Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 19

Oxford vs. Cambridge

In this lesson, you will explore the differences between the theological perspectives of Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence. You will delve into the historical background of both schools and examine their key theological viewpoints. As you continue, you will gain insight into the ways Oxford and Cambridge have contributed to the loss of transcendence and how this loss has affected modern theology. By the end of the lesson, you will have a deeper understanding of the implications these theological differences have for the future of Christian thought.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 19
Watching Now
Oxford vs. Cambridge

TH730-19: Oxford vs. Cambridge

I. Theological Differences between Oxford and Cambridge

A. Historical Background

B. Key Theological Perspectives

II. Impact on the Loss of Transcendence

A. The Influence of Oxford Theology

B. The Influence of Cambridge Theology

III. Contemporary Implications

A. Consequences for Modern Theology

B. Future Directions

  • 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
Oxford vs. Cambridge
Lesson Transcript


We should now consider the difference between Oxford and Cambridge that was bridged by Lewis. Why was it that Cambridge received him and Oxford rejected him? Well, in the DNA of the two universities there’s a long story.

There were a few rebellious youth students at the end of the 12th century who rebelled against their Oxford training and so they took refuge in the fens, which are marshlands, in the East of England and they founded the University of Cambridge. So it was out of rebellion against Oxford that Cambridge was created. The happenstance of Cambridge was that it was closer to the Dutch reformed world of the Netherlands and of Calvinism and so the traders trading through the marshes to the port of Cambridge, because Cambridge itself was a little port at that time that led out to the North Sea, that Cambridge then was influenced by Calvinism. And it was Calvinism that then enabled one of the colleges, called Emmanuel, to become the training ground for the first Puritan scholars. And so to this day the richest collection of Puritan scholarship is still in the library of Emmanuel College. It was therefore from that background that Cromwell then with his Puritan background created the beginning of the Civil War. And so Oxford was king’s party, high church, Anglican and, of course, Cambridge was low church, Puritan and the source of the levellers, that is to say those who are equally viewing themselves as their own kings. A very, very different culture the two represented.

But Cambridge has always been much more receptive with trade to the outside world than Oxford and so with the rise of science and the influence of that coming from the continent, it meant that Cambridge always received these alien elements without snobbery, without questioning. And so it was a huge embrace that Cambridge took in the 19th century to embrace modern science. Oxford didn’t. Right up until the beginning of the 20th century, science at Oxford was marginalised. Some science don, brilliant as he might be, had to work in the basement of the college. Or when a science park was created in the 1930s, it was outside the bounds of Oxford, of their college life. So it’s been an extraneous influence for Oxford to embrace science, even though we did have brilliant scientists like [Robert Watson-Watt 00:04:19], for example.

Or we did have people like Lord Cherwell, who was the scientific advisor to Churchill in the war. And there’s an amusing story about him because he was a German Jew, great scientist, and when Winston wanted to reward him for his war services, there were three rivers that he could have chosen for his baronetcy. One of them is the Windrush. Well, to be called Lord Windrush sounded rather undignified, as if he’s going to belch in the House of Lords. So he refused that. Evenlode is a bit sort of more placid, but Evenlode is not a good name to be the scientific advisor for Churchill in the war. So he had to [plump for 00:05:20] the third one, which was the river that flows through Oxford: Cherwell. He became Lord Cherwell.


But all of that indicates that Oxford has never really taken science seriously, not until now, but it’s too late because Cambridge, as I visited it two weeks ago, I was told—and I believe it because they weren’t boasting—that Cambridge is the most advanced scientific centre in the whole of Europe. It’s amazing what the tech world has done to Cambridge. But the interdisciplinary relations with it are such that there’s no university in the world today where Christians are more in leadership in the transformation/integration of science and faith. The first chair in science and faith in the world was started by Cambridge 12 years ago. And today, when you meet these people, they’re humble evangelical Christians, but they’re top scientists. And so it’s quite amazing how the light has gone out of Oxford and you wonder whether it’s God’s judgement that that event that Lewis had to leave Oxford was an exodus that he did not realise would be so dark.

When I went to the university church where Lewis had written his glorious essay on saying if we as creatures transformed by the Gospel only realised it, what glorious beings we would be in eternal glory, we would stand in awe and wonder of each other. I went back because I was in that address and I was so inspired when it happened. And I went back just two weeks ago and I went to the bookstore. You know, there’s always a trinket store that these monasteries or cathedrals have, so they have all the trinkets there, the postcards and guidebooks and so on. There was only one book on the shelves, by the present rector and the book is called [Belonging without Believing 00:08:18]. And it’s an outrage: support for atheism, advocacy of being an atheist. How in the world can the rector of a major church of England not be thrown out for being an atheist? He’s there and he preaches every Sunday on atheism. The lights have gone out of Oxford; they sure have. And Cambridge is so utterly different. So although Lewis never lived to see this, I can’t help but see his exodus as the reality that the denial of God takes us into utter darkness.


