“You’re so secular”, has been seen in the Christian world as an insult and a comment that is spoken out of anger or frustration with a particular stance on a hot topic. Charles Taylor1 and James Smith2 in their books helps us understand that maybe the proper response to someone that calls me secular should be, “thanks, and so are you.” This idea that the world has shifted and secular thinking can mean the ability to journey for truth using questions and doubts.
James Smith writes,“The difference between our modern, “secular” age and past ages is not necessarily the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable.”3 I was recently at a meeting where there were representatives from 61 countries. Many of these people were steeped in traditional church settings and experiences. When they found out where I was living, they had many questions. The problem was the questions presupposed a context or understanding that I considered wrong. I was asked repeatedly if I pastored, what was the building like that we worked in or how many staff members, size of congregations and things that are not relevant where we live. When also talking about how we build relationships, one person asked, “how many times do I need to talk with someone before I can share the Gospel or invite them to a Bible study?” Some of my favorites were when our local Chinese would say to me, “I don’t understand the question they are asking” because it was coming from a totally different christian cultural context. I do not fault these questioners for they come not from always a different country but rather a different foundational culture. I think understanding a changing world requires a minister to be ready for our contexts to be changing as well.
“So the world is not carved up into “believers” and “secular” rational knowers. It’s a complicated array of different sorts of believers.”4 As a product of the secularism myself I find freedom in a world that has the ability to doubt and question some of the things we are taught. The journey to discover Christ in our own context makes Him more real rather than the opposite. “Taylor’s account of the secular is often an illuminating lens through which to see changes within religious communities, not just the expansion of the areligious.”5 These changes can allow those looking for authenticity in their lives can find hope that the Christian world is open to their questions and challenges.
Humans love change only when we are in control of it. This is also true within the Christian Church. Taylor writes repeatedly that we can not go back in time and live in a place we are comfortable or a time that everyone thinks like we do, looks like we do and acts like we do.6 In an interview with James Smith he said that there is a necessity for “pastors to be ethnographers… if Taylor is right, this shouldn’t be seen as a battle. Instead we should recognize all the “persistent longings for transcendence that characterize our secular age. To proclaim the Gospel in such a context is not a matter of guarding some fortress; it’s an opportunity to invite our neighbors to meet the One they didn’t even realize they’d been longing for.”7 This resonated with me that all those in ministry, even within their own home countries, should take stock of the culture they live in. True ethnographers find ways not to impose their own ideas rather to understand the culture they are focused on. In our world, we often assume we understand the contexts and even the questions that those in our realm of influence have. The church could look very different if we as leaders could take the time to study and know the communities that we are placed in. I believe even with my context, I am guilty of assumptions about what we are doing and often forget to simply listen to the common questions being asked.
“Our sin is our resistance to going along with God’s initiative in making suffering reparative. We are deeply drawn towards God, but we also sense how following him will dislocate and transform beyond recognition the forms which have made life tolerable for us. We often react with fear, dismay, hostility. We are at war with ourselves, and responding differently to this inner conflict, we end up at war with each other. So it is undoubtedly true that the result of sin is much suffering. But this is by no means distributed according to desert. Many who are relatively innocent are swept up in this suffering, and some of the worse offenders get off lightly. The proper response to all this is not retrospective book-keeping, but making ourselves capable of responding to God’s initiative.” 8
Seeing some of our traditions as somewhat masking our own secularization limits our understanding of the world we live in. When we recognize that we are not the gate keepers to truth and God can handle doubts, questions and even journeys that are not traditional we are free to see all people as seeking the truth.
1 Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
2 Smith, James K. A.. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. 3 smith 19
4 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-interview-with-james-k-a-smith-on-how-not- to-be-secular-and-how-to-read-charles-taylor/
5Smith, James K. A.. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.88
6 Smith, 11
7 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-interview-with-james-k-a-smith-on-how-not-to-be-secular-and-how-to-read-charles-taylor/ accessed January 18, 2019
8Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. 655