Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 29

Tensions Between Immanence and Transcendence

In this lesson, you will gain an in-depth understanding of the theological concepts of immanence and transcendence, and how the historical shifts in emphasis have affected modern theology and worship. You will explore the loss of transcendence in worship and its influence on church practices and beliefs, as well as learn how to rediscover the balance between these two concepts. Furthermore, you will examine practical approaches and theological reflections on reintegrating immanence and transcendence into the Christian life, resulting in transformative effects on believers and their communities.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 29
Watching Now
Tensions Between Immanence and Transcendence

TH730-29: Tensions of Immanence and Transcendence

I. Theological Background and Concepts

A. Immanence

B. Transcendence

C. Historical Shifts in Emphasis

II. Impact on Modern Theology and Worship

A. Loss of Transcendence in Worship

B. Influence on Church Practices and Beliefs

C. Rediscovering the Balance

III. Reintegrating Immanence and Transcendence in Christian Life

A. Practical Approaches

B. Theological Reflections

C. Transformative Effects on Believers and Communities

  • 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


Tensions Between Immanence and Transcendence

Lesson Transcript


As we were saying just now, Charles Taylor is very helpful in enabling us to navigate through history in terms of the tensions between immanence and transcendence. It’s a very practical problem for us even as Christians now, as I reflect on some of the students that I have mentored in the past. I remember on one occasion we had a Malaysian student who told me that he was in dilemma about his vocation. I said what’s the dilemma? Well, he said, I’m being trained for scholarship and so it’s obvious that I should go into the ministry of Bible seminary in Malaysia, where he came from. But he said I’ve discovered I have another gift. I have this peculiar gift of slaying people in the spirit that literally, he says, I can confront them and they fall like nine pins, hundreds of them. What choice should I make? Well, he knew perfectly well what my answer was going to be. I said, if you go into the seminary, you’ll have perhaps two or three dozen students that you’ll influence, but you’ll have a huge following of tens of thousands in Asia when you exercise your power to slay in the spirit. He looked at me like the rich young ruler and he went away very sad because I knew that he was already choosing the latter. There’s an example of this temptation to live transcendently when God calls us to live immanently.

And you think of all that followed in this phenomenon of the Toronto Blessing where thousands were flocking from all over the world just to have this experience of being slain in the spirit, as they were. But of course, these things are ephemeral. Where is it today? It’s one of the great problems that Christian can so be profoundly destabilised by living too ecstatically instead of more normally. Because one of the problems about being too ecstatic is that if you’re outside of yourself, you’re not very familiar with yourself and so you’re not a very good guide for other people if you don’t know who you are in comparison to how people live with all this ecstasy of spirit that some people do have.

And so the temptation to live not an ordinary Christian life, but an extraordinary Christian life is the temptation that Jesus himself faced to cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple. He was well aware that that was a huge temptation to our vanity and pride. I could do it. Every child wants to exhibit some exhibition of how I could do it. It’s born in our sinfulness from day one. In the Middle Ages, one of the ways in which you punctured this tension between the extraordinary and the ordinary, or the sacred and the secular, was the medieval festivals, which were usually at the beginning of Lent, just before you start your fasting, like Ramadan with Islam. It’s the kind of thing that still goes on in Rio de Janeiro in January, or down in New Orleans. What do you do? You put everybody back into place. The fool becomes a king. Boys become bishops. Thieves become gentry. You totally reverse the hierarchy of society and you reduce it all to a good laugh.


So one of the things that should help us in our tensions between immanence and transcendence is to have a good sense of comedy. And what is the foundation of comedy? That you live in a structured world and therefore it’s this exposure of incongruity that makes you laugh. And if you weren’t living in a structured world, you wouldn’t have comedy, you’d have slapstick. And so what’s wrong with American humour is it isn’t really comedy. It’s physicality. It’s not that subtly of realising incongruity as it should be. So our human spirit sometimes needs to be, as my wife used to say when she had the gas burning, the gas stove, and you reduce it to a peep, many of us in the extravaganza of our ministries need to reduce our gas to a peep.

The other thing that we find in the history of the Church is that we talk about the Reformation. We think of this as a great watershed in the history of the West. It was a watershed, but what we have to realise is that reformation never stops, that we need lots of reformation. We need lots of revival movements. And that every generation in the history of the Church has needed to be revived again, needed to be renewed again, needed to be born again. It was like the Salvation Army lassie who once, at the end of the 19th century, accosted a bishop in London and she had the nerve to say to the bishop, bishop, are you saved? Yes, he said, I have been saved, I am being saved and by God’s grace I will ultimately be saved. Or you can say I’ve been born again and I’m constantly being born again.

