Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 28

Biblical Eschatology and Secularity Today

In this lesson, you'll explore the intricate relationship between biblical eschatology and secularity. You'll gain an understanding of key aspects of biblical eschatology from both Old and New Testament perspectives, as well as the major themes and concepts that underpin this field of study. Additionally, you'll examine how the rise of secularity has impacted eschatological beliefs, leading to the dismissal of supernatural aspects and an increased emphasis on the present world. Finally, you'll learn how to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology through the role of the church, personal faith, and a focus on anticipating God's future kingdom.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 28
Watching Now
Biblical Eschatology and Secularity Today

TH730-28: Biblical Eschatology and Secularity

I. Introduction to Biblical Eschatology and Secularity

A. The Importance of Eschatology

B. The Rise of Secularity

II. Key Aspects of Biblical Eschatology

A. Old Testament Prophecies

B. New Testament Perspectives

C. Major Themes and Concepts

III. The Effects of Secularity on Eschatological Beliefs

A. Dismissal of Supernatural Aspects

B. Emphasis on the Present World

C. Challenges for Christian Faith

IV. Reclaiming the Transcendent in Eschatology

A. The Role of the Church

B. Personal Faith and Responsibility

C. Anticipating God's Future Kingdom

  • 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
Biblical Eschatology and Secularity Today
Lesson Transcript


Our ninth lecture is now on Biblical eschatology and secularity today. And by secularity, we mean that trend towards what is secular. Whereas, secularism is the absolutisation of all that is secular—so it’s a milder term. And as we enter into this wrestling match, which is how do we maintain some kind of balance between living transcendently and living immanently, I’m reminded a few years of visiting the Edinburgh national art gallery, Edinburgh being my home town of my birth, and seeing this wonderful picture by [Paul Gauguin 00:00:59], which was painted by him as a reaction to Impressionism—the impressionism of Matisse and Monet and the other French artists of a previous generation. And now he was reacting violently in Expressionism, wanting to express his own inner emotions instead of being totally, as it were, absorbed within nature, which was the earlier Romantic movement of Impressionism.

And the picture that he paints is of a circle of nuns in Brittany and they’re peasant women, but they have devout faith. And so they have their convent dress and they’re bowing and they’re envisaging in their inner contemplation what’s going inside their own hearts. And that is the tension of being a nun, of living spiritually, when also they have, like Esau, a burning desire to wrestle with the angel. You might say the angel represents transcendence and their immanence is their own fleshly desires and inner lives. And in this wrestling, it is wrestling, of course, like Jacob wrestled at many different levels. He wrestled over the transcendence of a birthright that he was prepared to cheaply give away for a bowl of soup. And he was a hungry man and so the immediate passion that he had was this wrestling that was going on. And of course, he has that vision of a ladder up to Heaven, which again indicates that irrevocably the human being is having to relate to the earthly world as well to the heavenly world. It’s a very powerful picture.

What we’re doing now in this lecture is doing what Jacob did: wrestling with an angel. So when we’re dealing with Biblical eschatology and realising at the same time we’re human beings here on this Earth, we can go in all sorts of violent directions. We can be too transcendent or we can be too immanent and the question is how do we [maintain 00:04:08] some kind of balance between them. There is, of course, the same dilemma, as we’ll see later in our lecture, as to how do we then interpret Heaven transcendently and how do we interpret hell, which is an immanent situation in many people’s despairing lives?


So the dilemma is that I want to escape from myself. That’s the transcendent desire. I want to live within myself is the immanent desire. And living immanently is seeking sources of power either deeply within oneself, or which at least get tucked away within nature and that we feel that if we are actually in control of nature then we can also have control of our own lives. When I first got, as a geographer, involved in the environmental movement at its early beginning, I was on an international council of geographers that were viewing the perception of hazards. And we were perceiving the hazard of nature, of how building on a flood plain is a hazard of how building on the fault line in California, that too was a hazard and, at the same time, realising that we sometimes are therefore well aware to be afraid of nature. Well, you may not know, but that was the beginning of the environmental movement. It was how do we have perception of the hazards of nature. Since then, those immanent attitudes that we’ve had to the creation around us have been totally reversed by the opposite: of the damage that we’re doing to nature, of the perception that it’s we who are the enemies and spoiling and destroying that world. So even in my own lifetime, I’ve seen many oscillations between immanence and transcendence.

