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Why You (and I) are "Secular"
Forgiveness Sunday and the unspoken assumptions behind contemporary belief.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Christian—likely an Orthodox Christian, specifically.
You believe all the doctrines Christians have always believed. And yet…
You’re far more influenced by the world than the Mind of Christ.
But this blog will get a little deeper….
It will outline where I’m coming from when I make these critiques about contemporary Orthodox Christianity (which aren’t exclusive to the Church, mind you; they apply to all believers in our contemporary age).
So, ready to get into it?
Charles Taylor & James K.A. Smith
My approach to ministry and cultural engagement is built on some key ideas found in Charles Taylor’s influential tome, A Secular Age.
(You’ll find this approach in Effective Christian Ministry.)
And I recently finished rereading James K.A. Smith’s excellent How (Not) to be Secular with my Hellenic College class on “Pop Culture and Orthodox Evangelism.” Smith’s book is a great introduction to Taylor’s thought.
But why am I writing this today, of all days?
Because Taylor’s insights into our secular age are very relevant for Forgiveness Sunday. They can help us understand what exactly you (and I) need to ask forgiveness from…
Our Underlying Assumptions
Taylor’s work explores the meaning of the word “secular.” It’s a word we use often based on an unstated assumption that shapes our approach to everything from pop culture to Christian ministry.
And what is this assumption?
Well, as contemporary Christians, it’s easy to feel that we’re surrounded by “secular” forces that are hostile to the Church—and that the walls are closing in.
This assumption shapes:
The way we approach pop culture: we see it as inherently propagandistic, something that’s leading our young people away from engagement with the Church.
The way we approach ministry: we see our job as filling the heads of young people with Orthodox perspectives so they can be inoculated to the “secular” forces they’ll inevitably encounter when they head to college or more to a big city to start working.
Our narrative about the decline in young people’s engagement with the Church: they’re falling away in droves, not because of anything we’re doing wrong, but because “secular” forces are getting to them.
But is this assumption about the hostility of external, “secular” forces correct?
Taylor and Smith (and I) say “no.” And a brief walk through world history can help us see why.
Because Taylor observes that the word “secular” has actually meant different things at different times. And, if we’re going to confront the secularity of our present moment, we need to know what we’re up against…
Secular1: An Enchanted World
Taylor begins with a summary of premodern societies. In this era (which we can call “Secular1”), there was no divide or hostility between the “sacred” and “secular”—a divide that we think we see in our own time—just a distinction. Because:
In classical or medieval accounts, the “secular” amounted to something like “the temporal”—the realm of “earthly” politics or of “mundane” vocations. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 20)
In other words, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers have secular vocations. But those vocations complement the sacred vocations of clergy and monastics who burn the candles they make and bless the loaves of bread they bake.
Further, in a Secular1 world, virtually all people saw the world in ways that made unbelief incredibly unlikely. They were immersed in an enchanted reality where three key things presented major obstacles to unbelief:
1. The natural world was constituted as a cosmos that functioned semiotically, as a sign that pointed beyond itself, to what was more than nature.
2. Society itself was understood as something grounded in a higher reality; earthly kingdoms were grounded in a heavenly kingdom.
3. In sum, people lived in an enchanted world, a world “charged” with presences, that was open and vulnerable, not closed and self-sufficient. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 27)
This Secular1 world was one where anyone could turn a corner and stumble upon an angel or demon—even those involved in “secular” pursuits, like bakers or candlestick makers.
But that changed with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment…
Secular2: The Subtraction Story
In this next era, “secular” isn’t something complementary to the “sacred.” Instead, “secular” began to mean something like “objective” or “rational.”
And this happened as civilization transitioned to what we call the Age of Enlightenment: a time when people were overcome by a sense of confidence—a belief that they could understand all things by the power of pure reason.
So the universe began to shift from a cosmos (where God created all things for a purpose) to a universe where rational actors can discern the scientific laws that govern the material world.
As Smith summarizes it:
Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 42)
This shift comes with a “subtraction” as the sacred—with all of it bias and irrationality—is removed, leaving a pure “secular” reality behind.
