“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  The now famous quote by Julian Barns was considered “soppy” by his philosopher brother and has become a type of mantra for the secular age in which we live. No other person has approached secularism in such depth as did Charles Tayor in his seminal and hugely influential book, A Secular Age.  Taylor’s work is a substantial 874 pages! In the introduction, Taylor begins by positing that in the span of the entire human history secularism is a deviation from the path most traveled.  In this Taylor seeks to answer two central questions: (1) Why is it that people in the West no longer look to a higher authority for answers to life’s questions; (2) How did the West arrive at this point.
As a very brief overview: five hundred years ago people believed that the supernatural impacted the natural world. God, for example, was responsible for placing leaders in their position of authority. Evil was responsible for pain and sorrow. Good was responsible for almost everything else. Taylor contends that the change from a transcendent framework to an immanent framework was sparked by the Reformation.
The Reformation initiated a dethroning of the authority of the church, democratized faith for all people, and subsequently began the removal of the supernatural “awe” in people’s worldview. The Reformation, followed by other philosophical, political, social and scientific reimaginings further removed the supernatural from its influence on the natural, leading to today where the majority in the West live and function in an immanent framework. This framework does not contest the existence of the supernatural, only that it is not needed to understand the joys, pains, happiness, and sorrows of life. 
The core of the secular message places humans at the center of life and life’s decisions. According to Taylor, the story of secularism is viewed as one of liberation where a transcendent God is no longer necessary, or possibly never existing in the first place. It is the story of humankind growing up and becoming adults. It is in many ways a sad story of loneliness, abandonment, and isolation. Tylor tells the story in this way.
“Once human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside of themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to see that these higher authorities were their own fictions, and they realized that they had to establish their norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story as it figures in the science-driven argument for materialism. It is not just that freed from illusion, humans came to establish the true facts about the world. It is also that they came to dictate the ultimate values by which they live.” 
In this way, a secular person goes about their lives, not as an atheist or an agnostics, but indifferent. In this framework, God becomes one possible choice to fill an empty space in the bento box that makes up a person’s life. Secularism is not a throwing away of the “old” or an iconoclastic destruction of authority. It is a framework of general indifference or even an equalization of values where intrinsic value is not recognized as much as the value that choice imposes.
How does this play out in real-time? A colleague of mine tells a story of a university student in Berlin who was asked what they thought about the possibility of living forever in heaven. The student responded, “Why would I ever want to live forever? The burden of making choices for an eternity would be overwhelming.”
And yet, even though Taylor describe secularism as a departure from the course of human history, it is—in a way—a return to the course of human history all the way back to the garden. May puts it this way. “This is the history of the autonomous will asserting itself against external claims.” 
Though most Christians might not argue the fact of secularism, they do debate the best way for the church to impact the secular world in which we live. The heart of the debate is not one of “spin” in the sense that Taylor speaks of a held story that prevents someone from seeing “reality” as it really is, but possibly one of “nostalgia” and longing for a time when things were not as they presently are.  However, because of or even in spite of the debate, in recent years there has indeed been unique expressions of faith communities springing up that are reminiscent of McLaren’s, The Church on the Other Side. 
The world is changing, the reality of secularism is upon us. The mission of the church does not change, the bento box still longs to be filled. The questions leaders ask, and the answers they choose are as important now as they ever were. Secular people may be the greatest unreached people group in our world today.
- Barnes, Julian. Nothing to be Frightened of. Reprint ed. Vintage, 2009.
- Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.
- Ibid., 1.
- Ibid., 25-212.
- Ibid., 580.
- May, Collins. (2009). A Secular Age. Society, 46(2), 199-203.
- Taylor, 551, 613,
- McLaren, Brian D. The Church on the Other Side. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.