Charles Taylor, though long winded and tangential, discusses profound and contemplative concepts of secularism in his text A Secular Age. His thesis is not new – in fact Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, presented similar thoughts about disenchantment as a result of the reformation. Taylor adds value to Weber’s initial thesis by further exploring disenchantment in the post-Christian era. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the Taylor/Smith literature assignment. Smith’s text, How (Not) to Be Secular, is a condensed and concise recap of Taylor’s ramblings. My greatest assumption prior to delving into these texts was that the authors would take on secularism as the “downfall of humanity” or “all that is wrong in today’s world”. And to be honest I dreaded a negative book. Instead, Smith writes of Taylor’s epiphany that “today’s secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion—although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined—but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.”
In my desire to better understand and internalize Taylor’s concept of secularism and humanism (as interpreted by Smith) I needed to explore my own beliefs and behaviors. Have I fallen victim to humanism? Am I more concerned with fulfilling my own happiness and desires, all the while orchestrating it through personal choice and personal strength? Maybe? Maybe not? You see, I encourage this with clients in my role as a mental health therapist in this secular world…walk the journey of finding your identity (who am I) and meaning (what is my “place” in this world) so that you can be true to yourself. Sounds humanistic, eh? (A shout out to our Canadian author, Taylor). The key words here are identity and meaning – and they are not necessarily separated from God. Exploring the tension between spirituality and secularism is definitely worth the investment of time and thought. And as a Christian, it’s on ME to sift through all my spiritual and religious options, hang-ups, research, theorists, secularists, etc. in this secular world to land boldly on Jesus. Maybe God has perfectly ordained this time in history – filled with options, distractions, and the need to critically think – as a precursor to an even deeper lived faith…???!!!
One deeper way to live faith is highlighted by James Smith in an interview with Timothy Keller “In my tradition, for all the right reasons, we emphasize systemic structural transformation. That’s important. In the same way, the civil rights movement had to change laws. But on the other hand, I think we’ve seen all kinds of evidence that you also need to be transforming the agents who inhabit those structures and systems and laws. What disappoints me when people despair about the marginalization of the church is that they’ve decided that the present is an indicator of the future. But that doesn’t seem like a kind of expectation. It’s not logic.” Smith is spot on when he pinpoints the disconnect between structural transformation and agent transformation. There are so many palpable examples in today’s (and by today I mean January 2019) world. And here they are as connected to marginalized and oppressed populations:
- African Americans…The Civil War officially abolished slavery, but it didn’t end discrimination against African Americans. Today they continue to endure the devastating effects of racism every day in the forms of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural dominance, and violence. Here’s a relevant example from TODAY…CNN headline Inside the GM plant where nooses and ‘whites-only’ signs hung (this happened in Toledo, Ohio https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/16/us/gm-toledo-racism-lawsuit/index.html)
- Women…In 1920 the constitution was ratified to allow women the right to vote. “Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution.” And today? Women still struggle for pay equity (equality in the workplace), the right to control their own body, equity in representation, and equity in domestic tasks.
- Immigrants…“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus” was written as a tribute to the Statue of Liberty – an iconic national symbol to welcome the immigrants arriving in the United States, then and now. Somehow, through the years, immigrants have become targets of xenophobia and racism even though laws exist to allow for asylum and resettlement. Instead of embracing immigrants (as our ancestors once were) the country has created a culture of hostile, anti-immigrant social and political climate.
I share these three examples of marginalization to lend evidence and support to James Smith’s proposal that systemic structural transformation does nothing to change the “agents” who inhabit the structures, systems, and laws. Clearly laws and rules do not change the heart. Perhaps this is the very opportunity Charles Taylor refers to after his lengthy reflections… “We are, instead, moving toward…a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years.” Finding self-identity and life meaning can be spiritually intertwined with advocating for a heart change for self and others “people are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.” I, for one, plan to get on board! Will you?