So many Christians are born again to become stillborn Christians. They settle into a normalcy and a complacency and, you know, I had my baptism and that was the end of it. In the church that I now go to, which is First Baptist Church of Vancouver, we recently had an extraordinary comedy when we have now an Amish in origin being the leader of the flagship of the Baptists of Western Canada—an Amish! Yes. And he showed us on the screen how his father is still drawing his horse and buggy on his Amish farm in Ontario. Well, it’s very ironic that he is now in charge of building the highest tower on the skyline of Vancouver. You can imagine how his father has totally been shocked by the elevation of his son and the transformation of his son from being an Amish to being in charge as a senior pastor of the highest tower that the church has been adopted to build on the Vancouver skyline. That’s comedy. That’s real comedy.


And so in his first Sunday in January of this year, he said we’re going to start with the Book of Luke. And in starting in the Book of Luke, we’re going to, of course, start with the appeal that was made by John the Baptist: you must be born again; you must be baptised. Well, he said, I have to apologise that an Amish is teaching you about baptism when you’re all Baptists. And he said all I’m saying is you need to renew your discipleship. That’s what John was saying to the Jews, that you have to renew your identity of what baptism is all about, as Jesus himself was baptised. So at the end of the service, he said I’ve been so convicted, I’ve asked my junior pastor to anoint me with oil for the renewal of my baptism. So we watched this from the platform. And then he said and all my pastors have decided they’re going to get renewed in their baptism. So they all stepped on the platform to get baptised. And we thought what in the world is happening in the Baptist Church? And then he said in all the simplicity of preaching the faith, of the texts of the Gospel, he said, and perhaps some of you may want to come forward to renew your baptism. You know, I’ve never seen this in my life, but the pews erupted. Except for one or two old people who were handicapped from doing it, everyone in the two services came back for the renewal of their baptism. This has never happened in the history of that church over the last 100 years. So that’s God’s comedy.


But what it indicates is that every age has had its reform, its renewal. But each is in the context of the environment and the times in which we need this renewal. So here we have in the 6th century, Benedict living in the flux of the Germanic invasion that has overwhelmed the Italian peninsula and in his little mountain recess, there’s a little island of Christian sanity, of Christian humanity, where he created his first monastic community. And in that context, to be safe you couldn’t migrate. You had to be stable. And so inbuilt into the Benedictine model is the vow of stability, that you go into the monastery and you never leave it.

Well, that’s a very different horizon in the 16th century when you’ve discovered new continents and seen the expansion of the magnitude of Asia and the Indian subcontinent. And so now we find that the Jesuits now introduce a new vow. It’s the vow of mobility, that I will go wherever my superior wants me to go. And so it was that vow of mobility that enabled the Jesuits to go along the Silk Road right into China and into Japan, preaching the Gospel. Of course, the vow of mobility geographically was unfortunately in the Enlightenment also becoming the vow of intelligence, of rationalism. And so twice over the order was nearly heretically condemned and abolished because the vow of mobility was now interpreted as the vow of changing your mind, of beginning to be influenced by the deism and the rationalism of that generation.

So we realise that this is one of the things that we can learn from that so many have been able to. The Gospel has always adapted to the context between what do I interpret to be immanent, what I interpret to have transcendence, with my community in the world in which I now live. One of the other beautiful exemplars of this was, of course, in the age of trade and mercantilism that the Dutch so exceeded in exploring like Vasco da Gama did into India and the Far East, to China and indeed eventually to Japan, was to realise that as a merchant you could create your own home to be a convent or an abbey and so the movement of Devotio Moderna with people such as Thomas a Kempis saying but it’s in my own kitchen I can imitate Christ. It’s in my own family life that I can live a monastic life. And so this domesticity of monasticism was a whole new experiment in being monastic. Because being monastic is simply having one passion and that passion is that Christ lives in me and I’m for Christ. That’s it. I’m in Christ. [Monos 00:15:23]: single-mindedness, single-spiritedness. There is one Lord and that Lord over my kitchen sink is Jesus. Okay. That’s the Devotio Moderna.


And so we have this wonderful awareness that, of course, was taken over later in some of 17th century spirituality by people like Brother Lawrence, that tossing the pancake is practising the presence of the Lord. You don’t need to be in a monastery any longer. You’re just at the kitchen sink or by the oven. Or indeed, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who practising the presence of the Lord means that you’re recollecting all your life. And when Kitty Muggeridge, who had been such a pagan in her earlier life and so dissolute with her husband as doing couple swapping in a whole cesspool of immorality in their earlier life, because there was a vacuum in their lives. There was nothing there. When she became a Christian, she translated Jean-Pierre de Caussade as the practice—what she calls it now? I’ve forgotten the title of her book, but I would strongly recommend you to read Kitty Muggeridge as she’s inspired on practising the presence.


Every moment of our life in practising the presence, we’re living in that tension between the immanent and the transcendent. One of the early articles that I wrote for Regent was just simply having the content to be an ordinary Christian. One of the great seductions of American culture has been that you have to be a leader. It’s crazy. If everybody’s a leader, who’s a follower? There ain’t no followers in American culture. You’re all leaders. And so when you go to Australia, as a friend of mine did as a young man and he was all gung ho for Leadership Magazine, so he started to sell it. Well, the poor guy was on the streets very quickly because there were no sellers in the Aussie democracy that’s so flat-footed that there are no leaders in the whole horizon of the whole extension of the continent of Australia. It makes you realise with a laugh how seduced we are by our culture and how crazy our culture can be.

