The Taser's Edge


(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



“Progress,” “Civilization,” and Etiquette

<<You are now reading yet another post in a series on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Orient yourself here first if this is your entry point.>>

Thus far, Taylor has been laying out various pieces in the development of society that made our secular age (an age in which believing in no god is a widely available conception of the world for the first time in human history) possible. Among those pieces is the growth of “civility.”

The first reason for sharing the following is that it is amazingly interesting. The second reason for sharing it is that we cannot understand Taylor’s project in A Secular Age until we recognize (not just cognitively but viscerally) that our conceptions and assumptions about the world around us are vastly different than people in ages before us. Our “common” sense is not common, historically speaking.

Elias has noted and recorded the tremendous shift in manners which accompanies the developing ideal of civility, and later civilization. This starts off among the elites, of course, but then spreads during the nineteenth century virtually to the whole society. The shift involves a steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust, which is quite remarkable. It is with surprise, and not a little shock, that we discover how things were back in 1500.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth…A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit”, when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell…People are told not to defecate in public places…Clearly we are in an age whose standards in this regard are far removed from our own.

Elias traces, not an abrupt change, but a gradual raising of the thresholds. Where earlier the standard books advise against blowing your nose in the table-cloth, later ones demand the use of handkerchiefs, tell you not to blow at table, etc. Where at one point you are asked not to defecate in the hallways, by the end of the process, it would be an indelicacy even to mention such a thing in a book of etiquette….

Elias sees [a] dynamic at work…The demands of refinement serve to distinguish upper strata from their inferiors; and these become the more necessary as nobles are being forced into a courtly, urban way of life where their resources and the powers at their disposal no longer clearly mark them off from bourgeois.

Taylor continues on to argue that what is at work in the creation of etiquette is creating boundaries of intimacy. At first, social “superiors” are bounded off more tightly from their “inferiors” (for instance, it’s okay for the king to hold court while he sits on the toilet, because he is in that way showing his superiority, but the reverse would be extreme disrespect to the king and his office), but eventually these consciously created boundaries become the disgust that we know today when we think about the actions described above.

A movement that began fully consciously became our unconsidered assumptions.



Secularities

(You are now entering Post 3 on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The Table of Contents for all the posts is found here.)

In Taylor’s Introduction, he lays out three secularities. The first two are other people’s interests. The third is his own.

1. “The first [secularism] concentrates on the common institutions and practices–most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference [between secular and non-secular societies] would then consist in this, that whereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection…” (Taylor 1-2).

This first secularism becomes more fascinating later as Taylor goes on to talk about the boundedness of all systems in secular thought. At one time (as above) members of a society could not understand themselves without reference to something outside themselves (not only the divine, but one another, and the world around them). Today, not only does political theory need no reference to some form of “ultimate reality;” but an individual human being is self-created, without the help of background, family, tradition, larger society, let alone God (Hauerwas in my head: “The story of modernity is the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story”); and contemporary scientific cosmology certainly has no need to refer to anything beyond that which is study-able (aside from all those different universes out there).

2. “In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (Taylor 2).

This is the most common understanding of secularism as we use the word in conversation, whether we see secularization as human progress toward a more enlightened and less superstitious future or we see it as something to be mourned and resisted.

[Aside: Perhaps most fascinating about this quote to me is that Taylor capitalizes “Church.” Thus far, Taylor does not seem to want to be doing theology, but he slips into it sometimes. Why not “no longer going to church?” It’s an argument in the form of a capitalization. Yes, Taylor is Roman Catholic.]

3. “Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first. This would focus on the conditions of belief. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrasts today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live” (Taylor 3).

This “conditions of belief” is a fascinating term, because it means that secularism is about how we experience life, not just how we theorize about it. It sets the tone for the rest of the book too. Can Taylor convince us that he is able to get inside the hearts, minds, and lives of the pre-Moderns and that he understands in the same way those of us living in the West today? (For me, 90 pages in, YES.)



Secularism and Me

I’m someone who would like theologians to stop pretending that all theology is not also autobiography, and so I’ll embark on a long trip with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in this way…

I have traveled and lived and still travel and still live in circles where secularism is a problem, and a scary one. There are theological aspects, spiritual aspects, sociological aspects, political aspects to this, and to draw a Venn diagram would not work. But I can outline some of them.

