their life and (2) one reference to the way in which individuals would be saved from the inherent human finiteness based on an eschatology that describes what happens after death. The first point requires a reflection on immanence and the second on transcendence.

The Oxford English Dictionary is more pragmatic and defines these terms as: (1) present as a natural part of something or present everywhere and (2) the ability to go beyond the usual limits or existence or experience beyond a normal or physical level. Although these definitions are only associated with the notions in question, they are useful to understand the subject. However, it is necessary to consider the fact that both are linked to the need for linguistic brevity, and they have a background straddled by Western philosophy and theology.

As will be demonstrated, spiritualist doctrines and so-called religions exceed that distinction. Even though those definitions might be suitable to start examining conceptions in different theories and theological practices, religious diversity may confuse that distinction.

It was confirmed that in all mystical universes and their concrete practices, the difference between transcendence/immanence can be found analytically. In spite of diversified concepts and their complex doctrinal principles, it is possible to maintain the difference to understand what each of them refers to by resorting to a comparative method in order to explore the worlds they imply.

In accordance with the original definition and its etymological complement, the following ideas have been selected to order the cases that will be compared; the first one concerns the practices that are synchronically conducted regarding the development that access to the intuition of the divine. The second deals with the qualities that go beyond the “physical world” or at least reach its limits. Considering this line of argument, Christianity, Judaism, and mystical Islam will be analyzed first because it is here that the most frequent notions of transcendence/immanence were established. In the light of these concepts, the second part will focus on the analysis of the cult of Santo Daime and Theosophy, in which there will be variants of these purely contemporary doctrines that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Transcendence over Immanence

For Christianity, the hereafter is the core of all its mystical discourse. Certainly, deeds on earth, apart from the fact that they should be ideally “good” according to a morale and ethics with a clear set of rules, also generate behavioral dispositions based on the exemplary life of Christ. For the most well-known biblical hermeneutics, it is taken for granted that Jesus atoned for the sins of humankind, and that is why nobody is absolved of salvation hereafter; hence, in accordance with the ecclesiastical-pastoral doctrine, there should be at least one gesture of “repentance” at the end of one’s earthly life. It is about repentance of all sins; salvation is beyond flesh, so once life ends, man can attain a holy life, which is not carnal but spiritual. The best ones will be beside Christ and near God, whereas those who have not had the slightest regret will go to hell. However, in both cases, this dilemma is solved with death. Earthly life, the physical part, means waiting for the particular time in which different mediators decide whether the person deserves a blessing or eternal punishment. Communion among equals is part of the Christian body (Mellor and Schilling 1997). Attendance at the temples to read the New Testament is part of the present but a present utterly determined by a series of conditions which are extended by the interpretation of the priest or the pastor (Foucault 2006). Actually, at the heart of the variants of “Christianisms” (Catholic and Protestant), social life is absolutely institutionalized and mediated by countless celebrations and occasions when Christianity must be manifested: collections, social services, and school and political participation. Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some theories held that earthly hierarchies had to be identical to the celestial-angelic one. A modern example of this is the existence of Christian democracy, which is an internationalist party whose broadest participation is in Germany. All these practices involve a Christian practice, which is at the level of immanence. Nevertheless, all of these imply that what is worldly is despicable and what is transcendent, located in the afterlife, is defined as the real life.

Normative Transcendence and Exclusive Immanence

Theoretically, Judaism holds established conceptions of the hereafter and of how to reach the prized place under stringent and specific regulations that should be practiced on earth because man will not be able to access salvation if he is disobedient. In general and in more orthodox terms, expiation of all sins is not possible for the Jewish doctrine if it is not by following a set of prescriptions found in the Torah, the Pentateuch for Christians. Among historical/biblical Jews, food banning and the way to interact with “others” were so complicated and numerous that they attracted the attention of anthropologist Mary Douglas (2006), who decided to conduct several studies to focus on that extreme social case of self-exclusion. Everything was done to maintain a sense of identity and belonging, but hermeneutics of these rules are aimed at behavior and the body hexis, a characteristic of an immanent sense rooted to what is earthly and to social relationships. The only way in which a Jew could reach the supernatural world of Yahweh, where prophets and holy men are, is by obeying those rules. Nevertheless, the world can be considered as a transitory place where the suffering generated by those regulations never ceases. The rules represent constant vigilance, and spiritual life after death is the real objective of this discipline. In spite of this, there is a Jewish mystic belief that discloses the secrets of the Torah, which is the Kabbalah. The general guidelines of this practice are oriented toward having access to the events of the prophets and the sacred writings and, in an esoteric way, to finding messages and signs to reach salvation. This way of studying the whole corpus of Jewish theology in a philosophical way involves the mathematical-linguistic hermeneutics in which several ways of access are linked to the activity of extremely erudite people and members of the Jewish elite. In addition, it is necessary to know very well the set of sacred texts and their exegesis composed by a number of “enlightened” writers and philosophers of this doctrine. Nevertheless, in conclusion, the order is in the supernatural, and all the rest is proper to the human condition, in spite of the fact that this condition, under this type of spirituality, should be succinctly coordinated according to human rules dictated by the practice.

