Over the last year and a half, I have slowly read through a book written by Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. This book is regarded as Taylor’s magnum opus. What Taylor does is tell the story of how secularism gradually developed over the last four hundred years and how secularism works in the Western world today.
Secularism works through what Taylor calls a “social-imaginary,” which has to do with the way people “collectively imagine” their existence (A Secular Age, p. 146). This is different from what we think of as a worldview in that the social-imaginary is not a carefully constructed set of beliefs but more like assumed beliefs, some of which operate below the surface of awareness. In our society, the social-imaginary includes the loss of transcendence in the lives of people (A Secular Age, p 294). The loss of transcendence means that people can easily live life without any awareness of God at work in their lives.
Let’s briefly move on from Charles Taylor and consider another aspect of the macro culture in North America. In the year 2022, we are living in a post-truth society. According to Lee McIntyre, this post-truth reality means our society is one in which all kinds of people are trying to make us believe in ideas whether there’s good evidence or not (Post-Truth, p. 13).
In his book, McIntyre mentions the Tobacco Industry as an example. For years cigarette manufacturers colluded to fabricate research in support of the claim that smoking cigarettes were not hazardous to health. The Tobacco Industry engaged in this disinformation campaign even though they knew there was conclusive research showing that in all likelihood the tar in cigarettes caused cancer.
Over time, this spreading of disinformation and spinning of facts has helped create a culture where truth seems relative. Although we are now to the point where truth no longer matters as much as feelings (Post-Truth, p. 116). As a result, people may now add adjectives to the word truth and in doing so, seemingly claim whatever they choose to believe as truth whether it is true or not. For example, a part of our vernacular now includes phrases like “my truth” and “alternative facts” as a way of justifying a claim. Of course, what this accomplishes is making our own opinions, perceptions, etc… become a totalizing reality, even if it is self-deception.
This is why what we do as Christians, and not just what we say, matters more than ever. If we’re going to claim that the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God is true, which I hope we do, then our claim has to be seen in what we do and how we live. Hence, the title of this message series on Philippians, Living Christ.
I’ll come back to the matter of what we do as Christians but I want to bring Charles Taylor back into the mix for a moment. The secular age we live in means belief and unbelief are in contest with each other. Almost everyone has some doubts about what they profess in terms of religion and spiritual life. For the most part, believers profess faith but have questions that raise doubts about such faith. Likewise, unbelievers profess agnosticism (perhaps even soft atheism) but have questions that cast doubt on their unbelief.
Taylor mentions the aesthetic awareness of beauty, the awareness of a need for ethics and morality, and the awareness of the creative capacity that humans possess as reasons why there are questions that cast doubt on unbelief. The awareness of beauty, morality, and human capacity evokes a wonder that cannot be explained by a secular framework of unbelief (A Secular Age, p. 596). In other words, beauty, morality, and creativity raise questions that cannot be answered in a life in which there is no God. Furthermore, as Taylor explains “there must be some way in which this life looks good, whole, proper, really being lived as it should” (A Secular Age, p. 600). Therefore, even in our day where moral relativism flourishes, people know that there is a right and wrong way to live… a good and bad.
If Taylor is correct, as I believe, then the fact is that even in a secular society, there are many skeptics who still have questions. Such skeptics may have reasons for doubting belief but even with their pervasive secularism they also have questions about whether there is more to life than just what can be observed in a science lab. I contend that this opens space for the church. Knowing that people still have a sense of right and wrong and wonder where that comes from opens space for the church to point to the existence and redemptive work of God. This opening is based on the way we live life, particularly by practicing what Paul describes as true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable (cf. Phil 4:8-9).
Although the church’s understanding of what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable, is going to differ from the way other people understand, surely there are places where there is similar understanding. These are the spaces where God is out in front of the church, already working in the community. For example, believers and unbelievers alike agree that racism, poverty, and human trafficking are unjust realities. So when a local church works to address one or more of these matters, there is a portal for demonstrating what the kingdom of God is like. In doing so, this can become an opportunity to build relationships within the community and perhaps share the story of Jesus as an explanation for why the church would care enough to do something about racism, poverty, and human trafficking.
I’m sharing this with you because we are well beyond the days of leading with “The Bible says…” In fact, in a secular age where truth is now relative, our words matter not without actions that coherently express what we hope to proclaim with our words. At the end of the day, there isn’t any guaranteed outcome except the promise of hope that exists in the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Jesus Christ. Yet the way we bear witness to that hope is by our good works.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:16 (NRSV)
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.