Philosophical Ethnography: A Life Happens Post
To believe or not to believe?
Life is full of opportunities to believe or not to believe. We face it every day. If you open social media or if you follow news sources, there is a constant struggle to
know where to put your trust for information. James Smith in his book, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, constructs a book to explain a book about the Secular Age. Charles Taylor’s daunting tome is a very intimidating book even though it is a monumental work. Taylor’s purpose is writing this book is to look at what happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith even for the staunchest believers, is only one human possibility among others. the digression of a society’s belief in God. His outlook is not that this happened all at once or that it dissolved. Instead the secular world has embraced a myriad of ideas and thoughts about belief that has diluted into a belief in multiple spiritual things. This “cliff notes” approach of James Smith is very helpful in “eating the elephant” by making this a bite size approach.
The jumping in point brings up language that I have heard before. Ethnography is a word that we have explored in the arena of the visual. Philosophical ethnography is a close look at the results of the everyday and even closer look at the world we inhabit. It is an adventure in self-understanding, a way to get our bearings in a secular age, whoever we might be: believers or skeptics, devout or doubting. These words are repeated by Smith as he starts to unpack this information. What is the landscape of our society? What does it truly look like? As he starts to explore the thoughts and concepts the word believe or belief become a part of this language.
Let me highlight a few that caught my attention on belief.
We don’t believe instead of doubting, we believe while doubting. This principle is powerful in exploring God and belief in him. The challenge of exploring the decline of the spiritual and the rise of the secular causes lots of emotions, thoughts and passions. This topic stirs the soul and statements of belief may not always have researched facts to be built upon. To pinpoint where faith has taken steps away from God and has placed belief and or faith in human reasoning instead causes emotional response. This can cause us to get into the “fog of fraudulence.”
Exploring the conditions of belief: a shift in the plausibility conditions that make something believable or unbelievable, develops our view of what is or isn’t secular. Because of this indifference toward belief and the drift toward secularism, unbelief has become the major default option. When there is a digression of a society from one point of view to another then there must be defaults. We will just go with this thought or this idea because we are being told this is what is happening and where the trend is going.
What happens when we fixate on expressions of belief rather than conditions of belief. 
“Subtraction stories” is a piece of language that Taylor uses to attribute everything to disenchantment. Science gave us “naturalistic” explanations. Then people started to look for alternatives to God. Secular terms are also introduced to change the language.
The greatest extent of the subtraction story with the fading of God’s presence in all three domains made us look afresh for alternative possible reference points for fullness. The transfer of God’s power to our own power was the natural progression. Humanism points us toward ourselves and away from God. So the subtraction of the story forms the truth and pushes us toward opinions.
Belief is explored
Subtraction stories are added
Humanism is championed and God is in decline.
Secularism is the new world order and God is a point of reference for a few who still believe that way.
The world is different than it was but the principles and the word of God says that He never changes and he stays the same and relevant no matter other people’s opinions or the world’s opinion.
This progression is very intriguing.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is a life happens week. I have overbooked myself and time is not on my side to write something completely. I have emailed Jason and he asked me to at least post something of my thoughts. These are incomplete thoughts. Thanks for your grace and mercy toward the lack of depth and clear communication. I leave for a student retreat tomorrow afternoon after our morning service. Hopefully wifi will allow me to connect on Monday with you. I will be at Sky Ranch in Quapaw, Oklahoma, so we will see.
 James K.A. Smith, How(Not) to be secular: Reading Charles Taylor, (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014) Introduction.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., ix.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 20.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard, 2007), 26.
9 responses to “Philosophical Ethnography: A Life Happens Post”
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As always, thanks for your transparency. It is refreshing! One question, easy for you, in light of our readings this semester do you see this as you work with students or are you seeing something different?
I do see this in our community, a decline from spirituality over the past 23 years that I have been a part of Owasso. But when I got here there were 12 churches in town, now there are 60 plus churches. So, does that mean a decline into the secular age? Or does it mean that at least in this part of the world that something is growing? As far as students go, I have the opportunity to invite them to be a remnant of faith. I haven’t given up on the front lines just yet and will continue to persuade students to follow Jesus with their lives. Amazingly they are looking for something spiritual in the midst of all of their secular. I can’t explain it but God has put me in a very fertile field for the gospel.
First, I don’t think you need to apologize to us for having an over-booked week. All of you who have actual jobs amaze me that you can keep up with this program at all.
Given your week, I don’t think I’ll ask questions that require a direct answer. I will simply say that as we study cultural transitions, I will always be interested in anything you can show us from your work with students, as those who are growing up in this milieux.
The things you were able to highlight – especially comments about subtraction stories – were helpful.
We have just wrapped up the first night of our winter camp at 1:00am. So I thought I would reply as I prepare for another incredible day.
Our students haven’t sunk into the secular age yet. They are out of Christian homes, home school Christian homes and they are out of the worst environments in the world. I have the complete mix and amazingly enough they haven’t all slid into the secular mire. They are searching for something spiritual and on this retreat weekend I have students from the whole range and they were seeking God and listening as I invited them to respond to God.
They did…..for almost two hours without the hype of music and the pentecostal altar events. This was a introspective weekend to look at who are they holding on to. Eli’s sons thought the “box” ( the arch of the covenant) would save them. Instead they go down in history as the idiots that lost God in the battle. They thought the box was the answer instead it is a relationship with the God of the box. I know I just got preacher on you but they understood the analogy and responded with soul searching to find God.
If God can speak to Samuel then why not today.
So in comparison to the Secular age, there is still a powerful God searching for a remnant that will seek him.
We are this weekend.
Good blog and great to see you for a few brief moments Friday. When it comes to doubting, I think the church has not been a safe place to ask questions. Do you think that can contribute to a secular society?
Beautiful update on your building.
I believe that the culture of a youth group has to do with the openness of the leader. Things I used to react to I now respond to. So if you can get over the shock value, you can have the real conversation.
For instance I spoke at our Wired club for 7th graders about starting strong. Giving your best effort and believing God will help you. After this a young lady comes in to tell me her story. It is a story of being abandoned and she asks me if she can start strong from that vantage point.
The whole story was heart breaking, but somehow through current language that is loaded with Biblical principles I was able to have a conversation on another level. She figured out that I cared enough to let me know what was going on in her life.
So to say all of that to say this. If you church it up the conversations and interaction can be completely closed off.
If you can find common language to communicate the truth then any conversation is possible.
Jesus did this through parables and open ended questions. I am attempting to do the same thing.
Great insight. Your conclusions are close to my reactions of Taylor. The progression of secularization, outlined by Taylor, that leads to extreme humanism that leads to a loss and need of the the transcendent Savior.
How do we get on the other side of Taylor’s diagnosis? Do you feel that Taylor has overstated or understated the present reality?
Taylor is very upfront of his thoughts. I don’t believe that “everyone” is going secular. Remember that argument with your parents? But mom, but dad, EVERYONE is getting to go, EVERYONE is doing this, EVERYONE?
That conversation always ended badly for me. My mom would point out that since I wan’t going to be doing what I was asking about then everyone was not doing it.
I think that is the overstatement. Absolutes of his premise. There is still a church. There is still people who are Christians authentically. Not fake but truly serving God. This is where the intelligence community puts together so many assumptions that it must be truth. Or they research and declare this as the way it is.
Fortunately, there are many exceptions to the rule as I see it. Out town of the past 23 years has gone from 12 churches to over 60. This spiritual growth has happened as the community has grown. So is it more secular or is it more spiritual?
I believe that everything is worth a fight and that writing off what God has said he is going to do is foolish. Jesus is still the answer.
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