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Running the Race in a Secular Age

October 18th, 2023 | 14 min read

By Simon Stokes

It is commonplace these days to be a Christian and to have friends who have left the faith. My wife and I knew a couple who were high school sweethearts, grew up going to church together, attended an evangelical private school, went to college and got married. At some point things broke down. Together they left the faith together before divorcing. One of them now practices a blend of magic and New Age religion. The other would simply just be classified as one of the “Nones”, those who don’t have any religious affiliation. The details of their story are unique, even if the pattern is not, and we have plenty of friends who fit within it. Likely as not you do too. People who grew up in the church but have left in adulthood are not uncommon. At times, they feel like the norm, and recent research has tried to sound a warning bell.

In The Great DeChurching Jim Davis and Michael Graham portray the landscape of the cultural shifts that have shaken American Christendom in recent decades. They state, “More people have left the church in the last twenty-five years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined.”[1] The impact of this loss on the American church is staggering, not only spiritually and culturally, but also missionally and financially. Davis and Graham calculate that “The 40 million Americans who left houses of worship represent a total annual income of 1.4 trillion dollars.”[2] Consider the effect of that sort of capital loss upon local churches, world missions, and your neighborhood relief agency. It is staggering, especially when one recognizes that there is still likely more bloodletting to be had. Currently, the Boomer generation represents a sizable amount of the wealth, volunteerism, and attendance in many churches, and while there may be some signs of hope[3], overall the succeeding Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z generations do not appear as keen to follow the lead of their elders in terms of religious participation. The next two decades will likely see the Boomers dwindle with few to replace them.

The life of faith is often portrayed as an endurance race and littering the way are suffering, sin, heresies, worldly distractions, and fleshly temptations.  Difficulty is not new, and one need only read John Bunyan’s tale of Christian’s journey to recognize the stark reality of Jesus’ words, “The gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt.7:14). The enduring nature of this modus vivendi should bring solace, as it has framed the experience of every Christian from the Apostles to those living in the relative comfort of the modern Western world. If discipleship is tried and found to be a challenge, then it must mean that it is being done the way God intended. However, despite the timeless similarities of the faithful, one cannot help but read the figures above, think about the stories of deconstruction, and wonder what has changed in modern American culture to influence the race of faith today.

One perceptive observer of this change is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who describes the modern world as living in a secular age, defining it as “one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable.”[4]  In the imminent, secular order the goal of human life is no longer “To know God and enjoy him,” as the old catechism question teaches. Rather, it becomes more about knowing, enjoying, and expressing oneself and one’s life in the world. The change emanating from such a society means that the West has moved from a place where it was nigh impossible not to be pulled toward orientation around belief in God to one where belief is uncoupled from the concept of the Good Life. How does that movement from near universal belief to far more prevalent unbelief shape the experience of those following the way of Jesus? By way of analogy, consider two different endurance races. 

If the experience of the journey of faith in Christendom were an ultramarathon, it might resemble the Badwater.  Stretching 135 miles from the basin of Death Valley, the lowest point in North America to the trailhead of Mount Whitney—one of the highest points in the U.S.—the Badwater Ultramarathon is a grueling, invitation-only event. Taking place in mid-July, temperatures above 120 degrees roast participants, sometimes melting the soles of their shoes. Over the course of the race, runners endure an elevation gain of 14,600 feet as they make the brutal run over three mountain ranges. Small wonder that in 2009 National Geographic Magazine named it the toughest endurance race on the planet. 

Think of this racing experience as being akin to those living in a pre-secular Christendom. For most of Christian history, disease, poverty, infant mortality, war, as well as the issues of sin and the devil, made the race of faith a real Badwater experience. However, for good and ill, orienting around Christianity was non-negotiable. There was no leaving the race. Someone baptized as an infant could expect to be a part of the same tradition when they died. This reality may not have made day to day life easier for sincere Christians, which only ever consisted of a minority of the larger population, but it did mean that they could expect societal support as they strove to endure.

