Charles Taylor and James Smith have given us a detailed analysis of the secular age in which we live. Like an ideological GPS, they have shown us our chronological location in this map of secularism. From the age of ancien régime, to the age of moral order, to the age of mobilization, we are now in the age of authenticity. The authors have also demonstrated that this secular thinking framework affects everybody, whether they are open to the transcendent or not. They argue that a secular age is not an age of unbelief where religion has been abandoned. Rather, it is a level playing field where exclusive humanism, neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism, and those opened to the transcendent have the same epistemological challenges. In this age, all beliefs are contested and contestable. However, through a series of arguments, they have shown that Christianity has the ontological advantage, because it gives the most plausible account of our human experience.
The books are as dense as they are insightful. Every page is full of a plethora of ideas that would require more length to discuss than the one intended in this blog. Yet, an important highlight of the books for me was gaining better understanding of the current stage of the secular age in which we live, which Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity. This is an age that values the individual above everything else. The ability to choose is the primary value, and tolerance is the underlying virtue (while intolerance is the forbidden sin). These views have become the perfect soil for a consumer culture, and they have serious implications for ministry. As Smith points out, “Not even orthodox Christians might realize the extent to which we have absorbed this by osmosis.” There are three questions that the authors caused me to ask as I reflect on the reading.
What is my Motivation?
According to Taylor, modern moral philosophy pays little attention to the aspect of motivation in human behavior. In the search for fullness in an immanent frame, many people seek to be involved in philanthropic initiatives. Yet, the hidden motive is not one of agape, but one of selfishness. “While I am 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.” I realize that much of what happens in ministry may suffer from the same deficiency in motivation. Even the very way we present the gospel suffers from this self-centered approach. In an age of authenticity, many Christians have been introduced to Christ with a self-centered gospel. We were told that if we pray the sinner’s prayer we will no longer have to go to hell but we will go to heaven. Yet, why do we want to go to heaven? So we won’t go to hell? How about wanting to go to heaven because we love God and want to be with Him? Later, these Christians are encouraged to send their teenagers to mission trips. What for? So they will help those in need out of agape? Yes but not quite. Another underlying motivation seems to be that our teens will realize how bad other people have it; in that way they will become more appreciative and return home more mature. Then, the very pastors of these congregations sit down in meetings with colleagues to talk about the size of their churches and the numbers of baptisms that they have accomplished. They want their churches to grow, but what for? So that people in a dying world will find redeeming grace? Yes but not quite. Another underlying motivation seems to be that in doing so, these people will attend “our” church, so our consumerist ministry will acquire more clients and be more successful. Soon, the church starts a campaign with the slogan “I love my church.” In this way, they will attract more clients to this business. In an age of authenticity, there is a lot we can do in the name of God that is driven by a self-seeking motivation. Taylor makes me look deeper and ask, what is my motivation? Is it self-centered or God-centered?
What is my Message?
Taylor describes the change of perspective about personal responsibility in an age of authenticity. The spiritual has been replaced by the therapeutic, what was considered sin is now explained away as a physical condition, the weight of personal responsibility is now redefined as victimhood, the belief in transformation through conversion is replaced by faith in treatment, and the role of the religious leader is now entrusted to the therapist. This change of mindset, says Taylor, has even affected the message of Christianity; now we no longer talk about hell, only about God’s love. Taylor makes me reflect about the fine line between contextualizing the message and compromising the truth. What is the way I approach my teaching and preaching ministry? Am I going to be faithful to biblical truth even if it is not popular?
What is my Hope?
Taylor recognizes that in this age of authenticity, believing in God has some unique epistemological challenges. He points out, “conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible, honestly, rationally, without confusions, or fudging, or mental reservation, to believe in God.” It could be easy to conclude the reading with a sense of hopelessness, as if our secular age is so far gone that it is almost impossible anymore to get a positive response to the message of the Gospel. However, it seems to me that even though the ideological conditions have changed drastically over the past centuries, the core issues remain unchanged.
The gospel sprouted in an era in which the message of the cross was considered foolishness; a time in which Christians were misunderstood, ridiculed, and persecuted (even accused of being cannibals); a time in which the god of this age had darkened people’s minds so that the light of the gospel would not shine in their lives. Yet, that was also the time in which the gospel was the δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ, a transforming power that could cut through the darkened mind and the hardened heart, bringing life to the one spiritually dead. Even in our secular age these truths remain unchanged. My ministry strategies may be shaped by a better understanding of our current ideological context, but the underlying hope in the power of the gospel remains the same today as it was yesterday. That is my anchor as I navigate the waters of our secular age.
 James Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, Kindle location 2452.
 Ibid, 2649
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 560.