DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Secular Age: The Choice is Yours (But Not Really)

Written by: on January 18, 2018

Throughout history we’ve seen the dichotomy of the younger generation resisting or rejecting the ways of the previous generation, both within families and society as a whole. There’s always some pushback as well as some “younger” folks who gravitate and affirm the ways of the elders. In a sense, we are in the midst of a mega-generational shift, or, as Charles Taylor suggests, an entire shift of ages. It’s not a snowball individual gathering strength rolling downhill (me versus my parents), or even an avalanche of a generational shift (the 60s counterculture), but a massive upheaval of a giant iceberg breaking off an ice shelf, bobbing out of the water and flipping over (the Age of Authenticity, or a Secular Age).

History has flowed from what Taylor terms the ancien régime[1] to the Age of Mobilization[2] to where we are in the present, the Age of Authenticity.[3] While I’m interested in comparing the various ages, how the idea of “secular” has been understood in each, and some of the clashes occurring in the transition between one social imaginary and the next, I primarily want to focus on understanding our current age, in order to engage better with those in my community.[4]

Much of the Age of Authenticity has been portrayed with hyper individualism, or self-expression for the masses (beyond the elite and intellectuals), or “that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside.”[5] This is manifested, for instance, in “the consumer revolution”[6]. Taylor’s description of this need for the (individual) pursuit of happiness via consumption aligns with Heath and Potter’s primary thesis in The Rebel Sell and Miller’s Consuming Religion.[7]

While this shift has eroded community and the “mechanical” or structural systems that have maintained community (especially the institution of church), I do not believe this is inherently bad, but has mixed effects. (Taylor posits that this shift is neither solely good nor bad; for instance, “people discovered the hard way that there were dangers as well as liberation in throwing over the codes of their parents”[8]—especially in the sexual revolution). What the church is challenged to rethink in this secular age is the assumption of a mechanical system over against the organic nature of the church (“religion” vs. “Jesus-follower”). Thus creativity and imagination would take precedence over imitation and predictability. The instrumental, rote, and trivialization of church practices give way to experiential moments of passionate, holistic (whole-body), and personal meaning.

The reality is that “choice” is not going away anytime soon. How do we respond to that? Churches can recognize that “one’s path [of personal spiritual development] can range through those which require some community to live out… but it can also range beyond those which require only the loosest affinity groups.”[9] In other words, people may or may not be seeking their personal fulfillment through being a part of a community. For those who do desire fulfillment through community, discipleship or external tools for transformation may be resisted: “the need to train character has receded even farther into the background, as though the morality of mutual respect were embedded in the ideal of authentic self-fulfillment itself.”[10]

Another characteristic of this age is collective “moments of fusion,” where a crowd becomes a common agent, sharing, not so much a common action, but “an emotion, a powerful common feeling.”[11] These festive moments occur at rock concerts and sporting events, women’s marches and meta-topical spaces (ie. hashtags and memes). I suggest that these moments of “collective effervescence” and shared feeling are what draw people to large concert-style worship services. I am part of something bigger than myself (a sense of fullness) and it moves me. Others, though, may choose to follow the more contemplative experience, relying on intimacy and sensory approaches to the sense of fullness for their spiritual path.

Finally, so much of Taylor’s text is analogous to texts from last spring.[12] I’m primarily thinking here of a thread in our conversations on the Calvinist/ Puritan/Evangelical doctrine of assurance (à la Bebbington) that seems to perpetually underlie our spiritual quest.[13] Taylor suggests that we all vacillate between conditions of exile, absence or ennui (“the dark night of the soul”) and a place of fullness, a place, “activity or condition [where] life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.”[14] (To use other terms, perhaps “heaven”, shalom, the Garden of Eden, thin places, etc.). The reality, according to Taylor, is that most of our lives are spent in a middle place, between these two extremes (exile and fullness), with ordinary happiness and routine order. In this middle place, during earlier ages the emphasis was a “threat… attach[ed] to very clearly defined failures. Do this, or else (damnation will follow).”[15] This moral code of the previous ages emphasized “what we should do/and or… believe, to the detriment of spiritual growth.”[16] We’ve moved now to an emphasis on freedom to pursue (individual) happiness (without harming others), disconnected from institutionally ordained (or even “biblical”) checklists to affirm salvation.

We do a much better job of navigating change as outsiders looking in; but in this case we ourselves are in the midst—and products of—this secular age. It’s nothing to be frightened of, but rather to realistically face the implications for ourselves, our neighbors and churches, and the future.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 440. This is where where secular1 was dominant. Taylor also identifies this age as Durkheimian, or proto-Durkheimian, 442, 455.

[2] Ibid., 445ff. Secular2 prevailed; this age is characterized as having neo-Durkheimian social forms, 455.

