The Perils of Doing Your Own Thing

In the chilling conclusion to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 superhero thriller, Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realizes with much horror and disgust that Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), has orchestrated numerous terrorist acts (train wrecks, plane crashes, ocean liners sinking, etc.) in order to find David, who has the special powers of unbreakable skin and superhuman strength. Elijah wants to initiate the drama of the clash between the two on the stage of world events, playing the villain to Dunn’s hero, and ends up in an asylum for the criminally insane after Dunn reports him to the police.

When we survey the debris of philosophical, religious, political, economic, cultural, moral, and spiritual cataclysms throughout history (and pre-history), we often find the same culprit, often working in concert with other bad actors. It’s the same perpetrator that Pius X found when examining the roots of Modernism in his tour de force encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis: Immanence.

For the reader not familiar with the concepts of Immanence and Transcendence, Transcendence means that God stands above and apart from his created order like a painter to his painting. If the created order didn’t exist, God would still exist.

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In Pantheism, God is the created order. If the universe did not exist, then neither would God, and, if everything is God, then we are God, too, or at least have a god within to consult and direct our lives.

This god within is Immanence. While the orthodox Catholic looks outside of herself to the teaching of the Magisterium rooted in Scripture and Tradition to guide her life, the person animated by Immanence, and this includes many practicing “Catholics,” only has to consult the god within on matters of doctrine and practice. Hence the rampant heterodoxy even among weekly Mass attendees.

Immanence in Our Present Age
Finding Immanence in our present age is like finding hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water. It’s a secular culture after all, and, by definition, Immanence is its modus operandi.

We see this in the broader American culture that encourages people to “follow their heart” and embrace “your truth” (e.g., Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 75th Golden Globe Awards). The wildly popular book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, encourages the reader to listen to “the god within.”

Ross Douthat argues that “the god within” isn’t a divine voice at all, but an amplified human voice that caters to our self-love. Chesterton rightly pointed out in Orthodoxy that Immanence turns into self-worship: “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.”

Chesterton goes on to say that Christianity instructs a man to look outwards and “behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.” You can see this pattern in the biblical narrative along with the cataclysms caused by Immanence.

Immanence in the Biblical Narrative
In the biblical narrative, we clearly see the perils of doing your own thing. It is similar to a train wreck we can’t stop watching: celestial potentates fall from heaven, sin and death enter the world, and the chosen people go into captivity to foreign powers.

Satan is the original Mr. Glass and the Father of Immanence in rejecting the rule of the transcendent God, trusting in his own wisdom, and seeking to usurp the Almighty’s throne. He and one-third of the angels fell to earth and have since peddled their gospel of Immanence to its inhabitants.

The transcendent God initiated a relationship with our original parents and issued directives to them from without. The pattern holds with I AM THAT I AM and the children of Israel in the giving of the Law through Moses at Sinai.

Eve’s response was pure Immanence: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). The apostle John would later describe this autonomy as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).

It’s highly instructive that Christ overcame these three temptations from Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11) through humility as exemplified in his prayers, fasting, and radical dependence on the Father. This is the key for the orthodox Catholic in overcoming the seductive power of Immanence: we affirm the truth of Ash Wednesday throughout our lives in admitting that we are dust, fallen, not capable of being the arbiters of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and that we are desperately in need of supernatural, sanctifying grace in a world full of the snares of Immanence.

Israel’s checkered history was related to their tendency toward autonomy: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). It’s also revealing to note that Immanence in Israel became wedded to various idols (e.g., Baal, Astarte, Moloch, et al.) in feeding the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

Immanence and Idolatry
Pius X demonstrated how Immanence became wedded to Rationalism and had the effect of removing the supernatural from the Christian faith. When it is joined to science, it becomes Scientism where nothing can be true unless it is empirically verified, which is self-defeating for its practitioners because the scientific method itself cannot be empirically verified, and therefore employing it as a reliable measure of truth requires a leap of faith.

The purveyors of Scientism joke that they “aren’t finding God” in all their research. And they won’t find him, because they are only looking at a material universe that he—in contradistinction to all other things—transcends as Wholly Other.

