Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 22

Seek Understanding and Retain Hope

In this lesson, you explore the concepts of transcendence and immanence and their importance in maintaining a balanced and vibrant faith. You delve into the loss of transcendence in modern society due to the Enlightenment, secularism, and humanism, and how this has impacted theology and faith. You learn how to seek understanding by rediscovering transcendence, engaging with Scripture, and participating in a faith community. Finally, you discover how to retain hope by reaffirming the divine, living in the tension between transcendence and immanence, and engaging with culture in a meaningful way.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 22
Watching Now
Seek Understanding and Retain Hope

TH730-22: Seek Understanding, Retain Hope

I. Defining Transcendence and Immanence

A. Theological Concepts

B. Balance and Tension

II. Loss of Transcendence in Modern Society

A. The Enlightenment

B. Secularism and Humanism

C. Impact on Theology and Faith

III. Seeking Understanding

A. Rediscovering Transcendence

B. The Role of Scripture

C. The Importance of Community

IV. Retaining Hope

A. Reaffirming the Divine

B. Living in Tension

C. Engaging with Culture

  • 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


Seek Understanding and Retain Hope

Lesson Transcript


The hallmark then of being a good cultural critic is to have a buoyancy of hope. You may see things in despair. You may think it’s hopeless. But you’re talking about awareness of your own frustration when you think things are hopeless. With God, all things are possible. God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think. So instead of focusing on the hopelessness of the situation, we have to realize that it’s God who is going to have to make the changes that are required that we see happening around us. It helps us, in other words, to have a deeper faith, to have a stronger awareness that He is our savior and our redeemer of our culture.

So Romano Guardini, or Cardinal Guardini, he also critiqued technology, but he did it very astutely and he did so as a precursor of Ellul in the 1930s. So I would recommend you to read his Letters from Lake Como, which is a gentler literary genre that he uses in order to discuss what he sees are the failings of technology, though, of course, the impact that technology was making in that period was very much less intense from what later Ellul was to see. Another writer that you should refer to is Emmanuel Mesthene, but again he’s a writer that is tentative and he doesn’t sustain his arguments in the way that Ellul so superbly does. And then most recently, there is a professor at the University of Montana in the United States Albert Borgmann and he’s one of the latest of these critics, for he’s writing his book in 2004 called Power Failure.

They’re all raising their voices in different dimensions or forms of protest, but they’re all affirming with Peter Drucker, the great business consultant, who was a fine Christian man living to a ripe old age of over 90, a book that he called The Age of Discontinuity. He recognizes what technology has done is to create our discontinuity from the past. J.H. Plumb, whom I should have referred to before, was a Cambridge historian who gave lectures in Columbia University in 1968 on The Death of the Past and he was saying the death of the past is the death of the Christian past. So he’s referring to historiography. But Drucker saw the death of the past in being now an age of discontinuity and that was a very different kind of break for he’s referring to the fact that what we’re now facing is unprecedented from what has happened in the past. And in his study, he’s realizing we’re living with completely new and intense forms of ambiguity with unreality, with multiplicity, with fragmentation, and that all of these things are intensifying in unprecedented ways. And, of course, what lies behind this critique of Peter Drucker is that truth and meaning are becoming increasingly more relativized: it’s all a matter of a point of view.

Now, many of us as we live with that complexity, ambiguity and fragmentation, and confusion, are perhaps saying we live in a terrible world. And this is exactly what Jacques Ellul is saying. I’m living in a terrible world, so what do I do? Do I panic? No. I seek to understand. So when it is all the more confused, you’re simply being challenged to have a clearer mind. And one of the things that I’m excited about is that I think that we’re on the cusp of a renaissance, unlike the previous Renaissance, of intelligent human beings realizing it makes more sense to be a Christian than to be an atheist.

Now, we have to wait for that to be more made aware in our culture. But I can give you an example of having coffee one morning with my grandson. And one of his friends is a bright young lady in cognitive psychology and she had become a Christian simply by studying intelligently the faith for the first time. Her father, who was an atheist, couldn’t scorn his daughter because he knew she was very bright and so he thought well, she’s smarter than I am, so I’d better explore Christianity. And so he too has become a Christian. And it’s also because it’s very much smarter to have a positive attitude to life than just to be full of negatives and doubts, which is what an atheist lives with. So which is better, to live in the tunnel of darkness, or to go out into the landscape and see things afresh in a new way? And so I would encourage all of you to realise that what the Christian has to do today is simply to study harder; do your homework; think more deeply.

And this is what Ellul does. He says you have to have a broader landscape perspective, and you do so when you have a theological perspective. It’s not that you’re studying theology as a discipline. You’re just simply seeing the landscape from a bigger perspective than that of the cynic. Now in doing so, of course, you’re not concerned about the tunnel vision of a career. Ellul himself was careless about his own career prospects. Rather, he had a Kingdom motive: he wanted to live out the Word of God within a world that was in such a mess. We find that he came from a very poor background. His father never really had a real job. His mother did the best she could as an artist, but that was a very precarious livelihood. And so, basically, it fell upon the young teenager to make ends meet financially for the whole family. That was a big responsibility. So he had to survive by his own wits. And he had to have, therefore, multiple training. And so he was an historian, he was also a lawyer and he also became a sociologist. And that’s what’s characteristic of the tech revolution: that the boundaries of the old professions are melting away and you can be all sorts of things.