In case any of the following beliefs sound fringe-y, they are not. You have your lawn mowed, your mail delivered, your water meter read, your hair cut, your latte made, your paycheck signed by people who hold these beliefs. You are biologically related to and in many cases descended from people who hold these beliefs.

Yes, I do know and love and am loved by people who believe that it is illegal to pray in United States public schools in 2012. Some of these folks also believe that it is important to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that United States money is printed with “In God We Trust,” and that the central statement of the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.”

The secularization of society for these groups of people is the transitioning of the United States into a post-Christian nation, a descent into godlessness and chaos. A secularized United States is terrifying, because there is no order without God’s order, which is Christian (or at least North Atlantic, Judeo-Christian-inspired) order.

There is a more critically considered version of this, which I’ll call the First Things-ian view of secularism. First Things is the magazine founded by John Richard Neuhaus, who marched with MLK, who authored one of the most brilliant books ever written on being a pastor (Freedom for Ministry), and whose last days were spent as a neo-con (or not quite that). First Things is basically the magazine through which well-considered conservative (and/or traditional) Judeo-Christian political thought travels. It’s a magazine that helps you think better, but which you might also find yourself throwing across the room in anger/mystification.

The First Things-ian argument is that secularization is the corroding of the traditional values which aid all human fluorishing. These values are shared and universal. (For a First Things thought from earlier today to illustrate this, click here. For a problematizing of the universal claims that the Christian religion makes and has made, click here.)

For me, discussing how I relate to secularism and secularization is one of those (many) areas where I feel my lack of a coherent and contiguous narrative of history. But here is my understanding, embedded in my sense of history: the United States is much more accurately described as a pagan culture than as a secular culture (or as “pre-pagan” rather than “post-Christian”). God and gods have not been removed from public discussion and society at all. Christianity was one among many cults in the religious marketplace at its beginning, and it is so today. This “new” world is not something to fear (as both groups described above would tend to believe, although the latter hides it better), but it is still God’s world, populated by God’s children, all of us in need of conversion by God’s love through Jesus Christ.

There are some differences between these worlds, 1st and 21st centuries, of course…

Charles Taylor argues that having no god is an option for large masses of people in a way that it has never been in human history. Or, as he puts it in his Introduction:

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.



Reading Together: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

A friend of mine had the crazy idea that a group of people should read this very intimidating (776 pages of dense philosophy, history, critical theory, sociology, theology, and more plus 100 pages of endnotes) book together. When everyone weighed their lives, it ended up being just me and him.

You can certainly still hop on the train if this is interesting to you, however. Here’s one possible reading plan that Brian cooked up. I don’t know his personal rate of reading, but I’m going slightly faster than what you see below:

  • Week 1  – Introduction 1-24
  • Week 2 – Chapter 1 pt 1 25-bottom of page 75
  • Week 3 – rest of chapter 1 till page 130
  • Week 4 – finish chapter 2 and 3 158
  • Week 5 – chapter 4 159-211
  • Week 6 – chapter 5-6 212-269
  • Week 7 – chapters 7 and 8 270-321
  • Week 8 – chapters 9 and 10 322-376
  • Week 9 – chapter 11 377-422
  • Week10 – chapter 12  423-472
  • Week 11 – chapter 13 and 14  473-537
  • Week 12 – chapter 15 539-93
  • Week 13 – chapter 16 through 656
  • week 14 – rest of chapter 17 and 18 656-710
  • Week 15 – remainder of the book

————————————————————–
My Blogs (Supposedly) on the Book:
1. Secularism and Me – Introducing my reading of the book by talking about my own background, about what secularism means to those in the American culture in which I grew up.

2. Secularities — Taylor defines “Secular” early on, so I will follow him.

Brian’s Blogs on the Book:
1.
Why read “A Secular Age”? – Brian is much clearer than I am on that question. In part, he writes, “My hope is that Taylor will help us understand better our own ‘situatedness’ that affects how we (the we is to be taken in the broadest sense) talk about Religion, transcendence,  and ethics and how Christians think about things like prayer, church authority, and the sacraments.”