Thinking about the Secular Age and Church Futures

One of the things I find myself thinking about more and more these days is interacting with a culture and society not engaged with the church and does not see the church as a useful source for answers (or even questions!) about ultimate meaning.

This past week I ran across an interesting DMin thesis by Jeffrey Seaton, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who did his studies at Duke. The thesis (available here) is entitled “Who’s Minding the Story?: The United Church of Canada Meets A Secular Age.” I know about the United Church of Canada, but not a whole lot; that’s ok, because he spends some time getting his readers up to speed. Essentially this union of a variety of Methodist and Reformed bodies chose to take a left-turn in the Sixties and consciously embrace both a national identity and a self-understanding rooted in social justice ministry.  I see many parallels to a large swath of the Episcopal Church in the movement that he describes. He connects a lot of the energy and ideas in this turn to the work of John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and Harvey Cox (The Secular City) and to some deliberate engagement the UCC conducted with some secularist thinkers at the time. All of this sounds quite familiar.

However, he finds an interesting foil to these thought patterns with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taking lessons and categories from Taylor, he looks at two major figures in modern church growth/relevance circles in the UCC who have extended the secularizing premises in enthusiastic but different ways (think Spong-style folks and, indeed, Spong puts in a brief appearance…) , and who offer their strategies as possible futures for the UCC. And, speaking demographically, the current extrapolated future for the collapse of the UCC is just as bleak as that for the Episcopal Church—if not more so.

His fundamental critique—as I read it—is that both of these thinkers fundamentally mistake what is baby and what is bathwater in their attempt to jettison the un-useful parts of Christianity and to retain what they see as useful for a modern, secular age. In particular, both make the error of buying into the maturity model of religious development. That is, one of the ways of understanding how patterns of belief (primarily in the Western World) have changed over the centuries/millennia is to place it in parallel with how children mature intellectually into adults.  Taylor, and Seaton following Taylor, reject this notion: that religion and religious belief are a primitive, infantile stage that a “grown-up” intellectual society “out-grows.”

At the end of the work, Seaton offers a different model of engaging with secular society. Instead of—essentially—a model of capitulation to the culture shown by the two other alternatives he explores, he suggests a model of “progressive orthodoxy.” It is progressive in that it retains strong commitments to social justice work broadly understood, but orthodox in that it holds strongly to the church’s classic belief in the divinity of Jesus. It understands its social justice commitments as neither apart from or parallel with its theological beliefs, but as flowing strongly out of an orthodox understanding of both Christ and the Trinity. While the old model suggested in Cox’s Secular City saw the church as engaging in kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (service), and koinonia (modeling an alternative way of being), the model Seaton recommends adds two more factors, leitourgia (worship and sacraments) and didache (teaching discipleship according to the Way of Christ).

While the last section couldn’t go into details and left me with some unanswered questions about some specific points of engagement between the church and secular culture, I found this a fascinating read. In particular, it reminded me a a lot of the things I have heard out of the Acts 8 Movement and others like that who are committed to growth in the Episcopal Church grounded in solid creedal theology.

There’s a lot of different directions that could be gone in from  here, but—if you are interested in the church’s conversation with secular culture and the missionary enterprise, this work may give you some very interesting fodder for thought!

4 thoughts on “Thinking about the Secular Age and Church Futures

  1. Kevin Montgomery

    I definitely believe that in order to construct a building, one needs a firm foundation. . . . I think Jesus might have said something about that.

  2. Barbara

    Thanks for this. I do hope that sanity prevails, and that “progressive orthodoxy” has a future in TEC. I can’t see why it shouldn’t; to me the idea is perfectly reasonable and perhaps even inevitable.

    As Kevin points out: a foundation is crucial. All utopian (secular) projects have in the end come to nothing – but religion/faith survives. Creeds are more important than people know, I think.

    If it doesn’t come to pass in the Episcopal Church, it will somewhere; that’s my prediction….

  3. Dr. Mark K. Fulk

    I very much appreciate your thoughtful sharing of these ideas. I have found Taylor’s work helpful and engaging as an academic myself who works on some of these issues (love your work too, by the way). Recently, concerning the American context, I have found Kevin Cruse’s “One Nation Under God” very informative on how American evangelical Christianity has divorced social justice from the mix and the powerful money sources behind it (“Dark Money” by Jane Mayer also explores some of this). Being somewhat of a Marxist myself, I want to trace the money behind these shifts. Keep up the good work. You’re a blessing to the orthodox!

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