I remember in World War II, in Edinburgh as a young man, the first case of two conscientious objectors. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they were in the dock as such. And the judge said you want to get out of the war, don’t you? You don’t believe in it? Well, it’s too bad. But, you see, your ration books are in this world and our brave sailors in the convoys are risking their lives in crossing the Atlantic to supply your ration book. In other words, you can’t get out of the world; you have to live an immanent life; you can’t get out of that responsibility that lies in front of you. And so, of course, they were claiming that as conscientious objectors their citizenship was in Heaven. In some ways, it’s no different from the jihad today, who realise that they’re anticipating a heavenly paradise and that the sooner they get to that heavenly paradise, the more sexual indulgence they’ll have, that they’ll be in a far better place. Well, these are some of the disorientations that can so profoundly disturb our society when we’re wrestling between immanence and transcendence.


One of the significant changes of consciousness that took place in the West actually occurred in the 15th century. As we’ve said, that change of consciousness was because of the expansion of a new world—the Americas. And so it’s no accident that it was in that period that Cervantes wrote his great classic Don Quixote, which we think of perhaps as being the first novel of Western literature. Or later, of course, we get similar fantasy in the travels of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. What the novel was doing was introducing a way of self-exploration in self-will and self-determination and self-examination. We don’t blame Cervantes because what had happened to him was he had spent more than a decade in a Barbary prison, captured by pirates in North Africa. And so it was then when he was in prison he was beginning to imagine a world that enabled him to be free, by his imagination, to be out of that prison.

And so all the quixotic, as we think of it now, imagination of Don Quixote was very dear to me as a child because I grew up in the land of La Mancha, which was the landscape of Don Quixote’s world, tilting at windmills and imagining in his fantasy the freedom that he could be whatever his imagination called him to be. We could say that, in some ways, this was the beginning of the Romantic movement of Western consciousness. It’s, of course, allying oneself with nature or the environment and taking control of it that was so important. The much later movement of Romanticism we associate, of course, with Emile, which is the great novel of the father of modern Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And he is saying from a semi-autobiographical background, having a cruel stepmother who didn’t understand him as a child of eight, that the world of a child with all its romanticism should be revered and not stamped upon and totally destroyed, as he himself experienced. And yet it was Emile, of course, that was revolutionary for the French Revolution. Because the peasants said but the court and the aristocracy have no imagination or empathy for the life of the peasants. And that sparked the French Revolution. And likewise, it was Emile that was the manifesto for the independence of America, that in the war with Britain that the proud [Parliamentarians 00:12:37] of Westminster have no clue how the colonists are living in America. And so this is very explosive, the explosiveness of a Romantic force. But it relates also to the fact that our immanence is always in tension with our transcendence, whether within ourselves or in the experience that we have with other people—like Cervantes or like Jean-Jacques Rousseau were experiencing in their own private lives.


What has also been very important for us is that just as the kindliness of living on planet Earth is that we do have a belt that we call the ozone layer that prevents us from having high radiation making the planet uninhabitable… And so what the Newtonian world view did was to indicate that there is no kindliness in the cosmos. The Newtonian world view sees oneself within a world, a realm, that is cosmological, that’s eternal. The ozone layer—or what we create for the atmosphere—makes this a habitable planet. And this cushioning of nature provides an atmosphere in which the human can breathe in the midst of otherwise an impersonal universe. So the romanticism about nature is that it provides that insulation for us from facing the hostility of the totally impersonal. One of the poets of the mid-19th century as a Romantic poet said but alas, you seek the milk of nature, but nature’s breasts are dry. She has no milk supply. Nature doesn’t nurture. It’s a fantasy to be comforted by nature. And, of course, this was an indictment of what the Romantic movement was leading towards in the 19th century.


Another romantic notion in this tension between immanence and transcendence is this craving for authenticity, this craving that we find in the injunction that’s given by Laertes as he speeds his companion on the way, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true. And it doth follow as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’ This haunting picture that Shakespeare gives us to be sincere with ourselves is, again, futility. And so there was a great cult throughout the 17th century to be sincere. And this cult of sincerity in the 18th century led to the further cult that is prevalent today: be the authentic self; be the true self. One of the first psychoanalytical approaches to prick this balloon was a poet in the 19th century who said what is this authentic self? It’s the rag and bone shop of our own deception—that self-deception is a puncturing of this idea of being authentic. But we live today in a brand culture of commercialism that’s telling you that you’re getting something authentic, or that the salesman is authentic. Nonsense. Neither the brand nor the salesman understands what is the true self.