In contrast to the harsh, though breathtaking, natural wonder of the Badwater, consider the Tunnel Ultra. This 208-mile-long ultramarathon occurs every March in Combe Down Tunnel, near the center of Bath, England. The premise is simple: run two miles a hundred times in a dark tunnel with no headphones, companions, or outside assistance to motivate or guide. The brutality of the Tunnel is not weather, but monotony, isolation, and the one hundred opportunities to quit and meet up with everyone else in the nearby park. One seasoned participant, with more than 50 completed ultramarathons under his belt, dropped out of the 2019 Tunnel after 100 miles because the pull to join his wife and daughter at the nearby zoo was irresistible.[5]  

In the modern, secular world, both believers and non-believers often find life akin to a grueling Tunnel Ultra race rather than the Badwater. Many struggle with profound loneliness and the constant temptation to abandon their current pursuits for something else. Taylor describes “the sense” of what such a life is like in secularism, “Our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.”[6] Taylor explains that this creates a “malaise of immanence,” an ennui, for which a defining feature is that for everyone, 

All these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning, analogous to the existential fragility we always live with: that suddenly an accident, earthquake, flood, a fatal disease, some terrible betrayal, may jolt us off our path of life, definitely and without return. Only the fragility that I am talking about concerns the significance of it all; the path is still open, possible, supported by circumstances, the doubt concerns its worth.[7]

Though imperfect analogies, the experience of these two races help to describe the feel between the old experience of Christian life and the more modern one. After all, if the culture has changed then so has what it has meant to endure. This is due in part because of changes in what Taylor calls a social imaginary. A social imaginary instills the way that “ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, giving the set of tacit, underlying assumptions that most people make about the way life is, which, in turn, sets the template for how they act.  Because of Christendom’s social imaginary, the assumed options of society provided clear guidance on what was and was not possible, and so the experience of Christendom lent a protective canopy under which the faithful could race, as well as lanes in which to run.

Before the modern era, nearly every aspect of society shored up a Christian social imaginary. For millennia society was constructed as a microcosm of the divine order, with the monarch at the top, ruling by divine right, and everything ordered below him in a descending hierarchy. The church calendar dominated the year as much as the necessity to plant and harvest, and the local church building or cathedral was often the largest, most beautiful, most centrally located structure in any village or city.  With Christianity playing such a mammoth role in the culture, deconversion and unbelief were inconceivable for most, as was outright atheism, even for those who were not sincere believers. It was too much a part of society to imagine the world without it. Taylor sums up this conception of the world, “One could not but encounter God everywhere.”[8] 

Just as the Badwater moves from Point A to B, and once begun there are no easy exits, in Christendom the life of faith, difficult though it was, provided a clear path on which the faithful could move. Even today, in places where the sun has not completely set on Christendom, the idea that good, respectable people go to church and try to live in line with its teachings, whether they actually believe or not, can still be felt. The running lanes are still present, albeit faded, and sincere believers can get an assist from the culture around them. Although it has waned, the legacy of this social imaginary has persisted in the West for centuries, and even in places that are self-consciously not Christian, Christian values, such as kindness, mercy, justice, and love, are still held with high regard.

Yet despite some of the advantages it offered, Christendom was a place wracked by ambivalence. One which the twentieth-century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said, “Has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder.” A pitfall of Christendom’s lay in its ability to subtly usurp the space in a person’s heart reserved for God, offering false protections, certainties, and opportunities to abuse power. This environment harbored rampant hypocrisy, colonialism, and imperialism, allowing those driven by power to pursue their own interests by trying to twist Christ’s teaching. While these traits can still appear in the forms of racism, nationalism, and narcissism, the demise of Christendom and the rise of Secularism has meant that those who are not interested in identifying as a Christian are far freer to leave the church to pursue their own agenda.

If hypocrisy and institutional abuses of power defined the downside to life in Christendom, then the problems for a secular age lie in the challenges to consistent meaning and purpose. Living down the street, sliding through our social media feed, or sitting on the Zoom meeting, someone else, another seemingly rational and relatively happy person, has built a life of significance and purpose the basis of which may be totally counter to one’s own. Their presence presses upon our own decisions about the meaning of life and how it is best lived.  

