Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Get On Board!

Written by: on January 17, 2019

Charles Taylor, though long winded and tangential, discusses profound and contemplative concepts of secularism in his text A Secular Age.  His thesis is not new – in fact Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, presented similar thoughts about disenchantment as a result of the reformation.  Taylor adds value to Weber’s initial thesis by further exploring disenchantment in the post-Christian era. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the Taylor/Smith literature assignment.  Smith’s text, How (Not) to Be Secular, is a condensed and concise recap of Taylor’s ramblings.  My greatest assumption prior to delving into these texts was that the authors would take on secularism as the “downfall of humanity” or “all that is wrong in today’s world”.  And to be honest I dreaded a negative book.  Instead, Smith writes of Taylor’s epiphany that “today’s secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion—although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined—but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.”[1]

In my desire to better understand and internalize Taylor’s concept of secularism and humanism (as interpreted by Smith) I needed to explore my own beliefs and behaviors.  Have I fallen victim to humanism?  Am I more concerned with fulfilling my own happiness and desires, all the while orchestrating it through personal choice and personal strength?  Maybe?  Maybe not?  You see, I encourage this with clients in my role as a mental health therapist in this secular world…walk the journey of finding your identity (who am I) and meaning (what is my “place” in this world) so that you can be true to yourself.  Sounds humanistic, eh?  (A shout out to our Canadian author, Taylor).  The key words here are identity and meaning – and they are not necessarily separated from God.  Exploring the tension between spirituality and secularism is definitely worth the investment of time and thought.  And as a Christian, it’s on ME to sift through all my spiritual and religious options, hang-ups, research, theorists, secularists, etc. in this secular world to land boldly on Jesus.  Maybe God has perfectly ordained this time in history – filled with options, distractions, and the need to critically think – as a precursor to an even deeper lived faith…???!!!

One deeper way to live faith is highlighted by James Smith in an interview with Timothy Keller “In my tradition, for all the right reasons, we emphasize systemic structural transformation. That’s important. In the same way, the civil rights movement had to change laws. But on the other hand, I think we’ve seen all kinds of evidence that you also need to be transforming the agents who inhabit those structures and systems and laws. What disappoints me when people despair about the marginalization of the church is that they’ve decided that the present is an indicator of the future. But that doesn’t seem like a kind of expectation. It’s not logic.”[2]  Smith is spot on when he pinpoints the disconnect between structural transformation and agent transformation.  There are so many palpable examples in today’s (and by today I mean January 2019) world.  And here they are as connected to marginalized and oppressed populations:

  • African Americans…The Civil War officially abolished slavery, but it didn’t end discrimination against African Americans. Today they continue to endure the devastating effects of racism every day in the forms of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural dominance, and violence.[3]  Here’s a relevant example from TODAY…CNN headline Inside the GM plant where nooses and ‘whites-only’ signs hung (this happened in Toledo, Ohio https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/16/us/gm-toledo-racism-lawsuit/index.html)
  • Women…In 1920 the constitution was ratified to allow women the right to vote. “Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution.”[4] And today?  Women still struggle for pay equity (equality in the workplace), the right to control their own body, equity in representation, and equity in domestic tasks.
  • Immigrants…“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus” was written as a tribute to the Statue of Liberty – an iconic national symbol to welcome the immigrants arriving in the United States, then and now. Somehow, through the years, immigrants have become targets of xenophobia and racism even though laws exist to allow for asylum and resettlement.  Instead of embracing immigrants (as our ancestors once were) the country has created a culture of hostile, anti-immigrant social and political climate.

I share these three examples of marginalization to lend evidence and support to James Smith’s proposal that systemic structural transformation does nothing to change the “agents” who inhabit the structures, systems, and laws.  Clearly laws and rules do not change the heart.  Perhaps this is the very opportunity Charles Taylor refers to after his lengthy reflections… “We are, instead, moving toward…a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years.”[5]  Finding self-identity and life meaning can be spiritually intertwined with advocating for a heart change for self and others “people are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.”[6]  I, for one, plan to get on board!  Will you?

[1] http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674026766

[2] https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/catechesis-for-a-secular-age/#

[3] http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/structural_analysis_oppression.pdf

[4] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=63

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/opinion/brooks-the-secular-society.html

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/opinion/brooks-the-secular-society.html

About the Author

Jean Ollis

10 responses to “Get On Board!”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    Jean this is awesome! Focusing in on the dynamic between systemic and individual/agent transformation is a conversation that needs to enter more fully into the public square. It is always revolving around policy instead of culture. The plight of African Americans in today’s world, as you said, has less to do with laws and more to do with hearts. Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Policy work is always about strategy, where culture work is about values, sensibilities, artifacts, symbols and relationships. I wonder why in today’s climate, the folks in Washington (I use that phrase symbolically for all of us who participate in active civic engagement) always and only talk about laws, when no one is helping guide our nation in terms of our identity and values. Or, really, it’s as though our nation needs to ask ourselves the questions you ask your clients: “Who are we and what are we here for, as a nation.” We have lost the identity conversation amid the shouting match. Here’s a question for you the therapist – Can a nation as a whole take on the personality disorder of its primary leader? I think Friedman would argue ‘yes,’ which means that we are all in danger of becoming narcissists now!! No!!!

