Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 13

Embodiment of Faith

In this lesson, you will explore the concept of the embodiment of faith and its importance in Christian theology and practice. You will learn about the historical development of embodiment, including early Christian views and how they have evolved over time. The lesson delves into the theological implications of embodiment, discussing the incarnation, resurrection, and sacraments. Furthermore, you will gain insight into the practical applications of embodiment in worship and liturgy, spiritual formation, and social engagement.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 13
Watching Now
Embodiment of Faith

TH730-13: Embodiment of Faith

I. Introduction to the Embodiment of Faith

A. Context and Background

B. Importance of Embodiment

II. Historical Development of Embodiment

A. Early Christian Views

B. Changes Over Time

III. Theological Implications of Embodiment

A. Incarnation

B. Resurrection

C. Sacraments

IV. Practical Applications of Embodiment

A. Worship and Liturgy

B. Spiritual Formation

C. Social Engagement

  • 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. 

One of the problems that the Early Fathers that struggled with was the embodiment of faith: how do you embody your faith? And, of course, it was easy at the beginning of the more formative development of Christianity to say that Christian faith is embodied by martyrdom, that you’re a true witness to the Gospel and you witness unto death. People like Origen as a teenager when he saw that his father had been martyred, he wanted to rush on the street and to volunteer for martyrdom. So his mother had to hide his clothes so that he wouldn’t do that. And he was deadly serious that martyrdom is embodiment of faith, a wonderful reality for that time.

But after persecution had ceased, the Desert Fathers, with their asceticism, were saying that an alternative form of embodiment is the ascetic discipline of the body. In other words, it was not red martyrdom, it was what you might call grey or white martyrdom. It was the emaciation of the body that you were martyring in that sense for the reality that you were embodying your faith. And so this was a different kind of concern altogether. And the martyrdom of the body included two forms. It could be that you did it collectively in a community, or it could be that, like Anthony, who was the prototype of the Desert Father, that you did it in solitariness so you went as a hermit into the forest. It’s a movement that’s still going strong.

Outside of Curitiba in Brazil, there is the Cistercian monastery that was created by a Wall Street banker and is a remarkable, thriving community of the Cistercians. But also indwelt within them are people like Thomas Merton, who wanted to see that the embodiment of faith was most clearly seen in the hermit. And so when I was at the monastery just a few months ago, I was saying and do you have any priests who are hermits? Oh yes, we have some of our young priests that have gone to live in the Amazon and we hear no more about them—they’re lost forever. So this passion for the embodiment of faith in ascetic ways is still going strong even in our generation, but it was very lively during the third and fourth and fifth centuries. And here, the solitariness was that the wellbeing of the soul is preserved by having this personal, intimate identity with God.

But one of the things that they did not understand was that to live as a solitary Christian is to be therefore much more open to temptation. When you discuss temptation with a friend, you are going to be much more alleviated of the power of the temptation than when you live an isolated life. And one of the tragedies of pornography that we have today that affects even our Christian youth very deeply is that when their inner lonely self is never able to communicate with others, it indulges in all sorts of pornographic influences which are in the airwaves all around us. And I’ve often had MDiv students who came to me in their last term and they’re saying with shame on their faces how can I preach God’s Gospel to my charge when I now go into the pastoral ministry when I’m still reading Playboy? And the answer is have healthy friendships with women. Don’t think that you have to go and date in order to have a friendship with a woman. That’s a crazy Hollywood idea that’s developed in this last century. But just have healthy friendships with those of the opposite sex.


And so in the early days then of the Desert Father, one of the things that preoccupies these Early Fathers was temptation. They could have left the cities of sin and shame, but the memory was still persistent even though they were isolated. And in fact, the memory was intensified, so fighting the demonic was a great curse in that culture. But one of the great advantages of this desert struggle for the possession of the soul and understanding that we don’t despise the body to esteem the soul, this was something that they did not enter into as we now would understand. They were also fighting against sleep. In other words, the deprivation of being without sleep was also another cause for a total weakening of the boundaries that they might have in resisting evil in their lives.

The person who therefore understands much more clearly what should be done about this is Cassian, who was a traveller in the Middle East in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. And he compared the mild asceticism of Basil and the Basilian monasticism of Asia Minor where life is not a desert, it’s simply a more limited cover of vegetation and so you’re living with other people and you’re not out as a hermit in the heart of the Sahara like some of the early more extreme forms. And so the contrast between mild asceticism and extreme asceticism is the geographical reality of whether you’re living in a desert or whether you’re living in a steppe, like Asia Minor. And so John Cassian began in comparing these different models and was able to draw up in his Homilies a much more moderate understanding of how we cultivate the soul. He sees it in the more Old Testament sense that it’s not so much the soul we cultivate, it’s the heart we cultivate. And so the Biblical anthropology of the heart, which is the Old Testament understanding, is a much more realistic understanding than the cultivation of the soul. He sees the heart is the source of spiritual energising.


