How can the church be faithful in its mission to bear witness to Jesus Christ in our secular age?
Are we asking the right questions? Do we really understand the context in which we are serving? How can we communicate the gospel in a way that addresses the real concerns and questions of this generation? Are we making room for the skeptic and those dealing with doubt? What does it mean to pursue human flourishing as a follower of Christ? Are we reaching the lost in our culture or are we being conformed by our culture? How can we maintain our confessional witness in an increasingly partisan and pluralistic society? Is there hope for the church to flourish in our secular age?
These kinds of questions motivated me to pick up The Gospel Coalition’s Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
As the title suggests, this book interacts with, applies, and occasionally critiques the insights of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age with a particular focus on the life and mission of the church. If, like myself, you have little knowledge of Taylor’s work, don’t let that keep you from picking up this book. For those who don’t have time to take up Taylor’s work or would like to familiarize yourself with some of his though beforehand, Our Secular Hope is a great place to start. While it is not intended to be an official introduction to Charles Taylor’s work, one of its greatest strengths is the way it familiarizes readers with Taylor’s arguments.
In his landmark book, Taylor examines the rise of secularism and the decline of faith over the last 500 years. According to Taylor, our modern society has embraced self-sufficient immanent order—an immanent frame. In other words, Greg Forster explains, “It interprets all phenomena we encounter in the world other than the activity of human minds as explainable by mechanistic causes…The immanent frame presents us with a fully explainable natural world, but also with a sense of ourselves as existing separate from that world and also from the supernatural world” (102-103). Taylor calls this sense of self a “buffered self.” This conception of self means that meaning is not found embedded in the external world but that it resides within us. Self is now the master of its own meanings with personal human flourishing as its highest commitment.
Additionally, Taylor characterizes the modern age as an age of authenticity, which is marked by expressive individualism. Taylor explains, “Each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it’s important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.” (A Secular Age, 475). This expressive individualism plays a role in belief formation. Faith is now an expression of identity, it must ultimately help us be true to our own self. Bruce Ashford captures the effect of all this:
Within the immanent frame, we search for meaning, and find an explosion of different options. As a result we are ‘fragilized’; surrounded by competing options in close proximity to ourselves, we lack confidence in our own beliefs. We are ‘cross-pressured’; caught between the modern disenchantment of the world and the haunting of transcendence, we find ourselves in perpetual unease. (88)
Taylor calls this unease “the malaise of modernity,” which John Starke describes as a sense “where what we’ve gained with our buffered selves doesn’t compensate for what we’ve lost with transcendence” (44). We now live with a “nagging dissatisfaction with the modern moral order” and a “continuing sense that there is something more.”
The various contributors interact with these thoughts and apply them to numerous issues related to the church’s place and mission in our secular age. Below is a brief snapshot of each chapter:
- Collin Hansen shows how we can have hope as we engage our secular age with the gospel while also warning against making our faith a mere tool for coping with our secular age (Chapter 1).
- Carl Trueman examines Taylor’s historical narrative and its importance for understanding the changes we are seeing within our present context (Chapter 2).
- Michael Horton addresses Taylor’s understanding of Reformation theology while also defining the calling of the church in our secular age (Chapter 3).
- John Starke tackles the topic of preaching in a secular age in light of some of the basic elements of Taylor’s analysis (Chapter 4).
- Derek Rishmawy highlights the invaluable nature of Taylor’s insights regarding the conditions of belief as it relates to the opportunities and challenges of reaching millennials (Chapter 5).
- Alastair Roberts addresses the notion of liturgical piety and how Taylor’s analysis of secularism impacts the worship of the church (Chapter 6).
- Brett McCracken calls churches to break away from the self-defeating consumerism and expressive individualism characteristic of our secular age (Chapter 7).
- Bruce Ashford demonstrates the church’s place in politics and public witness in a secular age—both as an organized political assembly and an organic public witness (Chapter 8).
- Greg Forster calls the church to whole-heartedly embrace religious freedom and religious formation in the face of secularism (Chapter 9).
- Jen Pollock Michel addresses the unique Christian understanding of human flourishing which is so prized in our secular age (Chapter 10).
- Bob Cutillo argues for the importance of the body and embodied presence for our current pursuit of health (Chapter 11)
- Alan Noble examines how the arts and literature can bear witness to God in secular age largely trapped within the immanent frame (Chapter 12)
- Mike Cosper, through interacting Kayne West and Charles Taylor, further explores how the arts can be used to expose the weakness of the immanent frame and point to something more (Chapter 13).
As I read Our Secular Age, I grew in my understanding of the secular age in which the church finds itself. I also grew in my conviction that the church has hope for entering into this secular culture, challenging it, and appealing to it with the unchanging message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bruce Ashford poignantly sums up the challenge before the church in our secular age:
We must embrace the moment God has given us—a secularized, cross-pressured, fragilized moment. When the Lord returns, we will meet him first and foremost as Christians. But we will also meet him as citizens of the modern West. Being a cross-pressured and fragilized Westerner is not the most important dimension of our identity, but it is an unavoidable one for which we will give account. For that reason, it is incumbent on us to tailor our witness for a secular age. (98)
To that end, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
You may also be interested in this video of Tim Keller (founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and TGC vice president), Russell Moore (president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and TGC Council member), and Collin Hansen (TGC editorial director) discussing how sharing the gospel in our secular age is different.