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You may have heard it said that we live in a “secular age” or a “post-Christian culture.” But what does that mean? After all, the majority of people (about 65%) in our country still identify as Christian, even if the numbers who are members of a church is going down and those who are “no religion” is going up. It seems the trend is that more people are moving from Christianity to no religion and university campuses are ahead of the curve here with many fewer students claiming Christian faith.
But are numbers and percentages all it means to be secular? After all, our “post-Christian” culture is built upon and still generally follows the Christian morals and ethics that birthed it. For example, people care about justice and equality even if they cannot agree on what such terms mean. The challenge is that morals and ethics are not to be found in scientific observation. To put it another way, you can’t easily get from what is (observations of nature and science – some people have less opportunities than others) to what ought tobe (prescriptions for how to achieve justice – there should be a system to help those with less opportunities get more).
When we try to figure out how to define secular, Charles Taylor’s phenomenal book A Secular Age is the place to go, for it changed the discussion among philosophers, thinkers and regular folks like me. Taylor describes three definitions of secular:
- Medieval Definition – Here “secular” described earthly activities that were not considered sacred. So a baker or carpenter engaged in “secular” work but he still was a religious person living in a religious environment.
- Modern Definition – In the modern era a shift occurred and secular became contrasted with religious: secular people have jettisoned or marginalized any religious beliefs. Taylor calls this a “subtraction story” as people, so the story goes, learned science and subtracted religion. In this definition, a “post-Christian” culture means more people are secular(non-religious) than are religious. This reflects the numbers game I mentioned above – as people lose religion, the culture becomes secular.
- Taylor’s Definition – Taylor found that definition problematic and argued that in a secular age belief is one option among many and all beliefs are contested. Non-religious people are haunted by their loss of spirituality while religious people are haunted by the seeming silence of God. In other words, even we who adhere to a religion are “secular” because we live in a culture where religion is one option among many and our very experience of faith is different than our ancestors.
Taylor describes premodern (say, before 1500) people as living in an enchantedworld. There was a thin line, if any, between the natural and the spiritual. The best way to imagine this is to think of any fairy tale where the characters (Hansel and Gretel, Bilbo Baggins) leave the safety of home to journey into a forest filled with witches, spirits and other supernatural forces.
Nowadays we go into the forest, the only thing we fear are snakes and spiders because we are enlightened modern people who know there are no witches who will cook us for dinner. We think this way because the scientific and industrial revolutions have given us a picture of the world that is natural, mechanical and, well, dead. A thick line has been drawn between nature and super nature. Here’s the key: even Christians think this way. Whatever religious commitments we claim, we who grew up in this culture imagine the world similarly. We imagine a natural world that runs on natural forces. The only difference is, we Christians believe that there is a God somewhere out there who steps across the gap to intervene from time to time.
We are essentially Deists – we believe in a God who set the natural world in motion and does not intervene. A true Deist would say God never intervenes, while we believe God intervenes in the resurrection, miracles and perhaps even an answer to prayer. Either way, we conceive of God as far off and rarely involved.
I recognize some of you may protest. Perhaps you believe in ghosts and have been freaked out in the woods while camping by hearing a twig snap. Maybe you are a Christian with a vigorous belief in the spiritual realm and you think angels and demons are personal and active in our world today. Fair enough, but even if you are able to resist the pull to a quasi-deism, it is still true the wider culture does not reinforce our religious practice and that we live in a world where we all know our particular religious preferences are one choice among many. To be fair, even in our secular age, America still does favor Christianity (we are 65% of the population) and thus, for example, my kids had spring break over Easter while their Jewish friends did not have spring break on the days surrounding Passover.
As a side note, its quite possible that the vibrant growing church of the global south will grow to challenge these deistic beliefs, becoming the major form of Christianity in the world. But who can tell the future?
What’s the point in sharing all this?
In one of his essays in his book A Splendid Wickedness, theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart quips, “who the heck says there are no fairies in my garden?” His most recent book, Roland in the Moonlight, is a beautiful and mystical work that combines story, poetry, philosophy and religion in the context of Hart’s conversations with his dog, Roland (yes, you read that right). Throughout his wonderful book, Roland affirms that he sees fairies all the time. Seeing fairies, according to Roland, has been lost to humans. There is a challenge to the mechanistic worldview that all of us adults take for granted.
Last week, just as I was finishing this book, Emily and I were hiking near a lake with our kids. I asked Junia if she thought fairies lived in the woods. Without hesitation she said, “yes, and mermaids live in that lake.” We adults tend to chuckle at the gullibility of children. Of course there is no tooth fairy or mermaids or Easter bunny we confidently assert!
Yet, we believe in an infinite God who made all things and became incarnate in this world. So to echo Hart, why couldn’t there be fairies living in your garden?
Now, I am not saying I believe in a literal Easter bunny or tooth fairy. But I am questioning that thick line between nature and super nature I have often taken for granted because of the culture I grew up in. When I walk my dog, I listen to birds sing and watch squirrels climb. I am trying to see the beauty in each tree limb and blade of grass. I am seeking to open my eyes and ears through the practice of silence, so I can hear the “still small voice” whispering on the wind.
The scripture says all creation testifies to God’s glory (Romans 1:20). Does that mean creation is a machine built by God and thus testifies to his glory like an iPhone might testify to the brilliance of Steve Jobs? Is God just a designer on a far grander scale who set the universe in motion and will intervene in a gap from time to time to perform a miracle?
Or, is all of creation infused with God’s love and energy? God holds it all together (Colossians 1:17). Creation testifies because its alive and, like the rocks when Jesus entered Jerusalem, praising God with its own voice?
My prayer for all of us is that we’d see this world in all its beauty. That we would lift our eyes from our phones and see God’s light shining through.
Jesus’ resurrection is not just something that happened 2,000 years ago that we affirm really happened so we get a ticket to the pleasant side of the afterlife. Jesus’ resurrection has changed the entire cosmos – God took on all we are (except sin), descended to earth, descended even to hell, filling all of the cosmos with his glory. The entire creation testifies to God’s glory at every moment (Psalm 19:1).
Do we see it? Do we hear it?
Will we join the trees and flowers in praising God?