This is one of those books that I wouldn’t have picked up…unless I got it for free…like at a conference.  Which I did.  I’ve [shockingly] not heard of Charles Taylor, nor “Our Secular Age” and I now officially feel like I have been missing out. [#FOMO].

Taylor, a Catholic philosopher, wrote “A Secular Age” in 2007 and based on the endorsements page, it seems to have been a hugely impactful book.  The issue appears to, as I’ve not read it, the accessibility of the book.  It reminds me of Piper and his revisions of Jonathan Edwards books in a much more accessible format.  As is probably needless to say, this book was a pleasant surprise for me.  I love to engage secular thinking with the truth of the biblical (not cultural) gospel.

All that being said, the Gospel Coalition commissioned 13 authors wrote essays to interact with and explore gospel concepts in a secular world, of course the one in which we all live and engage with.

One of the key questions addressed is “Does God get to be God?” The answer, even for many self-described Christians is, “No, only on our terms.” How true this is and how much this comes in conflict with our secular age…one in which we might be more alike than different.  Author Collin Hansen reflected that Taylor helped him answer the questions “Why reformed theology?” with this response to the initial question.  You really only have two options in a secular age. Either God is for you, on your own terms, or you set the terms. This is what makes reformed theology, and our “homeboy” Jonathan Edwards not only unthinkable, but also reprehensible to modern sensibilities: Edwards God is about God, not us. [6-7].

Michael Horton helpfully points out in his essay that it’s “not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted.  We are masters of our own destiny. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us achieve our best life now.”  [#ShotsFired 23-24]

What this world view organically leads to is the collision with reality and the transcendence of God.  There will be moments that we are faced with the reality that there is something bigger than us at work.  Everything this secular world has to offer can’t be enough and we end up realizing we are “missing something.”  As Taylor writes, and John Starks points out “There is a fear and anxiety that ‘our actions, goals, achievements, and life, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.’ ” [40]

This sets up a few of Taylors foundational concepts, one of them is the “buffered self.” The buffered self “blocks out certain ways in which transcendence has historically impinged on humans, and been present in their lives.”  For the buffered self, the purpose of everything is human flourishing and hence has no category for a God that calls us to “die to ourselves, consider others more important, turn the cheek, etc.  It creates a conflict with the modern buffered self.” [43]. I have come across this countless times. Most recently in a man who was determined to “fix his marriage” and wanted to use God as a tool to do that.  Yet, he refused to surrender his buffered self, deemed it “not working” and we’ve never seen him again.  I’d like to say this is the exception, but it only proves Taylor’s point is still valid in 2018.

I’m sure we all can relate to [if not personally experienced] a sense of being unfulfilled in this world.  Another key concept of Taylor is this “malaise” – which only “deepens because even tough we have given up on transcendent reality, we haven’t given up on transcendent feelings and experiences.  We instead look for transcendence within an imminent frame, which only exposes the smallness of our reality and intensifies the sense of loss.  This takes on three forms: We struggle to find significance in life, crucial moments in life such as birth, marriage and death only heighten the sense of malaise, and we receive a lack in everyday moments, in the mundane.” [44-45]

In this, as Derek Mishmawy writes, there is an opportunity – “Christians have an opportunity to present the gospel as a beautiful alternative to the creamed ideologies of immanence that dominate our landscape.” [59] AMEN!

“The church must not be a place prone to overreaction, or quick to provide conversation-stopping cliches (which inadvertently produce reactive questioners). Questions and dialogue must be welcome. The approach actually calls for a more robust ecclesiology  and community, rather than a thin one. Churches with strong practices of membership and discipline actually have the stability required to include someone without destabilizing the community or undermining it’s credibility.” [61].  This too, is a sad reflection of the current landscape of churches which are lacking in these areas.  Many would argue, and I would be one of them, another reason why the video campus model is ultimately unhealthy and unsustainable.

Compounding that point is Taylor’s concept of authenticity.  “While many speak of there desire for “community,” the community they seek is…participating only the shallow and fleeting “community” that can be enjoyed in the “lonely crowd.” This community can be “synthesized – rather than a bond of deep mutual commitment and she shared disciplines that powerfully and enduringly unit us in the pursuit and celebration of common objects of love.” [68] Indeed, one look at the landscape of churches today will reveal many focused on a worship “experience” – which ultimately leads to precisely what Taylor describes.

It is no wonder why Christians church-shop, looking for just the right fit to suit their consumeristic mindset.  Churches not grounded in biblical ecclesiology only “amplify the instability. They encourage the fickle, commitment-phobic habits of consumers who attend only insofar as it fits the nuances of their personal curated spirituality.”  [Again #ShotsFired, 78] Brett McCracken continues to drive his well-taken point home – “By shifting the focus away from the fixed point of Jesus to the fickle, frequently diverging paths of individual churchgoers, church lose their bearings and become inherently unstable. When a church becomes less bout the demands of Scripture and more about the demands of individuals on the church to fit their prefaces, it loses its power to transform us and subvert our idols.  It becomes a commodity to be shopped for, consumed, and then abandoned when another shinier, trendier, more relevant option appears.” [81]

This directly sets the true biblical gospel against the modern secular goal of human flourishing. “God never signed his name to or promissory notes of marriage, children, financial security, meaningful work, and health.  Let’s not forget we are in the middle of the drama, groaning for God to finally and fully repair this world…our ethic is not autonomous freedom, but obedient love.” [121-2]

Judging by my daily social media feeds, this is still the challenge of the day.  We all walk around and being far more influenced by the philosophy of secular human flourishing and using God and the church as a path to get there.  I am thankful for books such as these that bring well thought out perspectives to combat such drifting.

 

 

 

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