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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Fractures

Written by: on February 23, 2017

Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, could easily serve as a textbook for a college course on “Western Civilization,” tracing history along the thread of secularization: the difficult journey during which there has been a shift in the modern age from a social imaginary wherein unbelief was unimaginable to a time when belief is unthinkable. Through time religious belief with its assumption of the transcendent “progressed” through deism which, offered religion with no need for transcendent revelation, to a period of “immanence” with transcendence being discarded.

Secularism is an appropriate thread to follow because the presence or absence of religious faith (and engagement with the transcendent) is one of the most important themes or aspects of civilization. Few dynamics affect society as much as the development of philosophical thought and the affect of living out religious faith.

James Smith summarizes this way: “Part 1 of A Secular Age...considered the late medieval and early modern reform movements that began to shift the plausibility conditions of the West, making exclusive humanism a possibility (especially via disenchantment and the newly buffered self)… Part 2…considered the positive shift that really made exclusive humanism a ‘live option’: a theological shift that gave us the impersonal god of deism…Taylor has now brought us to a secular-3 age – an age in which the plausibility structures have changed…..and theistic belief is not only displaced from being the default, it is positively contested.” [1]

This book (and the accompanying How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James Smith) presents many fascinating concepts and issues.

Social Imaginary

Taylor and Smith speak of “Social Imaginary.” The understanding of this term offered is “…the ways in which [people] imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others…the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.” [2] “…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices…It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of each other; the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices which make up our social life.” [3]

Social imaginary is how we conceptualize our society: what we understand to be normal in our realm of existence. If not the same as culture, social imaginary is at the least a cousin to culture.

While reading I begin to wonder, “What is the ‘Social Imaginary’ of the Kingdom of God?” This is key to the focal point of my dissertation, as we try to create a new “space” found at the nexus of American, Other Nation, and Kingdom-of-God Social Imaginaries. Students from each culture will bring to Cornerstone School of Ministry certain expectations of how students relate to students, how students relate to instructors, and what the expectations are for an academic community. Since every social imaginary has some values that are consistent with the Kingdom of God and others that are contrary, we must study the cultures of those with whom we work in order to create a more authentic Kingdom Social Imaginary.

From Medieval to Post-Modern

Why was it impossible not to believe in 1500 and unthinkable to believe in 2000 (a haunting question)? This change dealt with what Taylor calls “Bulwarks of Belief.” [4] These societal bulwarks supported some beliefs and prevented others. Following the Middle Ages a number of “barriers” had to be removed in order to allow in new ways of thinking. A significant factor was the relationship of the individual to the community. This factor was a surprise because today we live in an individualistic culture and what I have taken for granted in my social imaginary has not always been the case in Western society. But Taylor writes of the time when there was a much stronger sense of “team” and that there was societal pressure to go along with the community. (This “communal” nature of society is still prevalent in many cultures, as in Asian cultures, such as Chinese.) As individualism grew (throughout, Taylor refers to the “buffered self”) space was created for individual beliefs that differed from the predominant social imaginary.

Taylor repeatedly refers to the date of 1500. A quick internet search reveals some of the most influential historical figures whose lives straddle that date: da Vinci; 1452-1519, Copernicus (who presented the concept of a heliocentric solar system, circa 1508); 1473-1543, Luther; 1483-1546, and Columbus, who’s famous voyage is assumed to be in 1492, and who died in 1506. Born slightly later, but still in this pivotal period are Calvin; 1509-1564 and Galileo; 1564-1642. It can be little wonder that medieval naivete radically changed with the contributions of these people.

Exclusive humanism

While doing a little extra-curricular research on some of Taylor’s vocabulary I discovered a blog written by two American Buddhist Priests: “Jiryu Mark” and “Hondo Dave.” Regarding A Secular Age they write, “On Taylor’s telling, what’s arisen, for the first time in human history, is what he calls an ‘exclusive humanism,’ a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life, rather than with reference to some reality outside of or beyond human life.” [6]

The Fractures of Modernity

“The fractured culture of the nova…becomes generalized to whole societies… And along with this, and integral to it, there arises in Western societies a generalized culture of ‘authenticity’, or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing’.” [7]

If we were to apply a Biblical commentary on this trend we could recall a time in Israel’s history, captured in Judges 17:6; “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Although secularism wasn’t the overt problem in those days, a functional individualism is common to the Modern age Taylor addresses. It is this student’s opinion that with modern secularism America has arrived at the place of ancient Israel.

