by Ben Pugh.
Understanding the Immanent Frame: How did we get here?
The Immanent Frame is a way of looking at the world which limits itself to the immanent, to the down-to-earth and here-and-now. Those most caught up in it tend to be devoutly materialist since the Immanent Frame was created ultimately by the long-established conviction within Western philosophy that humans lack capacity for the knowledge of transcendent things. We must therefore limit our knowledge to the stuff of the world.
When it comes to these immanent things we have, by contrast, become immensely capable. Take cell theory. Cell biologists can literally describe what life is, and do so in eye-wateringly granular detail. They can describe all the organelles within a cell – chromosomes, mitochondria, nucleus – which work together to ensure that both the cell and its host are alive. They can describe the components and the electric pulses that make life happen. As believers, we might be quick to point out that biologists cannot say what life ultimately is, or what ultimately powers it along, but our voices echo out across a culture that has been habituated never to ask such questions and does not see the point of them. It is a world without wonder, and averse to mystery.
Perhaps surprisingly, our culture’s immanentism has long been acknowledged to be an outworking of Christian beliefs, which explains why secularity has taken such firm root within historically Christian countries. The Bible itself presents us with a God who is distinct from creation, and a creation that does not emanate directly from him and hence, by implication at least, can be engaged with by itself with no reference to God or the transcendent realm. The Biblical authors ardently proclaim an anti-idolatrous distinction between the divine and the not-divine. This divide, according to some sociologists, was then further cemented by the way Protestantism emphasised the private study of the Word, separation from the world and personal conversion. These individualising moves further reinforced the hiving off of supernatural from natural, transcendent from immanent and private values from public facts.
Before Protestantism arose, the possibility of an exclusively immanent outlook was kept at bay for as long as people viewed the world in a basically Platonic way. Platonism had long reinforced Christianity’s view of the world as participating in the divine. Even in its fallenness, the world was understood to be the still-glorious product of God’s heavenly world of original forms that gave meaning, definition and substance to the earthly realm. Even without the aid of Platonic metaphysics, the Christian version of immanence was an immanence that participated in the transcendent at every point. It was an immanence within transcendence. And it is the possibility of tapping into a world beyond us that has been largely lost to the modern imagination. It crops up these days mainly in the far-fetched fictions of silver-screen superheroes whose earthly weaknesses can be spectacularly transfigured by an all-conquering force from beyond.
Where are we heading?
Commentators seem unanimous that people cannot survive within a purely flat, disenchanted universe. We instinctively believe that there is depth to it. Though the culture tells us that what we see is all there is to know, we are aware that the universe is full of impenetrable mystery. Even Karl Popper was sure that what we know is finite, hence our ignorance, according to him, is infinite. When people become aware of their ignorance of the unfamiliar, and of their boredom with a disenchanted universe, they find themselves asking that question, ‘Isn’t there more to life than this?’ For as long as people keep asking this, it is unlikely that the secular outlook will entirely cancel faith. It is even less likely that the long-predicted extinction of religion from modern life will ever happen, as most secularisation theorists now agree. In fact, the strange paradox is that many of those who do not attend church today want us who are devout to carry on being religious for them.
What do we do?
The task we seem to face today, as preachers and teachers of the people that God sends our way, seems to have a lot in common with previous generations of Christian thinkers whose task it was to proclaim the good news during previous episodes in the history of our culture’s rejection of transcendence. I think of the radical materialism of Hobbes and Bacon and the counter-moves made by the Cambridge Platonists, and later by George Berkeley. I think of the onward march of modernity in the nineteenth century and the alternative worldview offered by John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, and of modernity’s further triumphs in the twentieth century and the alternative perspectives offered by the literary outputs of the Inklings. Between them, these thinkers have opened our eyes to a speaking universe, a sacramental world, and a sanctified imagination within which a greater world, more real than this one, can be accessed.
None of this directly answers my question, ‘How do we preach good news in the Immanent Frame,’ but it suggests a strong New Testament ally in our task: the one who penned: ‘In the beginning was the Word . . .’ (John 1:1).
 A term coined by Charles Taylor