A Better Social Imaginary?
Family. The word itself can bring different emotions to different people, depending of their own experience. Why is it that many times children raised in Christian homes end up choosing to leave the sacred and enter a more secular existence? I wonder that myself, especially since I have two grown children who have experienced this very thing. What role did I play in all of this? Is this a good development or a bad development? What happens as time unfolds? Will my children return to their roots? Do I want them to? And what about Christians who have left the Church for a multitude of reasons? Will they ever return? Should they? If they do return, what are they coming back to?
In his comprehensive treatise on the historical/philosophical/theological development of Western Civilization, Charles Taylor tackles the issues of the religious/secular debate head on. A Secular Age is no leisurely read. Taylor’s primary focus in this prolific text can be summarized thus, “…the change I want to define and trace is one that takes us from a society in which it was impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” This “plurality of options” – when and how did they arise in Western societies? These are the questions that Charles Taylor examines here. It would be impossible to do justice to Taylor’s work in a 1,500-word post, so I will only focus on one piece of the argument here.
After the Protestant Reformation began, the most vicious war in Europe’s history to that point, The Thirty Years’ War, enveloped the Continent. I used to teach a class called War and Peace, which was a class that surveyed the “Just War” Tradition. Using the text, The Shield of Achilles as a foundation, here are some of my teaching notes that are helpful in framing this period, 1618-1648:
For our purposes, the reason why the Thirty Years’ War is treated as a single war is that a single constitutional issue was at stake throughout: would the princely state of the Habsburg dynasty impose their constitutional form of the state and Catholic religion on the contested areas of Germany and the Netherlands, or would the secular relationships among the national, absolutist monarchs of the new kingly states of France, Sweden, and Britain prevail instead?
It started as a civil, holy war of the highest order: Catholic imperialists versus the Protestant and secularists of the newly formed kingly states. It was fought in what is modern day Germany. Force became a common medium of political intercourse. National animosities that had been held in check for centuries by a unity of religion found expression on the battlefield.
This was a “righteous,” religious war wherein the only acceptable outcome to the opponents was either the conversion or the annihilation of the opposing side. This was the culmination of Augustine’s premises. This was a war fought on the behalf of God where there were no rules whatsoever.
Into this context steps Hugo Grotius, one of my heroes in history.
As a celebrated child prodigy, Grotius wrote Latin elegies at the age of eight, entered the university at eleven, and is said to have converted his Catholic mother to Calvinism with irrefutable arguments when he was twelve. At fifteen he went with a friend of his father’s on a diplomatic mission to France where the king, Louis XIII, introduced the young Grotius as the “miracle of Holland.” In 1598, at the age of fifteen, he emerged with his doctorate and returned in 1599 to practice law in The Hague. In 1607, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, Grotius was appointed Advocate, or attorney-general, of Holland. He was deeply involved in attempting to heal the schism in the Dutch Reformed Church while asserting the independent federal status of the States of Holland. This went against the centralizing goals of Prince Maurice of Nassau who had Grotius arrested, and imprisoned for life at the age of thirty-five. Grotius eventually escaped and fled to Paris where he was denied a university post because of his Calvinist background. He regretted his career. He thought that he should have stuck with literature and not law. His last words are reported to have been, “By undertaking many things, I have accomplished nothing.”
For many reasons Hugo Grotius was a humble and broken man. He was most broken by the carnage he saw in the Thirty Years’ War. So he spoke up in a powerful way in his now famous work The Law of War and Peace. Up until this time, the Church was the one that set the rules for moral order. But after the disillusionment of the Thirty Years’ War, perhaps it was time for a new order, a new authority. The stage was now set for a more secular age. This is understandable to me. When one has been let down by an authority, it makes sense to find another one, a more dependable one. According to Taylor, what Grotius does in his work is to create the beginnings of a new “social imaginary”:
Starting from the 17th century, this idea has come to dominate our political thinking and the way we imagine our society. It starts off in Grotius’ version as a theory of what political society is, that is, what it is in aid of, and how it comes to be. But any theory of this kind also offers inescapably a theory of moral order. It tells us something about how we ought to live together in society.
The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity, against a certain pre-existing moral background, and with certain ends in view. The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations towards each other. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is most important.
The underlying idea of moral order stresses the rights and obligations which we have as individuals in regard to each other, even prior to or outside the political bond. Political obligations are seen as an extension or application of these fundamental moral ties. Political authority is legitimate only because it was consented to by individuals (the original contract), and this contract creates binding obligations in virtue of the pre-existing principle that promises ought to be kept.
Into the discussion enters John Locke, who furthers Grotius’ ideas and adds greatly to the new social imaginary, one that is thoroughly secular in nature, one that lifts humans – particularly individuals – to positions of moral authority. Who, then, needs religion? Who needs a Church to call the shots, when that institution has proven itself inept and ineffective? If this were true in the 17th and 18th century, how much more true would it be in the 21st century, particularly in the individualized West? These are common questions today. How do we answer these questions? I guess it all depends on your social and spiritual imagination.
I admire Grotius for his courage and wisdom, though I do not agree entirely with his theories or ultimate conclusions. To give humans the sole authority to set all moral and ethical standards can be dangerous. A higher, more pure and righteous authority is still essential, even in the 21st century. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. Humans destroyed fellow humans in unfathomable ways. And, we see it happening in the present age as well. So what is the answer to this mess? Certainly, there are no easy answers. But is a renewed Christian Church part of the answer? I could only imagine.