Transcendence Contemplation Through Immanent Practice

Sufism is considered the mystical branch of Islam, and it has had several stages in its development as a discipline as well as varied branches of practice. But essentially, the Sufis’ approach is involved with contemplation of the world, which entails a selfless way of development. This branch, which derives from the principles of Prophet Muhammad, incorporated several teachings from a great number of spiritual scholars who emphasized the Islamic esoteric aspects, and despite the fact that the Sufi’s life should have a straight routine, they deal with a way of facing religious rules as an object of introspection directed to “the occult.” From all the practices related to Islam, this is the only one that can be currently associated with some of the New Age canons. However, Martin Lings (2006) states that to practice this doctrine without the context of Islam means reducing its “essence” and its special feature. Although it has influences from Neoplatonism and Brahmanism, “the fundamentals of Sufism as well as its previous and irrevocable direction were established long before the foreign and parallel mystical influences introduced non-Islamic elements” (Lings 2006: 8).

This is endorsed by the fact that the elements of ritual observance are basically the same as those of other Muslims: the recitation of the Koran, prayers, alms, fasts, and pilgrimages, among others. But it contains other elements that may be better known in the Western world, such as ritual dances and initiation. Nevertheless, the pursuit of knowledge is the primary element of holy aims. That search is not only intellectual; it is in the intersection of the sacred with practical action; honesty is an everyday factor connected with a tendency to and perception of divinity. For Lings (2006: 15), there is a need to find what was created inside the non-created, the finite in the nonfinite, and the temporal in the eternal. It is here that the transaction between immanence and transcendence is found. Its frameworks cannot be overcome unless they involve a complete conjunction between the loss of individuality and the whole perception of the holy in the ordinary actions of each Sufi (Corbin 2005).

Immanence and Transcendence in Ordinary Life

In the cult of Santo Daime, which was developed in Rio Branco – Brazil – all issues connected with ordinary life and its relationship with the sacred are closely related. This practice has been founded by Raimundo Irineu Serra and was based on ayahuasca (Santo Daime), a beverage with entheogenic properties. Since his death in 1971, this cult has not ceased to expand (McRae 1992). Apart from the rituals involving the ingestion of this infusion, which has been used by several indigenous societies of the Amazon forest, it also has had influences from Christianity, Rosicrucian, Masonic, and military doctrines from its beginnings. In one of its lines, led by Sebastián Mota de Melo and called CEFLURIS, some of the doctrines of Serra were radicalized, and there was a movement that was likely to build a New Jerusalem in the rainforest, where people would wait for the millennium (Fróes 1986). Finally, it came true at the beginning of the 1980s. The members met in Purús Medio to found, in accordance with the ideas of the leaders of this line, “the heaven on earth.” Some of the premises of this cult, such as the work on earth, subsistence in the rainforest, and ritual action, form an indissoluble set. The knowledge of the forest and the resources it offers and the prayers, singing, and dancing during rituals are all part of the demands to attain salvation. The most fundamental characteristic of this cult is that transcendence, which was based on an eschatological idea from Christianism, can and should be achieved in life. He or she who does not follow the principles of work, ritual, and the “economical” autonomy is unlikely to see heaven on earth, which is the New Jerusalem founded in the Amazon rainforest. Another important aspect is the teaching of its doctrine. All people who advance in “spiritual studies,” especially as revealed to each individual by the infusion, provide the knowledge that follows the path of the doctrine. If a follower deserves the ingestion ceremony through following the behavior patterned by everyday life at the New Jerusalem and with the assessment of one of the teachers or godfathers, the ingestion will provide the person with instructions on how to remain in the spiritual science. Entry and acceptance into the community of those who live in the sacred place offer the opportunity to “step on” the heavenly soil and experience Mestre Imperio Juramidam, which is the promised land and the enlightenment process at the same time. Transcendence and immanence are placed on the same plane, although they take into consideration that the passage, the fact of death, is a continuation of the spiritual path taken in earthly life.

