This article was written for the Intersection blog of Telos Collective a gateway for reflection on the gospel and culture of the Anglican Church in North America. The author, Trevor Potter, is a pastor of the Emmaus community in Montréal.
Due to the complex nature of the subject matter, the author has chosen to include a glossary of terms at the end of the article, borrowed from James K.A. Smith in his book, How (Not) to Be Secular, a work that translates into everyday language the masterful work of Montréal philosopher Charles Taylor, L’âge séculier.
An evening with Charles Taylor
SECOND PART (read the first part)
Dr. Taylor’s responses often centered around paradox and mystery. To be reductive imprisons us within the imminent framework. The only way to break out, to poke holes in the imminent frame that we have constructed for ourselves where all meaning and significance is found apart for God, is to invite people into paradox and mystery. We must learn to celebrate and rejoice in the paradoxes of the faith, for there, we enter into a more robust and rich faith. Dr. Taylor reflected on W.H. Auden’s words: “That there are those who believe still, and those who believe again.” For Dr. Taylor, to “believe again” was to leave the reductive, fundamentalist expressions of the faith and to come to a more mature, robust faith that celebrates mystery and finds joy in paradox.
We have to be open to the other, not closed-off, thinking we have all the answers, but open to being surprised by the other.
Dr. Taylor spoke of our need to appreciate the fact that Jesus was surprised by the Roman centurion’s faith in Matt. 8. We too need to be open to being surprised by the other. We need to be willing to learn from those around us—not just to listen for our turn to talk, but truly listen and learn from secular-searchers, Muslims, and Jews, and Hindus, etc. We have to be open to the other, not closed-off, thinking we have all the answers, but open to being surprised by the other. Meanwhile, of course, we invite the other into the mystery and paradox of the Christian faith that causes us to join with the centurion at the foot of the dead Jesus’ cross, and exclaim, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54).
James K.A. Smith continues, in his preface of How (Not) To Be Secular:
“[Y]our ‘secular’ neighbors aren’t looking for ‘answers’ – for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps. You’ve realized that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbors are oriented by all sorts of longings and ‘projects’ and quests for significance. There doesn’t seem to be anything ‘missing’ from their lives – so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their ‘God-shaped hole.’ They don’t have any sense that the ‘secular’ lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives (though a lot hinges on that ‘almost’).”
For Dr. Taylor, the role of the Christian isn’t to be the teacher – telling people why their beliefs are wrong and instructing them in the better way. Instead, he told us a better image is that of a guide or an accompanier—being with them, walking with them, learning from them, but also showing them, in your life and actions another way. This way is in step with the transcendent and loving God, expressing the kenotic agape of God. It is generous and compassionate and full of grace. Dr. Taylor does believes that re-enchantment is possible (though it is different from the enchanted worldview of the past), but it occurs through an experience of grace, not a didactic lesson. That doesn’t mean we aren’t to preach and teach—Dr. Taylor was clear about that—but our preaching and teaching has to be different. It has to communicate the grace of God and the call towards transcendence through an experience of mystery and paradox, and a demonstration of God’s kenotic love.
Dr. Taylor does believes that re-enchantment is possible (though it is different from the enchanted worldview of the past), but it occurs through an experience of grace, not a didactic lesson.
In A Secular Age Dr. Taylor makes two predictions: 1) That people would become more and more dissatisfied with the fallacy of secularism2 (the idea that things will get better and better because we’re less religious), and 2) That this dissatisfaction will lead to new searches for transcendence. I asked if he still stood behind those predictions, as A Secular Age was written between 1996-2006. He said, “Yes.” He believes the fallacy of secularism2 is becoming more and more apparent, and people are searching more for transcendence. There are days when I feel as optimistic as Dr. Taylor does, and others when David Bentley Hart’s comment that the problem today is “metaphysical boredom” seems all too true. However, I am going to choose to believe in the wisdom of Dr. Taylor and seek to be more attentive to people’s searches for transcendence, and in honesty and openness and vulnerability seek to help them find life in the paradox of the Christian faith.
I became a Christian at the age of 19. But I still fall prey to wanting to teach my family and friends into the Kingdom of God. I still want to prove to them why God is real and true, and why following Jesus is the way to true meaning and significance and purpose and joy. Maybe what I need to do is invite them into the mystery of the Triune God. Maybe I need to listen for moments when they are trying to poke holes in the imminent frame, and to help guide them towards the paradox of the crucified Messiah and life through death by the power of the Spirit.
This article was previously published on the Telos Collective blog. Used with permission. Convergence Quebec 2018.
Glossary of Terms Used
Age of authenticity: Post-1960’s age in which spirituality is de-institutionalized and is understood primarily as an expression of “what speaks to me.” Reflective of expressive individualism. (Smith)
Cross-pressure: The simultaneous pressure of various spiritual options; or the feeling of being caught between an echo of transcendence and the drive toward immanentization. Produces the nova effect. (Smith)
Disenchantment: A loss of transcendence, where all meaning and significance is found within the immanent frame.
Exclusive humanism: A worldview or social imaginary that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine transcendence. (Smith)
Fragilization: In the face of different options, where people who lead “normal” lives do not share my faith (and perhaps believe something very different), my own faith commitment becomes fragile – put into question, dubitable. (Smith)
Immanent frame: A constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence. (Smith)
Moral deism: God is reduced to a Creator who sets all things in motion and watches over us to punish or reward us based upon our moral behaviour.
Secular1: A more “classical” definition of secular, as distinguished from the sacred – the earthly plane of domestic life. Priests tend the sacred; butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers carry out “secular” work. (Smith)
Secular2: A more “modern” definition of the secular as areligious – neutral, unbiased, “objective” – as in a “secular” public square. (Smith)
Secular3: Taylor’s notion of the secular as an age of contested belief, where religious belief is no longer axiomatic. It’s possible to imagine not believing in God. (Smith)
Stakes of conformity: People conform when they believe they have more to lose by being detected in deviance than they stand to gain from the deviant act. (Stark)