Book Club Blogging: Intro to a Secular Age


de-Goya-The-GiantFor the Book Club I’m leading at my church, we’re reading James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular (a summary of a much bigger, denser book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor). To begin, we turn to the opening pages to get our bearings and become acquainted with the general contours of the pages to come.

Introduction

Honestly, if the Preface and Introduction were all there was, this would be worth the price of admission. It is such a helpful 50,000-foot view of the ideas unpacked in the rest of the book.

Smith’s account begins with an attempt to narrate some of what our day and age “feels” like. He speaks of the disconnect between typical American Christianity and the way the rest of the world experiences reality. He points out that nonbelievers in the Christian faith are actually able to find meaning, fullness, and significance without appealing to any divine Being. And yet, even those without belief can’t seem to shake a certain “hauntedness” to our world.

In short, neither adherents to religion nor those that don’t find much usefulness for it can construct a way of experiencing reality that takes into account all of what it means to inhabit humanity today. We’re all sort of stuck in this liminal space, this limbo, seeking distraction of reductionism to break the tension.  We’re all “suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence”.
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Secularity Was Not Built in a Day


Last month, I led a Book Club through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, itself a summary of the much larger book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. There were so many lessons culled from those pages–most of which I am still processing and will be in the months and years to come. And yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how Taylor described the “feel” and cause of our current secular existence.

Taylor challenges the story of our cultural and philosophical moment, affirming that we did not stumble or trip into our secular age. Secularity is not the “neutral” space of human existence once all forms of power, influence, control, and superstition are done away with. Rather, secularity is a cultural and philosophical achievement. The gravity of human progress does not necessitate secularity. We’ve had to build it.

Secularity: A Fall or Climb?

We first need to remember that when we talk about “secularity”, we’re not talking about some sort un-religious, “neutral” public space. A society is “secular” (in our sense) when disbelief in God becomes a viable option. We take for granted that the vast majority of humans in history (and even in the non-Western world today!) have no comprehension of such a world.

But this isn’t due to ignorance. As Charles Taylor tells us (by way of James Smith), “secularity” isn’t just a lack of belief, but rather an emergence of other alternative ways of being human in the world. As Smith puts it,

So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to imagine significance within an imminent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendance…. The secular is not simply a remainder [after belief is subtracted]; it is a sum, created by addition, a product of intellectual multiplication.

If this is true, then to tell the story of how we went “from a time (in, say, 1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time (in 2000) when theism is almost unbelievable”, we shouldn’t focus on when certain beliefs fell out of style, but rather when certain things were added to human experience that made disbelief a realistic option.

In other words, instead of trying to see how the world “fell” into secularity, we need to start seeing it as an accomplishment; something into which humanity had to climb.

So what changed? We can’t see how we got to our world today simply be recounting theoretical movements. We have to talk about how it felt to be human and how that changed as time went on. Taylor gives us five “elements” that, when added to the cultural air we breathed, started to create a world of disenchantment and disbelief.

The Climb of the “Buffered Self”

1. A Meaningful Mind. Premodern humans believed the world was “infused” with meaning, significance, and power. If you wanted to experience fullness and meaning, you had to have an openness to the world around to connect with it.  With modernity, “meaning” moved from the world around us to being within our own minds. Things were only “meaningful” in so much as we ascribed it to them. We became very interior and rather than being “porous” to the world around us, we become closed-off and “buffered”. Our existence and pursuit of fullness moved from the world around us, to the world within us.

2. The Social Fabric Tears. The premodern self was not just connected and open to the world, but also towards their human relationships. You had to be vulnerable to the people, institutions, and communities around you, because that is where you exercised your humanity–not in your own head and private interior life. This is why being labeled a heretic was such a big deal. Atheism was not just a rejection of God, but a rejection of the society in which you were embedded. But if we all just live in our own heads, then what I believe should have no bearing on your life, right? Live and let live!

3. The Good Life is Now. There was “a tension between what ‘eternity’ required and what the mundane vagaries of domestic life demanded.” We experienced the responsibilities of daily life as having some implication for eternity. The Church calendar and weekly worship were not just things to shape our individual private experiences, but connected us to eternity in some mysterious way.  In modernity, this tension is broken. When the tension breaks, you have religious puritans and fundamentalists rise who cast off the mundane for eternity; and you have others who cast off eternity and to find ultimate significance in the here and now.

4. Back to the Future. This new modern self also dramatically affects how we experience Time. While we experience it in linear, chronological tick-tock fashion, our ancestors believed it had some higher dimension that was almost “thematic”. Taylor summarizes the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” There was a kinship across time and space that people shared with one another. But now, in our buffered existence, “nothing higher impinges upon our calendars–only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our ‘projects’.”

5. From “Creation” to “Nature”. The last key ingredient in the mixing bowl of our secular age was how we viewed the natural world. We went from living in a cosmos where the whole of reality was bigger than the sum of its natural parts, to a “universe” where it was all sustained and created by way of mechanisms within itself. Taylor concludes that this shift “makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent ‘meaning’ that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.”

