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

“In a Way This Sounds Weird”

Written by: on February 20, 2015

We seem to be in an “age” where people give up something for a year or they do something for a year. In our recent past this has included a year of living biblically, a year of living like Jesus, and a year of biblical womanhood.[1] A recent incarnation of this “one-year” application was implemented by Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell who gave up God for one year to live as an atheist. For one year he did not pray, read the bible or refer to God as the source or hope for one’s circumstances, instead he read atheistic material.[2] At the end of his year he concludes, “I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.”[3] Reading briefly of Bell’s account it seems clear that his experience may have as much to do with his need to explore his faith and the perimeters of faith even more than it has to do with his deconstruction of faith.


We are, according to Charles Taylor presently living in A Secular Age where belief in God is no longer the spiritual center of reference of either self or the world, but rather an option. “The crucial change which brought us into this new condition was the coming of exclusive humanism as a widely available option.”[4] Ryan Bell illustrates the challenge of what is often our perception, one either believes in God or one does not. It is also the challenge of how secularism is understood. This is at once fascinating and frustrating. Taylor points out that secularism is not just the removal of religion from public space or a decline in belief or commitment[5] (which may just cause us to pursue all manner of efforts to fix the perceived problem of secularization). “How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naïvely within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?”[6]


What permits this option of unbelief or even more likely the probability that turns the tide where belief in God is less plausible? Two considerations (or realities) stand out: human flourishing and a “buffered self”[7] Humanity’s focus and intention is to flourish, it draws forth from and rests within our individuality. We can be self-sufficient with our goals focused upon human flourishing. Rather than our allegiance toward Someone our allegiance is only toward flourishing.[8] The buffered self is closely aligned and possible because of our self-sufficient individuality. Taylor describes the “buffered self” developed because we now have confidence in “our own powers of moral ordering.”[9]


But what does Taylor mean by buffering? It isn’t just our ability or our own powers, but what we might remove ourselves from, so that we are not impacted. In prior years we might attribute vulnerability to forces outside ourselves. One clearly sees in Scripture the understanding of an age where demons and spirits were a recognized influence and presence. Even today it is not uncommon to hear evangelical Christians refer to the “enemy” as opposing individual action or desire. The common denominator may be our vulnerability. The buffered self “can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”[10] Pertinent to my own personality[11] I understand all too well Taylor’s description that an ambition of the buffered self can be one of disengagement, an opportunity for self-direction and self-control[12] all with an aim to insulate from fear.


Taylor presents the story of A Secular Age in a narrative. As such there are twists and turns, backstories and inroads, intertwined linages incumbent upon predecessors challenge our perceptions and inclinations. The Reformation’s paramount orientation for God’s honor and glory as developed through the jurisdictional-penal atonement theory results in a loss of the significance and importance of the Eucharist.[13] Our sense of identity has morphed. Our sense of what is important is linked with who we are in relationship with, “it can be a love relations, or one to a hero, saint, guru, role model.”[14] Just watch the contestants on American Idol television show, the response of fans when their team loses the Super Bowl or when they win, or devotion to a particular saint. Who we hold up as heroes has both the quality of everyone and anyone even as there is a certain specialness reserved for only a few. Something we aspire to in our commitment to flourish.


Tellingly it is the “buffered self” that experiences the nova effect because the place of the spiritual in life has shifted.[15] “We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane.”[16] What is present is the need for a third way, as evidenced by “the growing category of people who while unable to accept orthodox Christianity are seeking some alternative spiritual sources.”[17] The rise of authors attempting to relate the Christian message or to relate to a God who may be Aloof, hiding in the darkness, or those who want to be Christian without the trappings of church seem to give testament to such seeking.[18]


“In a way this sounds weird”[19] might be my favorite quote from our book (hence the blog post title). I smiled when I read it. A Secular Age traces our path of buffering providing room for doubt and the glimmer of belief. It may indeed sound weird.


[1] Reference: A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically; Ed Dobson, The Year of Living Like Jesus; Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

[2] Carey Lodge, “Former Pastor Who Gave Up Religion for a Year: I Don’t Think God Exists” in Christianity Today, December 29, 2014. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/former.pastor.who.undertook.a.year.without.god.i.dont.think.god.exists/45077.htm. [Accessed February 19, 2015].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 21.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 18, 38.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid. 27.

[10] Ibid. 38.

[11] On the Enneagram scale I am a “9”, the Peacemaker. One of the tendencies I have to pay attention to is when I am challenged or sense a lack of being noticed is that I will withdraw.

