The Gospel in a Material World: How do we Preach Good News in the ‘Immanent Frame’?

by Ben Pugh.

Understanding the Immanent Frame: How did we get here?

The Immanent Frame[1] 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).


[1] A term coined by Charles Taylor

14 thoughts on “The Gospel in a Material World: How do we Preach Good News in the ‘Immanent Frame’?”

  1. A picture enters my mind – those interlocking black and white tadpoles within a circle, yang and yin. Another attempt to express ‘both-and theology’. Immanence and transcendence. Incidentally I have just realised doing a spot of re-reading that I owe this wide-ranging definition at least partly to Sara Maitland – ‘A Big Enough God’ pub. 1995, Mowbray. I note from a card from the then editor of the Methodist Recorder that I was sent it to review. Wish I could remember what I said!

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  2. The assumption is that the only alternative to immanentist secularisation is a transcendental religion based on credal, judgmentalist notions of the human condition as “sinners in need of repentance”. However, as Taylor argues in “The Secular Age”, if sin is “our resistance to going along with God’s initiative in making suffering reparative” then “one can sympathise with a lot of the modern critique of a religion which focuses on the evil tendencies of human nature, and the need for renunciation and sacrifice. This is not because humans are in fact angelic, or there is no point to sacrifice. It’s just that focusing on how bad human beings can be strengthens misanthropy, which certainly won’t bring you closer to God”. So, propounding sin, sacrifice and renunciation takes us away from the main point, which is following “God’s initiative”. Taylor goes on to suggest that the modern world has not seen the disappearance of religion, but rather its diversification, and in many places its growth. Growth in the form of an ethical spirituality that is the basis of all religions. A spirituality that is neither immanentist nor transcendental, not about sacrifice and renunciation with a concept of God as the unconditional love that motivates this spirituality.

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  3. A very thoughtful piece. Not enough of this background around in the churches. Relating it to non-academic people requires a big effort in not upsetting faith whilst challenging absurdities?

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  4. A young friend of mine was thrilled when he went to a meeting at the Royal Society and sat in the chair which was at one time occupied by Sir Isaac Newton. An interesting point is that, although Newton was a far greater scientist than my friend will ever be, my friend actually knows more about science than Newton did. That is because scientists “stand on the shoulders” of their predecessors, respond to new discoveries and new ideas to push understanding forwards.

    Theologians across the different faiths seem largely to take the opposite approach. The majority seem determined to cling on to the ideas and doctrines propounded by great theologians of the past, even when modern scholarship suggests that current knowledge and understanding offer new perspectives. This is particularly true when a large section of Christians insists that everything in the bible is literally and historically true, including creation stories, and they also talk, write and sing as if the Earth is the centre of a small three-tier universe. Preaching and teaching that is based on such an approach appears out of date and seems irrelevant to everyday life. It also assumes that God stopped revealing himself to us 2,000 years ago.

    The bible is meant to be a living document, not an historical one. We should not trap ourselves within first century thinking, like blood sacrifices for sin, but allow God to speak to us through the bible in terms that make sense in a 21st century world of quantum uncertainty, with an immensely diverse humanity, set in a universe (parallel universes?) of unfathomable size, and with rapidly advancing technological innovations and scientific discoveries. We must read the bible through the lenses of tradition, our personal experience and our God-given reason, if we are to apply the divine self-revelation in our lives, and if we are to relate it to the other ways God still speaks to us today.

    Development is an integral part of a living faith. God’s Spirit is a creative power, whose dynamic presence is marked by excitement, growth and progress. We should expect a Spirit-led church to evolve to meet the spiritual needs of the day. That includes expressing the good news in ways that speak to the upcoming generations, few of whom currently find that the Christian church answers their spiritual needs. Jesus illustrated his teaching through examples rooted in the culture and everyday life of his hearers. Why do we insist on retelling these stories time and time again rather than illustrating how God is working in our world today?

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  5. Very interesting article and responses.

    Does an Incarnational Theology have a great deal to offer in this context? Does such give an antidote to the more harmful aspects of over emphasis on either transcendence or immanence as well as permitting the beneficial aspects of both and even allowing interaction between them.

