Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 1

Loss of History

You will gain knowledge and insights into the concept of transcendence and its loss in modernity, including an understanding of the historical and philosophical context of the topic, definitions of transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, the impact of the Enlightenment, German Idealism, Romanticism, and postmodern critiques on theology, and responses to the loss of transcendence. 

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Loss of History

I. Introduction

A. Historical and Philosophical Context

B. Overview of the Course

II. Defining Transcendence and Immanence

A. Biblical Terms and Concepts

B. Historical and Philosophical Definitions

III. The Loss of Transcendence in Modernity

A. The Enlightenment and Its Impact on Theology

B. The Influence of German Idealism and Romanticism

C. Postmodern Critiques of Transcendence

IV. Responding to the Loss of Transcendence

A. Retrieving the Christian Tradition

B. Reimagining Transcendence in Light of Modernity

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

Dr. James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Loss of History
Lesson Transcript


This first course of lectures that we are recording on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. And so it’s in the context of that that we want now, this morning, to look at the loss of transcendence especially in the field of history. And it’s with the loss of history that we are going to reflect this morning. But before we do so, as we all need to be before the Lord, let us pray.

Dear Father, we realise that we have no sufficiency other than in You. We realise, Lord, that there’s no one else to whom we can go, for You alone have the words of eternal life. And yet we know that in the secular world in which we’re now all living the sense of eternity has got lost. And sometimes we wonder whether we’ve lost our own souls and so we just pray that You will give us faithfulness to Your Word, clarity of mind, guidance by Your Holy Spirit, that we may understand some of the huge issues that challenge us to be faithful to You today. And so we pray for this course and pray for each one that is participating that we may feel that we have fellowship one with the other as we have fellowship with You. And we pray, Lord, that the result may be that our faith is enriched with the joy of each other’s presence as indeed there’s fullness of joy in Your presence. So we pray for your spirit to be with us to guide us and strengthen us. And all of this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This course is fresh because when I was a student in Edinburgh University, way back in 1940/41—it’s a long time ago—we had a professor of economic history and the joke was that for 25 years in the right point of the lecture he would tell a joke and the joke was being told 25 years in sequence. Well, that so got under my skin that I determined that every course I gave would be a fresh one. And so I’ve never repeated the same course twice. In fact, on one occasion last year my son and I were in Singapore and he realised that for me to use PowerPoint was hopeless because I’d been so inspired by the audience that I gave a completely different lecture from the one that had been arranged on PowerPoint. And so that’s why we’re not using PowerPoint for this lecture because you never know when I’m going to totally change the sequence of what my notes may tell me that I should be guided by. But it does help to make it more conversational and that’s really what the purpose of the Christian life is, to really be persons in Christ, one with the other.


Our first view then is the loss of history. The loss of transcendence is the loss of the past. And just last week when I was in Edinburgh and I was staying almost across the road from where John Knox used to live himself, I realised that people visiting Edinburgh, or indeed the local residents, really didn’t have a clue who John Knox was. And every stone almost in the high street of Edinburgh has a wonderful history of all sorts of amazing events of the past and especially events of faith, but it’s totally lost. And in the Tron Church, which is at the heart of historic Edinburgh, there’s now a market. It’s no different from what Jesus saw in the temple when they were trading and defying that this was the house of his Father. And so we realise that today our situation of being so highly secularised is a total sense of the loss of the past. It’s so broad and sweeping. And of course, although Americans don’t have the same history as the Western world has of 2,000 years, and that’s why American tourists do love the romanticism of the past that they see in Europe, it’s a romanticism. It’s not a serious awareness of what that history is. And so young people today are almost, with their PowerPoint and with their computers, they’re totally unaware of anything prior to the discoveries of the tech revolution. And so it’s a great tragedy for all of us that such a huge element of what it is to be human has been dissolved and lost.

We might say that, in the first place, that this sense of the loss of the past is a disengagement with the past. It’s a deliberate turning away like a divorce, cutting ourselves off from past history. And yet, ironically, we can not turn away from our past because the older we grow, as I’m finding now, the more vivid is the memory of my childhood. And so the irony is that, for my own past, nothing is more vivid than the past and sometimes nothing is more crippling than the past. As I was telling some Hong Kong pastors just a few months ago, they are cursed by their own family history and that the curse of their family history is no different from the curses of a witchdoctor.


In fact, a friend of mine who has been a Red Cross doctor in emergency situations where there’s genocide and slaughter, he said what I discovered when I was in the Congo was that no witchdoctor can cast a spell upon another tribe. It’s always within the extended family. And there are great curses that many of us bear from the generations of our own family. Well, the irony is we can’t escape that curse, but at the same time we’re deliberately avoiding what is redemptive for the spell of that curse. And so this is what we’re going to focus on, that it’s only with the recovery of the past and especially the redeeming work of Christ in the past that we are redeemed from our past, while at the same time we can reflect on all the benefits of that past for our own life today.

I suppose the first tech voice, the technocratic voice, was that of Henry Ford, who at the beginning of this last century, he said history is bunk. Well, what he meant was that compared with conveyor belt and all the new powers that the Industrial Revolution were now giving to a tech world, as he saw it, that the past had no relevance to that tech world. How foolish he was because he was forgetting that it was human beings that had created that tech revolution and therefore the understanding of our own historical past is essential for all of us to have.

So this is the beginning of what we’re going to do. We’re going to have three lectures on the losses of history. And then we’re going to look at the losses that we’ve had of our own soul. And then we’re also going to look at, further, the consequences of the loss of worship that we have perhaps most of all had in the loss of the use of the Psalter. And as time goes on, you’ll see how we develop into other fields of the loss of transcendence.