So this attempt to cocoon yourself and call yourself a true self by being true to yourself is what hell is about. Hell is self-containment in a profound sense. The picture that we’ve already seen that Dante gives us is that in the portals into hell, the first people that he meets are a group of academics. They’ve got a university in the forecourt of hell and they’re busily preoccupied with their own thoughts. So thinking about themselves as scholars is the prelude to entering into hell because you become preoccupied with your own thinking. You have a profession of thinking for the sake of thinking. Well, says Dante that’s the entrance to hell. I wonder whether that could ever dare be taught in our universities today: an understanding of what Dante was saying. And, of course, the deeper and deeper you get towards hell, you find that selfishness becomes more and more the take over—it’s all about self. So right at the heart of hell, as we’ve said, is not a burning inferno. It’s the frozen lake where Satan is entombed in the frozenness of the depth of the ice. Dante is turning the inferno upside down and is giving us a totally different perspective of it as to what is satanic. Being satanic is being self-absorbed. We don’t realise the seriousness of selfishness.

So now this whole attempt of self-sufficiency that we’re tempted by technology to have is the denial of transcendence and of Heaven. So how we live immanently and yet how we live transcendently is, of course, the most crucial question we can ever raise about our humanity. Various sociological theorists of the 20th century have tried to explore this. One of them was Levi-Strauss the French anthropologist, that what he is seeing is that if man has to survive, in other words, if man is to have an ozone layer in which he can breathe, then he has to become a myth maker. He lives with a biological reality and his understanding is of time by the clock, by the biological clock. And so he realises that we have to mythologise. We’re myth makers. And so he realises that life is inhuman if we can’t live with myth. But of course, on the one hand, we are biological. That is our clock. And one of the problems that young women are finding today, seeking first to have a professional identity before they have an identity with a family, seeking the professional over the relational, they’re losing out. And many young women around us are finding that the pill that gave them all the vitality to be a professional is forfeiting their opportunity to be a mother. It’s the parlance that my grandchildren are speaking about today is don’t exceed the biological clock if you want to have a family. Of course, we’re spiritual beings. We’re intrinsically relational. That should be our prior claim on anything functional, anything professional.


Well, as I’ve said, in answering how do we cope between immanence and transcendence, Levi-Strauss would say we cope because we are mythopoeic beings, that we seek to have meaning. We seek meaning through the vicissitudes of the uncertainties of life. You might say that myth-making is an echo of transcendence. We’re not just an animal. We’re not just living biologically. We’re not a clever primate. What we’re beginning to realise is there’s something more. Now, every morning when I go for my exercise on our sea wall in Vancouver, it’s full of joggers. And they’re always out running and exercising, cycling, you name it. Why? Because they’re desperately aware they have only a biological destiny. When their bodies run out, that’s the end. And so all this yoga breathing, all this exercising, all the frenetics of keeping your body in shape, is there’s no resurrection. There’s no transcendence. You may not see it that way, but it’s so very vivid to me.

There are two words that we have in English, which are very different. And the first word is enthropos. E-N instead of A-N. Enthropos is the ending of what happens to the biological cycle. Death intervenes. The stars perish in the cosmos. That’s enthropy. It’s the physical end of things. But what Levi-Strauss is saying: what is anthropological has become enthropolgical. That if you are simply living for the body, you have totally eliminated any exercise or awareness of transcendence. It’s in this context that one of the most powerful prophets of our time is the Catholic Charles Taylor, who was a colleague that I slightly knew in Oxford and then went to McGill University, where he still is. And so he gives us 750 pages of what he calls A Secular Age, which he published in 2007. It’s a massive tome, but it’s a very serious study that you should make because he’s looking at the great themes from a sociological perspective of what is the process of the secular, of secularisation. And he has argued as he views Western history that there are three components. It’s the retreat of religion in public life. This retreat of religion in public life is, of course, what has taken place in the course of the Enlightenment. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are all named after the Christian faith: All Souls, Jesus College, Christchurch. So many of these names indicate that this was not the age of the secular. This was the age of the religious.


So how did the secular creep into this world of Christendom that was like Constantinian Christianity throughout the Middle Ages? The first attempt to be secular was the role that the bishop undertook that he should be the custodian of the wills of the noblemen, of the feudal lords, in the 9th and 10th century. And that then, as the custodian of those wills, he should also be the demarcator of property boundaries: what is the property of this lord or that lord. That was the beginning of the secular within the life of the Church. And so the role of the bishop became very much the role of a secular leader. He would been shocked and astonished to realise that’s who he was to become. And you can see that in these quarrels that we have today of the bishops within the churches, it’s over proprietorial territory: this is my diocese; it’s not your diocese. So there is the continuum of the secular that, of course, has now almost destroyed our denominational church life, certainly in terms of national churches.