Smith says, “Far from being a monolithic space or ‘experience,’ our secular age is marked by tensions and fractures. While exclusive humanism becomes a live option, it doesn’t immediately capture everyone’s imagination. Indeed, the backlash begins almost immediately.” [8]

This leads me to think that the current cultural and political fracture we are experiencing in America isn’t just about Republican vs Democrat, or Trump vs World. It may be that a deeper, more profound, longer developing fracture is now coming to full bloom.

1. James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), Kindle Loc 1393.
2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 171.
3. Ibid., 172.
4. Ibid., Chapter 1, p 25ff.
5. “Enlightenment,” accessed February 21, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/ accessed February 21, 2017.
6. “No Zen in the West.” Accessed Feb 20, 2017,
Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma
7. Taylor, 299.
8. Smith, Loc 1405.

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

11 responses to “Fractures”

  1. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Marc:
    It seems we both enjoyed, embraced and were challenged with these two books. They were eye-opening and challenging….calling us to a change. But what is that change?

    You quoted Taylor:
    “…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices…It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of each other; the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices which make up our social life.” [3]

    Do you think the catalyst to extreme secularism is “normal expectations”? Didn’t Jesus call us to believe for the impossible, the unpredictable, the undeniable….that was extremely abnormal?

    Why do you think we have fallen prey to the “normal”, especially in church life? Could that be one of the challenges that have led us to “self” and not the transcendent God that is far above normal?

    Phil

  2. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Phil,

    For those whose world view includes the transcendent, the possibility of the impossible is normal. When the possibility of the transcendent is deleted, then there is no room within “normal” for the impossible.

    I suspect that as secularism grew and social imaginaries increasingly allowed for non-transcendent thought, then the possibility of the impossible became less normal. Or to say this the other way, expecting the impossible became less normal.

    The secular “normal” has crept into the church. Everything around us in society tells us to operate with Western (secular) mindset. The un-faith part of us does trust in visible help more than in invisible help. We are so western that we call the doctor first, rather than praying with expectation for healing. Taylor tells us it is hard to believe (even for believers) in this age.

    My experience in Africa is the opposite. One small story: A year ago when I was in Uganda one of our cars had a tire that was low on air. My Ugandan friends did look at the tire, put in some air, and prayed it would be ok. I wanted to get out of the car and look to make sure there wasn’t a nail in the tire, but I felt strongly the Lord told me not to do that; rather I was to live by THEIR faith. They trusted God more than I did. The tire was fine.

    One gigantic advantage for us to read Taylor is to realize how we need to call the Western church back to more of a transcendent expectation and normal.

  3. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Marc,
    Great blog. I also loved how you tied your writing with scriptural reference, which led your belief that the fracture was impending. You stated that “It may be that a deeper, more profound, longer developing fracture is now coming to full bloom.” I agree with such statement because we often create processes if nature doesn’t do it for us our time-change. I had forgotten that every year we add, remove or redefine words from our dictionary so now I’m concerned with the relevance of my vocabulary. Considering the social imaginary, we have a responsibility to change and while we may not quite understand how we should change, it is impossible to remain stagnant in a secular world.

    Garfield

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Garfield,

      Your response brings us a great challenge. In my last years before retirement I realized how much of contemporary culture was beyond my experience. Our youth pastor had a hard time keeping kids in church (worship), in part, because my vocabulary and illustrations really came from a world foreign to the youth. This was accentuated because he was very successful reaching kids from a socio-economic realm different from the church.

      One corrective I instigated was to listen to his vision for how the church could reach our neighborhood and using that (with our elders) to form the vision for the next years of our church’s ministry. Time will tell if that was effective.

