The first sentence of the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s monumental work, A Secular Age,reveals the trajectory of what Taylor is seeking to accomplish: One way that I want to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.In other words, Taylor’s concern is not with whether the Christian faith is dominant in society, per se, but rather with the change of the conditions out of which faith may or may not be likely to arise. A Secular Ageis more of a descriptive commentary on postmodern western society and the sweeping shifts in the religious imagination of society over the past five hundred years or so. The book is enormous. The breadth of Taylor’s scholarship – political science, philosophy, religion and theology, history – are expressed in the scope of this work. While the author makes many sweeping generalizations throughout, the scope of his work allows the reader to gain an understanding of the complexity and nuance of what Taylor sees as the major shifts in western society with regard to religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Taylor’s concern is with regard to why it seemed virtually impossible not to believe in God 500 years ago, while now it seems to be one option among many. What happened between now and then, and why? And then maybe, what might the church do in response to this awareness? The latter of these questions is where James K.A. Smith attempted to ‘carry the torch’ into the pastors’ study.
In the Introduction, Taylor suggests three key features of the medieval world that help the reader grasp the complexity of this societal shift:
First, five hundred years ago, people saw God in the natural world. Natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, as well as the needed rain and sun for harvest, were all attributed to some transcendent being(s). Now, we only see the remnant of this societal imagination in the fine print of your home insurance policy: “We do not cover any damage as a result of an act of God,” but they AllState doesn’t really mean ‘God’, per se. It’s just a euphemism for “unexplained disaster.”
Second, five hundred years ago and especially in monarchical systems, God was woven into the fabric of the government. Not only was the church not separated from the state, but kings and rulers were understood to be divinely appointed to carry out the will of God for the people. This goes back to the book of Kings. Today, largely because of the separation of church and state, we do not have an imagination of divinely appointed powers (unless your name is Franklin Graham). We choose our president.
Third, the idea of an enchanted world where unexplained phenomena are attributed to supernatural forces, some good and others evil, is contrasted with a disenchanted world in which we live today, where there is little or no imagination for supernatural forces because we attempt to explain everything through scientific reasoning and discovery.
Taylor takes the reader on a long and often unwieldy journey through these three aspects that describe the conditions that have changed in western society over the past five hundred years.
James K.A. Smith, an evangelical biblical scholar and theologian from Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, whose notoriety is on the rise, attempts to condense, clarify, summarize, and apply Taylor’s work for the church in the west today. Smith is particularly interested in leaning into what it means to live in this ‘disenchanted’ world. He sees amid the disenchantment of scientific rationalism, a hunger for enchantment. Smith suggests that the church should not posture herself in a defensive manner in this time of post-Christian ‘disenchantment’, but rather to guide people in their hunger to see the ‘enchanted world’ breaking through in many and various ways.
The work of Taylor and Smith is consistent with the discoveries and interpretations of Lesslie Newbigin and Darrell Guder, in terms of seeing the shift from a society woven with a Christian imagination to one of pluralism where Christianity is one option among many systems of belief (including Atheism). Guder’s The Missional Church largely applied Newbigin’s discoveries and work as a western Christian missionary to India, suggesting that the church needs to rethink her posture in the world. In the biblical imagination, these scholars would suggest the church shift posture from a ‘Promised Land’ imagination (fit for Christendom) to an ‘Exile’ imagination, where the church humble waits for the Lord on the margins through faithful service for the sake of the common good. No more power and conquest, but instead, the call is to endure in faith for the sake of “our children’s children” (Jeremiah 31:16). I see similarities and resonances with these four thought leaders, as though they are ‘swimming in the same [academic] stream’, and personally, their work is consistent with my experience.
One question with which I have been struggling through the book is related to the historical presence of the urgency of evangelism, even in a world where, according to Taylor, it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God.” I do not intend to challenge Taylor’s conclusion on this. Still, how do we explain the phenomenon of Billy Graham, and prior to him the Azusa Street Revivals, and so on, in a world where it is “virtually impossible not to believe in God?” Why would there be a sense of urgency for evangelism in this kind of world? I think Taylor would argue that it wasn’t that every person in the west was a “believer” of sorts; it was more that there was an assumption that living a life of faith in God was the best and clearest option available. The assumption was not that everyone was a believer, but that everyone who would seek to live a good life would be a believer in God. Therefore, there was a need for evangelism, but the conditions at the time made it somewhat easy to succeed, I suppose.
Perhaps this is what led to Billy Graham’s success. Graham brought thousands (millions?) in the west to Christ through his crusades. Was this success due largely to the possibility that faith already lived deeply in the consciousness of these “Americans” because they were living in the Christian west at the time? Or maybe it was that there was already a societal support structure underneath these crusades that enabled people to “wake up” to what they already believed but had forgotten? Or was it a simply a different kind of Christianity that Billy was preaching at the time, namely a personal faith in Jesus that integrated into all of life, as opposed to the compartmentalized practice of faith as simply “going to church on Sunday?” In other words, was Billy Graham’s success largely due to the underlying assumption in western society at the time that “being a Christian is the right thing to do?” So, it wasn’t that Billy was converting people from scientific rationalism (or Atheism) to Christianity, but more that he was awakening the sleeping giant that already lived in the deepest corners of the hearts of almost-postmodern people still living in the Christian West? Even these questions are expressions of my scientific-rational social location. If I were to follow Smith’s call, the ‘enchanted world’ answer to the Billy Graham phenomenon would be that the Holy Spirit anointed him and did the work that only the Holy Spirit could and would want to do. Therefore, I suppose it’s both the conditions of society that led to his success, in partnership with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now, in the new millennium, post-Christian West, evangelism faces a new challenge. The conditions(as Taylor would suggest) have changed enough to where a rally would not likely find the same kind of success. There was a time when Christianity Today caused people to wonder if Rob Bell was on his way to becoming the next Billy Graham. Why would CT think this? Perhaps because of Rob’s evangelistic success in the early 2000s, and his creative approach to helping people embrace faith in God. But again, the conditions have changed to where an evangelist today has to take a completely different approach to understand and communicate the importance of a life of faith in God. Rob has since become somewhat of a scapegoat for Christians who prefer a world that is conducive for a Billy Graham, but according to Taylor (and even more so, James KA Smith), this longing for Christendom is nostalgic, unrealistic and unhelpful for this time.
The work of Taylor, again, is enormous and deserves far more attention than has been given. For the church, perhaps the best way to access and apply the best of Taylor would be to read James K.A. Smith. He is a needed thought leader for the western church today.