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Lighting a candle in a disenchanted age

Written by: on January 18, 2019

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.[1]

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[2]. (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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.’”[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.

_________________________________________

[1] T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922). Accessed on January 17, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.

[2] James K.A. Smith, How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 138.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 770.

[4] Taylor, 770.

[5] 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.

[6] Gordon, 647-673.

[7] 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.

[8] Smith, 126.

[9] Smith, 127.

About the Author

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Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

15 responses to “Lighting a candle in a disenchanted age”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    You really leaned into the Canadianism of Taylor on this post…nicely done! This quote is gold: “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.” What an important thought to consider how secular the church in the west has become! The idea moves beyond the label to suggest that just because the sign says “Community Church” doesn’t mean it’s not a secular place (and certainly not void of secularization). I wonder if the space I am now in is even more at risk of losing enchantment than in the church. One of the challenges will be how to bear witness to the mystical dimensions that are at play even while printing t-shirts with at-risk kids. I think it comes down to our eschatological vision and how social development is a snapshot of that vision. We need to see how Christ is at play in ten thousand places (to use Eugene’s phrase). You are a brilliant Catholic and are uniquely positioned for wonderful ecumenical leadership. How about we work toward reunification? Just a small task…

  2. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Mark,

    It’s amazing to see how even philanthropic efforts have been altered by the secular age. It effects every aspect of life, even those we would assume could not be. I wonder what you think will be the outcome of the pendulum swinging back towards spirituality in your area of expertise? Will philanthropic efforts regain a sense of purpose and meaning or have the transcendent motivations been lost forever?

  3. Beautifully written, Mark. And you make important observations about philanthropy and the risks apart from transcendence. I love that we serve a God who is both immanent and transcendent–giving value and meaning to both. I love that the same can be said for your philanthropic work!

  4. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Mark,
    This is a wonderful post, I agree with you quote of church shopping and seeker sensitive being a reaction to disenchantment with the church, but the mystery of the gospel and of Christ’s bride is something to be seen again. I find your commentary on philanthropy becoming misanthropy intriguing. What do you think drives the non religious in their philanthropy and can the religious learn from that?

    Thanks
    Jason

    • Hi Jason! Thanks for your question. I think there is much to be learned by Christians from secular philanthropy, but my bigger concern is that modern Christians are already doing a secular-3 philanthropy — it’s in the air we all breathe! What needs to be learned is an embrace of the transcendent. I think it involves understanding their giving as part of the mission of God, part of the mission of the Church. It would involve more collaboration, greater surrender, and involvement. It would also need to be immersed in prayer. (I’m preaching to myself…)

  5. Great post, Mark!

    Disenchantment has eradicated the wonder from Christianity and constructed a flat-world concept of His grace and His character. You suggest, “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.” How has your interaction with the Catholic Church colored your perspective and praxis of philanthropy? Do you find that people are compelled to give because of their preference towards pietism? How has one’s theological perspective colored their motivation for giving?

  6. Greg says:

    Mark.
    I had professor that always said, “we are products of our age. What we do, see and read are done so through the lenses of our culture and age.” I was thinking of this in the second paragraph that you said, “Religion has become marginalized and privatized. That is, until the towers fell.” It is amazing how one event has shifted the focus (or made the shift obvious) and expression of faith.

    My daughter is a huge fan of Pope Benedict XIV and loved the quote that implies God working outside of what we see and know of Christendom. I know we get uncomfortable when the lines are not clearly drawn but I believe we serve a God not limited by the coloring sheet we made for him. Thank you brother for another challenging post.

  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks Mark,
    I love that turn of phrase, this “open, enchanted garden”. It seems a lot better than this “secular hell-hole”. Your Roman Catholicism comes through in your writings (in a good way) and I’m glad to be reading you on here again!

  8. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Mark, thanks for your beautifully written and thoughtful words. I think the candle metaphor is apt. It’s centered set thinking too and reminds me of John 1. The faithfulness of those who walk in darkness with a lit candle inevitably bears light for others, even when they don’t know the full extent of it’s impact.

    Also, I think the mystery of it all is more beautiful and speaks to God’s ability to be both transcendent and immanent. I and generations behind me are leaning way into the mysticism Catholicism offers.

  9. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job. So cool that our book directly talked about philanthropy. Great tie’s in to your topic obviously. I suspect this will add significantly to your final dissertation. How do you suppose in adjusts your work in the immediate? Will it change how you communicate your brand and navigate your presentations?

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