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Thanks for another great blog and breaking down the key concepts and terminology Taylor introduces to his readers. You were keen to see the parallelism between expressive individualism and Judges 17:6. I don’t know how I missed that. You really captured my attention with the final statement in your blog. “It may be that a deeper, more profound, longer developing fracture is now coming to full bloom.” That sounds mighty serious. What are you envisioning on the horizon? What conceptions might you be entertaining as to what that will look like as it is unfolding and at its greatest point of impact? Who and or what will be affected the most?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Claire,

      A good and thorough job of responding to your questions each week would require a book to answer each one. You ask profound questions that have no simple answer.

      On the horizon, I don’t see any healing of the fracture. I think the philosophical divide is so deep and significant. If calm and reasonable people would release their death-grip on power, then sound compromise might be possible and some healing could happen. But the human side of me doesn’t see that happening.

      Given the imminent frame within which we now function, with no real seeking of divine influence in our country at large, what can happen but a continual degrading of human relations. We know that at the core the falleness of human nature shows itself in broken relationships, both small and galactic. I don’t see healing for the fracture apart from divine intervention. Unfortunately it is the powerless and disenfranchised who will be most impacted.

      Perhaps the best news is that Biblical principles of unity (John 17 and Psalm 133) stand out in stark contrast to the fracture we see in government and in the country. My greatest hope is that with the current state of fracture Jesus’ prayer for a unity that witnesses to Him will be even more apparent, if the Church lives as He prayed we would.

      The naive and patriotic side of me doesn’t believe America will ever NOT be great, but a look at world history shows world powers slipping.

      That all sounds pretty pessimistic, but I am totally optimistic because my world view knows the imminence of the transcendent, and the One Who is not allowed into the immanent frame will win the day.

  5. Jason KENNEDY says:

    Mark,
    Good thoughts. Your judges connections to our modern secular age are spot on. With this in mind, how do we move from an individualistic culture to community mindset. Is it even possible?
    Jason

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Jason,

      The second book I want to write (after a cross-cultural study of Luke 15) might be entitled “Is Individualism Killing America?” I have seriously been thinking about approaching two Christian friends; one a sociology professor and the other a history professor at (the) OSU,to study individualism (and community) from the perspectives of sociology, history, and cultural anthropology. Taylor and Smith obviously feed into and fuel this interest.

      So the short answer to your question is to look for the book. It might be out in about five years.

      Frankly, I’m not sure we can move from individualism to a community mindset. Culturally, for America, that ship has sailed. Part of the challenge for the Church is the degree to which this problem is alive and well among believers. When I observe the Chinese and Latino churches in our city, I see Christians with a much keener sense of community. Part of that is their first culture, the other is (I think) born of being strangers in a strange land, where they seek the refuge and companionship of like language and culture.

      To get America to move that direction might require severe crisis, such as another great depression, or such quality of life in Christian community that it becomes enticing. Frankly, along the parallel of Judges 17, I see only increased fracture, selfishness, and chaos. But as I responded to Claire, I’m actually totally optimistic because I know whose cultural values will win in the end.

  6. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc, your concluding paragraph captured the way I have been feeling for a while. I just read Rose’s blog and learned about the ruling of the British Court against the fostering right of a Christian couple. In light of the legalization of gay marriage and the increasing regulations of the IRS over church life, I wonder if we are at a crossroads where a secular mindset that is closed to the transcendent will end up taking prominence over the Christian heritage of this nation. I wonder if that is an inevitable stage in the path of secularism or if it is possible to turn it around. I wonder if the American society will eventually mirror European secularism or produce its own kind of secularism that remains more open to the transcendent.
    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      I think we’re sadly long past the crossroads. In the mid 1970s Francis Schaeffer expressed that America had lost its “Christian consensus.” Short of a severe crisis and outright revival I don’t see a reversal.

  7. I agree with your wonderings and conclusion that this is bigger than a couple of political parties and one leader. What we are experiencing is huge; way bigger than us.

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