Why does the secular age still seem haunted?

I’ve been reading an interesting book by James K.A. Smith titled, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. He describes it as a guidebook to Taylor’s scholarly tome, A Secular Age. Taylor’s book looks at our history and how we got here, and proffers that we really haven’t properly understood what the secular age means. 

As Smith explains in the video clip below, there’s been this secularization theory, a predictive theory that said we should expect a society that is advancing in technology, advancing in scientific knowledge, becoming increasing capitalist, will become diminishingly religious and, therefore, secularized. But this doesn’t adequately explain what’s been happening.

According to Taylor, the secular age doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a subtraction of belief. Quite the contrary. Here’s how he defines a truly secular society:

“A secular society is a society in which we all experience the contestability of our belief. What we mean by that is what’s believable has changed.”

Smith elaborates (from the video below)…

“What this means is that on your street you know that there are people who don’t believe what you believe. There are good people, smart people, and you all understand is that what you believe and what they believe cannot be axiomatic and the default for a society anymore. We have to face up to what Charles Taylor calls this fragilization of our belief, we realize that our beliefs are contested and contestable….We’re going to feel tugged and pushed and pulled and pressed by alternative rival stories of who we are and what we’re for.”

But, to the point here, Smith continues by saying that with the rise of secularism there’s the dynamic of disenchantment. To live in a secular age is to live in a disenchanted world in which the cosmos has been flattened, and we are enclosed in what Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame.”

Smith links this to what happened in the Reformation that is as much a product of the 17th century Enlightenment paradigm as is modern science.

“What happened is we’ve sort of unhooked the cosmos from its creator and in many ways we have to be honest that the Protestant Reformation was one of the engines that drove this disenchantment. Somehow, unintentionally, all kinds of aspects from the fallout of the Reformation kind of flattened the world, left us with the sterility of a naturalism and it evacuated the cosmos of mystery and transcendence. And here’s the problem. It did the same thing to Christianity. It flattened Christianity. It enclosed us in this kind of claustrophobic lecture hall. The church becomes this box where brains on a stick receive information in messages. We’ve flattened Christianity in a dynamic that Taylor calls “excarnation.” We disembodied it. It became less communal, less material, less sacramental.”

What has happened is that we’ve flattened the world at the expense of the transcendent, the mysterious, and a sense of wonder. Hollywood understands this innate human need and exploits it…apparently, we don’t. As C.S. Lewis said, “we’ve cut out our own souls.”

But Smith continues by saying that this is also where an opportunity presents itself because when our neighbors are experiencing the paucity and poverty of a flat and disenchanted world, they’re not going to be attracted to another box. They’re not going to be attracted to another version of a flattened and disenchanted universe. What they’ll be attracted to is precisely an enchanted Christianity.

Julian Barnes, who never grew up in a religious environment at all, said something very telling in this regard: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

The English poet, William Blake, once wrote that “humanity must and will have some religion. The only question is, which religion?” British theologian John Milbank agrees. A flattened society without religion, or the transcendent, in Milbank’s view, is simply not viable. The only real choice in our time, he says, is between some form of religion and nihilism. This may be why, even though we’ve been tirelessly removing the transcendent from the modern mind, our society still seems haunted.

But what Milbank means is something more than just a private moment with God on a Sunday morning. He means a way of life. This is a critically important point. Christianity, for instance, is not an argument or a philosophical position. It’s an alternative way of living. It’s actually participating in Christ’s life. Religion is inviting God into our life; following Christ is Him inviting us into His.

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt.11:28-30 MSG)

I really thought the following statement by Smith was insightful. We should keep it in mind as we continue our sojourn in a pluralistic and secularized culture:

“Our calling in a secular age might be less a matter of securing our status and more a matter of bearing witness to what’s missing.”

Here’s the video.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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24 Responses to Why does the secular age still seem haunted?

  1. John Branyan says:

    As with so many other aspects of human existence, we should try to find the balance between knowing things and feeling things. It’s harder for some of us (I mean me) to admit that there will always be contradictions and mysteries. Religion won’t give us a perfect picture of reality.