We see this in astronomy, for example: the sun is no longer a god moving across the sky, but rather a giant ball of gas that can be understood in light of chemical and physical laws.
We see this in politics: people are no longer subject to kings who rule by divine right, instead the wisest are selected to debate in a congress or parliament and craft rational laws for the good of the polity.
And this is where we Orthodox Christians (and not just us, certainly) tend to believe we find ourselves: in a battle with secular forces to prevent the continued “subtraction” of the sacred out of our lives.
It’s why we react so viscerally when prayer is removed from public schools—and work so tirelessly to get it back. It’s why we so often frame “faith” as a matter of right belief (preventing the subtraction of the sacred from faithful minds) and “ministry” as work which ensures that these minds remain full of the right “perspectives.”
Youth ministry in particular is designed to fill the heads of kids with Orthodox perspectives before they head to hostile, “secular” universities which will try to subtract the sacred from their lives. That’s why we’re so obsessed with creating new resources like curricula, for example.
But these approaches fail because they are designed for a world that is long gone.
Taylor and Smith (and I) argue that these mainstream ministry approaches no longer work because we’ve moved on from Secular2 to another era. One where the forces of “secularity” have already won…
Secular3: The Disenchanted, Doubting World
Now, this may seem hard for us to believe because we (especially we Orthodox Christians) believe the same things that our forefathers in faith believed.
But that’s not a problem for Taylor and Smith. Because:
A society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 21-22)
Taylor’s critical insight is that religiosity hasn’t actually decreased in our Secular3 age. More people are choosing to identify as having no religious affiliation (the “nones” you’ll often read about in articles). But even these nones still maintain a certain spirituality and curiosity about the transcendent.
They may not go to church on Sunday morning…but they believe in ghosts and that crystals have magical healing properties.
Our Secular3 world isn’t unique because of the beliefs people hold—after all, there still plenty of Christians around, even “traditional” Christians. Instead, our Secular3 era is unique because of the conditions of belief: the way that we approach faith.
Because the sacred has already been subtracted down to zero in our lives. We are trapped in the “immanent frame,” a way of seeing the world in purely mechanistic and material terms.
The Assumptions that Shape our Secular3 World
Recall the three assumptions that shaped the Secular1 era. Taylor and Smith point to new assumptions that undergird our current secular age:
Significance shifts from a fact about created things to a construct of the perceiving mind: “meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally…In this shift to the modern imaginary, minds are ‘bounded,’ inward spaces. So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority ” (p. 27, 30)
This shift in meaning leads to an isolation as faith becomes a matter of purely private opinion: “Once individuals become the locus of meaning, the social atomism that results means that disbelief no longer has social consequences.” (p. 31)
We begin to see time as a purely linear thing that marks purely mechanical movements: “In the premodern understanding, because ‘mundane’ and secular1 time is transcended by ‘higher’ time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological.” (p. 34)
This is because we see all reality as fundamentally flat and purely material, a universe rather than a cosmos where “it’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle. If the premodern self is ‘porous,’ so too is the premodern cosmos.” (p. 34)
So, if those are the assumptions that underlie our Secular3 age, what does that mean for us today? Even for those of us who choose to believe?
We’re All Secular
You read that right. I’m secular. You’re secular. We’re all secular now.
Even if we’re Orthodox Christians…
Because, faced with the cold emptiness of a merely physical universe, people still search for some (any?) meaning to help give their lives direction and purpose. This flattened existence is simply too empty to bear. So we try to believe—not as our forefathers in the faith did, but as people firmly grounded in this Secular3 reality:
Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted. On the other hand, even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 4)
We Christians stand in the splendor of the Liturgy and wonder whether any of the ritual has a point. We stand at our icon corners and wonder if we’re just talking to ourselves. We stand at the graves of our lost loved one and wonder whether there really is a God after all…
But this doubt isn’t limited to believers. Even non-believers are haunted by doubt—though, in their case, the doubt that haunts them is faith.
