DMINLGP

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

Life is a Bento Box!

Written by: on January 17, 2018

 

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4]

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.” [5]

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.” [6]

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. [7] 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. [8]

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.

 

  1. Barnes, Julian. Nothing to be Frightened of. Reprint ed. Vintage, 2009.
  2. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.
  3. Ibid., 1.
  4. Ibid., 25-212.
  5. Ibid., 580.
  6. May, Collins. (2009). A Secular Age. Society, 46(2), 199-203.
  7. Taylor, 551, 613,
  8. McLaren, Brian D. The Church on the Other Side. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

About the Author

Jim Sabella

16 responses to “Life is a Bento Box!”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    What a great opening line!
    “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.” This will be the perpetual argument for Christians, and one worth debating. Any suggestions for how the church to best impact the world?
    For me, the indifference to God feels sadder than people just fully rejecting God. I feel empathy for our Creator who gets indifference from His creation. It inspires me to love others even when they don’t love back.
    Thank you for your helpful summary of such a complex book. I appreciated it.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks Jenn. I agree that indifference to God feels sadder than people who fully reject God. At least rejection is an emotion of sorts while indifference seems emotionless or maybe a hiding of emotions. It may feel like a safer position to be emotionally, that may be why people choose indifference toward God instead of outright rejection. Just thinking out loud.

  2. Mary says:

    “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. ”
    Jim, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. People do know on some level that something is missing and I hear often how people are longing for a “simpler life” for example.
    As a voracious reader I love to compare stories in different time periods. It seems that stories that are in a modern setting need to be “politically correct”. I have noticed that more and more mysteries, suspense, etc.. are set in other historical time periods. I firmly believe it is because authors want to write stories of people who lived in simpler times. Authors can write a story without worrying about stepping on this or that group’s toes. And to look in a book store and see how popular historical novels are, I have to really wonder if our “disenchanted” world is all that great.
    But as you say, we can use this to reach people. What a great conversation starter that can lead to a deeper discussion of longings. We can share how Jesus fills those longings.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Mary, what an excellent point about book and movie themes in our time—people longing for a simpler life. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Thanks for expanding on the term secularism. I understand the frame better.

    Your statement “The mission of the church does not change, the bento box still longs to be filled.” I true. We may need to tweak our delivery but the message is the same.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “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.“

    I have encountered this a lot in Asia and Eastern Europe, especially where Communism has been an influence.

    Atheists always seem ANGRY at Christians. Agnostics sometimes have a smugness about them…”Oh, you still believe that?” But many of the young people whom I encounter in my travels are actually curious about Christianity. They are not threatened by it in any way.

    In this context, we may need to be SALT more than light. Instead of arguing theology, we need to spark curiosity.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      I have experienced the same thing in my travels. There are many who are curious about Christianity and especially about spiritual things, even questions of the supernatural. Often times it’s not God they are angry at, it’s Christians! Ouch!

  5. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Jim, you do a nice job of parsing out some of what Taylor would call the Age of Mobilization or secular2 (we might call it the Modern Age), the idea that “secular” is a rejection of the divine, or contrary to following Jesus. My reading of Taylor, though, seems to suggest that he posits we have transitioned to an age (Age of Authenticity or secular3; we might call it “Post-Modern”), where the conditions of belief make it possible to find personal– rather than structural– ways of seeking fullness/the divine. This means that even someone who grows up in the church and believes something still has the freedom–and is encouraged–to choose a church-style that fits their personal path of spirituality. I know that may sound negative on one level, but I find it has the potential to create deeper and more committed disciples who are “there” because they want to be rather than expected to be. It really signals the end of Christendom and the “choose for yourselves whom you will serve” paradigm.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Katy, this is a good point.

      “where the conditions of belief make it possible to find personal– rather than structural– ways of seeking fullness/the divine.”

      This may be why people turn from the church but not necessarily spiritual things or even a belief in God.

  6. Jim,
    Good post. I really liked the discussion about spin vs. nostalgia…. I often think that many churches – and the Christians that occupy them – suffer from varying degrees of nostalgia…
    By it’s self nostalgia is not the worst thing… but in churches and in Christians, it can create a longing for a non-existent or at the very least hyper-idealized version of the past where things were better or easier or whatever….. and none of that helps point us towards the future that God has called us to or prepares us to share the Good News of God’s love in the context we currently find ourselves

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks for highlighting both sides of nostalgia…it can be a good and not so good force in the church. Thanks Chip.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Jim, the Bento box image really resonates with me. This is what I see in the lives of people in the Pacific NW. Everyone has so many spaces and must carefully decide what will fill those spaces. Some choose church to fill a space while others choose something else. What if we began to see God as the creator of the Bento box, the one who helps us find the best things to fit in the spaces?

  8. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Yes Jim I do also like the visual representation of the Bento Box. I really like Kristin’s point about God creating the box. I think this illustration gives room for us to actively engage the Holy Spirit in our lives. It ensures a variety of great “flavorful selections” ?

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