Jesus is Still the Answer
My dear brother,
I finished a book this week that made me reminisce about our growing up years. The book is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor and it is long and wieldy, over 800 pages. I mostly skimmed this richly layered book but carefully and thoughtfully read the pages that address the historical and ontological problems we wrestled with as young Christians. How did our society end up so “secular”? What is reality? Is Jesus still the answer today?
Since you and I also enjoy history and philosophy as well as theology I thought that you might find Taylor’s ideas worth discussing with me. Just like Socrates we really enjoyed those dialogues that lasted far into the night, enhanced with many glasses of wine. We both have continued all our lives to search for the deeper things of God. The search for the answers is most of the fun!
Dr. Taylor gives us a broader understanding of secularization than the usual explanations of modernity or post-modernity – i.e. that the secular culture is one that increasingly leaves out God. The situation is more complex than that. In fact, Taylor claims religious attitudes have not only survived but in some places are on the rise. Religion and doubt both live in “cross-pressured” persons today.
Taylor believes that the modern secular society we have today can be traced to the Reformation. In the first part of his book he gives a history of the changes from the pre-modern (before the Reformation) understanding of how people saw themselves as embedded in a hierarchical, supernatural, “enchanted” world to a modern “disenchanted” understanding. This disenchantment came about when people traded “magic” and transcendence for scientific reason and immanence.
It is here that I did a lot of reflecting on our conversations about the Roman Catholic Church. We were both raised RC, we both left. I believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative word for my life and so I have stayed in a Reformed church. You have had a long journey and have recently rejoined the Roman Catholic Church. You even wrote a book about your journey where you say some pretty vituperative things about Luther and Calvin. I saw this ambivalence in Taylor’s book as well when he insists that Reformers were responsible for the disenchantment (taking away the mysteries) of Christendom and offered “a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery.” (p. 78) Taylor blames Calvin for many things that are not strictly true, leading me to believe that he is a better philosopher than historian. Or maybe like most of us he has his own presuppositions (he calls it ‘framework’) that show up in our writing.
But as far as “magic” goes, it is different than “mystery”. Frankly, Jerry, you know what I think about transubstantiation – and I think that the Reformers did not do away with “mystery” (that God is with us somehow in the Supper) – only the “magic” (that the host is really Jesus’ body). The whole triune Godhead is a mystery and Calvin certainly never did away with that.
To continue with Taylor, Christian ideas were further challenged by Deism and science. I agree with Taylor that originally men were studying science to know more about God’s creation but that the study of science mutated into a world view that increasingly left out God as Creator. For the secular humanists, scientific reason alone should govern. “Nature” is now governed by purposeless rules. But is nature really so cold?
Taylor says no; the warmth of beauty, art, music, and desires for meaning demonstrate that there is something higher than what is stifled in this immanent universe. While most moderns believe that the idea of a cosmos that could be transcended was old, antiquated and even superstitious belief, they feel some longings and perhaps the old belief system offered something beyond the mundane.
That is why Taylor says that secularization has not made complete atheists of everyone. It does not follow that there is a straight line from superstition to reason. Most people just live their everyday lives more concerned about the Super Bowl than phenomenology while things are going well. It is at times of particular evil, like war, that they begin to ask questions. If God is good and loving and all-powerful, then why is there suffering? This question – theodicy – is the one that kept us up so late in the night.
It is still one question that many ask – and not because they are so against God, but because they really want to know. I cannot answer the question but I can point to the God Who does.
Taylor assures us that the atheists and naturalists have their own philosophical conundrums to solve. Christians do not have to feel threatened but try to find an honest answer to the questions. You and I can agree that transcendence meets immanence in the life of our incarnated Savior. It is a mystery (not magic!).
What can we learn from this? Can we choose between the part about the “flourishing life” where we as individuals make our own decisions and at the same time dispense with the old autocratic monarchy with rules from somewhere outside of ourselves?
Why does it have to be either/or?
Our triune God shows us that there is a One and a Many. He is One but three Persons and the human beings that He created reflect Him. We can speak of universal feelings for love, beauty, and dreams. We can also love the fact that we are all unique individuals. This is definitely a “cross-pressured” way to live but any other way would be stifling or boring.
Taylor says that we need to return to an idea of community. I think that the church is made up of individuals who come together with all of their differences, shortcomings, and ideas about life to love and care for each other and then to go out and care for others. God’s rules provide the framework, but each community decides on the flesh and blood to hang on their ‘framework’.
One thing that you, my brother, and Taylor leave out is the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, He is very real. I can’t prove the Spirit to an atheist. Taylor gives credence to feelings as real, but it still does not answer the ultimate epistemological question – How do you know?
I really love our discussions. Not just for their own sake, but because we do live in a complex world. How will we address the issues of our times?
As an individual, I am concerned with how to witness in this country where the integrity of the Gospel is questioned. As part of a community, I am concerned with the Church’s response to nationalistic exclusivism and racial bigotry, greed and power struggles over money. What is our answer? I still believe that it is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord along with a clear understanding of what that means. Does our faith help us to join in God’s mission? Does faith “prove” that it is true when in the power of the Holy Spirit we go and minister to the widows, orphans, and strangers? I think it does.
