Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 4

The Dark Ages and the Reformation

In this lesson, you will explore the Dark Ages and the Reformation, gaining insight into the factors contributing to the loss of transcendence and its eventual restoration. You will learn about the fall of the Roman Empire, the spread of illiteracy, and the power of the feudal system and the Church during the Dark Ages. As you delve into the Reformation, you will discover the key figures, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli, and their contributions to the religious movement. Lastly, you will understand the impact of the Reformation on society, the Church, and the restoration of transcendence in Christianity.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 4
Watching Now
The Dark Ages and the Reformation

TH730-04: The Dark Ages and the Reformation

I. The Dark Ages

A. Definition and Timeframe

B. Key Factors Contributing to the Dark Ages

1. Fall of the Roman Empire

2. Spread of Illiteracy and Loss of Knowledge

3. Feudalism and the Church's Power

II. The Reformation

A. Precursors to the Reformation

B. Key Figures and Their Contributions

1. Martin Luther

2. John Calvin

3. Huldrych Zwingli

C. Impact of the Reformation on Society and the Church

III. Restoration of Transcendence

A. The Reformation's Role in Restoring Transcendence

B. The Significance of Transcendence in Christianity Today

  • 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. 

After the fall of Rome in 410, Christian historiography gets confused and mixed up. We enter what is called the Dark Ages, not because they were dark necessarily, because they were still burning brightly—the Christian witness—through all generations, but because of our ignorance of that period that we’re only now beginning to unravel much more. What happened were different tribal groups entered into Rome or into the Roman Empire each having their own history. So if you’re an Ostrogoth, or a Frank, or a Saxon, or an Anglo-Saxon, you all have different histories. And so it takes a long time for there to be any uniformity again to come until we come to the 9th century with the rise of the Carolingian world, which was an attempt to repeat the Roman Empire. We might say it was a kind of Constantinian revival in the Germanic world.

What now becomes much more difficult in that history is to determine what is Easter. How do you record Easter? And the first person to really deal with the problem of Easter is appropriately Athanasius, who lives in Alexandria at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century. And Alexandria was the great astronomical centre of the world. It had the great astronomers of the Ptolemaic world and so, with the aid of these astronomers, Athanasius is able with the phases of the moon in the spring to predict for the coming year when Easter is going to happen. It’s a subject that you might enjoy reading because he has 40 letters, all pastoral letters, and their purpose is at one level to tell you what is the date of Easter for that year. But that’s, in a sense, a postscript. What’s much more important than knowing what is the date that you celebrate Easter in that particular year is to give us 40 different interpretations of the meaning of Easter. That’s much more important.

And so often in our own lives as Christians, we get absorbed with the immanent, which is what is the date, when the transcendent is what is the meaning that we’re celebrating for that date. And so this is what happened in the time that Athanasius was communicating. But he also had a concern that the different parts of the empire with their different interpretations of astronomy were creating confusion like Babel as to one region would celebrate Easter on one date, another another, and so pastorally he was trying to unify the Eastern Church so that they would all celebrate the event at the same time. It’s like what we sometimes do in the communion service where we all hold the bread so that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we eat the bread at the same moment. Likewise, there’s a moment when we celebrate Easter. And that’s what Athanasius was trying to do.


Now, what follows in this so-called dark period is we’re entering into the world of the Desert Fathers that led into the monastic movement that was now being developed. And so now we find that history takes on the meaning associated with the annals of the monasteries. It’s important to know the foundation of this monastery where I happen to be a monk or somebody else says my monastery where I happen to be a monk. And so we then find that chronology is relating to the lives of the abbots and to the foundation of their monastic site. So not only do they describe the activities that are going on in the community, but they’re also portraying the world around them as they see it. And so it’s like being on the bridge of a ship that you’re navigating through time, but you’re doing it from being in command of your own community.

This merger of abbatial or monastic communities becomes a bit more nationalised in the 9th century and we’ll see how that developed later. Geoffrey of Monmouth in writing of the History of the Kings of Britain, or William of Newburgh in the 12th century writing the History of English Affairs, are really trying to see things from the monastic perspective at that time. For they’re all clerics and they’re all writing from their own perspective of what do you evaluate that’s going on around you. But it’s also becoming nationally conscious that you’re dealing ethnically or nationally with churches that now begin to arise, like the English church, the Irish church, or the Saxon church. They’re all different.

Well, throughout the Middle Ages, we have therefore this whole series of chronologies that are all in some kind of confusion with each other. There’s very little that’s unified across Europe. But it’s when we come to the year 1500 that there’s a significant change. It actually dates, you might say, from Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World in [1496 00:07:01]. And if you look up the Oxford Dictionary, you’ll find that the word ‘modern’ is derived from the Latin de hodie, which means that which is of today. And now we’re living today and we’re living today in a new world because a new world has been discovered. Christopher Columbus has succeeded to discover the new continent of the Americas. Vasco da Gama has succeeded in rediscovering the magnitude of the continent of Asia and indeed of the subcontinent of India. They’re bringing a whole new scale into the world’s existence. And this new world gives such a radical shift that it’s only a question of time when modern secular history will reshape the history of European history in the context of a much more global territory. Now it’s not the achievements of the Church. Now it’s the achievements of the navigator, of the astronomer, of the cartographer. It’s the achievement of European events that are going to change things. We’re going to find that we’re much more concerned by the actions and the achievements of the beginning of science than we’re going to be concerned about the ways of God.


