Learning to Live in a Secular Age: A Montreal Learning Community
Last year, a Learning Community in Montreal formed around the task of bearing witness to Jesus in a secular age. The Rev. Trevor Potter of Emmaus Anglican Church gives us a glimpse into his Learning Community through an evening with a very special guest. [To define unfamiliar terms, check out Trevor’s Glossary at the end of this post.]
By Trevor Potter
Sociologist Rodney Stark has written that people who convert to a religion, often, at a later date, re-remember why they converted. He means that years after their conversion, they’ll usually tell you that it primarily had to do with doctrine, but in reality, it had a lot more to do with personal relationships and other stakes of conformity (Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, Chapter 1).
Because we like to think that conversion is about doctrine and truth and all of that (which it is, in part), our apologetic has been focused entirely along those lines – we are going to prove the existence of God so people will believe. But, as many of us know by now, that just isn’t the case. People aren’t asking the questions we think we have the answers to. James K.A. Smith describes the situation like this, in his preface to How (Not) To Be Secular:
“You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these ‘secular’ people had. 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. To the contrary, they have completely different maps.”
That’s true whether you live in Montreal or Vancouver, Austin or Montgomery. We’re all secular now (see Smith’s definition of secular3). We all live in a secular age.
After the 2017 Intersection Conference, I knew I wanted to start a Learning Community that took this new reality seriously. Our community at Emmaus Anglican Church wanted to ask the question: “What does it look like to bear faithful witness to Jesus today, in our context, in 21st century Montreal?” But before we sought to answer that question, we knew we needed to step back and try to learn a little bit more about the context and culture itself – its history, ethos, and telos.
James K.A. Smith, building off Oliver O’Donovan’s work, says that, “any nuanced account of how the church is to relate to […] this passing-away world depends on an attentive, fine-grained reading of the signs of the times in a particular place and era” (Awaiting the King, p.124).
We wanted to try to do just that. And so we chose our fellow Montrealer, philosopher Charles Taylor, as our guide. Actually, we chose James K.A. Smith as the guide to our guide and read How (Not) To Be Secular together. But because Dr. Taylor is a Montrealer, we took a shot in the dark and asked him if he would be willing to join our Learning Community for a night and walk us through his book A Secular Age. To our great surprise, he accepted! Nine of us got to spend an evening with one of our country’s greatest thinkers.
Our Evening with Charles Taylor
Dr. Taylor told us that he grew up loving history. He was always interested in how things came about and how changes took place. That’s the basic premise of A Secular Age – he asks the simple question: How did we get from a point (in the western world) in which the idea of someone not believing in God was absurd (~ AD 1500), to the point where, today, it is seemingly absurd to believe in God?
Dr. Taylor’s A Secular Age traces that transition through disenchantment, moral deism, the establishment of exclusive humanism, the dawning of the age of authenticity, to the point in which we now live within the imminent frame – constructing all meaning and significance apart from the transcendent God. (To learn more about these concepts, and to dive more deeply into Dr. Taylor’s ideas, I would encourage you to read How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith.) The first question that we asked Dr. Taylor was, “What do you think of Jamie Smith’s book?” His response was, “He got it!” So, you’re in good hands with Smith.
In A Secular Age Dr. Taylor is not suggesting that the change from AD 1500 – 2000 is inherently good or bad, or whether it’s right or wrong. His interest is to help you feel what it feels like in our cross-pressured secular age. He has compassion for those who feel the fragilization that this age creates in all of us, but he is not antagonistic towards the age itself.
In fact, the only thing he seems to have a distaste for is the response that this secular age can produce in some of us (myself included at times): The desire to want to bunker down and fight against this culture and this secular age. Dr. Taylor sees the secular age as an age of people seeking and searching and pursuing, and that encourages him.
I asked him how he helps people “poke holes in the imminent frame that we live within, in order to help them experience and move towards transcendence.” His response was interesting. We are to help people experience the mystery and paradox of the Christian faith. Life (fullness or flourishing or happiness) can’t be found entirely within the imminent frame. Jesus calls us to die in order to find life.
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. 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.
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.
My Journey Continues
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.
A 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 imminent 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)
Imminent 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)
Trevor Potter grew up in Montreal, and became a follower of Christ at the age of 19. After years of discipleship and mentoring he sensed the Lord’s calling to ordained ministry. He did his undergraduate work at Tyndale University, College and Seminary, and his graduate studies at Concordia University. In 2006 he began working as the Youth Director at an Anglican church, and thus began his journey on the Canterbury trail. Trevor and his wife, Kim, have two boys, Jacob and Elliott, and are grateful to have been a part of Emmaus Anglican Church since 2011.