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

The Unplanned Child of Christian Thought

Written by: on February 17, 2017

In The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Stephen recently interviewed British comedian and TV producer Ricky Gervais to discuss his religious views. As an atheist, Ricky concludes, “You take any holy book or any fiction and destroy it. In a 1000 year time that wouldn’t come back the way it was but if you take any science book or any fact and destroy it, in a 1000 years it will come back exactly the same because all the tests will give the same results!”

Ricky is the co-creator of the show The Office, and also of some shows in HBO. His religious views are not unique to him, but they are increasingly prevalent in western civilization. We can see this mindset clearly expressed amongst the two and a half million viewers of this YouTube video. Take for instance this viewer, “Religion was invented to keep uncivilized people busy and organized. Then critical thinking and science happened.” Another viewer says, “If somehow religion never existed I think we would’ve progressed even further than we have already because we wouldn’t have over 50% of people on earth limiting their critical thinking skills due to what people thousands of years ago wrote in a holy scripture.”[1]

When confronted with this worldview, Canadian Philosopher and Political Science Professor Charles Taylor asks a critical question: How did we get here? In 1500 it was almost impossible not to believe in God, while today it is almost impossible to believe in God. What happened? Not everybody answers this question in the same way. The popular version (echoed by people like Gervais) asserts that the old religious world was liberated from ignorance when the Enlightenment gave us science. Science now shows that the material world is all there is, and that religious belief is simply a vestige of the past; a bad habit inherited from an age of ignorance.

Taylor disagrees. He calls views like this one subtraction stories, which are their own social imaginaries. They make sense in the person’s mind, but the person ignores the assumptions that are taken for granted. The history of how we got here is rather more complex, and it has several implications for our understanding of this secular age. It is so complex that Taylor wrote a 900-page book with a series of lectures describing in detail the philosophical history of secularism. In order to simplify the main points of Taylor’s work, another Canadian philosopher named James Smith wrote a companion book to help people digest Taylor’s views. The outcome of this joint effort is significant. What Webber did to the study of economics, Taylor did to the study of secularism. In the words of Smith, this book “offers a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst.”[2]

Understanding the historical development of secularism gives us an x-ray of our current secular age, revealing key ideas with relevant implications. First, secularity is not a synonym of unbelief. Rather, it is a mindset that lacks an axiomatic system for belief, therefore every belief is a contestant among many and it is also contestable. It is a place where believers are haunted by doubt while unbelievers are hunted by faith. Secondly, secularity is not what is left over once we subtract transcendence; rather it is an accomplishment, the sum of previous ideologies that have managed to create an immanent framework with the promise of providing significance without the need for transcendence. Yet, this promise is not quite fulfilled, because the significance that is experienced in transcendence cannot be found in immanence. The transcendent knocks at the door of the human heart; some people decide to ignore it, but the knocking does not stop. The words of Steve Jobs before he died capture well this phenomenon of secularism, “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”[3] Finally, this internal angst for significance that cannot be found in the immanent has created a cross-pressured system that has lead to a nova effect in the market of spirituality. Thus, it is now common for people to say “I’m spiritual but I am not religious,” while at the same time they create their own collage of spiritual expression.

After watching the interview of Ricky Gervais, I knew that his argument had a fundamental fallacy. Taylor has helped me understand that this mindset is a subtraction story within a social imaginary. Gervais has imagined a world where religion is fiction while science is fact. He has also led himself to believe in a version of the world in which science can be discovered without being preceded by Christianity. He is as mistaken as a child who thinks that he could exist if he had different parents. As Taylor argues, the value of the individual, the study of nature that lead to the development of modern science, and the transformation of the social order that led us to democracy and capitalism have all merged to provide the foundation for a secular age. For better or for worse, a secular age is the unplanned child conceived in the realm of Christian thought.

 

 

[1] See video online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5ZOwNK6n9U&feature=youtu.be

[2] Smith, James K. A. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Location 87, Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid, 13.

