Updated: Jan 20
January 8, 2022
Christians can tell that they are no longer living in a Christian age in many parts of the world. They don't need statistics to prove it. It's something you feel -- and you feel it long before you can put words to exactly what's going on. This series about putting words to the feeling, with a little help from philosopher Charles Taylor.
What is a Secular Age?
Taylor offers three different meanings of the word "secular":
Secular(1) is the "original" definition of the Middle Ages (and even today), where the Roman Catholic Church divided up the clergy between "religious" and "secular" vocations. A religious clergy is one who has taken vows, like a monk, while secular clergy are those that live in cities, like a parish priest.
Secular(2) comes from the Enlightenment and often referred to places devoted toward a common good and not toward God, such as "secular schools." This is the most common meaning of the word.
Secular(3) is more nuanced and a better description of where we are today. Taylor defines it as "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”
The implications of living in a secular(3) world is that we are all secular. If Christians adopt the secular(2) definition, they will see the religious landscape as a conflict between believers and "secular people." Or it's a battle between science and faith. But this perspective overlooks the reality that we are all influenced by this secular age.
On the one hand, our view of the world is far less religiously enchanted than Christians, say, in the Middle Ages. Unlike Luther, Christians generally don't assume God is behind a thunderstorm. Christians in the Middle Ages saw the church, personal liberty, and the realm of politics as concerns of the church. Today, Christians see politics as separate from the church. Perhaps the greatest sign of Christian secularization is that we have gone from believing the existence of God is obvious to accepting that God's existence is in need of "proving" to most people and that this isn't easy to do.
James K. A. Smith wrote:
“Even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”
We all stand with the man who approached Jesus and confessed: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." In secular(2), this would be impossible. You cannot believe and "unbelieve" at the same time. But in a secular(3) world -- the world reflected by this man in the gospel -- you absolutely can believe and struggle with unbelief at the same time.
We are All Cross-Pressured
Taylor goes on to note that we are all -- believers and unbelievers alike -- "cross pressured."
Believers, obviously, feel the pressure of secularism. But so do unbelievers. They are, in Taylor's word, "haunted" by God in this secular age. The agnostic Julian Barnes exemplified this when he wrote: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
If Christendom describes the age where Christianity dominated culture, then Christendom has fallen. Christians are processing their loss in a variety of ways (much like they had to process the fall of Rome in 410 A.D.). Some Christians get angry and lash out against a godless world for abandoning the faith. Other Christians feel that Christianity has failed in some way and might walk away from the faith. It's important that Christians do an emotional inventory to explore their own feelings about how their world has changed. The sense of loss can be just as real as losing a loved one.
We need not despair. The secular age is an opportunity for Christians to learn more about God and devote themselves more fervently to prayer. When the cultural consensus was that God existence, discussion centered over how best to obey him. Should I be a Baptist or an Adventist? Which church has the truth? Christians spent years of their lives studying these questions.
Secularism forces us to take about 50 steps back and to ask ourselves questions like: How do I know God exists? Why do I think he is loving? How do I handle uncertainty? What assumptions am I making? Basically, we need to get back to the basics; things we just assumed were true in centuries past and therefore put comparatively little thought into. This is a chance to grab our Bibles and start over: to answer the basic questions about God and to get on our knees because, perhaps for the first time for many Christians, they finally are desperate enough to pray.
It's when Christians are truly desperate for God that the Holy Spirit can do his best work in us.
Stay tuned as Pastor Matthew delivers part 2, Subtraction Stories, on January 16.