Transcendence and Its Reciprocity with Immanence in an Eternal Return

Theosophy is a multiple doctrine, and its fundamentals were formulated by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a prolific Russian writer who originally summarized philosophical and spiritual topics, especially those that come from Hinduism and Buddhism. Theosophy, nevertheless, like the Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, admits a previous origin derived from thinkers and writers who were later re-signified such as the primary initiators of the theosophical theory, such as Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake (Corsetti 1993). However, it is possible to recognize Helena Blavatsky as the main promoter of the discipline.

The contents of Theosophy are its own spiritual praxis, in the sense that it aims to include forgotten Eastern teachings that deal with the acquaintance of self-knowledge and the privileged access to spiritual occult. According to Blavatsky (1956), the objective is to discover the secrets of the public declarations made by the Ascended Masters, such as Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha (the Enlightened One or the Awakened One). In these cases, it is necessary to separate the dissemination of their teachings from real esoteric knowledge. It is possible to infer that as she was the founder of the Theosophical Society, all her writings have had a strong influence on past and present members who consider themselves theosophers, as well as on other esoteric practices derived from the society. Spiritual communication with the Ascended Masters and instructions for occult knowledge and even all the texts for theosophical teaching coming from different authors, actors, and Theosophy followers including Blavatsky herself were called tulku by her. It was not about a mediumship phenomenon; it was the physical transmission of the Mahatmas’ consciousness. Currently, Theosophy followers have widely adopted concepts, like Akashic records, quite present in Blavatsky’s work, which is a contact with a sort of universal memory where it is possible to recognize, among other things, past lives of people who will be able to unravel mysteries and to communicate directly, physically (Aupers and Houtman 2010). With those previous selves and reincarnation conceived as a way to achieve perfection, there is a possibility to continue the access to occult knowledge beyond the actual material body. The principles or the aim of Theosophy is to reveal the transcendent that inhabits each human being because of their past lives, which should be recognized in an immanent way during existence. In addition, it should pave the way for future reincarnations in order to reach the final perfection of a human soul at the conclusion of the cycle.


According to the initially proposed examination of the difference and relevance of exploring symbolic-religious worlds through the distinction between transcendence and immanence, a narrow spectrum of the diversity of spiritual doctrines has been covered in order to draw a comparison between the purpose and evolution of life for concrete spiritual doctrines.

It has been observed that taking Christianism, Judaism, and Mystic Islam, there are considerable differences regarding life on earth and the afterlife. With respect to the practices that combine some of these conceptions of the lifeworld and of the undefined involved in a certain configuration of what happens after organic decomposition, such as Santo Daime and Theosophy, in these doctrines, it is possible to identify a combination and addition of elements like observance, conceptions of subject, ritual action, etc. This results in a dissolution of the difference between life and death as central concepts that trigger the distinction between immanence and transcendence. Whereas in the first part the difference is made based on the becoming and the future, the second emphasizes the present individual. This is the key to understand a situation in a world that overcomes a paradise which can only be found outside the finite time in which human life happens.



  1. Aupers S, Houtman D (eds) (2010) Religions of modernity. Brill, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Blavatsky H (1956) La Doctrina Secreta. Instituto Cultural Quetzalcoatl, Buenos AiresGoogle Scholar
  3. Corbin A (2005) El Imam Oculto. Losada, Buenos AiresGoogle Scholar
  4. Corsetti JP (1993) Historia del esoterismo y de las ciencias ocultas. Larousse, Buenos AiresGoogle Scholar
  5. Douglas M (2006) El Levítico como literatura. Gedisa, BarcelonaGoogle Scholar
  6. Foucault M (2006) El gobierno de sí y de los otros. F.C.E, Buenos AiresGoogle Scholar
  7. Fróes V (1986) Santo Daime: Cultura Amazónica. Suframa, ManausGoogle Scholar
  8. Lings M (2006) ¿Qué es el Sufismo? Editorial Olañeta, MadridGoogle Scholar
  9. McRae E (1992) Guiado pela Lúa. Editorial Brasiliense, São PauloGoogle Scholar
  10. Mellor PA, Schilling C (1997) Re-forming the body. Sage, LondonGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidad de Buenos AiresBuenos AiresArgentina
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyCONICET-Universidad de Buenos AiresBuenos AiresArgentina