In our own age, Immanence often is wedded to sentiment, resulting in what Philip Rieff called the “triumph of the therapeutic.” In the West, the religious worldview that was concerned with personal salvation in God has been eclipsed by the therapeutic culture whose primary goal is for the individual to feel good. He said there is “…nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.”

When I was serving in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis years ago, a veteran minister who had been involved in Christian apologetics for three decades told me he had noticed a major change in students: years ago, students would think their way through problems and now they merely felt their way.

After much research, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have termed the dominant religion of American teenagers in the early twenty-first century “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” whose primary agenda is to make one “feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.” God is “something like a Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps people to feel better about themselves, and does not become personally involved in the process.”

For more than two millennia, it has been the practice of the Church not to give Communion to someone in mortal sin. Now we have prelates in the Church who say that there are all kinds of mitigating factors on the recipient’s end that may make it moral.

The recipients, whether a same-sex couple or divorced and remarried without an annulment, may have a conscience that tells them that their lifestyle is not wrong and that taking Communion is permissible. In other words, the Immanence of the recipients (specifically, how they think and feel about something) can take a moral absolute and relativize it.

As far as feelings go, what many people don’t realize, and what should literally put the fear of God in them, is that many veteran exorcists like Fr. Chad Ripperger will tell you that demonic entities can, in certain cases, make a person feel good in the aftermath of engaging in mortal sin. Emotions are the wrong litmus test in determining the morality of a particular behavior.

Immanence and Damaged Emotions
It’s interesting to note how respectful and conciliatory Martin Luther was in his early correspondence with Pope Leo X in the hope of reforms of some of the more egregious cases of ecclesial malfeasance. At first, Leo ignored him and then, a year or so later, condemned him as an “evil spirit hovering over Rome.”

Then, in a document drawn up by the papal theologian Sylvester Prierias, Luther’s concerns are completely ignored and he is excoriated with a string of personal insults: “a loathsome fellow…the son of a bitch, born to bite and snap at the sky … with a brain of brass and a nose of iron.” With this rejection, Luther became the Id of the movement, allowing his volcanic anger to overshadow the more levelheaded calls for major reform in the Church.

As screenwriter and novelist Andrew Klavan says, “Anger is the devil’s cocaine” and an ideal marriage partner for Immanence. In his rage, while seeking to promote divine revelation (transcendence), Luther unwittingly destroyed it in removing certain books from the biblical canon and promulgating doctrines that contravened Scripture and Tradition.

It was a costly temper tantrum that we are still paying for. Christ prayed that his Church would be one and we now have 47,000 Protestant denominations.

Over and over again, I’ve seen the marriage of damaged emotions and Immanence. Three women I knew years ago in evangelical-charismatic circles have stories that provide cautionary tales.

All three had significant emotional woundedness from men in their backgrounds, and yet, early on, had served in their local churches with an admirable level of commitment. And yet, over a period of about eight to ten years, all three eventually came out as lesbians.

I had a long talk with one of them and she said that she believed that all the prohibitions in Scripture against homosexual behavior were culturally relative and not binding for our day. She eventually began attending a liberal Episcopalian church.

A fourth woman I knew from an evangelical background with a similar emotional résumé, came under the influence of the Jesus Seminar and began to doubt the authenticity of the Gospels because of their “patriarchal elements.” She remained heterosexual but began to embrace a more radical feminist theology and believed that the Church had taken the sayings of Jesus and significantly redacted them to keep women in their place.

Many practicing Catholics are intellectually catechized (i.e., they know the faith), spiritually catechized (they have a consistent devotional life), but are not emotionally catechized. They have unhealed and damaged emotions that are wreaking havoc in their lives and may be pulling them towards some form of destructive Immanence.

For them now is the time to find a good counselor who can skillfully integrate sound mental health principles with a deep Catholic faith. Christ the Wonder Counselor longs to work through counselors to facilitate healing in his wounded sheep.

In many ways we are like Lazarus emerging from the tomb. We have been regenerated and resurrected through Baptism, but Christ uses other people to help us with our burial clothes.

Editor’s note: The image above is a portrait of Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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