How (Not) To Be Secular

December 2, 2020

Serving as a pastor is one of the most rewarding and difficult tasks that I have ever been faced with. On the one hand, I am one of you – I am a fellow disciple learning to love God in a broken world. I am a sinner in desperate need of the grace of God alongside every one of you. I am a sheep. On the other hand, I am your leader, your shepherd. I stand above you— not in a prideful or arrogant sense—but in a sense of leadership. I must watch fervently where we are headed, to observe the roadblocks and dangers coming our way. I must bear the load of our collective safety as we navigate a world full of spiritual enemies. This, of course, is done under the guidance of the one True Shepherd, Jesus Christ. 

Due to my humanity, God has uniquely created me to shepherd in a way that suits my gifts and desires. For many pastors, relational conversations are the medium they want to utilize to shepherd their people; for others, it is primarily the pulpit. Personally, I discovered early on, that I need to lead primarily through preaching and writing. Like Eugene Peterson, I will not and cannot drive a wedge between being a pastor and a writer – they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, in order for me to pastor well, I must write. 

My hope is that you may invest the time to read, not because I need an audience, but because I hope writing will be one of the main ways that I pastor you. Personally, I can communicate complex truths in a more helpful manner via writing than speaking. My hope is that as we journey together as sheep, God may use my writing to equip you to do the work of the ministry, here in Las Cruces and to the ends of the earth. Soli deo Gloria.

A Secular World

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word secular? For many—particularly for those from a Christian background—think in terms of secular versus religious. For example, there are secular schools and religious schools. Perhaps others consider anything outside the religious system. For many, secular conveys that which is wrong or evil with the world. Yet, we should not abandon the word or simply use it in a negative context. This is where Charles Taylor is incredibly helpful, the most prominent modern philosopher. 

Charles Taylor is a trained philosopher by trade, a Roman Catholic by profession, and the author of one of the best philosophical works in recent generations entitled A Secular Age. Many have attempted to slay Taylor’s magnum opus but have failed. Not only is Taylor’s work long, it is philosophically dense. Thankfully, men such as James K.A. Smith have undertaken the task to translate and modernize Taylor so that the average person can understand the meat of his arguments. In 2014, James K.A. Smith published How (Not) To be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, which gives a philosophical primer to those looking to dip their toes in waters of Charles Taylor.

Even with this fantastic resource, very few Christians are willing to read either Taylor (understandably) or Smith. What is the point in talking about philosophy? Is it not just vain speculation about matters of life? We should be focused on evangelism, social justice, caring for tangible needs in our city, and the list goes on and on. Simply put: the average Christian does not see the need or relevance to read such an important work (in my opinion). This is far from the truth. 

As professing Christians, we value spiritual disciplines to provide formation in our life, such as Bible reading, praying, community, and the sacraments. Yet, many of us are completely unaware of how our cultural air misinforms and blinds us to the very change that we desperately want. The majority of us have spent our entire lives indoctrinated in Western values and culture and thus, we don’t even consider how major cultural beliefs shape our view of Christianity. Therefore, in order to grow in Christ holistically, one must understand how culture have influenced our desires, values, and assumptions about life. 

Cultural formation is akin to seeing through glasses – it changes what we see and what we perceive. For example, we all are aware that a man born in India and a man born in the United States will have different cultural expressions, values, and ways of thinking about life. Where we are from, the values that are inculcated in us, shape the way we view the world. This not only happens on a grand scale, such as what we value, what we envision the “good life” being, and how we get to such a place, but it also involves the small details. If cultural formation shapes every facet of our lives, we need to be aware of how it impacts our Christianity, primarily because as a lense, we look through it, not at it. For some of us, we may be completely blind to how our Western values and presuppositions are shaping our Christianity to this very day.

For those of us who grew up in Christian homes, it is likely that we are seeing double almost everyday. One eye views the world through the Bible, while the other eye views the world through Western culture. Constantly the latter will want to cover up the biblical eye, inviting you to see everything through the lense of Western culture. The job of leaders—pastors, parents, teachers—is to be the gatekeeper of the eye, to watch and protect that you are seeing correctly. It is my hope in this short book to help you see correctly. 

 Over the years as I’ve worked as a Pastor, I have heard many Christians bemoan the downtrend of progressive society. Gone are the days of a majority Christian culture—hereafter, referred to as Christendom. Simple solutions are posed for complex problems. “Do you want to less violence in our schools? Bring prayer back!” cries the nostalgic Christian. While I certainly believe in prayer, perhaps this isn’t the main issue. Though, for those who have watched the radical shift in cultural values in the last millennium, the response is understandable. Still, we must ask, “What is the root problem in our culture?” 

Reading Charles Taylor (or Smith), you’ll quickly realize that it is not simply a matter of what is wrong, but a shift in what is believable in culture: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”[1] This is the heart of the issue that Taylor spends 800 pages unpacking. For thousands of years, vast portions of the world believed in some form of god or diety; it was almost unthinkable to not believe in something transcendent. Now, in the 21st century, it is not only thinkable, it is the major default option.

