This week I ran across a story of a couple that became Christian in a heavily Islamic country. Within two weeks of the man’s conversion, he was arrested, tortured, and starving in a cell. His story is so remarkable to me because he described his pre-Christian world and culture as being closed. Their country controlled everything and there was no access to the Gospel. He was a follower in Islam because he had no other choice and no other knowledge. He was boxed in his culture and the Gospel was boxed out until he ran into someone who had an experience with Jesus.
In Charles Taylor’s, The Secular Age, the author suggests that those in the west are similarly trapped as my friend was in his Muslim land. Taylor will call this theory the immanent frame. Simply put, James K.A. Smith describes this concept:
This metaphorical concept – alluding to a “frame” that boxes in and boxes out, encloses and focuses – is meant to capture the world we now inhabit in our secular age: “this frame constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an immanent world, over against the possible ‘transcendent’ one (Taylor, p. 542). We now inhabit this self-sufficient immanent order, even if we believe in transcendence (Smith, p. 93).
In Taylor’s theory, how you view this frame hinges on how one views transcendence.
Taylor would argue within his text that we live in an immanent world in the West. Despite our belief, it is skewed towards the immanent. My inclination is to argue with him, but as I view my life, it is hard to come up with a sustainable argument against his thought. Let me give some brief examples by asking a series of questions. Who do we run to first when we are sick? How many nights of sleep do I lose wondering how I will make ends meet financially? What is my first thought when I see a beggar, immigrant, or addict? At times, I am ashamed to answer. When I am sick, I quickly grab a bottle of something or see a doctor before I ask God to heal me. When I am worried about budgets, I grab my calculator before I hit my knees. When I see someone less fortunate, I am inclined to wonder what bad decisions they made that put them in that situation. Here’s my point. Often times, I do not live in the supernatural which is something that has been destroyed by our new secular framework. Maybe that is being too honest, but I believe this is Taylor’s point. Even someone devout may have a “self-sufficient immanent order” hanging over their heads at all times. We all have a difficult way making it back to a pre-secular age where supernatural thought was quite commonplace.
As a pastor, I wonder what are we to do to break this immanent order over our people’s heads. How do we break over our own heads? Is it even possible? While I wish I had answers, I do not just more questions. I do believe it is something that pastors and theologians have to wrestle with, pray about, and discover. The world as a whole may never change, but maybe our world can. Maybe our congregations can have the mindset broken, but it will take exhausting, back-breaking work. However, there is hope. If the Gospel can penetrate a dark culture where the name of Christ cannot be stated in public for my Middle-Eastern friend and change him, then he can do it for our people once again. I believe a supernatural God can do that, but sometimes it is difficult.