“What is that sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation / Who are those hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth / Ringed by the flat horizon only / What is the city over the mountains / Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air / Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal.”
The dominant narrative that runs through elite circles in North Atlantic culture is that religion has had its day, and we have matured to the point where we can manage just fine without God. Religion has become marginalized and privatized. That is, until the towers fell.
Quebec philosopher, Charles Taylor, in his monumental work, A Secular Age, convincingly demonstrates that the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards an embrace of the spiritual. Fatigued by our flat, seamless waste land, and rising from the ashes of fallen towers, we are discovering there is hope.
I’m grateful for the brilliance of James K.A. Smith who cogently articulates a summary of Taylor’s work. (He definitely makes our work easier.) Smith identifies Taylor’s two main conclusions that should spark some joy in those of us who are exhausted by the unrelenting critical condemnations of secularism towards faith:
- “The dominant secularization narrative, which tends to blame our religious past for many of the woes of our world, will become less plausible over time.” And,
- “This heavy concentration of the atmosphere of immanence will intensify a sense of living in a ‘waste land’ for subsequent generations, and many young people will begin again to explore beyond the boundaries.”
Critical for this transition back to faith by future generations is recognition of how modern religion has failed us through the infection of secularism, a process of subtraction that decimates both faith and culture. Peter Gordon clarifies, “This is the claim that in the modern West human experience has been stripped of its mystifying veils, typified in Marx and Engels’s famous description concerning the effects of capitalism: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.’” Going “church shopping” and being seeker sensitive are mere expressions of the disenchantment in modern Christian faith and practice. Recovering the mystery and demands of faith is the pathway forward. “[I]t is a central lesson of Taylor’s book that there are multiple paths to God. Again and again he admonishes us to remain open toward the varieties of religious transcendence.”
Though the mystical path seems to lack definition, we must not fear this open, enchanted garden. None other than Pope Benedict XIV reminds us of the robust breadth of faith in the secular age: “Perhaps the church has forgotten,” he wrote in Without Roots, “that the tree of the kingdom of God reaches beyond the branches of the visible church, but that is precisely why it must be a hospitable place in whose branches many guests find a place.”
The recovery of mystery impacts even philanthropy. Boxed in by the secular, and reduced down to measurable outcomes, recidivism rates, and impact reporting, philanthropy becomes mere do-goodism that eventually exhausts us, turning us against even those we serve. Smith states, “‘Before the reality of human shortcomings, philanthropy – the love of the human – can gradually come to be invested with contempt, hatred, aggression.’ (p. 697). While I’m motivated to help the poor and vulnerable and even the undeserving because of their inherent dignity, I’m at the same time quietly patting myself on the back, recognizing my moral superiority… It’s not long before “you become the monster, so the monster will not break you” (U2). Your philanthropy becomes misanthropy.” In contrast, “…Taylor hints that acknowledging transcendence can actually relativize our expectations, thus guarding us against this fatigue, frustration, and inevitable misanthropy. So once again a subtle suggestion: maybe Christianity is less dangerous than liberalism.”
This is good news and an encouragement as I work alongside people of faith, trapped in a secular age and often fatigued, yet longing for their philanthropy to mean more than tangible impact. In the light of a flickering candle and with whispered prayer, perhaps Christian giving can become truly transformative for our world.
 T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922). Accessed on January 17, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.
 James K.A. Smith, How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 138.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 770.
 Taylor, 770.
 P.E. Gordon, “The Place of the Sacred in the Absence of God: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(4) (2008), 651. Accessed on January 17, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/203369863?accountid=11085.
 Gordon, 647-673.
 D. Christiansen, S.J., “Of many things”, America, 197 (2007, Oct 08), 2. Accessed on January 17, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/209713098?accountid=11085.
 Smith, 126.
 Smith, 127.