I am a secularized Christian captivated by mystery. My ‘thin spaces’ are found in art, incense, bread and wine, and cement floors dappled with the light through stained glass windows. On the other hand, I feel like there can be no transcendent without exploring they ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of human thought and motivation. The 70s and 80s were my formative years, where I learned that individualism is king and both obedience and rebellion were all about what’s best for me.
In my education I have read thousands of pages of philosophy, drinking in the explanations of why we are who we are and why we do what we do. Having said that, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has to be in the top three philosophy reads of my life. It will probably take me a decade to digest his response to the question, “Why is it so hard to believe in God in (many milieux of) the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?” For over 700 pages, Taylor explores how we in the West have moved from a society where the existence of God was rarely doubted, to a society where the existence of God is rarely believed. The way he weaves how the church and theologians took part in this transition fascinated me. How often do we think we are ‘standing up’ for the gospel, when in fact we are ripping tiny tears in its validity?
I think the most uncomfortable thing about Taylor is that his exploration reflected back to me the way religion has slowly been released from my life. It’s not the release of religion that unsettles me – my faith is firmly intact – but rather the ease with which it happened. There were no societal check points or pressures to keep me in community with the religion of my youth. I went from not being able to skip church on Wednesday or Sunday (morning AND evening) unless I was bleeding from my eyeballs (thanks mom and dad) to walking out of the doors of my home church without looking back and wandering in and out of others in some vain attempt to see if God still inhabited a building. Even as I write that I can feel my grandmothers bristle from the grave. Faith without community is selfish, they would say – and they would be right – but it’s just so easy for each of us to do our own thing. Taylor tells me why, but what I really wanted from him was the answer to “what now?”
Last week, I mentioned that I had a sneaking suspicion that love lays at the heart of the remedy. The nagging question of what do we do to introduce our secular society to the majesty and mystery of God has its teeth firmly imbedded in the back of my mind. Taylor’s remark, “The immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent. But it isn’t necessary to do so,” has stuck with me this week. I can’t imagine life without the deep love of God drawing me and healing me and sustaining me, but how can I share that with a society of people who see God as an optional belief?
I think the answer to the question is that neither I nor you can really do or say anything to convince others that God exists and is essential. Reading Taylor’s stories about “conversions” in chapter 20, I noticed that the people people who were converted experienced something supernatural that no human could manufacture or really even explain. Taylor mentions John Wesley, someone who I readily identify with. He did everything “right” theologically (well, except when he was kind of a jerk, but I digress), but it wasn’t until his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ that he was transformed. It was the same with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and Terese of Liseaux. It wasn’t theology or preaching or study that changed them, but the supernatural work of the Spirit. For that matter, the people I know who have experienced conversion (including my own husband) were not drawn to Jesus by sermons or lessons, but by a deep work of the Spirit in the midst of people of faith who loved them and held space for them.
I know this is all sort of simplistic in light of the epic depth of Taylor’s tome, but I’m starting to think that, for this age, we need to take a new look at what Jesus meant by “making disciples.” In the age of the early church, it made sense to approach making disciples the way Paul and Peter and the others did it. In the 1500s, it made sense to explain the God that everyone knew existed, baptize babies born into a world where no one even considered a need for conversion, and teach people to teach people to teach people. Now, though, I think we need to pay close attention to whether we are living transformed lives and whether we are loving and making space for people to encounter the Spirit. We need to follow the Spirit around like hungry puppies looking to be filled, and to watch carefully where the Spirit is moving to introduce the transcendent, loving, and all-encompassing God to people who, until they have the Spirit encounter, really could not care less. Once the Spirit makes the introduction, we need to be ready to feed the wonder – to make disciples – and engage their minds with visions of God’s shalom that brings wholeness to their lives and to all of creation. When they come to be baptized, it should not be about the sinners prayer but about one of the Bride of Christ approaching her Groom with the joy, anticipation, and realization that this is a commitment to a transformed life.