Tomorrow we will look at these and other lessons to see what it might look like for us to live faithful in our secular age.


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August Book Club on Christianity & Race: “Divided by Faith” by Emerson & Smith


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Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion & the Problem of Race in America
by Michael Emerson & Christian Smith

Last night’s book discussion went really well, and it makes me even more excited for this month’s meeting.

For my church‘s monthly Theology Book Club, I’m excited to have us read an especially timely and important book, Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The opening lines of the Preface summarize their purpose beautifully:

To learn more about American life, this book examines the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.

In America, we have a problem with race. White Christians, I think, genuinely act in good faith to play a positive role in race relations in America. And yet, they often end up unintentionally exacerbating some of the broader cultural problems that feed into racial injustice.
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Is the Democratic Party the New Home for Conservatives?


philly-city-hall-flagI think I found the bright side to Donald Trump. This election has left Conservatism as the only political philosophy not really represented. Even the Bernie Bros have a lot of their biggest concerns represented in the newly minted Democratic Party platform. But real Conservatives? Who speaks for them?

I (and others) am starting to think it’s the Democratic Party.

People keep talking about how this Donald Trump candidacy is reshuffling traditional party allegiances into  a never-before-seen arrangement. And yet, watching the Democratic National Convention speeches last night from Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and especially Barack Obama, it looks like a reemergence of the blue collar, Southern Democrat.

Maybe, rather than a reshuffling, there is a course correction: a return to politics as it was prior to Nixon, Goldwater, and Johnson. Perhaps (dare I say?) this is actually a moment for normalization of American politics?
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On the Trump Convention Speech: We are better than this


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The hardest thing about writing anything about politics (or religion, for that matter) is not having someone write you off immediately by placing you into one of the Right-Left boxes that dominate our national discussion. I am really not a liberal progressive. I have voted Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and even Green Party. In 2008 I voted down the ticket but conscientiously abstained from casting a vote for President as a “none of the above” protest vote.

All that to say, on most any issue, I can see both sides of it. I can see why people believe what they believe and I can see much of its merits. But (as so many written sentences this election season have concluded), that was until Donald Trump.

I am so strongly against Trump for President. I am not against critiquing the foreign and domestic policy views of the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton. I am not closed off to new recalibrations over trade and foreign policy. I understand the economic forces that have driven wedges between the working class and all others, and I can see the pain and malaise in middle America and groups that have been so forgotten and overlooked.

I see the forces that have given rise to Donald Trump and though I want to validate the cynicism, pain, and feeling of disempowerment, I struggle to know how to communicate to these voters that Trump is not the answer. He will not help you. People may respond that he’s better than Secretary Clinton. He’s not. Crunching the numbers, it is clear that Clinton’s policies would be far more effective in ameliorating these cultural and economic pressures.

You may not like Clinton personally, then, but we can’t overlook one candidate’s personal foibles only to condemn the other for theirs. On moral, legal, ethical, intellectual, and religious grounds, Trump is far and away the lesser of the candidates. If character, morality, and heck, even legal uprightness are important to you in choosing a candidate, Trump is worse.
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Philly TONIGHT: Open Sanctuary Time for Reflection & Prayer


liberti-church-ceiling-lights

We live in a time and place that is happy to tell us all the things we need to do to be the kinds of people we want to be. And churches are good at telling us more things to do and occupy our time with in order to live in greater closeness with God.

But there are some parts of being human and knowing God that don’t involve doing more, but rather stopping and doing less.

At my church, over the summer, we want to try and create space where people can come and just stop; to experience silence, reflection, prayer, meditation, and a little guidance in those things. This is a spiritual muscle we don’t exercise much, but it’s an essential one to work out if we are to become more human and know God more deeply.

So starting tonight, from 6:30-8pm and every Thursday in July and August, we’ll be having an open, unstructured time for prayer, reflection, contemplation, journaling, and meditation.

A few times I’ll get up and read some Scripture, but outside of that, it’s a space people are free to come and go, lie down, walk around, sit on the floor, or whatever they need to connect with themselves and connect with God. No matter your church home, religious tradition, or lack of belief, feel free to use this space in whatever way you need.

So feel free join us at 17th and Sansom St in Center City Philadelphia between 6:30 and 8, and each subsequent Thursday.

A Prayer Service of Lament for Race & Injustice


job-silohetteLast week I led a prayer service of lament at my church for the racial injustice and violence experienced in our country. I put together the below order for the prayer service and it ended up being a helpful expression for us. I wanted to share this with anyone else interested in using it in their own contexts.

Another benefit of this service is that the contemporary prayers below are not mine or any other white males, but were written by women of color and slightly modified for our context. I hope this acts as a helpful outlet to give voice to our hearts as brothers and sisters.

[Prayer Guide: pdf/docx ; Leader’s Guide: pdf/docx]

Preparation

Encourage other voices that are not typically heard at your church to read the Scripture sections. In the times of silence, encourage open prayer from those sitting in the pews. Allow space for up to 5-10 minutes of silence, and be sure to let people know beforehand to expect such long silence.