In such a culture, identities are fragile since the meaning upon which those identities are built, and the lives meant to reflect those identities, is shifting sand. When a crisis comes which calls into question the worth of the race that one is running, a person may hop off to find some other identity that they hope will provide a stronger sense of inner stability and happiness that the previous identity lacked. The old identity crumbles, replaced by a new one.

One of Taylor’s most potent assertions is that just as theists must wrestle with doubt and the possibility of unbelief, atheists and agnostics too must deal with the intrusion of transcendence into their world. Everyone in the secular age—believer or not—lives in this contested space. In some way or another, everyone is running their own Tunnel Ultra, regardless of belief.  

Paving the way for this experience is a digitized cradle to grave system that attempts to habituate people to an immanent world. According to Taylor, in such a world, “Commodities become vehicles of individual expression, even the self-definition of identity,”[9] and in such a system the transcendent can feel inaccessible. What is often sold as the most reliable guide to a life of significance is an identity built around desires created and fulfilled through an isolated experience of consumption. In such a world, it is not hard to see that the rise of the internet roughly corresponds to the current difficulties of the church. The internet has proven the perfect vehicle for amping up consumerism, individualism, and alternative identity formation. In a digital world, someone can be anything they want, just so long as they are an individualized consumer. Within the immanent, identity yields significance, whether or not it is rational.[10] If that identity does not fulfill in the way it was advertised, then, like any other consumable good, it gets dropped for something else.

As heinous as Badwater’s conditions are, most participants finish—83% in 2022’s race. Part of the reason for that is that in the sunbaked moonscape that is the Mojave Desert, what other option is there besides pushing to the end? The Tunnel, on the other hand, has an abysmal finish rate. In the first three years of its existence, only 13 people completed it, meaning that only about 11% of participants finished the race.[11]  As one participant was quoted as saying, "The difficult thing with doing 100 laps is there are 100 chances to stop.”[12] In Taylor’s analysis, the same is true for a consistent life of significance in a secular world.

Engagement and Understanding in a Secular World

Though there is much to be praised in Taylor’s analysis of secularism, one friendly critique would be that his response lacks confidence in God’s ability to break through into human affairs. What Taylor’s Christian readers would do well to keep in mind is that God’s sovereignty remains unwavering, encompassing this cultural moment just as it does every other moment.  If this was true for the Old Testament prophets and their experience of invasion and exile, then it must be true of modern Christians, as well. If Christendom has been paved over then God drove the steamroller, and if its protective canopy has been torn down, then it is so that the clear light of Day might pierce through to those who raced blindly. For all its benefits, Christendom was also riddled with problems. If this moment is from the Lord, then it is not marked only by endings, but also by beginnings and the opportunity for the church to change and do something new.

The extreme emotional reactivity of our current cultural moment may be an unintended consequence of living in an age where meaning and identity are consistently buffeted by those around us. Most seem to find the experience of inhabiting a secular world deeply uncomfortable, and based upon its reaction to the present moment, it is clear that the church has felt this anxiety itself in some acute ways. According to the late rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman in his unfinished book.  A Failure of Nerve, in moments of cultural crisis emotionally regressive tendencies rear up, manifesting in many forms: quick-fix strategies, a herd mentality, biting criticism, black-and-white thinking, relational cutoff, and more. Friedman notes these forces hold fast unless more fundamental changes in emotional and behavioral patterns are adopted.

When families [or churches] get fixed on their symptoms…rather than on the emotional processes that keep those symptoms chronic, they will recycle their problems perpetually no matter what technical changes they make, how much advice they receive from experts, or how hard they try to understand their symptoms.[13]

No matter how theologically grounded the church’s position, its emotionally reactive responses to the myriad problems of a secular age will keep it stuck, unable to advance its position in a society that desperately needs to be reminded of the source of the values it champions.  Instead of contributing to the anxiety swirling through our cultural moment, church leaders must focus their energies on the pursuit of Christ, the formation of disciples, and engagement as a non-anxious presence within the communities in which they are embedded.

To endure Christians must root themselves in an identity that is more solid than consumerist feeling or desire by immersing themselves in ancient practices of prayer and worship. Without this consistent reorientation to the transcendent, they may find themselves unmoored from the reality of God’s presence in this moment and overtaken by the sort of emotional reactivity that Friedman warns against.