    • Mel Wild says:

      I agree. This is why any form of dogmatic fundamentalism (theist or scientistic) won’t win the day in our current culture. Both extremes are residual effects from Enlightenment mindset where certitudes ruled the day. The Bible is not science book and science cannot address God or the spiritual life. But we need both. So, it’s also an absurdity to think one can wipe out religion from society. This is the error of the secularization theory. It only shows that they see God as a “god of the gaps.” And we’ve inherited the modern notion that we must have all the answers. That mystery is a bad thing. It’s actually seems a bit neurotic to me because it’s a fool’s errand. That’s not to say we can’t ever grow in our knowing.

      But I personally think our current pluralistic environment is much better than when Christendom was the axiomatic cultural default, but Christianity had been dumbed-down to a cultural religion that wasn’t much different than Deism. As Kierkegaard had hoped, now we can actually re-introduce authentic Christianity to a post-Christendom culture.

  2. Very interesting, Mel! This is precisely the thing I so often wrestle with. I like to call myself a Bapticostal, busy out tripping the tulips. Makes people crazy, but the truth is, I need the form and function of doctrine, but I need the truth and beauty, the mystery of our faith, too. Trying to find that balance within the Christian world can be really challenging, mostly because of secularism.

    Heard a cute joke, “try to remember Martin Luther limited his churchian complaints to 95.” 🙂

    So,on a more positive note, secularism really is to live in a disenchanted, somewhat cynical world of materialism. People absolutely crave the spiritual! The future of the church is indeed, ancient, and enchanted, and if we can just rediscover our spiritual roots, people will seek refuge there, people will be drawn into that truth.

    I live in the second most secular county in the country and one of biggest ironies is to be sitting beneath prayer flags, looking at the hanging crystals, smelling the burning sage,and trying to talk to some Viking worshipper about Jesus. I did not make that up, I mean it is tragically comical how spiritual we are…while vehemently proclaiming our loyalties to secularism. The more we pull away from the spiritual, the hungrier people get. That’s good news! So the church simply needs to feed the sheep,just as we have been called to do. Always easier said than done.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Very interesting about your county, IB! There’s an article from University of Virginia talking about how Millennials are leaving the church but are still spiritual and believe in God.

      “80 percent of millennials believe in God and increasing numbers identify with statements like “I feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being” or “I experience a deep sense of wonder about the universe.”


      And I can empathize with some of the reasons given why they don’t embrace organized religion (right now), including a perceived political entanglement. They’re turned off by “American” Christianity, not necessarily Christianity itself.

      • Nan says:

        Just a note here … “embracing spirituality” and experiencing a “deep sense of wonder about the universe” does not translate to believing in God. Further, the reason many don’t “embrace organized religion” is not because they don’t like “American” Christianity. Many simply prefer a more encompassing perspective on life and what it means to them.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Just a note here … “embracing spirituality” and experiencing a “deep sense of wonder about the universe” does not translate to believing in God.

          True, in a general sense, but the quote was about millennials in particular. It said that 80% DO believe in God. 80 percent of millennials believe in God and increasing numbers identify with statements like “I feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being….”

          Many simply prefer a more encompassing perspective on life and what it means to them.

          Not sure what you mean by that, Nan. I personally believe that theism, properly understood, is much more encompassing that philosophical naturalism, for instance, which represents a very closed view of reality. Theism embraces both the natural world and the spiritual or metaphysical world. But I would agree that we should jettison much of our mechanized Enlightenment paradigm we’ve inherited.

        • John Branyan says:

          Nan doesn’t know what she’s saying, Mel. Her theology is a shambles. She doesn’t identify as an atheist. She can’t stand “religion”.
          So she assembles comments like, “a more encompassing perspective on life and what it means” and believes she’s said something profound.

          When you call out atheists for wanting “spirituality” while denying the existence of “spirits”, you’ll get yourself blocked on their blog. 🙂

        • Mel Wild says:

          “When you call out atheists for wanting “spirituality” while denying the existence of “spirits”, you’ll get yourself blocked on their blog.”

          1. relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
          2. relating to religion or religious belief.

          You mean, when you point out that their “more encompassing perspective” amounts a whole lot of cognitive dissonance? That’s just being mean, JB. 🙂

        • Nan says:

          I truly appreciate the psychological analysis by the two of you. I will copy and save these remarks and reread them regularly so I’ll be sure and know who and what I am. 😘

        • Mel Wild says:

          Ha ha. Simply defining what “spiritual” means, Nan. You should expect some push back when you call yourself spiritual while evacuating the word of its meaning.