When I first went to Regent, my colleagues were really rather ashamed of saying oh, but our principal is a geographer. Well, what in the world is a geographer doing in a theological college? Well, of course, I didn’t explain in those days that I wasn’t really just a geographer. I was an historian of ideas and that’s a maverick in every field, as we’ve seen already. And so that’s what you have to be. You have to have the courage to realise that a professional identity is very insecure. It’s very restrictive. It’s very limited. But when you’re a Christian then you can realise that God gives you a mandate to make all thought captive to Christ. You can explore all sorts of realms. And technology is helping us to do that today. It’s amazing what you can pick up from Google about information. So you young people today, you are far more intelligent, you’re more informed, than any previous generation. And so we have to realize that our young people are often far more informed than we older people are. So in this way, Ellul is a good prototype for us to have as a Christian in the tech world.

In all of this, he was also very radical about his interpretation of the Christian life. You see, in radical times you have to have radical views. And the conventional Christian framework is often very prosaic. It’s very limited. And yet, this is one of the tensions of being a Christian. You have to see things domestically. You have to see things personally. And at the same time, you see things cosmically. One of the people that might inspire you to give this perspective is if you read the last of the books of the Narnia tales and in the last book—it’s, I think, essay 15 in the last book—in that essay there’s a rumour round Narnia that you have to look microscopically, but also to look telescopically, to have a big vision of the Kingdom, but at the same time enter more intimately into the domesticity and the motives of our own life.

This double vision is what every small bird has. A small bird in its brain has two abilities. It can microscopically see every seed in the foliage that they can pick up from the ground and at the same time it has telescopic lens to see when the hawk or the vulture is in the sky and take cover. And that’s the kind of perspective that we as Christians need to have: to be able to see things in the most minutiae of our domesticity, of our personal lives, of our own heritage, but at the same time to have this broad view of the Kingdom.

What, of course, was a great asset for Ellul, and it changed the study of history in France after the war, was that many of the academics in the humanities and history studies were in the underground movement. They owed their lives in hiding them to kindly peasants and so by taking cover in a peasant’s home where they could be concealed, they learnt the minutiae of simple peasant life. And so the so-called annales d’histoire was a new school of history that was developed in academic life in France and that is when you’re doing a PhD at the Sorbonne as a newcomer, you’re now studying ten years in the life of a peasant community up in the Pyrenees or in the Massif Central. Well, that was because they had lived with the peasants, so why not look at the peasants of the past as well in the same way? It’s an interesting perspective that, of course, American history has never had. You’ve never had that kind of perspective because of that. Well, this is the kind of thing that Ellul had. He could see things microscopically. He could also use the vision telescopically of what was happening to the whole world around him.

That’s why, although I don’t want to be unfair to your own American colleague, but Albert Borgmann doesn’t have this perspective at all. He’s done a fine piece of work because he’s the first philosopher in America to really study seriously the subject of technology, which he did in 1984 in his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. But he’s yawning while he writes. He says I’m writing about technology because I’m a philosopher and a philosopher is imply one who observes what’s going on in the society around him. He’s really like a sociologist in some ways. And so it happens that our society has become very technical and so therefore you’d better look at its technical character. So that’s what he does. So he gives you the feeling that you can be much more at ease and not get too worried about technology because you’re on the sidelines too like him. You’re describing it like being in the armchair. You’re not involved deeply in the whole mess of what it is if you’re living as you do from the attitude of Ellul.

What therefore the critique that Borgmann is giving us is that culture is becoming homogenized, that just as you have homogenized milk and you’re left with no cream, if you want to do something about the cream then you vigorously whip cream and put it in as a new ingredient and a new package and you can call it Cool Whip. And so he speaks about Cool Whip consisting of water, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oils and corn syrup, sugar, sodium caseinate, dextrose, polysorbate, and then 60 natural or artificial flavors that you add as well. And then you give it an artificial color. Is that all that technology’s doing for us? So it’s engaging and amusing stuff, but he’s not telling you that technology is going to destroy your soul. Very differently, Ellul writes with passion.

