January 15, 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.
To watch part 1 of this series, click here.
The stories we believe matter.
The Moabite guards in Judges 3 believed a story that left-handed people were not common enough to be dangerous, and so they didn't pat the left-handed Ehud down thoroughly. Their king died as a result.
As we enter the secular age, people are telling new stories about origins, meaning, morality, and destiny. Many of these secular stories are what Charles Taylor calls "subtraction stories." That is, that human beings have only made progress by "subtracting" God from our lives. James K.A. Smith summarizes it this way:
“Once upon a time, as these subtraction stories rehearse it, we believed in sprites and fairies and gods and demons. But as we became rational. . . the world became progressive disenchanted. Religion and belief withered with scientific exorcism of superstition.”
The philosopher Richard Rorty said as much when he wrote:
“As social justice increases, we hope there will be less temptation for the poor to murder the rich, and consequently less need for religion as a device for diminishing social unrest, and less temptation to hope for pie in the sky. So the only role left for religious belief will be to help individuals find meaning in their lives, and to serve as a help to individuals in their times of trouble.”
Or as Jerry Coyne said:
“Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women."
These subtraction stories serve as framing stories: stories which we use as lenses through which the see the world. If you truly see religion as an impediment to human progress, then you might interpret anything any religious person does as being motivated by a desire to hold society back in the dark ages.
They are also untrue. Matt Rossano pointed this out when he responded to Coyne: “Pagan authors occasionally condemned slavery. But they sorely lacked any compelling rationale for why slavery itself, rather than the maltreatment of slaves, was evil.”
Human rights, concern for strangers, etc. are Christian values. The Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari realized this when he wrote in his book, Sapiens:
“The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’?”
To tell subtraction stories of Christians as enemies of progress is to do injustice to the Christian contributions to Western society. Christians have generally owned up to their past wrongs: including complicity in crusades, inquisitions, colonialism, and so forth. Certainly there is much more to be done there in terms of understanding our own complicity in past evil and making restitution for it, where possible. But secular subtraction stories only focus on the abuses, not on the critical and fundamental ways in which Christians have shaped Western civilization for the better.
When we tell framing stories about the world, it's important that they are not only accurate but just.
We end with two challenges:
For non-believers, they need to learn to tell a better story.
For believers, that they learn to live up to the story they're telling.