[12] Taylor, 39.

[13] Ibid. 78-79.

[14] Ibid. 137.

[15] Ibid., 299.

[16] Ibid., 300.

[17] Ibid., 302.

[18] Reference: Tony Kriz, Aloof: Figuring Out Life With a God Who Hides; A.J. Swoboda, A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience; Kelly Bean, How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church.

[19] Taylor, 34.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

7 responses to ““In a Way This Sounds Weird””

  1. Deve Persad says:

    Carol, thanks for provoking some good thought with these words…The Secular Age story is significant and I appreciate your focus on the “buffering” that has become the norm in our culture. It seems as though we want adventure, but we want it to be predictable, which includes our relationships. You said: “Our sense of identity has morphed. Our sense of what is important is linked with who we are in relationship with…” Somehow, in some way we have lost the presence of God in our search for relationship, perhaps in part of our need for immediate gratification. In order to respond, are we to try and gallup with the culture or do we hang back but be present? What are the baby boomers going to say to that?

    • Deve…
      Such good thoughts and good questions. Quick answers: I don’t know. I think I feel the tension of the secular age in our understanding and expectation of retirement. I understand the point of waring out as one ages, the need for a change of pace, but our focus is on investments, retirement income and doing what we want. It’s the focus that challenges me. And somehow I think we do not understand the compromise that has taken place. No quick answers. 🙂

  2. Carol,

    Thanks for sharing here. It helped make Taylor’s book more understandable.

    What an interesting story about Ryan Bell. I wonder what would happen to each of us in our cohort if we took on such a challenge? I am sure there would be different results with each individual. In some ways, I have been on that journey already. But, thankfully, I keep bumping into God, His love, his grace. Perhaps that was not Bell’s experience. What a sad thought.

    If I were honest, I would have to admit that I am not “flourishing” in my spiritual life right now. But that does not stop me from believing in God and in the reality that somehow God is working in and through others in my life. Although I no longer am a card carrying evangelical, yet I have not thrown out the baby with the bath water — at least not yet. Perhaps it is no accident that I have stumbled upon Native-American spirituality studies this past couple of years. This study in the “Great Mystery” has been so helpful, even in the midst of my own doubts and thoughts. I am grateful to God for having discovered this beauty.

    • Bill…
      When we are finding the “old” paths no longer provide direction (or even the stability) for the way forward we have to embark on new paths, reorienting to God’s ways. I think we’re finding truth, perhaps not “all of the truth” but God is in this process with you and for you. I am grateful for this DMin journey. I am grateful that you have and are finding your path in God’s great mystery.

  3. Liz Linssen says:

    Hi Carol
    A great blog 🙂
    I appreciate where you wrote, “I understand all too well Taylor’s description that an ambition of the buffered self can be one of disengagement, an opportunity for self-direction and self-control[12] all with an aim to insulate from fear.”
    I wonder, what is it in us that desires to direct and be in control of our own lives? What is it that convinces us that we know better than God does for us? Personally, I have become convinced that I cannot do a great job in controlling my own life, and so need God to do that for me. What are your thoughts on this Carol?
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post 🙂

    • Hi Liz …
      Such a great question …. I think it is our “inclination” to want to rule our own life’s that may be the indicator of our life apart from God… what we have lost in not knowing what it is (or even wanting?) to be in relationship with God. I wonder if we are not to be in partnership with God in controlling our lives. There was a popular “country music” type of song that correlated our relationship with God as asking Jesus to take the wheel (of her car) and drive her. It has an element of truth, but I think the Lordship of Christ as to do with orientation, yielding (certainly) but the process of transformation, as I am coming to understand it, is to be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. We certainly do not do that all on our own, we yield and partner to the Spirit’s work in our lives, but we also have “work” to do to cooperate in that “conforming.”

  4. Miriam Mendez says:

    Carol, insightful post! This caught my attention… “Humanity’s focus and intention is to flourish, it draws forth from and rests within our individuality…Rather than our allegiance toward Someone our allegiance is only toward flourishing.” I wonder if this is the “look out for #1 mentality” or “we have to depend on ourselves to succeed.” Even our allegiance toward flourishing is not dependent on Someone else but in our own capacity and strength. It made me think about the church–perhaps spending a lot of time on how to develop the best programs, etc… that the church forgets why they even exist…or Who gave them their existence. It surely made me think about where is my allegiance – on my own goals or on the One who created me. Thanks for getting me thinking. BAM!

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