This then is not a heavenly task. It’s a monetary task of collecting rents and monies and property, wills. Then we see how this process took, of course, a great leap forward in America when another leap forward into secularisation was the separation of church and state with the founding fathers. They were doing this idealistically. They were thinking about the separation of church and state, not to secularise America—just the opposite. It was to give a richer endowment to the settlers of having more denominations than simply the tyranny of the Anglican Church to allow the Presbyterians and the Baptists and many, many other denominations later to begin to flourish. It was to give fair play for all these other denominations. So it started by an attempt to liberalise the tyranny of one denomination.


One of the remarkable things that we have at Regent College is that we are affiliated to a secular university. And there’s no other college like it in the world, not because I’m boasting about it, but it’s an historical fact. It’s a legal fact. That with the advancement of the pioneer settlement of Western Canada, starting with Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Alberta and then British Columbia, each of these agricultural colleges became an affiliate of McGill University. And then as an affiliate, they then when they became independent universities and these agricultural centres became the capitals of these provinces, they were able to set up legislation for affiliated colleges like a college seminary, for example, for one denomination, or a hall of residence for another denomination. And we just got through that window of opportunity just in time before secularisation would have closed the door on us. So that is a remarkable gift that God has given and it occurs nowhere else in the world. That’s why we have the authority from the politburo in China to be the external examiner for PhDs in Christian studies because they associate us with this large 2,000 plus graduate school of Asian Studies that UBC has. We’re under the umbrella of UBC to be able to do that.


Well, to get back to secularisation. Thirdly, Charles Taylor says, secularity is a change in the conditions of belief. That’s the most subtle thing. Our attitudes to religious life have radically changed, even if we are religious. And so what we don’t realise is how secularisation has crept into the heart of our church life. And we don’t realise it. We have such different beliefs, as we’ve seen before, as we studied earlier on in previous lectures.

I could go much further with Charles Taylor, but I’m not sure how relevant it would be for most of you to know about this. But you know, one of the ways in which you can test the presuppositions of somebody is who are the friends they keep. Who do they collaborate with? And so the Achilles heel of Charles Taylor himself is that he consorts with a Classical philosopher called Martha Nussbaum, who’s written a very popular book called The Fragility of Goodness. And what she’s doing to say that it’s not the religious life that should be your normal consciousness; it’s the Classical life that you should have. Of course, she’s a Classical scholar of great ability. She’s a great philosopher. She’s a brilliant woman. And you see all philosophy really goes back to Classical philosophy. So if a philosopher who’s a Christian says my identity as a philosopher comes before my identity in Christ then I have no defence against the presuppositions of the Classical world. And so the result is there are today those who favour Plato and those who favour Aristotle. In other words, the tension between Plato and Aristotle in Christian philosophical thinking is do you opt for transcendence in Plato or do you opt for immanence in Aristotle? And so that’s the source of that kind of thinking.


One of the great protagonists before Aristotle for immanence rather than transcendence is the journey of Ulysses, or The Odyssey as we call that great Homeric ballad or poem. What’s he doing? He’s seeking transcendence by fame, by being the great explorer of the unknown. And on his way, he’s tempted by many temptations to live an immanent life, but he wants to live transcendently. So he arrives on the island of Circe where the goddess is Calypso. And Calypso is a goddess who wants to live immortally. So she wants you in the seduction of living on the island no longer to be a mortal, but to become a god, to become immortal. So you lose all immanence when you enter the island. It’s an eternal present that you now embrace. So you’ve forgotten about your home; you’ve forgotten about your wife; you’ve forgotten about your teenage son that you’ve never fathered during your long, 20-year journey. No. Ulysses realises he belongs to his wife; he belongs to his son. So he refuses all her enticement and all her embrace to live this Elysian life, this delectable, paradisal life, to return to being a human being. It’s a very powerful parable for us as we live today.

It’s true that, although we sometimes say it with scorn, you can be so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good. But it’s very true. Yes, your citizenship is in Heaven, but that’s no excuse for not realising you have a part to play in the activities of your society. You can’t escape.

Well, what Taylor is very powerfully arguing in his survey is that Christian faith has always lived in this tension between immanence and transcendence.