10 responses to “Jesus is Still the Answer”
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Mary, want an interesting approach in discussing Taylor. I enjoyed your post. One thing that you pointed out early on and throughout your post is the longing for or searching for answers. I think this is the heart of secularism, looking for answers, but the past and present answers either seem to be disingenuous, not applicable or just don’t make sense. Thus, the turn inward for the answers. What we may have missed historically in the Evangelical church is that we focus on the point of salvation (if I may use Christianese) and after, but very little on the journey leading to the point of salvation. In today’s secular world, I think it’s important for the church to focus on the journey before as much as after—people are looking for answers on both sides of that salvation moment. Thanks for an interesting post, Mary!
Thank you, Mary for your thoughtful post. Yes, Taylor does leave out a very big element for the Christian believer: the power of the Holy Spirit. In an abstract way, I wonder if the enchantment or magic that he talks about can be secular terms for the power of God and His spirit? CS Lewis books come to mind as he references the good magic of Aslan and the evil magic of the Witch.
Did you really read the whole book? So very impressed.
Nice connection, Jennifer! I would add that it’s evident in Lewis’ space trilogy as well, the good and bad magic and presence of holy (angelic) beings.
You and your brother must’ve had some good wine when younger, if your conversations were as robust as you suggest here– I confess most of the conversations I had with my siblings revolved around the latest Bronco game. Beautifully and creatively crafted letter.
You are right to suggest that “magic” and “mystery” are not equated. If I remember my anthropology undergrad, magic is the sense of doing or saying the “right” things in order to control a deity or nature. Mystery simply suggests that what occurs is not fully within our frame of reference to understand.
I also think you touched on a/the key theme of the age we’re living in now: choice. “Can we choose between the part about the “flourishing life”… and at the same time dispense with the old autocratic monarchy…?” To live in our secular age is not to suggest we ourselves are “secular” (ie. opposed to God/faith), but that we are situated to choose to have faith/join a church/believe in God (etc.). This is very different than the modern and common definition of secular, which pits the concept AGAINST God/faith.
Holy Spirit? Yes, how does our understanding of the Holy Spirit get contextualized into this age? Perhaps in the EXPERIENCE of FULLNESS that Taylor develops, the sense/feeling of God with us. But I’d like to consider that more.
Thank you for a great interaction Katy. I appreciate what Jen said about ‘magic’. We all enjoy those Lewis and Tolkien stories. But when I see how some occult movies are also popular (I’m sacred to go to them) I wonder just what the popular notion of ‘magic’ is. You’re too young to remember “Bewitched”. It was a cute show but made me wonder just where the line is. I really appreciate your explanation.
Your statement “how to witness in this country where the integrity of the Gospel is questioned.”
I believe that in integrity is not with the Gospel but they ones that claimed to speak on it.
I love your view on Taylor’s perception. I felt that he wasn’t bringing anything new to the table but terminology. But he received great reviews, so what do I know?
You are so right, Lynda!! It’s our integrity that counts. Of course people are either going to believe or not and we could be the most spiritual Christian around and they could still reject the Gospel for other reasons. But I sure don’t want to be the reason. Jesus told us not to be stumbling blocks.
Thanks for pointing that out.
And I do agree that philosophers seem to have a way with just throwing a lot of words around. Having to stop and see how Taylor defines each and every word was a lot of work. One review of the book that I read said Taylor could have said the same thing in less than 200 pages.
This is a beautiful approach, Mary. Thank you for being transparent and opening your heart here.
I did not read the entire book (I’m so impressed that you did!) but I do think the “conversion” experiences Taylor alludes to in chapter 20 are completely Holy Spirit experiences. Katy so aptly described the difference between magic and mystery, and I think that many times we have succumbed to the idea of “magic” when we insisted on the correct wording of the sinner’s prayer. We answer the question “How do we know” with formulas rather than fruit because it’s less messy. But the truth is, anyone can say the words but it takes the indwelling Spirit to live the life.
Kristin thank you. You always are able to go so much deeper and you always give me more to think about.
For me as a person examining her Reformed faith I believe that you hit the nail on the head. We like our formulas – for some reason the ‘head’ knowledge has been placed in the supreme position. Combining this with ‘heart’ knowledge seems to be more Biblical. I know that my Reformed friends are scared to trust ‘feelings’. I sympathize, but we can’t prove the Holy Spirit exists other than with our fruit. I think Taylor had an emphasis on feelings to ‘prove’ the existence of God. I think we can go further and show that as you say the indwelling Spirit enabling us to live an ‘authentic’ Christian life is real.
Should be an interesting chat on Monday.
I can understand why your Reformed friends are cautious about feelings, Mary. Going off on our feelings or experience alone can be sketchy at best. I think you said it well about the authentic Christian life. Combining feelings and experiences with learning Scripture in community and through tradition makes sense. I don’t think the authentic Christian life can really happen alone.