(I am typing this blog on my iPhone with two thumbs, as I know we will not be to a wireless signal anytime soon. Please forgive my abrupt thoughts or crazy assumptions. I’m also typing this while on a 26-hour train ride from Moscow to Ekaterinburg! Don’t you want to travel with me??)
The past few weeks we’ve been reading about context theology, public theology, practical theology and hope. Now, I find myself in the midst of the Russian Federation reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Not only is it a little mind boggling and challenging, to say the least, but my context while reading this book is enormously skewed.
First, I found this to be a terribly dense read. A Secular Age is a philosophical history of the past, present and future of Western Christianity. As such, it begins with a not-so-simple question: How did it become possible for anyone to not believe in God? Taylor weaves what appears to be several essays on history, sociology, philosophy, and theology to recount the history of an idea, to shatter the sameness and the apparent inevitability of the present. As a history Taylor attempts to clarify intellectual and theological divisions that continue to structure debates about divinity, but with the aim of reforming the way we think about them, “to show the play of destabilization and recomposition.” (Loc. 1452)
A Secular Age carries the story further, into the question of the role of religion in constituting a person’s identity. Taylor wants to lay out what it takes to go on believing in God, in the absence of any intellectual, cultural and imaginative surroundings in which pre-modern religion was intermingled. This is what he calls our ‘social imaginary’, or how we collectively sense what is normal and appropriate in our dealings with one another and with the world around us. Then it hit me… This is the guy who wrote Social Imaginaries! (Yes, I can be very dense sometimes.)
With this overview and a few chapters in mind, I thought, “Now what? What do I do with this?” And this led me to a story… I remember the first time I told my testimony to my new friends in Ekaterinburg, Russia. I began with, “My story is rather boring. I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were Christians. My grandparents were Christians. We can trace our Quaker heritage back seven generations to a small town in England. I cannot remember a time when I did not know at least who God was, nor do I remember not having an active relationship with Him. Though our relationship has evolved over time, God has been the one constant figure in my life.” My friends, 20-something women Olga and Marta, were shocked, but I could not understand that. Here I was in a country that proclaimed Christianity as its official state religion in the 10th or 11th century (I can’t remember which), and the streets and squares are ornately decorated with cathedrals and monasteries, yet my friends Olga and Marta declared they did not know God until two years ago. Here I was in a supposedly non-secular country, but the people, the attitudes, the activities, the high divorce and alcoholism rates suggested it was a people all but emptied of God. Could that be right?
Russia has imposed secularity, but the Nationals are highly encouraged to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. So it imposes secularity while imposing religion. In fact, if you do join another church – a Methodist or other denomination – and you tithe there instead of giving to the Orthodox church, you may end up kidnapped in the night!
As I probed further into Olga and Marta’s history with the Orthodox Church, I listened to their histories of belief versus practice. They believed because they were told to believe. They believed because it was the end game — belief was not about this life, but about the eternal life. In short, they believed but had no practice. There was no faith in action. It was simply a checked box – and a personal relationship, personal connection to God was non-existent nor seen as necessary.
When they did convert to Methodism, they discovered a world of change. The fire within them burned hot, but then after time, it cooled. I likened it to a mission trip – participants feel so close to God while on a trip and doing good works and serving alongside other members of the faith community — but when they return, the feelings fade and life goes on as usual. They continue attending worship services and Bible study, but that passion is subdued. Is this the middle ground Taylor is speaking of? The place between red-hot burning for God and an absence of any connection?
In the end, I am left with many more questions than which I started. Perhaps the second half of the book will bring more clarity. Perhaps it won’t! A major question I had was Taylor using the term “embattled” to describe Christianity in America? Is this, like in Russia, where so many just call themselves Christians but do not live the life of love and service? Taylor seems to define spirituality as gratitude or joy or inspiration or insight, when reality is abolished and the foreign breaks through. To fully experience God is to connect and share the experience with others, perhaps through prayer, devotion, serving and giving. Maybe that is the “battle”, as we strive to live this life while living in a secular world.