But first of all, as we start this morning, we want to look then at this first theme of the loss that we have of history. What attempts have been made to establish history in the first place? When we claim that our Christian faith is a historic faith, perhaps really history has been profoundly birthed as a science from a Christian heritage and it is difficult to see how history could have arisen from any other culture, any other religion or civilisation. But the tension that we face at the moment is that there is a collision—and we will talk about this later—between two aspects of history. It’s what the German’s called Geschichte. And Geschichte is referring to the particular realm of time in the past, such as a Carolingian time, or the later Middle Ages, or the Classical world of the Fathers, whatever. So there’s a period. It’s a period that stubs you. It’s there. You can’t get away from its reality. But then there’s history in the German sense of Historie, which is the scientific study of that past. And so the clash today is that for the secular, professional historian there’s an awful lot of the past that, in a sense, is bunk because it’s not interpreted scientifically. So does it exist if it doesn’t exist in the mind of the historian? That’s what’s being asked.


And even within the field of Christian scholarship, there are those who have been trained in social history, which means that they’ve been trained in a secular understanding of history. That is to say, that cause and effect in an environmental and cultural sense is what is being interpreted. But that does not face the reality of the God of history, of the God who lies behind all events. And so if we only look at the foreground of cause and effect, we are secularising the past. But when we understand the transcendent presence of God through all events, we’re looking at a different point of history.

Now, even ourselves have this. I find that when I’m most utterly weak and helpless and I say O Lord, help me; I don’t know how I can resolve this issue or I can face this possibility. Whatever it is that I need in my utter helplessness, it’s then that I remarkably find that the presence of God is, in a contingent way, in remarkable synergies and coincidences, doing things that I couldn’t imagine happening. And the older I grow and the more dependent I am, the more I find the presence of God is there with me. You know what occludes the presence of God in our life is our compensatory behaviour because, in our compensatory behaviour, we’re acting as our own redeemer and God does not compete with us when we are our own redeemer. And so if you examine your own emotions, you will discover that the more compensatory your behaviour, the less you have of the experience of His presence. But His presence is with you when you’re helpless, when you turn to him and seek His help.


So one of the problems that we have then in not seeing God in history is that we loom too large. We eclipse Him with our own presence. It’s like looking through the telescope and we have extraordinary astronomical phenomena, but they happen to be our own eyebrow. They’re not the reality of what’s in the heavens. And our compensatory behaviour is our own eyebrows that stand in the way. And so that’s why for many, many people there is no sense of God in history. There is no sense of God in their own personal experience for that reality. The history of Israel is a history of a helpless people. It’s the history of a people standing at the shores of the Red Sea and how are they going to be saved. And it’s the history that Moses himself had at the burning bush when he realised how can I, adopted by pharaoh’s daughter, stand in the way of the wrath of the almighty pharaoh who’s my stepfather? How can I ask him to deliver the children of Israel? There’s no way. And he had to realise that just as that burning bush was not consumed, so he himself realised that he was not consumed when he trusted God.


There’s a wonderful book that I recommend you to read by one of my early alumni—and I’ve just been visiting her last week in Cambridge—Janet Soskice and it’s called The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. And it’s the story of these two remarkable young women who God called in their amazing abilities to learn languages to be the first women to visit Sinai at the end of the 19th century. And as they crossed the desert to go to Mount Sinai, they were singing Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. And we had a musical of that representation last Saturday in Cambridge and, lo and behold, twice, three times over in the services that weekend, totally unconnected, the concluding hymn for all our services was Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. It was uncanny. But, you see, that’s how God operates. He operates in that kind of way.

So professional, secular historians say there is no history of Israel, that the history of Israel is mythology, or politely, if you want to call it, theology. But it’s not history as scientifically evidenced. So the Old Testament is not a history of God’s people; it’s a mythology about God’s people, who claim to be His people. But there’s a sense in which they don’t realise that the reality of God is far greater than all their hubris and their pompous behaviour as academics. So that’s one of the problems that all of us face even as Christians, that unless we see that God lies behind it, unless we realise that God is the source of history, that it’s the mighty acts of divine intervention that create history, then we have a very different view of history altogether.


So every historian is subject to his or her own ideology, in other words, his or her own sense of perception. And many years ago, I was on an international commission before we started thinking about the environmental crisis and it was on the theme of how we perceive environmental hazards. And the answer is our perceptions are determined by our conceptions. So if you’re a greedy builder that is wanting to make a buck then the perception that this flood plain is not going to flood depends on how long do you have in the cycle of hydrology. Do you have 20 years? Well, the perception then it’s safe and you can build on the flood plain. But then other people later are going to get the consequences of disaster. And so that same principle is applied to all our understanding of the past. We perceive from what we previously conceived. If we have not seen God as the source of it all then you can see how the result is that what we have is not history, it’s historicism.

In other words, historicism is judging past events by the standards of our own time or our own experience. So we lean backwards and go in the opposite direction, trying as hard as we can to criticise them because we realise they’re relativising all that which is past. But the fallacy of relativism is that you have no standard. And if you’re going to be a good historian, you do have to have a standard by what’s right and wrong, what’s accurate and inaccurate. You can’t just excuse all motives and all actions. And of course, the most basic form of reductionism, that we’ll talk about later again, is the reduction of materialism, that you interpret the past purely from a materialistic dialectic like Marxism, Marx’s view of history, so that all the actions of the past are dictated by matters of profit and motive and money. And so then the actions become devoid of moral meaning and humans are deprived of having responsibility to ideal obligations. And this we call the determinist fallacy.


One way in which you can study history then is being very clear that you understand the rationalist fallacy, you understand the relativist fallacy and you understand the determinist fallacy. All these fallacies are distorting of the datum of the past. So let’s now go into the sweep of the history of historiography.