He’s talking about the whole radical disenchantment we need to have with modernism, indeed with postmodernism. And of course, the curious thing about Albert Borgmann is he never mentions Ellul in his works. It’s as if he never existed. He ignores him totally. So we end up trying to find out why he is so ignored. Is it because Ellul’s stolen all the thunder already and he can’t match that thunder? I don’t know, but it’s certainly the kind of detachment that a philosopher tends to have. He does give some praise to Harvey Cox. And Harvey Cox is another American in Harvard, had written the book The Secular City, which, of course, was an early critique of technology. And Harvey Cox is more penetrating in understanding the impact of technology on society because he speaks about the three Ds: disenchantment, desacrilisation and deconstruction. And it’s like Solomon removing the pillars of the temple and letting it crash down. And of course, the pillars of transcendence come crashing down when you live in a disenchanted world, a desacrilised world that’s totally secular and a deconstructed world that denies its Creator. That is pulling down the pillars of the temple. And Harvey Cox is aware of how radically this is happening. And of course, when we think of its disenchantment, we go back to our parable of the caterpillar. We are disenchanted by it.

A few years ago, my youngest daughter, Penny, and her husband were in the northern part of Maui, staying in a hotel that was on the northern point. Literally, the hotel cascades down the cliff towards the sea. It’s a spectacular view. You feel that when you’re there, your just leaping already into the Pacific Ocean. The wideness of that perspective is awesome indeed. And just out of curiosity, they went down the further steps into the servants’ quarters. And at the entrance of the servants’ quarters, where the servants came up and down busily serving the guests upstairs, there’s a text, there’s a motto, on the wall: ‘Let your service match the view.’ Why? If you’re always looking at that view then you have every emotive to be a wonderful servant to the tourists that are there. And so what we have to realise is that technology has lost the view. It’s made us so mundane, uninspired. We’ve lost the view of transcendence when we’ve become so absorbed with all the how to questions.

I became very sensitive to my students when they kept asking me how do I do this, how I do that? I said you’re incurably a tech guy. The how-to questions indicate how secularised we are by technology as Christians. Now, there is a place for it and I have to realise that there are sometimes times when we have to say this is how we have to do it. But we’re not talking technically; we’re talking relationally. This is how I behave. This is how my attitude should be. It’s a relational approach that we need to take always when we’re dealing with Christ in his Kingdom, but we’ve technicalised the Christian message very much indeed. And so as I was saying to Kelly this morning driving in that here am I indicting technology when I’m using technology, you see. So we’ll have to come to that to realise that it’s not all bad; otherwise, you’re wasting your time with me in this programme of recording.

Let’s look further at the contrast then of what Ellul is helping us to see in his own life. He is another generation after C.S. Lewis. Lewis was born in 1898 and died in 1963. Ellul was born in 1912 and died in 1994. So they’re a generation apart. What is happening is then that Ellul is seeing things getting worse than what Lewis was able to see. And of course, what Lewis was facing was the paganism of nature; whereas, what Ellul was seeing was the paganism of manmade technology. There were new gods that were appearing on the horizon. Lewis was aware of the threat of technology, as everyone was in World War I because World War I is the first brutal war that uses the advancement of science and technology like no other war before. And so the murderous events of the 20th century in our two world wars was that never, never before was science and technology more equipped and harnessed to destroy mankind.

All his life, Ellul then lived with personal pressures and resistance to the world around him. He resisted its institutions; he resisted the technocratic changes; and he therefore profoundly reinterprets Christianity in the light of all this resistance. And there’s a remarkable consistency about Ellul. He lived for much longer, much more consistently than Lewis ever did. As we said, it was later in life that Lewis woke up to the Kingdom. Ellul lived all his life in resistance for the sake of the Kingdom. And so he said on one occasion, and I’m sure he lived it all his life, I’ve always tried to write exactly as I live and to live exactly as I write. In other words, he’s echoing what John is saying about our Lord, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And it’s wonderful when God gives you the consistency that what you say and what you do is always the same thing. How can you do that? You can’t do that with a weak sense of identity. You can only do that when you have a strong rootedness in having your identity in Christ.

And so what Ellul was, therefore, very annoyed about was Christian writers when they were writing simply for the sake of the aesthetic, that they were quoting all sorts of people that have nothing to do with the Christian faith. The kind of thing that Richard Rohr is doing today is quoting Buddha and quoting all sorts of other nice, fancy people because it’s poetic. But it’s dead wrong as far as the consistency that we should have of faith. And I don’t want to be too personal about some of the people that are around as contemporary, but it’s very easy for Christians to read books that are simply the flattery of good writing. Good writing is not enough. Good writing is simply a tool that has a purpose and if we lose the purpose then the good writing really doesn’t come to anything very much. So the fluency of a quotation, of the choice of words, it does count. But it’s not really the doctrine of the Christian faith. It’s simply fluency of language. And so in this respect, Lewis is not interested in the fluency of language; he’s interested in the truth of language. He’s not looking for an aesthetic effect; he’s looking for the effect of how our life is changed as a result of that.

And so what the Lord has given me great joy in seeing is at the end of a lecture I’m not concerned about the impression it may have on the students about its learning or its scholarship or the information that might have been gained from it. What I’m concerned is to see joy on the face of the recipients, that the presence of the Lord has been there. And where the presence of the Lord is, there’s fullness of joy. And so that’s the effect that we should be having. It’s not a technical effect; it’s the effect of the Holy Spirit giving us joy in our hearts. That’s what it’s about.