  3. Nan says:

    To Mel and your sidekick …

    At no time in the last 20 years do I recall calling myself “spiritual.” The comment I made above was in relation to what many millennials call themselves. Also, please note that nowhere in that comment did I refer to myself.

    • I’m pretty sure that an avatar that says,”we are all star stuff,” resides in the realm of the spiritual,and even perhaps the romantic and metaphorical. The very concept of “star stuff,” is about “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul .”

      • Mel Wild says:

        Good point, IB. Frankly, I have no idea what Nan actually believes. It’s all over the place, which is what I think JB was alluding to, so I will bow out of this conversation before it gets any more convoluted. It makes my head hurt. 🙂

      • Nan says:

        Perhaps you should read the origin of the saying in my avatar … noting that it was made by Carl Sagan who said this: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

        I see nothing in his comment that references spiritual, romanticism, human spirit, or soul.

        • Carl Sagan himself is actually a spiritualist. He writes of this,he speaks of this,he openly admits to being influenced by the spiritual, romantic, and things of the human soul. It permeates everything he says, it is woven all through his writing. Here is a quote from him, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

        • Nan says:

          You are certainly referencing an entirely different source than I am. He did deny being an atheist, but he also said this: … but neither do I consider there to be anything approaching adequate evidence for such a god.

          Further, according to his wife: When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again.

        • My point was simply that Carl Sagan is a romantic spiritualist, by his own admission. By his own admission, over and over again in his books, he speaks of the “cosmos” and “star stuff” in romantic, soulful, faith based terms, and not in scientific ones. I am not referencing a “different source,” I am referencing the man you are quoting, the one whose words are in your avatar. Like it or not “star stuff” is romantic phraselogy, not scientific words, not a literal translation. Those are words that call out to the human soul, they are spiritual, they live in the realm of faith.

        • Nan says:

          If this interpretation makes you feel all warm inside, so be it. Who am I to take away from your romantic, soulful, faith-based interpretation?

        • Mel Wild says:

          IB, I think you hit on an interesting point in relation to this post. Carl Sagan is actually a good case in point on why our secular world still seems haunted. People just can’t seem to let go of the spiritual even though, intellectually speaking, they may insist on “anything but God!” A curious thing indeed. 🙂

        • Right, Mel? Speaking of why our secular world still seems haunted, Carl Sagan actually wrote a book about that very thing called, “The Demon Haunted world.” He was a spiritualist, an astrophysicist, a cosmologist, trying to merge science with faith, spirituality, romanticism,the cry of our souls. Unfortunately he lead a lot of people astray in the process, left them confused about the difference between “science” and “faith.” One doesn’t cancel out the other, but as you know they are just not the same discipline, they answer different questions. Sagan actually said things like “what holds the whole Cosmos together is love” and the “Cosmos created us to reflect itself.”

          Along come neo atheists with a hunger for the spiritual, feeding themselves on his words and just calling it “science.” What fascinates me is that we all have a hunger for this same truth, for His truth. So Nan chases stardust and the Cosmos of love, while claiming to totally reject religion, the romantic,the spiritual. In fact, she can’t even acknowledge it actually is “spiritual.”

          But it is all spiritual, faith based! I’ve yet to see any stardust sitting in petri dish.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Along come neo atheists with a hunger for the spiritual, feeding themselves on his words and just calling it “science.”

          Ah, yes, and so it goes in the convoluted world of “anything but God.”

    • Mel Wild says:

      Okay, fair enough, Nan. Let me rephrase what I mean in context of the original quote. Just so we’re clear, when it says that about 80% of millennials actually believe in God and feel a “deep sense of spiritual peace,” we shouldn’t redefine or dismiss what that means. First, what this means is that these people are obviously not materialists or atheists. Second, they obviously believe in a transcendent spiritual reality beyond the natural, which is non-material and technically a religious belief, even though it may not be Christian.

  4. Argus says:

    All good clean fun and to a degree stimulating, but as Khayyam (via Fitzgerald) (and I think the versions I love most are much more Fitzgerald than Khayyam anyway)—

    “Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same Door as in I went.”

    All up this religion stuff is irresolvable, and the sad (or good?) thing about it is that no-one will be dismayed at the end. Trust me on that …

  5. Pingback: How Christendom gave us Secularism | In My Father's House

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