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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Philly TONIGHT: Open Sanctuary Time for Reflection & Prayer


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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!


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


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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]


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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


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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]

The Belgic Confession: Church, State, & Reformation


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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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Developing Ancient Creeds & The Trinity


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Yes, I graduated from seminary, and yet I still have a couple more classes I’m finishing up. One of them is going through the documents, Creeds, Confessions that define the theology of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America. I’m having to write a bunch of reflections on differents aspects of these writings, and I offer them here.

Every way of understanding the world involves creeds and confessions. “Creed” comes from the Latin word meaning “I believe”, and a Confession from the Latin for “acknowledge”. A Creed or Confession, then, is simply a distillation of what you acknowledge and believe. There’s nothing weird or particularly “Catholic” about it.

From Creeds to Trinity

If you are a Christian, no matter which part of the family you call home, your beliefs almost certainly fall in line with what have been called the “Ecumenical Creeds”, which are the oldest and simplest articulations of the Christian essentials. They include the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

Now, if you were going to start writing out the core of what you believe, where would you begin? The interesting thing about these Ecumenical Creeds is that they are built entirely, both in foundation and structure, around the doctrine of the Trinity. Why?
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Who has a brand new Masters of Divinity degree? This guy.


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After going to seminary nearly 8 years ago, dropping out after a year, and then returning 5 years later, I have now graduated with my Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies program at Western Theological Seminary. (Sorry for all those links.)

I was also proud and humbled to have been voted by the faculty to receive the Stanley A. Rock award in Pastoral Care and Counseling, “for outstanding work in pastoral care and counseling courses and formation for ministry assignments”.

So what now? Well, first I have to finish my last six weeks of classes before actually getting my actual degree. Then I will need to finish my requirements for ordination as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. After that? I’m still figuring it out.

I’ll still be in Philadelphia. I won’t be looking for a ministerial job outside my own church. I’ll continue my job in social work while other opportunities work themselves out. I still hope to do Ph.D. work in the future, but I’m taking a breather for the immediate moment.

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Does this mean Gregory the Great would have supported Bernie or Cruz?


Ran across this when looking at some Ancient Commentaries on John 21, and thought it was hilarious. I first thought that Gregory must have been Feelin’ the Bern, but then I wondered if this sounded more like the whole “abolish the IRS” crowd. What do you think?

We know that Peter was a fisherman, whereas Matthew was a tax collector. Peter returned to fishing after his conversion, but Matthew did not again sit down to his business of tax collecting, because it is one thing to seek to make a living by fishing and another to increase one’s gains by money from the tax office. For there are some businesses that cannot—or hardly can—be carried on without sin. And these cannot be returned to after conversion.
— Gregory the Great (540-604CE), Forty Gospel Homilies

“Rage Against the Dying of the Light”: My Good Friday Sermon


job-silohetteI had the honor of giving the reflection at our Good Friday service this year. For the service, we did a series of extended readings, from Luke 22.39-23.56, from Jesus praying in Gethsemane to his burial.

Preaching on this passage was a unique privilege for me, having recently returned from Israel. I walked these very steps that Jesus takes in our story. I prayed in the shade under the Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. I walked down the Kidron Valley to the place where it’s actually quite possible Jesus was imprisoned overnight, beaten, and mocked. I walked through Old City Jerusalem to the fortress of Pilate. Our hotel was right outside the old city walls near the place of Crucifixion.

This passage therefore, especially in light of that trip, was so rich with meaning throughout. Nevertheless, the focus of my message was living in the darkness and tension between Good Friday and Easter.

Here’s the audio:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here (and below) is my manuscript for your perusal. Also, here is a picture of the cemetery I reference in the sermon:
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My Sermon on Christ in the Darkness (John 1)


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During the Advent season, I preached a sermon on John 1.1-5,10-18, the famous Logos. In the sermon, we talk about Jesus revealing himself in the midst of the darkness of this world and our hearts, and so encouraging us to press all the more deeply into darkness rather than running from it. Looking back on it, I think it’s a very “Lent-y” sermon and so I’d like to throw it up here this week during Holy Week. It was my first sermon I preached without a manuscript, so there’s no version to read (sorry). But here it is for listening:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast here.

[Image credit: “Exodus”, by Marc Chagall]

American Lent in the Season of Trump


One of the smartest and funniest women at my church, Alyssa, has this great blog you should all follow. In it, her observations on life, cities, and spirituality are whip smart and hilarious. Several weeks ago, she put up a post asking “Is Trump America’s Lent?” She writes:

For the purposes of this argument, let’s call Lent an annual wake-up call, a reminder that we aren’t as good as we think we are….Trump’s success so far is a wake-up call in itself, like a large-scale Lent: maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are. Apparently, as a country we’re actually more racist and fearful than we thought we were just a few months ago, when people laughed at the thought of him actually standing a chance. The land of the free might just be okay with building that wall. The home of the brave is actually pretty scared of Muslims.

This is incredibly insightful, and I think it turns our national “Trump-versation” to a helpful place in the Lent season. Rather than trying to understand “the Trump voter” on a micro-individual level–a level full of misunderstanding, prejudice, and judgmentalism on all sides–we might turn our gaze inward to our nation as a whole. Looking at the bigger movements and structures of our society, we can ask the hard questions that you can’t really ask when staring another individual in the face.

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Good Friday Creation & Re-Thinking “The Fall”


Bosch-Garden-Earthly-Delights-Outer-Wings-Creation-WorldEach year during Lent, I press all the more deeply into a motif that appears throughout the Bible: that in some mysterious way, the God of the Universe has had a “slain” and “suffering” aspect to his nature for all eternity–even before the world came into being.

When this world did come into being, the Bible says that it came to exist “through” this suffering and slain Jesus. Therefore the rhythms of Christ’s own nature and life are written into the very DNA of the world. All of our history is an echo of Jesus’ life, both from eternity past and while on earth.

I’ve written before about what this means for the world and what this means for us, but what might this mean for the entire history of God’s work in this world?
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