Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 20

Writings of C.S. Lewis

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.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 20
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Writings of C.S. Lewis

  • 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


Writings of C.S. Lewis

Lesson Transcript


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 in a moral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

And so in three lectures, he’s referring to these three elements. And the first then is on the loss of an emotional life. And to have the loss of emotional life means that you’re living without a heart and you’ve lost your soul. And secondly, there’s the loss of the corpus of morality, of how you relate socially. So in shorthand, Lewis saw that this was the loss of what he calls the Tao. And of course, he’s referring to Taoism in China and Confucianism that lies behind Taoism. And what he’s saying is why other great religions of the world, they have a basis in morality, how can you possibly say that any civilisation or any culture has to live without morality? That’s what he means by the Tao. And so the loss of a Tao is then the loss of everything as far as the Christian is concerned. And so this loss is, in a sense, that you’re not alive within your own society. So, in this context, he is reminding us that we have to recover our emotions and he sees for himself that the recovery of emotions are really the recovery of what he’s going to write about at length and which he’d already started in his Narnia tales.

We’ve said already that no doubt the emotional life of Lewis was profoundly changed by having the children live with him and his brother, [Warnie 00:03:06]. And the children’s stories are aimed to strengthen our hearts, to give health to our souls, by enlarging our desires and our affections so that the children really begin to love Aslan and to promote goodness by enjoying fully the beauty of Narnia. So truth, goodness, beauty, are things that we can be ecstatic about, taking ourselves out of ourselves to be concerned about others, above all concerned about God. But we find the children asking is it safe to seek the good. And Lewis is saying, paradoxically, oh no, it’s dangerous to seek the good. And so one of the ways in which you can enter quickly into the spirit of the Narnia tales is to do a retreat with Lewis on Narnia. There’s a little book by Robert Morneau that I’ve enjoyed called A Retreat with CS Lewis: Yielding to a Pursuing God. And it’s a wonderful retreat on these stories.


One of the things that the children discover as they go through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into the land of Narnia is to find that this is not an exotic environment. It’s home domesticity. Mr Beaver is acting in a way that is very much like Lewis himself. Lewis is a very ordinary man. He’s wearing an old, grubby tweed jacket that he wears for years on end and a pair of corduroy trousers and a pair of shoes that have probably been on his feet for 15 years. That’s Lewis! He’s like Mr Beaver. He’s just a very ordinary person. You wouldn’t recognise him as having any fame when you see him in the street.

So Susan is enquiring, as any child enquires, ‘ “Who is Aslan?” “Aslan?” said Mr Beaver, why, don’t you know? He’s the King. It’s he, not you that will save Mr Tumnus.” “Is he a man?” “Aslan a man?” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I’ll tell you, he’s the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without his knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” “I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.” ’

Well, you see what Lewis is doing. He’s eliciting the grammar of faith by having appropriate emotions for the truth about God. It’s entering into the appropriate way in which we exercise the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. And so one of the things that Lewis is doing in the Narnia tales is that your proper emotions will only be cultivated when you allow your deep feelings that you never share with other people and perhaps have even never understood yourself, you’re eliciting them; you’re vocalising them; you’re expressing them. So this exercise suggests that we should express these deep longings that we’re encouraged to do by this journey. [00:08:11]

Whatever is dialogical is what personalises. And this is where, again, Lewis is so supreme in the way he does it:

‘ “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion. “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill. “Then drink,” said the Lion. “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realised that she might just as well have asked for the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her near frantic. “Will you promise not to do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she’d come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I’ve swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it was angry. It just said it. “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear,” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.’

What Lewis is indicating to us is that truth is dangerous because truth is truth and there’s no substitute. Well, you could go on, but you can see how the real riposte to the abolition of man is in the Narnia tales and this significance then of entering into a strengthening of the affections and a deepening of the desires that are so profound. I’ve sometimes suggested that it’s an interesting comparison to read the Narnia tales alongside Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Because in the Religious Affections, again, Edwards is pulling out all the stops about the range of all the emotions that are appropriate by which we enter into the truth of God. You see, what’s wrong with our church life is that we’ve lost dialogue. We have programmes, endless programmes, but it’s all about activism. They’re not giving you robust emotions for being a joyous Christian.


