Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 6

The Present Situation

In this lesson, you will explore the concept of the loss of transcendence in modern society and its consequences. You will learn about the historical context and influential philosophers who have shaped this shift in thought. As you delve deeper into the topic, you will discover the consequences of the loss of transcendence, such as spiritual decline, moral relativism, and the reduction of human value. The lesson also highlights the role of Christianity in addressing the present situation by rediscovering transcendence, affirming the importance of spiritual reality, and upholding moral absolutes. Finally, you will learn about various strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal, including building bridges through dialogue.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 6
Watching Now
The Present Situation

NT730-06: The Present Situation

I. The Loss of Transcendence in Modern Society

A. Historical Context

B. Influential Philosophers and Their Impact

II. Consequences of the Loss of Transcendence

A. Spiritual Decline

B. Moral Relativism

C. Reduction of Human Value

III. The Role of Christianity in the Present Situation

A. Rediscovering Transcendence

B. Affirming the Importance of Spiritual Reality

C. Upholding Moral Absolutes

IV. Strategies for Addressing the Loss of Transcendence

A. Engaging with Secular Culture

B. Building Bridges through Dialogue

C. Promoting Spiritual Renewal

  • 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. 

Well, to conclude this session, look at our present situation. It’s now a clash between history as process and history as being personal. In 1969, George Grant, who is a Canadian philosopher, gave the Massey Lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that had been established in honour of his own uncle, the Governor General Vincent Massey. And he lectures on time as history. He’s trying to be a liberal Presbyterian about the use of history in the Christian faith, but he can’t succeed because his history’s not personal. He had no burning bush experience himself. He was not experiencing the reality of the I AM that I AM. So all he can do is to dissolve Christian history into ideas about Christian history. It’s all about generalising. It’s not recognising that it was a real presence that Saul of Tarsus experienced when he was struck down blind on the Damascus Road.

I was privileged to be a friend of Charles Malik and stayed in his home in Lebanon. And as you know, he was the first president of the United Nations and became the first ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations. But beyond all of that, when he went to retire in Washington D.C., where I got to know him more intimately, he was a wonderfully devout Christian. So he responds to these Massey Lectures of George Grant in a public debate. And he says you’re talking about historical idealism; you’re not talking about historic Christianity. He says I don’t know what you mean by Christianity, for your generalising approach makes it into a system of thought. Western civilisation would be nothing without Jesus Christ. I wish you’d spoken about Jesus of Nazareth. I wish you’d spoken about the one who lived and who died and said what he said and thought about himself in the way that he lived and died and then rose again.

In other words, what Malik saw was that the trap that Grant was falling into was making Christianity into an ideology instead of understanding history. For him, history is a history of abstract ideas. I myself in the privilege of my life, although I started as a geographer, I really have always been an historian of ideas. My doctorate was on 16th century ideas in Spain, so that’s the background. So yes, we all know about abstract ideas and, of course, they don’t change. They don’t change life. When the Venetians took from the Arabs, in the Lebanon actually, the invention of glass and then using the Murano sands of their Lido off Venice to create better glass, they were not talking about abstract ideas. They were talking about the event that that new glass had in the revolution of France in the 17th century. Every chateau, every room in the Palace of Versailles, has a mirror from foot to top, from the floor to the ceiling, and it was in that glass that l’état c’est moi became the identity of Louis XIV. In other words, ideas have huge consequences.


And one of the things that the invention of glass did in France, or in England, was that it’s associated with seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time and that’s the rise of high drama. That’s the origin of Calderon in Spain. It’s the origin of the high drama of Shakespeare in England. Ideas have consequences. How wrong Grant was. And the consequence of Christianity was then something that Malik saw so clearly and that’s what liberal Christianity has done. It has abstracted the historicity of the Christian faith by giving us a nice ideology about the Christian faith. And so do these people believe in the resurrection? Do they believe that the resurrection is the turning point of human history? Do they have any idea what is the ascension? No, they don’t.

They believe that the resurrection and ascension appeared to have an extraordinary impact on the early disciples. They even believe that it may have changed their lives. But they don’t understand what changed their lives. They certainly don’t believe that a human being who was crucified was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. And so for us today as Christians, the real foundation for Christian history is the historicity of the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. That’s the pivot. Everything revolves around the significance of those events. As Paul says, if there’s no historicity for the resurrection then all of us, especially Christians, are the most foolish. You’ve been conned, we might say. Our faith is a faith in vain.

Now, one of the other issues that we are facing is another approach to this, which a very clever scholar, Jan Assmann, has written in Germany. He’s at the University of Heidelberg. And he’s written a book on Moses and Egypt. That’s the title of his book. He’s an outstanding professor of Egyptology at Heidelberg University. He writes with great fluency and great scholarship and with a remarkable command of English for a German scholar. And he introduces the whole concept of what he calls mnemohistory. There’s a history of memory that isn’t a history of facticity. And this is what he thinks that Christian history is: it’s a history of a memory, but a memory that is false. He’s so clever that when he was Pope, Benedict XVI, said he’s the most dangerous critic of Christianity today. That’s why we need to explore him in the conclusion of this lecture.