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Join the Liberti Church Theology Book Club!


July’s Book book-jamessmith-hownottobesecular

How (Not) To Be Secular
by James K.A. Smith
Amazon


Wtsbooks

For those of us that are Christians, we come to church on Sundays to get re-grounded and re-oriented in the rhythms and truths of the Christian life.

Many of us also try and live life in various small groups and Bible Studies throughout the week in order to press these truths all the more deeply in our hearts and communities.

But still, some of us are wired to wrestle with big ideas in a different way. That’s why at my church we’re starting the Liberti Theology Book Club: a way to walk with others through different perspectives and insights on theology, the Bible, and Christian thought.

It’s been designed to take up as little of your time as needed, while also letting us really work through some deeper and harder parts of faith. Also, because of the decentralized nature of it, anyone across the country can join in!

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10 Obstacles to Church Participation for Aging Adults (and How to Overcome Them) [GUEST POST]


old-pew

by Marie Villeza

It is important that aging adults are able to overcome any barriers affecting their ability to participate in church and church activities. The church and its parishioners can help senior members overcome these obstacles. First, however, they need to recognize what obstacles aging members may be facing, and implement strategies to ease their burdens or boost their involvement.

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Philly TONIGHT: A Prayer Service of Lament for Race & Injustice


black-and-blue-lament-e1468181738718[1]

The past few weeks (heck, the past several years) have exposed so many fissures in the fabric of American society. It has shown how power, politics, and the invisible structures and systems around us have attempted to paper over real divisions that still remain. Last week, especially, showed us how these divisions can overflow into violence and cut to the core of the American psyche.

And the Christian Church ought to be there to give voice to this pain.

Tonight at 7p at Liberti Church‘s Center City Campus (17th and Sansom St), I will be leading a service of lament for our country, our cities, and our hurting black communities experiencing injustice. There will be time to hear Scripture, reflect, sit in silence, and also offer prayer from those in the pews. We will ask hard questions, sit in the pain, and not settle for easy answers. It is open to the public and all are welcome, no matter your religion, political persuasion, or personal opinion in this national discussion. I hope to see you there.

[image credit: photo from the Intersect Blog]

So you’re about to start Distance Education? Here are some tips.


paul-surface-coffeeHaving just graduated from my own Distance Graduate School program, I felt the desire to collate some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Through the course of my program, I wrote for two websites focused around encouraging students as they looked for and went through seminary programs. Now, though the pieces below focus on seminary, most all of the lessons can be applied to any sort of distance education. I hope these are a help to you, and happy learning! Feel free to add your own tips and tricks below:

The Journey

Tools of the Trade

Keeping Things Organized

Read all my posts on Distance Education, including about health and wellness–mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.


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The Trinity-Subordinationism Debate and the Opportunity Before Us


One of the most well-written and astute pieces written about the broader context of the current Trinitarian debate in Evangelical circles.

opportunitiesIn an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.

Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.

In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the…

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The Belgic Confession: Church, State, & Reformation


church-state-puzzle

As I prepare for ordination in the Reformed Church in America, I am wrestling with the documents, Creeds, and Confessions to which I will be committing myself. I invite you to reflect alongside me.

In the Belgic Confession, one of the most foundational documents of the Reformed tradition, there is an incredibly odd Article towards the end–number 36. It is about the Civil Government and it says, among other things:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings….

And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word….

The whole of the Confession is worth your time and reading. It is beautiful and ecumenical. Its desire is to bring people together and articulate the Reformed tradition in a charitable and loving way. And yet, this Article–the next to the last one in the whole writing–sticks out like a sore thumb in both tone and content. It’s so confusing. Why is it written this way? What do we make of it today?

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Bible Nerds: Help Me Choose NICOT/NICNT Commentaries!


My go-to Bible Study software of Logos. They have some amazing sales every once and a while and right now they are having a great sale on the New International Commentary Series (popularly known as NICOT and NICNT). They are selling each volume at $19.99 a pop, which is amazing. I am really picky about commentaries, but I know a good deal when I see it. So, I’m enlisting your help to help me pick out a few of these for my library.

So…for those of you that have had experience with these, which would you say are really good and why? Which would you say are definitely not worth one’s time?

So you know what I’m looking for: I go to commentaries more for biblical critical scholarship, not systematic theology. Even though I am theologically conservative, I really do not enjoy commentaries by conservative Evangelicals that spend most of their time grinding their conservative axe against all those “big bad liberals”. Those commentaries end up being more about conservative theological apologetics than the text. For that reason, I find it far more helpful to engage with commentaries that have an openness and sympathy to critical (“liberal”) scholarship.

In short, if one of the primary selling points for a commentary is that it is “conservative”, then it’s probably not for me. I can think of so many other adjectives I would prefer came to one’s mind first to describe a good commentary. If a commentary writer is conservative, great! But breathlessly defending that dogma at the expense of the text isn’t helpful to me.

Okay sorry, soapbox done. What do you all think?