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Chris! Thanks for your feedback! What a challenging question you pose…and to some extent the answer is probably yes, for awhile. As a “respected” leader in a “respected” position, people will organically be drawn to him and his modeled behaviors. It will take those individuals experiencing their own consequences from behaving in those distorted ways to change course. We can only hope the next two years will lead to some turnabout in how some Christians interpret this leader as Godly and impactful.

  2. Dan Kreiss says:


    Great post as always. I was captivated by your recognition that in your professional life you help others through the use of humanism, even if that is utilized through your own Christian lens. I also always appreciate your ability to bring a text to work for you and your area of interest as you did with your examples. I wonder when you think about getting ‘on board’ as you say what that might look like? Also, how might you encourage others to get on board in a way that provides them some measure of meaning and purpose and potentially opens them up to experiencing something of the transcendent.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Dan! Thanks for challenging questions…I feel like Christians can “get on board” through becoming apolitical and focusing on their own heart through the lens of Jesus and by focusing on others’ hearts as well. There should also be a sense that we reject hateful rhetoric towards anyone all the way from ourselves to our highest leader. Idealistic I know!

  3. Excellent post, Jean!

    Secularization has certainty created a multiplication of choice and adaptation. I too was surprised by Taylor’s definition of secular. I found it refreshing that Taylor and Smith chose to bridge the gap between these two worlds and challenge us to see the vacillation in our own lives and the lives of those around us. They sought to tear down the generalized branches of belief and unbelief and challenge us to be honest with our own doubt.

    You mention, “Finding self-identity and life meaning can be spiritually intertwined with advocating for a heart change for self and others…” I love how you create a duality of the spiritual and the practical in your previous statement. Scripture reveals that faith and works must go hand-in-hand – they must form a partnership in order to reveal the purpose and position of Christ.

    Taylor talked about the temptation of stoicism leading to Deism and then exclusive humanism? How do we prevent that in today’s ministry context? How do we remain pragmatic in our purpose and open in our quest towards Christ?

  4. Greg says:

    The choices that seem to be abundant and the paths to personal faith and peace seem to be growing not always in healthy ways. Navigating those choices as a leader has sometime become problematic. Especially as the voices of western Christians become contradictory. Jean I appreciated the journey though some beginning of major shifts in our society and the ongoing struggle for (what should be) godly outcomes. How we navigate some of these shifts and how we respond to the crisis of faith or crisis of worldly needs shape the way we see the world. I am at a place that I don’t even know the questions to ask…not even sure how to move forward if discussing western political topics that I believe are spiritual issues but have been used in divisive ways. Thanks for the journey.

  5. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks, Jean!
    Yes, trying to get on board. Mostly treading water. Talk to you soon 🙂


  6. Excellent post as usual Jean! Very thought provoking and beautifully vulnerable. To your question…”Finding self-identity and life meaning can be spiritually intertwined with advocating for a heart change for self and others “people are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.” I, for one, plan to get on board! Will you?” YES, I am on board with heart change in order to change me and be a greater and more effective activist. I am inspired by my fellow Social Worker!!! 🙂

  7. Trisha Welstad says:


    Identity and meaning are where I begin in discipling and I think they can be used in secular ways but are totally oriented in the truth of God. Thanks for delving in.

    Yes and YES to the quote by Smith on transforming agents who inhabit the systems and structures and laws toward change. I am going to copy this whole quote as it is so important and illustrative of the need of denominations to inhabit their own policies. I am thinking specifically of my research paper last semester and that I wrote about belonging for women and people of color but the missing link has been equity established through practice. And, when we don’t create equity to live out our practice we end up being any old thing…namely secular, and potentially drifting into all sorts of abhorrent practices (such as what you wrote of as examples). This all makes me sick and on fire for living the gospel in a fully-embodied way through systems as well.

  8. Kyle Chalko says:

    Good job Jean. I love that you stopped and checked yourself for humanism. It’s so easy to point everywhere else first. I think I need to become more aware of my own goggles. Admittedly I’m sure there are more secular hints than I am aware of.

Leave a Reply