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How (Not) To Be Secular (1) – Introduction

We are told that we live in a “secular world” or in a “secular age”, but what does mean? This question is important if we want to wisely engage with our unbelieving neighbors and find ways of witnessing to and blessing our secular community.

There are three ways to define secular:

The first is the difference between a temporal or earthly life and a religious life. This probably isn’t what we mean when we talk about the world being secular.

The second is the idea that there is an anti-religious bias. This idea holds that there should be no religious participation in government or the market and so on. This view is overtly hostile to religion and it believes that all societies will eventually become secular. For examples of this consider the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins or organizations like Freedom from Religion. Though anti-religious bigots do play an oversized role in our society, continued faith and church attendance has proven them wrong.

The third definition is the one I’ll be using. It defines secularism as a society in which religious belief is understood to be one option among others and thus contestable. In this society people have moved from a place where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood that faith is one option among others and infrequently not the easiest to embrace. It is in this sense that we live in a secular age even if religious participation might be viable, visible, and fervent.

In his great work, The Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor spilled ink across hundreds upon hundreds of pages to try to help people understand what it means to inhabit a (third sense) secular world. Believing this is important, but that most Christians would have neither the time nor ability to understand this great work, philosopher James K. A. Smith wrote How (Not) To Be Secular. I am going to attempt to take this process one step further and distill Smith’s book into a series of messages for you all.

I think this important because while the Gospel never changes, society does. Understanding the operations of the world around us helps us to best contextualize the Gospel (i.e. explain it in terms that our unbelieving neighbors or our children will more readily understand). While salvation is a gift of God and we cannot save people by our techniques, we do see the apostles working to contextualize the Gospel—for example Paul takes a very different approach with the Athenians than he does with Hebrew religious leaders. 

I’ll end this introductory message by showing how a lack of understanding in secularity can make it difficult for us to contextualize the Gospel. How many of you have had an experience like this: You came with what you thought were all the answers to the your secular neighbors’ questions, but it didn’t take long for you to realize that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked. And they weren’t questions. That is, your secular neighbors aren’t looking for answers, for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. On the contrary, they have completely different maps. You realize 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 Jesus who fills their “God-shaped” hole. They don’t have any sense that the secular lives they’ve constructed are missing anything. For 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).

It seems many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine. They inhabit what Charles Taylor calls an imminent frame. They are no longer bothered by the God question as a question because they are devotees of exclusive humanism, a way of being in the world that offers significance without transcendence. They don’t feel like anything is missing. In response, we must ask questions like, what does it look like to bear witness in a secular age? What does it look like to be faithful? To what extent have Christians unwittingly absorbed the tendencies of this world?

This series will certainly not have all the answers! Rather, my hope is to stimulate thought, discussion, and help us to think about what questions may be helpful to ask and where we can begin to seek answers to them.