When I find myself frustrated or at an impasse with a fellow Christian, I find it’s not always differences in the details of our faith in Christ which divide us. Often, profoundly different beliefs about the world we all occupy seem to be the cause of our conflict. The thing is, if we misjudge the basics about the nature of modern society, Christians will fail in their efforts of evangelism, discipleship, and even our efforts to maintain basic orthodoxy. Modern Christians living in a secular world need to understand the precise ways in which our world is “secular,” and how it got that way. As I begin this series of articles exploring secularity, it is my hope that a clear recognition of secularity, and how it operates in the world, will be made available to our readers.
THE WORLD HAS CHANGED, THE WORLD IS CHANGING
Large-scale, societal change is the inescapable reality of our present age, and its realization may finally be sinking into the minds of normal, faithful Christians of the secularizing West. The further realization that this isn’t just something happening “out there,” but the seeds of unbelief and faithlessness have gained and maintain an increasing stronghold in formerly orthodox, Christian institutions is a bitter admission indeed. Secular, and unbiblical, ideas are governing decisions made at every level of many churches and institutions still officially under the auspices of churches. For Christians whose fidelity to God’s word has forced them to be purged from their liberalized and secularizing home denominations, seeking refuge in orthodox Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc… jurisdictions, the reality that “the secular” can creep right in the front door is no laughing matter.
Of course, Christians have been witnessing a less dramatic form of decline in belief for a while; the lazy winds of time persisting in that gentle, centuries-long erosion of cathedral spires, and the corresponding, gradual shifts in culture that give rise to new, modified versions of the old. That’s only one form of the “secular” I want to address in this series of articles, along with the far more aggressive secularity embedded in contemporary life. My greater hope is to offer an interpretive framework, drawing from the ideas of three important modern works, to aid Anglicans (and other faithful Christians) in understanding the perplexing world of the secular West, with its increasing hostility to the Christian faith.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Why do I think such an interpretive framework is necessary? If there’s “something wrong” then shouldn’t it be apparent to everybody? The truth is, in an increasingly complex, global, and highly technological society the Church has been forced into a tempest of social, cultural, and ideological upheaval and confusion. And “no,” this isn’t just “how it’s always been.” Change as a fact of history may be a constant, but the means, scope, and effects of change that we’re experiencing now are unprecedented. People are coming into adulthood in a world that is increasingly incomprehensible to its denizens, and many remain largely ignorant or deceived about the deep, societal complexity teeming beneath the surface of even the most familiar of experiences.
How can the astute Christian layman or minister help but feel powerless, as a seemingly endless array of new potentialities generates ever-changing expectations, constantly churned into our cultural mix, and suddenly thrust into view? The Church is in need of good directions, a story to help explain the complexities of the present world, by mapping out the changes and choices that led us here. If we are to remain “innocent as doves” in such a confusing age, we have a duty to become “wise as serpents” to its secularizing tendencies and nature.
Without a shared, cultural inheritance, moderns contend with each other over more and more of what used to be the assumed facts of life. If people can agree on anything it seems to be that the Church can no longer exercise its prophetic task of defining goodness, truth, and beauty for the culture at large. As always, Christians are trying to navigate the mission field just outside the front door. Such a landscape as this, though, demands the light of guides who can illumine the path ahead.
THREE GUIDES TO THE SECULAR
I have enlisted the aid of three influential works, by three important commentators on secular modernity, in order to offer some much-needed light. The three men whose contributions we will examine and assess for the task of understanding the secularizing forces of modernity are as follows: Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor. I will principally focus on their most influential works, respectively: After Virtue (1981), Theology and Social Theory (1990), and A Secular Age (2007). In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre diagnoses and warns us about the moral mess in which we now find ourselves (whether we realize it or not) and provides an intellectual history of how we got ourselves in it. MacIntyre is principally interested in virtue, how it is cultivated in a society, and how it is lost. John Milbank’s seminal book Theology and Social Theory warns of the way social theory has displaced theology as the “queen of the sciences” and invites us to question its self-serving “myth,” that the secular is a neutral and disinterested proposition. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor identifies those influential moments and cultural trends which have served to make the modern West such a place where belief in God, being far from an almost universal assumption as in centuries past, is simply one option among many and an increasingly improbable proposition.
A COMBINED THEORY OF SECULARITY
Each of these thinkers addresses the problems of secular modernity from a different point of view and each offers unique insights that I propose to articulate in the formulation of a combined theory—a theory of the secular that draws together the best and most useful aspects of each account into a cohesive whole. We will discover that these theories themselves pose particular challenges for the Church, specifically those Christians who faithfully inherit the legacy and theology of the Protestant Reformation. Likewise, Christians of various stripes may rightly wonder if the theories of MacIntyre (a Roman Catholic), Milbank (a Radical Orthodox Anglo-Catholic), and Taylor (Roman Catholic) can be received within a theological framework that seeks to be faithful to its Reformational roots. In answer to these concerns, I hope to show that the best and truest understanding of the Protestant Reformers is to conceive of their hard-won victories as a form of “Reformation Catholicism.” Not only do I think certain secularizing criticisms fall flat in light of the Catholic spirit at the heart of the Reformation, but it’s the very marriage of those Catholic and Reforming natures from which Protestants are empowered to contend honestly with secularizing forces.
Once we’ve articulated a theory of “the secular” that takes into account the contributions and insights of the thinkers mentioned above, along with the unique contributions of Reformation Catholicism, I want to spend some time recommending strategic ways in which Christians can be proactive in resisting “secular creep,” both inside the Church and in the culture at large.
Next, I’ll begin our examination of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, starting with his memorable “Disquieting Suggestion.” Until then.