And much later in the 13th and then the 14th century, Gregory Palamas points out that some Fathers have chosen the mind, the intellect, but he sees that they really should focus on the heart. The brilliance, you might say, of Biblical anthropology in the Old Testament is that the heart is both the seat of the emotions, but it’s also the seat of the mind. It has a cognitive as well as an emotional component. And that I think for us is the healthy response that we should have to all this contention and complexity of soul keeping. It’s heart keeping, for it’s out of the heart are the issues of life.

When we come to, therefore, Cassian’s understanding, he is now describing something that is mapping out what we might call the ecology of temptation. And he sees that in the seven cardinal sins, which is a rapport to the seven cardinal virtues that the Stoics had developed, that the seven cardinal sins are really how things go together in a kind of ecological way. That is to say, the basic sin is envy. It was the sin that followed Adam and Eve, but it was also the sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of their children, Cain and Abel. It’s an envy of God. As far as Adam and Eve are concerned, the temptation is but you shall be as God; you’ll be gods too. And then, of course, we find with Cain and Abel that it’s the sin of fratricide, of how Cain killed his brother out of envy.

And so one of the great scholars today that you should read deeply about in understanding this basic source of sin that we’ll discuss later is, of course, René Girard. But perhaps I should leave that there, because we’ll overlap with our next lecture, and now turn to what Augustine was thinking about in all of this. For Augustine, it’s not so much the exploration of the soul that matters; it’s the exploration of what he calls memory—memoria. And it’s a misconstrual to think he’s talking about having a good memory. So the use of the Latin word memoria is very much richer than simply having a good attentive memory. He’s not considering simply the recollection of past events, but as Henry Chadwick has made a translation of Confessions, will tell you that he means by memory that deepest abyss of the self. Or as John Barnaby, another appreciative writer on the love that Augustine expresses on the love of God, says that memoria is that deep of the soul in which is treasured not only the consciousness of oneself, but the consciousness of the presence of God.


This profound teaching was really what kept spiritual piety strongly alive throughout the Middle Ages. In other words, medieval piety is knowing that the soul is receptive of the presence of God and in being receptive of the presence of God then one is soulful. As Augustine calls memoria a vast courtyard of profound and infinite multiplicity, a large and boundless interiority, which provides us not only with our own identity and continuity, but the awareness that we’re made in the image and likeness of God. It’s a celebration of communion with God, so that to be a Christian is profoundly to have a good memory of a good God. That is what it is to be Christian.


This development was so strong in the Middle Ages that as we go through it, you should be guided by one particularly important book by Mary Carruthers. Her book is called The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. It was published in 1990. She traces that from the 11th century onwards until the beginning of the Renaissance, memory is that cultural virtue which is important in all aspects of life. And one way in which one is excited to have a good memory is to do what we do day-to-day as piously we read our Daily Light or our daily reading. Well, in the Middle Ages there was the Florilegia. And the Florilegia of the high Middle Ages was the quotes of great sayings of the saints as well as passages of scripture. They were things to be remembered. And they were remembered for one’s moral training. And, of course, you could say that the Florilegia of the Old Testament is the Book of Proverbs of how we behave, that these sayings that we have in the Old Testament are lacing together wise sayings about our morality and about our ethics. And so if you are temptable then the Florilegia or the Proverbs or indeed the Psalms are the guardians that you have for the guardian of memoria.


Now, of course, we also realise that the practical, pastoral intent that Augustine has in describing memoria is that you can’t separate the memory of God from the memory of yourself. And indeed, as he says at the beginning of his Confessions, in large measure, all that we mean by our Christian faith is exercising the knowledge of ourselves in the presence of the knowledge of God. This double knowledge is the pulse beat right through this period and is perhaps climaxed by John Calvin, who begins his Institutes by saying it’s the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves in large measure constitutes the nature of the Christian faith. And we can say the same today. It’s personalising and embodying, but it’s doing it in ways that we can think of as only being contemplative, as ruminating. This word ruminatio is what the sheep do with the pasture: they chew the cud; they regurgitate. So memoria is to be by recollection meditative regurgitation. And you will find the memory is so sweet.

We find it used in Ezekiel 3:3 and the Book of Revelation 10:9–11, which echoes Ezekiel’s experience, that it’s like eating a book and you’re finding it sweet as honey. It nourishes you and it gives you joy. It gives you wonderful experiences. It’s giving you your moral health. That’s what it’s doing. And so this, of course, this is also tied up with what we were talking about yesterday, about the four levels of understanding scripture and their application. And so all of this was what was so much the development in medieval piety that our whole purpose of life is that our whole interiority is so enlarged and so enriched by the memory of God.

So perhaps we should again have another pause.