Well, as we’re bringing these things to a close, one of the things that, however, we see that has happened is that the sheer emptiness of secularism with no awareness of transcendence is that mankind today, as T.S. Eliot poignantly says in one of his poems, secular humanity cannot bear too much reality. In other words, it cannot bear any transcendence. It’s all for this present moment. It’s all for our biological existence, nothing more. And that’s why in 1923, even before he was a Christian, he was writing his brilliant poem The Wasteland. Immanence ends living in a wasteland. In fact, it’s a desert. It so trivialises life. And one of the movements that’s arisen in the period that we now call postmodern, which is the malaise of the modern is just nauseating. We’re sick of it. We’re rebelling against the emptiness of simply rationalism. It’s an empty, empty world that people are all going crazy for spirituality.


They realise in their heart that there has to be a new religious quest. It’s what Charles Williams calls the process of excarnation—not incarnation, but excarnation. It’s an attempt for the empty self that needs self-fulfilment that’s created all our shopping malls and our credit cards and our debt to fill that empty self with consumerism. It’s empty. It’s still empty. And so this process of excarnation is to be all about having a spiritual life, about spirituality. The head is full and the heart is starved. That’s what’s wrong. I was just at a conference recently and I had the privilege of meeting some extraordinary people and one of them was the CEO of a board of governance for the top tech companies of Silicon Valley, so she’s a very smart cookie. She knows how to rule over other CEOs of companies. But I was absolutely astonished when she told me… that I said what do you do for holidays or a pastime. She says I go to Brazil. Oh, where do you go? Well, she mentioned the town which Kelly’s been to with me and it’s outside of—do you remember the name of it? Anyway, it’s about 60 km outside of Brasilia and it’s a new age town.

And this new age town has actually a landing pad for UFOs. And it has a temple where there’s a satanic cult of spirit worship. And it has hundreds of young women who are adorned in the most beautiful pastel dresses. And they’re all prostitutes and their job is simply by getting the signatures of people who are interested in knowing more about their cult. And so their hierarchy depends upon the number of signatures that they’ve collected in their thousands of people who are seeking spirituality. To my astonishment, this CEO said to me I love going there and one of my friends has gone there 33 times. I said and who do you visit? Well, there’s a guru there that tells us our future and he’s remarkable in what he does. He’s even raised people from the dead. I said you believe that? Oh yes, absolutely she said. That’s why I keep going. I’m renewed spiritually whenever I go there. I never, in my wildest dreams, realised how such highly-intelligent people today can be so totally empty of any spiritual life, but that’s what we’re facing in our society today.


And so as we close solemnly in realising these things, we realise—and I could have said much more, but I think we have to stop there—that there is what George Steiner has called a nostalgia for the absolute—again, these are recordings that were made in the Massey Lectures of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—a nostalgia to embrace the absolute. One of the ways, of course, in which we see the embrace of the absolute is the embrace of nature worship, of the Green movement that lies behind all that. Yes, there’s a valid need for the conservation, but what Lucretius, a Classical philosopher, told us centuries ago, nature abhors a vacuum. The human being cannot have a vacuum in the soul of its being. And so crazy things happen to fill the vacuum—as we’re seeing in our world today.

Well, may God encourage us and guide us as we see the grave dangers that we’re facing in the situation of our time. And what a tension we ourselves have as Christians between living between transcendence and immanence. Even our awareness of hell and our awareness of Heaven can be so misleading when we seek to make an explanation of these things. One of the great traps that some of our evangelical leaders that we can revere fell into recently was trying to explain hell or trying to explain Heaven, especially trying to explain hell. And whenever you fall into the trap of explanation, you find yourself losing sight of mystery.

Perhaps I can close by saying as a dear friend of mine, a Christian philosopher at Oxford, said many years ago in a little book, which is very important—Michael Foster is his name—but he said there are three ways in which we look at reality. We look at reality in terms of problems: how do we solve this problem? And of course, problem-solving is very readily seduced by technology. That’s the problem about problems. And so problem fascination is fixing things; that’s the danger of it. So yes, there are problems. We have to fix this light bulb. We have to change this camera, whatever, as we’re now recording. That’s problem fixing. Okay, that’s fine. But the second level of reality is dealing with puzzles. And you puzzle me, you say. Well, what I’m doing is I’m not giving you an adequate explanation. And so puzzle solving is very much more a literary or philosophical task. I haven’t clarified it enough, so I have to make it more explanatory. That’s what we do when we’re solving puzzles.


But then there’s mystery. And the posture for mystery is awe and wonder and worship. And it’s so easy when we’re teachers that we’re always more involved in puzzles rather than mystery. We can say well, the puzzle about this Colossian text or this Gospel puzzle is that you need to have it explained a bit more. Yes, that’s true. You do. But never forget that never should you allow a confusion between a problem and a puzzle and a mystery.