 

About the Author

Pablo Morales

Pablo Morales serves as the Lead Pastor of Ethnos Bible Church in Texas. He is currently pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership and Global Perspectives at Portland Seminary in order to understand what it takes to develop a healthy multiethnic church.

7 responses to “The Unplanned Child of Christian Thought”

  1. Great summary here. So clear and concise and well written. Wish I would have written it.
    Both authors are from Canada and educated in traditionally white western universities. How would the books be different if the authors had been raised in South America and educated in Africa or Asia? I am wondering out loud if the exclusive humanism imagination is truly global or not.

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Aaron, that’s an interesting thought. There is a lot of historical branches from the Spanish European history that have shaped Latin America that are not considered in this book. So I guess that our education always shapes our views, both by expanding them and limiting them. We have, however, inherited a large part of our political and social views from the United States, including capitalism, democracy, and the use of technology. So in many ways the issues facing the nation today will eventually be faced by the other countries that are connected with the American culture. I have noticed in Chile a high level of secularization compered to the years I lived there. This past two years there have been initiatives to legalize abortion and homosexuality just like here in the U.S. So, I wonder how much of what we see here will eventually also characterize other nations.
      Pablo

  2. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Pablo,

    If you had a chance to talk personally with Ricky Gervais, what would the Taylor-Smith trained Pablo say to him?

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Marc, what would I do if I had the chance to speak to Ricky directly? I’m not sure. My first instinct is to say that I would pray for discernment and for the words to speak, so that God will prepare the way before me. Secondly, I would try to understand what was Ricky’s spiritual journey, and what led him to adopt the views he has today. Perhaps I would also introduce him to a book or video that provides further food for thought on the topic. A Taylor-Smith trained Pablo is more aware of the spiritual angst that is underneath the religious apathy that we find on the surface.

      Whenever I am in a position in which I have the opportunity to engage with a secular audience in dialogue, I like to discern first if the person is interested in learning or only interested in arguing. I avoid the arguing, because it normally leads nowhere. But if the person is interested, I like to ask questions about their scientific assumptions and refer them to other scholars who have written about the topic in engaging ways. The one who is interested in seeking will appreciate the opportunity.
      Pablo

      • mm Marc Andresen says:

        Pablo – thank you; very reasoned and appropriate.

        You are more patient than I: it takes time, effort, and real concern to ask the other person questions.

  3. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Pablo:
    Great insight on what secularism and what it is not. You said:
    First, secularity is not a synonym of unbelief. Rather, it is a mindset that lacks an axiomatic system for belief, therefore every belief is a contestant among many and it is also contestable. It is a place where believers are haunted by doubt while unbelievers are hunted by faith.
    Secondly, secularity is not what is left over once we subtract transcendence; rather it is an accomplishment, the sum of previous ideologies that have managed to create an immanent framework with the promise of providing significance without the need for transcendence.

    That was the best synopsis of Taylor that I could surmise. Secularization has definitely put its stake into our world, especially from 1500 to 2000. The affect has been broad from morality to religion to education to a plethora of other major areas.

    The question: How do we stop the SUBTRACTION and turn it around to ADDITION? What do you feel that you can do as a pastor in touching the reality of the people you pastor?

    Phil

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Phil, you asked, “What do you feel that you can do as a pastor in touching the reality of the people you pastor?” The insight that I gain from Smith is that a secular age is an age of doubting. The believer is tempted by doubt while the unbeliever is tempted by faith. Consequently, there are two key things that I can do as I pastor in a secular age. First, it is important to communicate to people that doubting is part of the path of spiritual maturity. Secondly, it is also important to cover topics that people wonder about with a balanced perspective, so people can have an informed faith. For instance, based on my own spiritual crisis that I have shared in the past, I introduce people to textual criticism during the beginning stages of our discipleship training. In that way they can build an informed faith from the beginning.
      Pablo

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