Just two months ago, I was in Hong Kong and I visited a new museum of the history of navigation. But it’s the history of navigation as seen from a Chinese point of view. Prominent is a map of Vespucci, an Italian cartographer in the 16th century, and he does something shocking to the Western world. He shows that the centre of the planet is the Chinese Empire. Never had the West seen the world as seen from Chinese eyes. And so when you look at the map, you realise that in the time of the pharaohs, the Chinese were navigating in touch with the pharaohs in Egypt. They got as far as Mozambique in their travels. And this was 4,000 years ago. So when today, America insists on the sovereignty of the area of continental shelf that is a national territory, they laugh, the Chinese politicians, because their conception is that they were the masters of the whole of the Indian Ocean and indeed a large part of the Pacific as well. So you see how our conceptions are so determined by our own culture and the timeframe in which we ourselves live. But that indicates how we have to view the whole history of God’s purposes through all of this.

Today, sadly, the loss of transcendence is what Peter Berger has called in his Sacred Canopy the rumour of angels. But it’s only a rumour. It’s therefore the past that is lost in a religious mist. And so it’s that that we need to change. We need climate change, but we’re not talking about climate change climatologically. We’re talking about a change of zeitgeist, a change of worldview that we need to have as Christians. So the climate of 1600 changed. The climate of the Enlightenment changed. There have been a lot of climatic changes in terms of zeitgeist changes since 1500. And of course, what’s in the midst of all this change is the Reformation. If one man can change and turn the Church upside down, it was Martin Luther.


Supposing Martin Luther, who thought everybody else before him was all wrong except Martin Luther, there’s a scepticism that we begin to find. It’s, of course, always true that people have always been sceptical. The human mind has never changed. There have always been people more distrustful of authority than others. But certainly, scepticism became very strong in the Reformation. And you know that the sad indictment of postmodernism today is that the people who have done most were the people who did nothing: the French. The French were smart enough to know in the early 16th century that there was a need for Conciliar reform of the Church, that is to say by Conciliar that the whole Church had to be in agreement that they needed change. They didn’t agree. And that’s why a single voice like Luther had to shout out. The Huguenots had seen the need for this, but they became isolated and eventually exterminated. France could have been the leader of the Reformation. France never did. France stood back and French sceptics began to intensify. We see it in the Stoicism of Montaigne. We see it in Descartes and we see it in a lot of others afterwards. And so we have to, as we enter into the Enlightenment, realise that the Enlightenment is very largely French.

France began to lose its soul in the 16th century and France has been losing its soul ever since. One of the people that I most admire in the 20th century because of the influence and friendship that Malcolm Muggeridge had upon me is Simone Weil. And if you want to have a French text to look at, Simone Weil’s Grace and Gravity is one of the most profound books that you can read on the loss of transcendence in our culture today. She was a young French philosopher, brilliant, top of her year and a genius in many respects. And she became a Christian. But she never joined the Catholic Church because she questioned some of the issues of that church, but on the other hand, she never became a Protestant because she saw issues there. She was totally, in a sense, stranded within her own radical inner convictions of what it is to be a Christian.


She came over to England with de Gaulle to join the new French government. Her ideal was can we recover the soul of France? Can we create a new constitution for France? She died of starvation because she wanted to identify with those that were suffering and starving in France. She got disillusioned with the de Gaullists because all they were scrambling for was their own political opportunities. They wanted to have a place in the sun in post-war France. And so they were squabbling with each other in self-interest. They had no interest in the spiritual constitution of France. You learn a lot from people like that in understanding what it is to be a Christian.


Malcolm Muggeridge was somebody that I walked with in his early beginnings of conversion, so I was privileged to hear his story. And he in turn had walked with Simone Weil in London in the early days. He himself was in the espionage service in Britain at the time and so he got to know her in espionage. And he literally believes that she starved herself to death as an anorexic because she didn’t want to survive the hunger of the peasantry of France. She wanted to live on their diet and to share, in a kind of incarnational way, the sufferings of the downtrodden of their country. She died, tragically, a broken-hearted, disenchanted woman. It’s French cynicism that has turned our world upside down. And, of course, you can say there are good things that have come out of it too. As there always is. But where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.

And one of the things that you’ll find in this course is that some of the people that I most profoundly admire are French scholars, people like Jacques Ellul, like Emmanuel Mounier, like Paul Ricoeur. Why? Because they all live in the Underground. They were all fighting for their lives. They were fighting for principles against evil. And, you see, the problem we have is in not being able to critique this loss of transcendence in our culture because we’ve never had an underground movement in America. We Christians in America have never been radical enough. We’ve lived too comfortably. We’ve never been overcome by an enemy like Europe was overcome by Nazism and then by communism. We’ve never had those kinds of struggle.


The people that inspired me to give up all my professional life at Oxford were three young Czech students that inspired me. One of them was a nuclear scientist with his doctorate from the University of Moscow. And he came with the support of the communist government of Czechoslovakia. They thought he was going to spy out nuclear secrets. His purpose was not that at all. Late into the night, he was translating John’s Gospel into modern Slovak to take back with him and which we were privileged to help him print so he could smuggle these books back into communist Czechoslovakia. Another one was like Jan Hus, the reformer of Czechoslovakia. And he knew that he might give his life for Christ by going back, doing a doctorate on Bonhoeffer because he wanted if necessary to live and die like Bonhoeffer. These are the young men that inspired me to give up everything and start at Regent College in 1970. God uses his angels to encourage us to live with a radical spirit.

And so if you’re going to understand how you can live prophetically, then read some of this literature of French Christians. And of course, what you start with is John Calvin. John Calvin was one who was not prepared to live with the compromises of French Conciliar Christians. He became exiled as a young man, fleeing for his life. And so he took refuge in Berne and Basel, in Strasbourg, and settled eventually for the rest of his life in Geneva. In other words, we, as witnesses to the transcendence and the immanence of life as a Christian, have to leave our comfort zone. We can’t be Conciliar Christians trying to patch up our denominations with all their wacky background. We have to take our life in our hands. And sometimes we have to flee.