An example of this is my son-in-law, who’s a good-hearted, generous, loyal person. And one day about 40 years ago he saw a man in the gutter who was drunk. He took him home, he gave him a bath, he fed him and now, for 40 years, he’s part of the family. He comes and goes. He has his binges. He hasn’t overcome his alcoholism completely. But when he asked the Church to come in and help him with this situation, he had to give up because of all the bureaucracy that was involved in giving this chap just simply the spontaneous care that he needed.

So that’s Lewis. And when he writes Till We Have Faces, which, as we’ve said, is the most profound novel of all his writings, indeed of all his literature, he’s rewriting Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is the framework of the myth Till We Have Faces. It’s the story of a mythical kingdom. I think of it as being part of the travels of Ulysses. And in visiting Georgia, I think probably that’s where Ulysses came from, or where he went to. And so it’s a far distant land; it’s an ancient land. But there’s hunger in the land; there’s famine in the land; and because of the anger of the gods, a sacrifice has to be made. It’s the old story that René Girard has said that when there’s anger, there needs to be a scapegoat. And so the scapegoat becomes the youngest of the three daughters of the King of Glome. Like any ancient, he wants a son to be his heir and becomes very bitter because he has no son as the heir of the throne. The oldest daughter, Orual, is groomed therefore by one of the courtiers who is himself a slave, but he’s a Greek slave so he’s a philosopher. He’s educated, as we so often find in the Early Church. And so he comes and represents the linguistic philosopher, or indeed the logical positivist that Lewis knew so well at Oxford. And all he knows about is speaking with the language of scientism, the language of rationalism. He’s wholly engaged in abstract thinking. And Orual is groomed by him to be his replica. The middle daughter has no name and deliberately Lewis gives her no name because she’s a narcissist: she’s so empty, she has no identity. She can only think of herself in utmost vanity, so there’s no character there. It’s an empty shell. So narcissism shrinks her to a ghost-like figure that’s in the background of this novel.


And then the youngest sister, who is so beautiful to look at, is Psyche. Psyche is, of course, the soul. Psyche is the Christ-like figure. It’s Psyche who shows up the falsity of the world in which the palace is dwelling. And, of course, with the famine in the land, looking for a scapegoat—this is where Girard would have a heyday dissecting the story—she’s offered up as the victim. She is to be sent to appease the god of the mountains in his wrath. It’s a sacrifice of immolation: by burning and of totally being evaporated, you might say. So Psyche represents the Christian who doesn’t love his own life and therefore doesn’t lose it, yet he does seem to appear to lose it. In other words, Psyche is the one real person in the whole story.


And Till We Have a Face indicates that you don’t have a face until you become a real ‘I’, a real person; otherwise, you’re simply living with a mask of appearances, whatever that mask is. Whether it’s a rationalist mask or a political mask or the self-loving mask, it’s all a mask. You don’t have a face. And of course, this is the whole play that in the Greek life of tragedy, nobody has a face because the origin of the word prosopon that we now translate as [inaudible 00:17:08] or person, is simply the mask bearer. You come on the stage of the drama of life and you wear a mask. And then you rush off the stage having uttered your few words on the stage of life and it’s all over. The prosopon for the Greek tragedy is, however, someone who sounds forth a protest, but a real me in protest is crushed by the juggernaut of the fates. And so the tragedy of Greek drama is that no one can afford to be real without the anger of the gods, or indeed being destroyed by the gods. There’s no reality of the personal in Greek mythology.

Lewis is brilliantly then using myth to indicate the situation that we’re in today. So the moral that lies behind Till We Have Faces is really this Augustinian prayer: let me know thee, O God; let me know myself. This double knowledge is required that to know God is to know oneself because we can only know God when we find Him applicable to our own situation. This then is the pulse beat of true Christian health. And so, as Lewis says, to have heard myself making it known was truly the life to live.


Perhaps then as we close on this subject, we realise that what Lewis was already so afraid of in his generation was the reductionism of all isms. There’s a sovereignty of the ism that says this-is-all-there-is-ism. So whether it’s socialism or fascism or, indeed, psychologism or, indeed, reductionism, they’re all tyrannising us with the reduction of reality. And this is where Lewis is so profoundly important. We find the similar echo in the novel That Hideous Strength where Jane is the person who’s facing a scientistic world. She’s struggling to be real, but finding herself being nurtured without emotional health. She’s discovering that only when her emotional condition is transformed because she’s living with a transcendent reality then she truly can be a Christian. And so for all of us, we realise how solemn is this prophetic message that Lewis has given to us.