This week I will be wrapping up a series of conversations I have been hosting in KPU Multi-Faith Centre focused on a massive book entitled A Secular Age by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The book is basically telling a story, a story which answers the question: how did we get from the year 1500, in which almost everyone believed in God, to the year 2000, in which it is not only easy to not believe in God but it is almost the assumed default position?
The conversation group has been an interesting mix of Christian staff and students, and a whole range of atheist/unbelieving voices, including two of the humanist chaplains who work alongside me in the Multi-Faith Centre. Having such a mix was definitely a challenge at some points – often one or another of us would make a comment from our own perspective which simply couldn’t connect with some others in the room – but for the most part the dialogue was fruitful and mutually respectful. It’s important for neither believers nor unbelievers to shy away from discussing together the things that matter most. What is the meaning of human life and existence? What is the good life supposed to be? How can we live and work together despite crucially important differences between us?
A Secular Age is an excellent way into these discussions because, though Taylor is a Catholic Christian and does not hide his faith, he is not attempting here to say what someone should or shouldn’t believe. Rather, he is trying to describe the history of the age we live in and also to describe how it feels to live in such an age.
Which isn’t to say that there is nothing to disagree with. One of Taylor’s important points is that contemporary atheism isn’t simply a natural progression, it isn’t an obvious position to arrive it. In fact, it depends on a whole host of factors, many of which arose in a distinctly Christian culture and society. We wouldn’t have our contemporary world, even contemporary atheism, without Christianity. This is a challenge to those who think that unbelief and our contemporary society of law and order are natural conclusions to come to.
Even though I do affirm the importance of dialogue between these different positions, at the end of this book study I am partially discouraged. Even though Charles Taylor and I aren’t trying to convert unbelievers, I still was hoping for some shift or change in my relationship with my atheist friends. But there hasn’t been much in that regard. I often felt as if they weren’t understanding Taylor’s argument and were simply taking him on as if he were a standard defender of Christian faith.
Instead, what Taylor was actually trying to do was muddy the waters. Things are not so obvious and clear for the contemporary unbeliever. Both historically and ethically there are lots of complicating factors to show how unbelief is not obvious. And that is basically the gist of Taylor’s strategy: not to show why Christianity is necessarily true, but to show that atheism isn’t in any better of a position; it's not the obvious default that many of it's defenders take it to be.
And after that has been done, the rest of up to the life of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith and community. Rational arguments, while important, can only get us so far. People have to be moved by what they see in the Christian life. And that is precisely what we are trying to accomplish here, ever so slowly, at KPU, and also in the Church in general. We need to live out the life of love, forgiveness, and grace that we are called to as followers of Jesus. That is certainly the most powerful apologetic “argument.” For the work of Christian witness, both in our communities and in the lives of those who are drawn to them, is not our work, but the work of the Holy Spirit.