Let us then proceed to see what Lewis was reacting against. First of all, he was aware in his generation that scientists were an intruder into Oxford. So he’s part of that tradition that the humanities is what Oxford glories in and Lewis was part of that recognising that good literature is required to have a good voice for God. So Dorothy Sayers and people like Tolkien and Lewis himself, they were all wonderful writers. And so even Lewis was himself a bit scornful about science and so he writes That Hideous Strength as the threat of the new sciences taking over the common room of an Oxford college. But of course, he now sees that behind the prejudice culturally of not being a scientist is the far deeper threat of scientism that is going to undermine all credibility of the Christian faith.

One of the things that Lewis used to do, and this is why, as I say, he became rather an embarrassment to Tolkien as being too articulate as a Christian, was that he had become so famous in the whole of Britain by his broadcast talks. And you may not realise it, but Dr Lloyd-Jones was doing the same thing as Lewis. Dr Lloyd-Jones was the assistant to the king’s physician at [Harley Street 00:11:48] in London. He was a top young physician, promising high rewards for his future, but his war work was to commute, as a Welshman, to give pulpit supply in Wales because there were so many pulpits that now had no pastor because they’d been called up into the forces. And so he would with no knowledge of preaching, no seminary education whatsoever, he got self-taught by reading the Puritans on the train on his way to Cardiff or wherever he was going for that Sunday’s preaching. So that’s the revival of Puritanism that later Jim Packer took over because Lloyd-Jones was his father figure and Jim had not had much of a father. So his father figure was Lloyd-Jones and so that’s why he lapped up Puritanism as well. But can you imagine the fame of Dr Lloyd-Jones with all his commentaries and he never had even a term of seminary education? It’s a very different world from the world we live in today, isn’t it?


Well, I once said to Lewis you know because of your popularity… He was asked by the students if he wouldn’t give public lectures and, of course, there was no lecture hall that was big enough, so he used to lecture in the examination schools that had a big auditorium. And so one of the things that you should read are his essays, which were addresses on meanings. And the first of these addresses is on the critique of nature. His critique of nature’s a brilliant study of the whole question of nature and naturalism, all of that, and knowing its origin in Greek thinking. And then another thing that Lewis was asked to do was that one of the women pastors at St. Aldate’s Church in the centre of the city—it was viewed by some as liberal; it was viewed by others as evangelical; it just depended what brand of evangelicalism you belonged to—but she stirred him up and said you know the debating society debate every Thursday. This is a long tradition at Oxford of dialogue. Why don’t we have another debating society on Friday and we call it the Socratic Club?


And the Socratic Club is simply that you communicate truth by dialogue, not monologue. So all I’m doing in monologue today is totally contrary to what we should be communicating, which should be dialogue so that one-to-one you’re relating to each other. My wife was very good at dialogue because she’d tell me I was speaking a lot of nonsense and so I had to listen to her. That’s dialogue. And so Lewis started with this lady, who had aspirations for Lewis, but he wasn’t looking at her at all, which might have been… I don’t know what would have been the best result. But the Socratic Club became famous and so Lewis then, of course, took centre stage and so the relations through all of this got cooler and cooler with Tolkien. The Inklings, they might meet at the pub and enjoy their drink together, but it wasn’t deep friendship. It couldn’t be because of all this background that took place.

In his book Truth and Logic, Lewis says that language, truth and logic are all right, but it’s only when we’re doing this dialogue dialogically and doing it dialogically is to do it personally, not abstractly. And he was therefore concerned that an abstraction of communicating philosophy was developing that threatened the whole future and that was logical positivism; that is to say, that you have a science of logic by which you communicate. This had started in a Vienna circle in Austria, but now it penetrates in the 1960s or late ’50s into Oxford and the leader of this movement was a man called A.J. Ayers. And so what Lewis was passionately attacking was logical positivism.


I mentioned the other day about Isaiah Berlin also reacting against logical positivism when he decided to change his fellowship at All Souls to become a historian of ideas. Well, Lewis was even more aware of the danger of this reductionism of communication. Because what Lewis saw was that this logical positivism was dissolving everything into a kind of acid and that he saw that it was using an application of psychoanalysis, not the psychoanalysis of the soul, but the psychoanalysis of words, of language. And I remember in many discussions that we had on a Saturday evening there was a phase when he was totally absorbed in communicating the same thing almost for several months at a time. That’s the thing about a brilliant scholar: he’s got one idea in his head and it buzzes loudly and he polishes it like a diamond. He sees all the different facets of it.

And so in this phase, I vividly remember he said look out of the window. If the window is transparent, you can be thankful you’re looking through it. [But you look at; you don’t look through 00:19:50]. And psychoanalysis is looking through everything in behaviour and logical positivism is looking through everything in language. And so when you see through everything, you end up seeing nothing. That’s the paradox. So to him, logical positivism was acting like an anatomist dissecting a cadaver. The person is long since dead and you become an anatomist. Truth has long died when you become a logical positivist. This tendency to make explanation the master virtue is your imprisonment. You’re a slave. You’re not a master when you enter into this world.


Saul Bellow, the Jewish Nobel Prize winner, years later—Lewis didn’t know him at the time—he says in one of his novels that the death of modern man is like a little bird sitting on a fence, tweeting out, explaining everything to death. Explanation was becoming in Lewis’s day a process of moral dissolution.