Do you ever read the end of a book whilst you are reading the same book? Reading Modern Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor I did just that. Recently those of us in this DMin (Doctor of Ministry) program were asked to reflect on how we would accomplish our mission and vision. Rather than approach it from the present and planning for the future, we were challenged to apply the Merlin exercise. To see the present from the future as Merlin did in King Arthur’s Court. The process captivated me anew. I am in the final third of life. The time before me is much less than the years behind me. Chronos time feels more condensed, I feel a greater awareness to make time count, because it does. All the while I want to abide in kairos time – the right time to act.
Reading the end of Modern Social Imaginaries I knew I needed to pay attention to the past, my past and my history just as Taylor sought to tell the modern forms of social imaginary by focusing on Western history. Taylor ended the book where he began. His “foundational hunch is that we have to speak of ‘multiple modernities,’ different ways of erecting and animating the institutional forms that are becoming inescapable.” How does this correlate? What are my impressions?
By choice I am reading one of the textbooks for a George Fox Seminary course I facilitate. I was surprised (and pleased) to discover that one of the authors for A Many Colored Kingdom is someone I knew from church many years before, Gary Parrett. Reading Gary’s story from the late 1970’s and early 80’s was sobering. He was describing our church. He was describing me. “Having seen, for the first time, expressions of the faith in other cultures, I began to see how the faith had taken root in my own cultural context. My home church was made up of people who were white, suburban or rural Americans, and, almost uniformly, politically conservative.” My perspective, shaped as it was by modernity had put God into a box that was quite American-centric. Relating this to Taylor, Parrett described the way in which we imagined our surroundings, how we viewed self and others. Family was paramount. “We had wrapped God up in the red, white, and blue and weekly served him up with a slice of mom’s apple pie.”
This formed my sense of moral order and informed my lens through which I understood my world. Unbeknownst at the time this portion of my history included practices that were both material and self-conceptional modes of understanding. Looking back from the present I recognize a gradual and persistent movement. Taylor referred to social embeddedness as a related to identity, “the inability to imagine oneself outside a certain matrix.” My sense of identity was reinforced in the church community Parrett described. Reflecting on a women’s prayer group his Korean wife attended (one I am pretty certain I was involved with) he wrote, “Members of the group assumed that wherever the United States was involved around the globe, it was always and invariably in the right. Its interests were, apparently, always noble and pure. Americans could be sure that God is on our side.” As an individual my identity and my social imaginary were truthfully recognized. Taylor’s reflection on the emerging and changing perspective of civility was ringing in my ears. Yet in some way I know now that our conception of civility was somehow tied to “spiritual recovery and the rescue of civil order.” Rather than stay within the confines of my then church community I now have a sense not only what I would have been like if I had stayed, I also know what I am like because I did not. This did not come quickly, nor did it come easily.
As an intuitive others shaped my identity in a very real sense through perception and dialogue. Through the years I have become a self-differentiated individual, one who has her own opinions, attained a relationship with God and knows her conversion experience. I have had to learn to rethink and have my framework re-ordered. The re-framing began when I stepped into the work world and re-encountered the “world.” I went from having all Christian friends to spending a majority of my day with people outside my church circle. In time I had the opportunity to come to George Fox Seminary. In one of my first classes I was given a new perspective, one that saw American Christianity from outside the U.S. My social imaginary was rocked.
We are, as Taylor referenced, founding and refounding. I find myself recognizing the progression, the development and in moments the circular aspects of our social imaginaries. Each aspect he identifies is a springboard for thought and writing, whether it is understanding the underpinnings and progression of economics, the evolving public sphere, or our understanding of sovereign self. Reading Modern Social Imaginaries has provided deepening comprehension to my own actions and what has influenced me over time. I would like things to be clear and linear. Taylor strategically started and ended with an assertion that there are multiple modernities. If I had not read these words early on I doubt I would have been attune to the words I read about my home church. I might not have reflected on where I was and where I am. “With the realization that these differences matter comes the humbling insight that there is a lot that we don’t understand, that we lack even the adequate language to describe these differences.” It seems we are bound to strive for moral order, the evolving of individual rights and freedom. Yet within the complexities of multi-modernities it seems that somehow embedded within humanity is this desire, one Taylor described almost against all hope, a multi-form world will “emerge in order and peace. Then the real positive work, of building mutual understanding can begin.” My transition to learn from others, to endeavor to not be American-centric in my posture invites me to glean from our reading.
 Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, S. Steve Kang & Gary A. Parrett, A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation. (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2004), 45.