Assmann remembers there was an Egyptian pharaoh called King Amenophis IV. And Amenophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten. Akhenaten in Egyptian means the beneficiary for the Aten, that is to say, he recognised that he was a beneficiary of the one god. This is the only echo that we have in a pharaonic cosmology and pharaonic history of the one pharaoh who believed in one god, as distinct from all the pluralism of all the Egyptian gods. So we know him historically as a monotheist. But, ironically, we know nothing about him. His memory was wiped out. He stood out, in other words, like a sore thumb, like Moses was to do later, from all Egyptian culture. And what happened to him? Well, he was probably murdered and his memory was wiped out. And so Assmann says that the irony is that this Egyptian is historically recorded we know he existed. But his memory never lived on. And what Assmann is saying Christianity has a memory, but secular historians will tell us there is no record of Moses, there’s no evidence of his existence. Biblical history is mythology that we call theology. Moses is a myth of that mythology. So after his death, the pharaoh’s religion spawned no memory; yet we know that Moses left a lasting memory of monotheism that does exist. That’s the difference.

So we can thank God for Akhenaten, that he was a precursor of Moses. Did Moses learn about Akhenaten at pharaoh’s court? We don’t know, but it’s a possibility. And so, of course, now Assmann is going to follow Freud’s famous study on Moses. He’s got a Freudian sort of interpretation of Moses and he calls it the Mosaic Distinction, not mosaic of tiles, but Moses’ Distinction—what is Moses’ distinction. He sees this as the watershed for the history of religions as a whole because Moses in his memory that has been passed on through the Old Testament, introducing a distinction between what is true and what is false in the realm of religion. He says hitherto all religions have been based on the distinction between being pure or impure, between sacred or profane, but they had no place for the idea of that which was untrue. In other words, in mythology there is no truth or untruth. It’s a different genre. Truth doesn’t apply to mythology and because it doesn’t apply to mythology, this intrusion of a false god or false gods and the whole notion of idolatry is in a sense a falsifying of religion, that the intrinsic nature of religion is to be idolatrous, having many gods. Well, that’s a lot for you to swallow, but it’s something to deeply reflect about.


In other words, here’s a modern secular professor in a highly established position in a university telling us that the appeal for being religious in the future is that you return to polytheism. That’s when it’s appropriate for you to be religious and that is why Moses’ memory was wiped out. Because he didn’t accept polytheism. This advocacy for polytheism is now multicultural. The divinities are cosmic; they’re not territorial. They may be defined territorially; they may be given new names territorially; but the concept of being religious is being relativist, wide open to their interpretation. And when you introduce belief in a single god, he doesn’t say of course the I AM as we do, but you’re introducing something completely revolutionary to Christian life. It’s not being pro-religious.


This Mosaic memory is anti-religious. And because the first two commandments, observes Assmann, are being anti-God in worship: I shall have no other gods before Me. And the one who is the I AM is alone to be worshipped. Assmann says all this gives us the potential for being violent with each other. It’s monotheism, says Assmann, that lies behind all the conflict in the Middle East today. We have to reverse the Exodus. We have to go back to Egypt. We must lose the distinction between true and false religion. We must, in other words, go back to paganism. And so Spinoza’s god is the god that we should worship: God as Nature being indivisible—Deus sive Natura. And for many of our contemporaries in secular life today, nature is the only god that they can worship. That’s who he is. And then tolerance is how we live not with truth, but with myth. In another of his books called The Mind of Egypt, Assmann then describes how cyclical and non-cyclical time arose as the premise for history. History is cyclical. Well, you can understand how Pope, Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger was later to be, thinks that this is one of the most serious attacks that there ever has been on the Christian faith. And so in Ratzinger’s book on truth and tolerance, he has an essay that attacks all of this profoundly disturbing teaching of Assmann.


This then is the kind of thing that is facing us today in our understanding of Christian history. Paul is reminding us that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. And the more radical is the attack against Christianity helps us to become the most radical Christians that ever the world has seen. God has given us more enlightenment than any previous generation of Christians. God expects us to be all the more radical in our faith as a consequence. So if we as Christians do not have a passionate polemic, we’re not passionate Christians. We must never lose sight of the radicalism that our faith would give us. We all need to be polemical Christians, not for the sake of being fighters, but for the defence of the Gospel.

And we see that one of the problems that many of us have is that many, many of us are too soporific in accepting the conventional generalities of faith, but never feeling fresh, never vitalised in our faith, because we haven’t read these attacks. So we need to read these heresies. We need to understand these polemics against us if we’re going to be in the battle. So if ever you’re looking for a battlefield for Christianity today, it’s the battlefield of history, of the meaning of history, of the context of history, of your experience of history. Historiography is not a dull subject. It’s absolutely vital for the understanding of your faith.