Notice the question that Taylor is asking. He is not asking, “What do modern people believe? Why are millennials not going to church?” Rather, he is asking, “What do people find believable and unbelievable in our culture?” In other words, Taylor is not trying to discover the decline in religiosity per se, but he is interested in discovering why the default assumption of majority culture in the West is one of agnosticism/atheism rather than theism. How did such a radical shift occur, not just in a family, but in an entire cultural system? This is the haunting question of A Secular Age.

What then does it mean to live in a “secular age?” Taylor provides a three-pronged taxonomy to the word “secular” that is littered throughout the book. First, in classical or medieval times, the secular was in the realm of the earthly, such as “politics” being a mundane (secular) vocation, whereas the priest pursued a “holy” vocation. Second, in modernity (starting around the Enlightenment), it become known as those spaces that are areligious and neutral. In this way, the public square is secular in that it is areligious; schools would follow in a similar vein. Smith notes that in the 20thcentury, people would identify as “secular” meaning that they had no religious affiliation. Third, and most importantly to Taylor, “a society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable. At issue here is a shift in the ‘conditions of belief.’”[2]

We are currently living in the third secular sphere, where religion and transcendence are tolerated but increasingly are being challenged. What is rising up in Western culture is not so much outright antagonism against religion but a full embrace of exclusive humanism. Taylor notes, “For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.” And this is where we discover the driving human value for Western society today. Exclusive humanism finds its worth, identity, and value in human’s logic, ingenuity, progress, and frankly, in itself. 

Taylor has another name for this cultural phenonmon that is happening all around Western society today: the immanent frame. Contrasting with transcendence (believing in something transcendent, such as a god), Western culture lives with a frame of immanence (meaning, that all there is to life is the here and now). In other words, there is nothingtranscendent in life—it is all about the physical, the here and now. Thus, the average American, particularly the younger generation, does not even consider transcendence a concept to be believable. We have been accustomed and indoctrinated into a system that believes that all there is immanence—we live only for the present moment. 

Over time, Taylor suggests that Western culture has evolved from a process of immanentization, which is “a subtle process by which our world, and hence the realm of significance, is enclosed within the material universe and natural world. Divested of the transcendent, this world is invested with ultimacy and meaning in ways that couldn’t have been imagined before.”[3] The new religion is therefore now all about this world: careers, families, new experiences, and the list goes on and on. How then, as Christians, do we live and more importantly, make disciples in a disenchanted, immanently-framed world? 

Immanent but Haunted by Transcendence

Up to this point, the news seems dire: the world has forgotten about God and is happy about it. If the current diagnoses is so bad, why is Taylor/Smith so helpful to us? Even though the secular world has created an immanent frame by which they live, it nevertheless is still haunted by transcendence. No matter how hard the secular world tries to shove God out of the world, He always seems to find his way back in. The diagnoses has been given but there is hope: there are cracks in the immanent frame—the glory of God is shining through. 

Because humans have been made in the image of God, every single one of has a longing and desire to know God and thus, find our stories enriched by something transcendent. Therefore, we now live in a world that is constantly feeling “cross-pressured” by the disenchantment and immanence of the world and the longings of transcendence that is inside every human. We are then cross-pressured by what we believe and what we feel in our bones. People therefore suppress the feelings of cross-pressure by investing themselves more into the immanent world—more money, more sex, more drugs, more, more, more. The other alternative is to become so overwhelmed and anxious by the world that anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicide rise within us. We were not made to live in an immanently-framed world. 

Here is where Christianity is so amazing—it offers a counter-vision to the immanently-framed world, one where God the transcendent one actually becomes immanent in Christ. This is why theologians often describe the birth of Christ as God’s condescension, meaning that he stoops down to our level to identify with us. In Christianity, you get both the transcendence and immanence that we all desperately long for. The story of Christianity is not plausible to a secular world, but it is inviting. 

As you go about your day-to-day lives, encountering people that seem like they want nothing to do with God, know that deep down inside their bones there is a yearning for transcendence; there is a longing to be involved of something bigger than ourselves. Rather than trying to prove Christianity is true with knowledge, perhaps demonstrate with your life the beautiful vision of human flourishing that God in Christ offers to you. In other words, allow Christ to become compelling to others through your life. 

Perhaps one of the best ways to share your faith is through the avenue of storytelling, primarily through the lense of the restoration of all things in the book of Revelation. Because every human has a haunted soul, every human longs to be in a world that is not plagued by sin. Next time you are engaging with a close friend or colleague, ask them if they want to live in a world where there is no violence, no pain, no sorrow, no death? You can guess what every person will say: yes! Many do not know that is the story that Christianity is offering to them. Most think Christians simply want to judge them not restore them and the world they live in. Telling a compelling story of the end of the world that ends in restoration and redemption pulls on the transcendent strings of your friends’ heart that he thought were long dead. Every person wants to be in the Christian story but they may not know it. Though the world we live in may look apathetic to Christ, it is haunted and thankfully, God won’t leave us alone.

More Reading

If this article piqued your interest, I would highly recommend that you pick up a copy of James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. Alongside this, Smith has written a fantastic book entitled You Are What You Love that would be immensely helpful. 

[1] A Secular Age, 25.

[2] Smith, 22. 

[3] Smith, 48. 

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