Early on when I was learning the guitar, I would try and identify the key a song was played in by trying to play a major scale over the music. This was the beginning of what is commonly referred to as riffing, playing a new melody over an existing tune. It takes the existing tune further than it was made for, but hopeful stays in the same key. What follows here is, it should be noted, academic ‘bad form’. It is my own riff on the work of James K.A. Smith as he seeks to represent Charles Taylor. For the correct tune, I heartily recommend interacting with How (not) to be Secular by James K.A. Smith, and Taylors work A Secular Age. What follows here is simply a riff, although I hope to have stayed in the same key – if not the same tempo.
As Bob Dylan’s truism goes, “The times they are a changin’”. More than just a benign observation of the nature of time itself, Dylan’s line tugs at the deeper experience that emerges in ‘mid’ life that things are no longer what they once were. It seems that the older we get the more estranged we feel from the experiences of those only a few years younger. I’ve met people in their 30’s working in Discipleship Training Schools with those in their late teens, who sense an enormous chasm between their experience of the same period in their own lives and struggle to find a common link that could bring them together.
As those seeking to disciple others, it is crucial that we take the other’s context seriously. Most missionaries that set off to a far-flung people group invest time in language, history, and cultural studies. Our common understanding is that while the Scriptures are God’s truth, that truth is communicated into a context. This is underpinned by the assumption that God has not just provided abstract truth, but truth that is bound to relationship; truth that is prayed, sung and lived out in people’s lives. This concept of truth is observed in the opening line of John’s Gospel, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
A Missionary Encounter with a Secular Age
Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary-theologian returning to England after decades as a missionary in India, famously remarked that the West needs a “missionary encounter”. As such, I propose that we need to pay the same careful attention to the cultural context of the West as we would if we were seeking to engage an unreached people group.
How would we begin such a missionary encounter? How would we take stock of Western cultural history in a way that didn’t just rehearse historical events but explored the cultural shifts that impacted how people believe?
Jamie Smith believes Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides a reliable guide and seeks to introduce his thought in the book How (not) to be Secular. While I heartily recommend the book itself, in the next few posts I want to introduce some of Charles Taylor’s thinking (via James K.A. Smith) in ways that help us understand the context in which we are discipling those who believe. I believe Taylor helps us name some of the ‘forces’ in the West that are operating both upon and within us and those we aim to disciple. These forces are affecting the pursuit, failures and successes in our attempts to be those whose lives reflect the nature and character of God.
What is a Secular Age?
When we first hear the word ‘secular,’ we tend to understand it as a context that has simply removed God from its ways of thinking. One of the first things Taylor does is to reveal how, what he calls, a ‘subtraction narrative’ doesn’t explain carefully enough what has happened. For Taylor, the Secular age in which we are discipling people isn’t just a context that has sought to remove God – it has become an environment that has changed what is believe-able.
The secular context is embedded within a story that aims to convince us that the scientific and rational are increasingly explaining everything that we were previously superstitious about. The secular story tells us that one day everything we have turned to religion for will be given a material and rational explanation. Nevertheless, Tayor argues that this story-line also has a type of ‘faith’ as its foundation.
Taylor claims that we live our lives according to a cultural story and story always includes a type of faith in its foundation. Humans are not the type of creatures that operate from a neat list of factual bullet-points, we require the contents of those lists to be woven into a story that we can live within and make sense of the world by. In fact, the story is the foundation that we live from, and living within this secular story creates, as Taylor describes, a ‘cross-pressured’ context that actually changes how we believe.
The Cross-Pressured Context of Belief in a Secular Age
Why is it, Taylor asks, that “… it [was] virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find it not only easy but even inescapable?”
True to his claim that the reality from which we live is at its core storied, Taylor tells one. He narrates Western history paying particular attention to its roots in the Reformation and Enlightenment. Taylor claims that as superstition was being banished, first by the Protestant Reformation and then by the Enlightenment, we were left with a shrunken imagination of our world.
Thus, in our secular age when we become sick, we think of the ‘germs’ and ‘viruses’ that are acting on us. A Pre-Modern imagination might instead first turn to an explanation of the demonic or spiritual forces that were acting upon them. Whereas an openness to mystery and faith were the default before, now the default is to expect scientific certainty and to seriously doubt the possibility of something immaterial acting upon us. What Taylor is drawing our attention to, is the way in which our imagination has changed. This change has altered what is believe-able – and this changes how we hold any beliefs that we have.
What is key here is recognising that not only do non-religious people have a default towards doubt but that religious people now ‘believe’ while breathing the air of overwhelming doubt too. This is the cross-pressured context of belief and unbelief that we minister within. Believers believe but are haunted by doubt; unbelievers don’t believe but are haunted by belief. This cross-pressured context created by our cultural history is the very reason that in the 2000s believers lay awake at night wondering if ‘this is all there is’, and unbelievers stare at sunsets wondering if ‘there is more than this’.
How does Understanding our Secular Context help us with Discipleship?
So, firstly I believe that Taylor’s account can help us become less combative. We are not trying to win a war between facts and belief, but are recognising that all facts are built upon faith in something. These faiths emerge from an underlying story about what is ‘real’.
Rather than discipling people in models that rest on systems of ideas, Smith contends that “If hearts are going to be aimed toward Gods kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” The good news for those of us committed to Christian discipleship and evangelism is that the Scriptures contain an overarching and captivating story – a story that is not only to be understood but lived from and lived out.
Here, we have an opportunity to renew our evangelism in the public square. The Christian story gives us a three-dimensional vision of the world that can be communicated as spacious and illuminating for those who have grown up within the flat and claustrophobic secular account of the world. I believe that there is a great hunger for a story that, in Taylor’s words, re-enchants the world. The simple caution here is that we won’t tell this captivating story if we stick solely to offering new ideas. Instead, we need communities that embody the story and its lived-practices that recruit all of who we are, not just our minds.
Secondly, it reminds us that as we disciple others we need to cultivate empathy and even expectation that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Rather, in our secular age, it is the companion of it. As Jamie Smith remarks, in our secular age “..we don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.” As a result, young people that are entering our discipleship spaces need to be equipped to live out their faith while recognising that doubt is both their interior and exterior context.
In contrast, Christian training environments can too easily fall into the trap of cultivating enclaves of belief that shelter people from outside cultural pressures in order to grow a certainty of faith. While it is crucial for our growth and health to live in Christian communities that strengthen our life of faith, the goal for Christian witnesses is for them to be disciples that bear witness to God and His kingdom within the secular contexts. Insisting on certainty of belief in our discipleship context might result in short term gains in confidence, but ironically make people more fragile in the face of doubt once they leave our Christian training environments. One of the questions I carry away as I reflect on Taylors work is, how we might cultivate a humble, yet sure, resilience to bear a faithful witness in this secular and contested age?