As I look back on my own parenting career, I sometimes feel pretty deflated. My kids are resistant to having a spiritual dimension in their lives at least in part because of my imperfect modeling. Their dad was for most of their growing years a pastor, a minister of the Gospel. But it was not always good news for them. Legalism, hypocrisy, and inconsistency were their companions as they grew up in the Church. I can’t say there were not some good times – in fact, there were some extremely good times. But in spite of this, my children question the purpose of the church, and at times even a belief in God. Is this normal? Probably. If we lived in the 16th century, would it be different for them? We will never know for sure. My hope is that one’s personal journey is always fraught with a multitude of experiences and that sometimes a secular journey just might end up going in a spiritual direction.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007)
 Ibid., 3.
 Phillip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (NY: Knopf, 2002)
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) 159.
9 responses to “A Better Social Imaginary?”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Bill, thanks for sharing your personal stories and making this text “close to home.” Having done campus ministry for a lot of years, I’ve come to understand that even the best parents can have rebellious children (which kept me very humble and prayerful as a parent). But, your question is a good one…would a young person in the medieval times have ever chosen to NOT follow the faith of their parents or the given church of their community. Likely not. But two issues come from this: What would that faith have been? It would have probably given structure and general meaning to life, but would that medieval person have truly met Jesus and felt a sense of hope and purpose. Likely not. Also, what alternatives were available? There wasn’t anything that came close to meeting the needs and issues faced in that day accept faith and church. Today, as Taylor will get more into in the second half of his book, the nova effect – the plurality of choices is huge. As you talked about in your post, the coming of individual authority comes opportunity for so many possible roads to go. It does make it less likely that all our children will follow our path today…but when they do choose to follow the path we are on, might we hope that it is for something real and vital, not just because mom and dad did it? Young people may chose other ways, but I find that their childhood faith is never lost…it is something that haunts them and I believe God uses to draw them back! There is always cause for hope!
You are regularly in my prayers!
I concur with John’s thoughts above, Professor. You’ve brought this reading into so very fragile personal space. Thanks for continuing to model this kind of transparency for us. You make a statement here regarding Grotius’ comments and the aftermath of the 30 Years War: “When one has been let down by an authority, it makes sense to find another one, a more dependable one.” Following that line of thinking we can see society move from one form of authority to another over the age that has followed. Perhaps, we so fragmented the idea of authority that there we can legitimately recognize a lack of central authority among us – leaving us all to figure out our own way. Hopefully, it’s here that we as a society, and more specifically, your children, will rediscover the presence of God, which has never left.
Thanks for your insightful comments.
Yes, there is always hope. And, yes, God’s presence has never left my children. That is an important and comforting thought. I do pray that God would make Himself real to my kids, and to me, and to all of us — in His time and in His way. He can certainly do that. I will keep you posted.
I don’t really see my kids as rebellious as much as “real.” Both of them have their own stories that warrant some skepticism. But I pray that they would eventually see God even in the midst of hypocrisy and craziness. Just because there are fake Christians out there does not mean that God is any less real. But sometimes that certainly makes it hard to see clearly. Thanks for praying for this. You are a good friend. I do have hope.
Bill, it is great to read your post which I appreciate because of the realness. Charles Taylor has become one of my favorite authors and I have been motivated to think through certain notions differently. One of them, you have raised in your post in the question, “Why is it that many times children raised in Christian homes end up choosing to leave the sacred and enter a more secular existence?” There are scholars at Fuller who have done extensive studies in this area. I send you some of there information. I have also long pondered on the aspect of “choice”. Do children choose to live their parent’s particular and contextual ways of understanding when it comes to some applications and decisions to life while still giving of themselves to God in their peculiar and individual ways? Should there be further inquiry into the idea of “choice or choosing God” per se, in contrast to God pursuing humanity and thus God finding human being? I sometimes wonder who is the hunter and who is the hunted?
These are some of the thoughts your post spiked in my mind. Thank you Bill!
I look forward to seeing that research; please send it to me. It also might be interesting to Carol, as she is researching that kind of thing.
I understand my children’s thinking. They are not phony people and will not pretend that they are Christians — whatever that means. They are real human beings who, now in their 30’s will have to figure out these faith issues on their own. The best I can do is to love them and be true to myself with them. It is not my place to preach at them or to judge them. I love them both so much.
Your questions, “But how does that look? What do you do in this new secular age?” is something that churches and pastors constantly ask. Churches need to get outside of their walls and interact with the people that don’t act or look like those inside of the church walls. Too many Christians only want to be around people who are like themselves. The last church where I served was what I call a “country club church.” Several of the older parishioners did not like nor welcome individuals who did not act or dress they way they think people in church should do. My question is how can we get Christians to engage with their communities in ways that help them to understand those on the “outside” of the church walls. They can’t just venture out to do outreach, but they need ways to immerse in the culture.
Good comments. Thanks for them. If you haven’t read Ron’s post yet, I think you will find it refreshing. He is asking the same questions and wrestling with the same dilemmas that you pose here. You are absolutely spot on; we need to get into public spaces and out of church spaces. Perhaps this is why some of our readings have been on just that, public theology.
I am with you. Christians are often too comfortable being with people who are just like themselves. We need to be with others who are not like us. Frankly, that is one of the reasons I left full-time ministry. I like teaching in a college setting better since I am around people who have beliefs not at all like mine. I like this. It has made me a better person, and I believe, a more realistic Christian.
Bill, thank you for your post and for sharing your hope…”My hope is that one’s personal journey is always fraught with a multitude of experiences and that sometimes a secular journey just might end up going in a spiritual direction.” I couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps our children have “stepped out of church” but they have not left God and certainly God has not left them. Perhaps their secular journey will give the stronger roots in their spiritual journey. Thanks, Bill…hoping with you, friend!