The church that engages with the modern world must organize its people around a theological vision of human flourishing if it is going to move through the secular imaginary swimming through our culture. For example, the theology of the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation provides ample resources for modern readers to start to understand how scripture critiques and reimagines the moral and ethical structures of the world. Rooting themselves in these sorts of scriptural resources can help modern Christians see through the haze of the secular imaginary to begin to embody a more faithful, non-anxious presence rooted in God’s loving commitment to advance his Kingdom.

The patience typified by such a non-anxious presence is not only necessary if the church desires to be a conduit of blessing to the neighborhoods and cities in which it resides, but also the most reliable way to do the work of evangelism. In my own experience on a university campus, those who either return to Christianity or are converted often do so through a long path involving at least two things: a deep dissatisfaction with the experience of modern secularism and Christian friends who loved them by patiently listening to them, weaving them into their lives, and offering them the gospel of Jesus in a way that resonated intellectually and emotionally. Breaking the spell of a consumerist, secular age requires the church to offer rich relationships built on the transcendent realities of Christ and his Kingdom.

What a digitized, secular age means for modern Christians is that in some ways the race of faith might be more fraught than in the past, especially in the arenas of identity and spiritual formation. Yet, the struggle to persevere is not new, as the passages warning against apostasy within the New Testament testify, and so as they run the race of faith, it is crucial that Christians avoid longing for some idealized Golden Age. Not everything that flourished under the canopy of Christendom was good. Instead of seeking the comfort that the past provided, Western Christians should hold to the reality of running the race of faith in their current cultural moment. If Christians formed by the realities of Christendom often fell prey to problems revolving around the abuse of power, then modern Christians should embrace the powerlessness that comes from inhabiting a secular age. It may be God’s unique gift for our time, where we are forced to run with empty hands, keeping our gaze more firmly fixed upon Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith”, who thought so little of worldly power, goods, and identity that he laid them aside to embrace a cross, “despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb.12:2), who was not just Truth and Life, but also the Way when all other ways are exhausted. 

In whatever age one has lived, this divine journey through life’s desert will always be both difficult and wonderful—in the empty places of Exodus and exile the life of faith has often flourished, whilst worldly comforts have often been a spiritual handicap. Perhaps then, the secular world, usually viewed as a wasteland to be shunned, should be embraced with the expectation that God has led his people to this place of exile. If this is the case, then it is not so that the church would become mighty, but so that it would become a blessing. If they are willing to embrace this, then modern Christians can expect to navigate the secular age with as much hope as their forebears of any previous age.  And if the transcendent does finally swell over and break through, liberating our neighbors from the secular frame, then it will not result merely from the church adopting a stronger orthopraxy, invaluable as that is. Instead, if others join the race upon the narrow way, it will be because they heard the call of the one who is Life and forsaking all else followed him.

Footnotes

 

[1] Jim Davis and Michael Graham with Ryan P.Burge, The Great DeChurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, Zondervan Reflective, Grand Rapids, MI, 2023. p.5.

[2] Ibid. p.14.

[3]

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2007. p. 19-20.

[5] Cited from Goulding, J. (January, 17, 2023) “Tunnel Ultra: The mind-bending 200-mile ultra-marathon in the dark”. BBC Sport. https://www.bbc.com/sport/64139029 last accessed March 3, 2023.

[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p.307.

[7] Taylor, 308.

[8] Taylor, p.25.

[9] Taylor, p.483.

[10] Consider late-night talk show host, Conan O’Brien’s claim that “silly” is his religion in his interview with Stephen Colbert on his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

[11] The results of the most recent 2023 Tunnel Ultra inched slightly higher with a 14% finish rate.

[12] Quoted from Goulding, J. (January, 17, 2023) “Tunnel Ultra: The mind-bending 200-mile ultra-marathon in the dark”. BBC Sport. https://www.bbc.com/sport/64139029 last accessed March 3, 2023.

[13] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Church Publishing, New York, NY. 2017. pgs.66-67.