Non-believers hold their children and wonder how it’s possible to love someone so deeply. Non-believers stand at the graves of their lost loved ones and hope that there really is a God after all…
Because we are all caught in what Taylor calls the “cross-pressure” between faith and doubt. And all we can do, in the midst of this formless chaos, is plant our flag somewhere and choose to believe something.
But it is still we that must choose: because meaning is still a thing that we create and assign to things (even the Church, as we’ll see below).
And we need to be clear about this if we’re going to understand how we need to repent (and how ministry needs to develop in the years ahead).
What Faith Looks Like in Secular3
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that faith is certainly possible today. In fact, we see it all the time. As we said earlier in this post, religious affiliation may be dropping—but that doesn’t mean a desire for faith is diminishing.
And that desire can manifest in any number of ways: from New Age spirituality to Orthodoxy Christianity. Yet, just because a contemporary person ends up in a traditional faith, that doesn’t mean that he or she is free of the immanent frame and somehow exempt from Secular3.
While the spiritual seeker in our secular age is on an individual quest, that quest might actually end up with a conversion to Roman Catholicism that cuts against the libertarian individualism of the quest itself. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 90)
And the individuality of that quest materializes in a variety of ways…
For example, even Orthodox Christians tend to talk about “the faith” far more than we talk about Christ. We’re far more comfortable reading books and watching videos about this “faith” than actually attempting to commune with Christ in worship and prayer.
And when we connect with the Church, it’s fundamentally a self-directed motion that’s part of the “individual quest” Taylor and Smith describe. New Christians use language like “I joined” or “I converted to Orthodoxy.” And reverts to the Church use similar language: “I returned to Orthodoxy.”
In both cases, the individual maintains an interior checklist against which he judges various traditions. And when he’s satisfied that a particular ideology (like “Orthodoxy”) satisfies the criteria that he’s looking for, he “joins.”
We have no real, felt sense of being received into the Church sacramentally or of encountering Christ and being united to Him. We simply do our research, determine our own personal criteria for truth, and then begin identifying with the club that meets the criteria we set.
This is a consequence of the “buffered self” that Taylor and Smith describe. As the center of meaning shifts to the individual mind, the person becomes more and more closed off to the possibility of transformation. In Secular3, even conversion becomes a thing that happens on my own terms based on my own criteria.
And these criteria tend to skew in a particular direction. Taylor and Smith both observe that this modern approach to faith is particularly at-risk of looking backwards to an imagined golden age:
You have a recipe for a kind of conservatism, or even a nostalgia, which emphasizes “that the deepest sources of European culture were in Christianity” while castigating the unfettered subjectivism of modernity. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 134)
The Secular3 convert can believe himself to have returned to a premodern state, to have achieved some kind of re-enchantment. But this confidence is folly.
There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. (How (Not) to be Secular, p. 61)
We certainly see this in the contemporary Church, where many people seem to be drawn, not to the Kingdom of God, but to an idealized version of Imperial Russia or Byzantium. And they rejoice in “castigating the unfettered subjectivity of modernity” while making names for themselves criticizing bishops on Twitter and setting themselves up as the ultimate authority.
But this isn’t to say that Taylor or Smith (or I) think that genuine faith is impossible in a Secular3 world. We just have to know what we’re up against before we can proceed…
Forgiveness and a Path to Re-enchantment
Great Lent always begins with Forgiveness Vespers. Parishioners both ask for and receive forgiveness as we enter the ascetic struggle of the Fast.
This year, perhaps we can have the reality of our Secular3 era in mind as we bow to our brethren. Perhaps we can ask forgiveness, not simply for the fibs we’ve told and resentments we’ve harbored, but for the cold flatness that envelops our hearts.
Perhaps we can ask forgiveness for the pride we feel in the truth of our doctrine, a pride that conveniently obscures the nagging doubts in our minds and the harsh immanence which claims our hearts.
And perhaps this can begin to open the door to (potential) re-enchantment. But that will have to wait for next week and the Sunday of Orthodoxy…
May God forgive us all.