[3] Ibid., 473ff. Secular3 aligns here; characterized as post-Durkheimian, 487.

[4] I do believe it’s important, thought, to understand the Age of Mobilization and secular2, especially when navigating with those of the previous generation (including my parents and the seniors of our church), and those of the current generation whose social imaginary remains in that paradigm (Taylor 488).

[5] Ibid., 475.

[6] Ibid., 474.

[7] Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture. The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, (Chichester: Capstone, 2006), 10. (Their book was published a year before Taylor’s; I’d be curious how/if they’d revise anything after reading A Secular Age.) cf. Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion : Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[8] Taylor, 502.

[9] Ibid., 490.

[10] Ibid., 485.

[11] Ibid., 482.

[12] I’ve already referenced The Rebel Sell and Consuming Religion above. See also Benedict Anderson on Imagined Communities (Taylor 713).

[13] See D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Routledge, 1989, 43ff.

[14] Taylor, 5.

[15] Ibid., 497.

[16] Ibid., 498.

About the Author

mm

Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

10 responses to “A Secular Age: The Choice is Yours (But Not Really)”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Katy, you make a excellent point when you highlight the “authenticity” trend. It can be used as a positive force for change but also as an excuse to do what one wants to do, no matter the impact on others or self. The phrase, “I’m just trying to be authentic,” has taken the place of, “I’m just being truthful,” or to go even further back in time, “I’m just trying to be real!” These phrases became the invisible cloak behind which one could hide from both reality and the truth. Great post Katy!

  2. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Thankfully we have moved on: “We’ve moved now to an emphasis on freedom to pursue (individual) happiness (without harming others), disconnected from institutionally ordained (or even “biblical”) checklists to affirm salvation.” I am grateful for the era and country I live in that gives me the freedom to believe what I want and to have the spirituality of my choosing. It is hard to believe there are numerous countries in this modern age that do not give their citizens this basic freedom.
    So, did you read the entire book? Was it all you expected? Hope you enjoyed it!

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      I DO still want to read the entire book (or at least all of Smith’s take on Taylor), but obviously only touched on points this week.

      I agree that I’m grateful to live in a country that lets us choose how (or if) to worship, as many nations do not share this freedom. However, I also try to remember that most other countries also share that same freedom to pursue personal spirituality. I’ve heard from too many people– not in your statement, because I don’t believe you’d agree with them– an inference that we are the *only* nation that has this freedom.

  3. Mary says:

    “What the church is challenged to rethink in this secular age is the assumption of a mechanical system over against the organic nature of the church (“religion” vs. “Jesus-follower”).”
    Katy, this goes along with Jen’s comments. I think it is a blessing to live in a day when we can thoughtfully assess our options and choose the path that makes us feel “authentic”.
    And I agree with you that we need to be courageous enough to evaluate the implications for our church and community.
    It’s time to stop “playing church” and get on with the mission of bringing love and peace to a hurting world.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Yes, and I believe that “church” must (and will) look very different in the next decades or so than it has in previous ages. We don’t need to fear that God is absent in the transition from age to age, but to recognize God’s presence (“doing a new thing”) at work within us.

  4. Lynda Gittens says:

    Katy,

    Thanks for the post. Your statement, “We do a much better job of navigating change as outsiders looking in; but in this case we ourselves are in the midst—and products of—this secular age. It’s nothing to be frightened of, but rather to realistically face the implications for ourselves, our neighbors and churches, and the future.”
    It is easy to challenge those that are not similar or in agreement with our views. We do need to be realistic and true to our truths and be transparent.

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I thought a lot about consumption and colonization while reading this text, Katy. It makes sense to me that while, as you mentioned, we “vacillate between conditions of exile, absence or ennui (‘the dark night of the soul’) and a place of fullness,” we also vacillate between conditions of consumption and austerity. Our Western culture seems to consume, whether in religion or the marketplace. When we are exposed to other cultures, we are forced to decide whether to shift our paradigm or to simply appropriate the things we think are cool. In churches, regardless of the tradition, I see this most when the Spirit is neglected, when “spiritual formation” makes people squeamish, and change is deemed heresy. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Secularization isn’t really the enemy here, but rather our inability (unwillingness?) to submit to the work of the Spirit is. If we as Christ followers did that and walked in the path of the Spirit, I’m have a feeling we would simply find new tools and paths in our secularized world.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Kristin, I love that wisdom and will be sharing it within my congregation, as we navigate what spiritual formation is, why it makes people queasy, and why, even though affirming “change”, it’s still hard for us. Submitting to the work of the Spirit, being open to God doing a new thing among us. Thanks.

      • Kristin Hamilton says:

        I am so grateful that there are leaders like you in churches who are willing to walk that tough road, Katy. I would love to talk more about this with you as you develop your ideas and curriculum!

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