    I am aware that my prejudices would be at play in saying what was harmful and what was beneficial.
    As an example I see a God that chooses to be part of ‘creation’ rather than over rule it as far more consistent with the theology (and reaction to theology) that Pavel outlines above than one that is stuck in the first century. However, there may will be people who understand incarnation in more of a supernatural way (as I would see it) and see it as part of the affirmation of the more Conservative views.

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  6. ‘A man gets tied up to the ground;
    he gives the world its saddest sound …. its saddest sound.’
    (El Condor Pasa, Simon and Garfunkel.)

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  7. Most people of all faiths and many people of no faith, even some young children and animals, have an innate sense of a transcendent power. They might not give it a name, they might not explore it, worship it, or try to understand it, they just ‘know’ there is more to life than what can be seen, touched or proven. Let’s face it; if you think God only exists when human beings are loving and kind to each other, then your faith is in people, not in God. You are an atheist.
    Why pretend to be anything else?

    ‘Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is.
    Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.’ Col 3:1-4

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    1. Mother Teresa was fast tracked to being declared a saint but if you google “Mother Teresa heretic”, you will get over a quarter of a million hits from Christian critics, who disagree with some of her views and actions, particularly her helping dying Muslims and Hindus to strengthen their own faith rather than trying to convert them on their deathbeds. She is far from the only target of this kind of Christian blogger. C.S. Lewis is accused of Inclusivism and rejecting penal substitution. Martin Luther is denounced for rejecting biblical Inerrancy; John Stott, the evangelical theologian quoted in the Alpha course is reviled for believing in simple death for unbelievers rather than eternal torture in Hell; and Billy Graham has horrified many by saying in a television interview that he wouldn’t be surprised to meet non-Christians in Heaven.

      In their focus on condemning and excluding those who’ve expressed opinions they disagree with, these bloggers are rejecting all the positive contributions these Christian writers, thinkers and activists have made and they fail to recognize that without these people Christianity is greatly diminished. It is the kind of religious legalism that Jesus objected to so strongly. By valuing conformity over compassion, literalism over love, doctrines over dedication, these bloggers take a very different standpoint from John Wesley.

      He wrote in a letter: “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” He also pointed out in Sermon 28: “If you build on a foundation of orthodoxy, you are building on sand.” In other words we need to progress beyond a handed-down, second-hand faith based on giving intellectual assent to catechisms and creeds and develop our personal, living relationship with God.

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  8. Wonderful words Pavel! We should expect a Spirit-led church to evolve to meet the spiritual needs of the day. For me, pouring over the bible to find justification for the “tradition” and the obsession with individualistic piety and salvation, lead to a deeply irrelevant otherworldliness. Like many others I ask the question, “Isn’t there more to life than this?”. Often I find my spirituality in the loving, caring relationships of everyday life: Life lived here and now, in the secular world, in ethical relationships that give us meaning and purpose, because it is in these relationships that we find God.

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  9. I find talking to atheists about faith is akin to talking to vegetarians about the nutritional values of meat. I can feel sad because they choose to deprive themselves of such vital nourishment, but it won’t stop me enjoying my own roast beef dinner!

    ‘O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
    Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
    From depths of Hell Thy people save,
    And give them victory o’er the grave.
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.’
    (H&P 85)

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    1. I notice that you use “talking to” people you disagree with rather than “talking with” them. The first assumes that you are right and want to impart your ideas; the second suggests that you are also prepared to listen and to learn why people think as they do.

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      1. I do not disagree with people being atheist, or vegetarian, or whatever they choose to be. I respect anyone’s beliefs, so long as they afford me the same freedom to be what want to be. What I do object to is people falsely claiming to be Christian when they don’t even believe in a Deity, and have no respect for the creeds and doctrines of the Christian faith.

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  10. I will not be reading any more articles on this website.
    I am done discussing ‘theology’ with atheists masquerading as Christians.
    I will not compromise my faith for anyone.
    I bid you farewell, and may the Lord have mercy on your souls.

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