My Youth Are (Not) Secular 2: Living in the Immanent Frame

This week, the Next Institute continues in its series, unpacking the work of philosopher Charles Taylor as interpreted through James KA Smith. Read our first entry in the series, “What Does ‘Secular’ Mean?” here.



Taylor goes to great lengths to argue that however ‘secular’ our society is, that secularization is not the result of ‘subtraction’. One example of this reality is school prayer. Many in popular culture have cited Supreme Court decisions regarding public school prayer in the United States in 1962/63 as a watershed moment ushering in a rapid decline of Christianity in America. These individuals see the religious status quo as resting on a series of pillars, and that a secular society is the result of removing these pillars from their foundational position. Taylor, rather, notes that what occurs when a pillar loses its position is not subtraction, but replacement. We are worshipping, praying, trusting, ‘faith-ing’ creatures, and the removal of prayer from the rhythms of public school (and its implied removal of the foundational status of such practices in people’s lives) can only take place according to Taylor if something else, some other trusting, worshipping, ‘faith-ing’ function replaces it. 

This line of thinking often enters our discourse as youth workers when we talk about students ‘losing’ their faith, especially in large groups. Because we perceive something as being lost, our initial gut-reaction is to increase the inputs adding ‘more’ of that thing to our students. We worry at the loss of spiritual disciplines such as prayer or Bible reading, so we increase the opportunities for doing so in our programming. We worry about them losing their virginity, so we increase abstinence instruction. We worry about them losing a heart for the world, so we schedule mission trips. 

While such programming choices are not unwise at all, Taylor would caution us to be wary of our subtractionistic thinking. When faith, or disciplines, or anything is waning in the hearts of our students, our reaction must be ‘what is replacing this in hearts of my students?’ This then leads us to larger conversations about what cultural, social, and environmental factors are leading students to consider such a replacement viable in their lives? At the level of religion itself, this meta-conversation leads Taylor to his third thesis.


Taylor argues that society has shifted such that people are not rejecting religion (which by itself would be an example of subtraction), and thus rejecting a need for the existential meaning and purpose religious belief provides, but rather that culture has created an environment in which people believe they can have such existential needs met without any supernatural intervention at all - an ‘immanent frame’. This ‘exclusive humanism’ points to humanity having the capability to be fulfilled in the meanings of their own making. 

Why this observation is profound (and why it is not simply a declaration of a secular-atheistic society), is its understanding of existential need and fulfillment. For instance, Christians have long looked to Blaise Pascal’s ‘God-shaped hole’ in the heart as a wonderful expression of human need for a relationship with God. Evangelistic programs and events have been built around helping non-believers to identify their ‘heart longings’, naming these, quickly dismissing ‘worldly’ numbing mechanisms for suppressing such longings (drugs, alcohol, sex, money, possessions, etc.) and then introducing the individual to Jesus. Yet in Taylor’s paradigm, the idea of even having existential longings has shifted from a mysterious awareness of life’s finitude to simply a self-assessment of what area of life to work on next.

In student ministry, the immanent frame rears its head more and more as youth workers encounter students who simply have no need of Jesus. Not that they have no problems - they are keenly aware of their amount of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and rejection at all times. However, they face such issues without considering God - not because of an active atheism that sees them angrily rejecting the existence or intervention of the divine, but passively. They never even consider praying at all. Others may be having what they self-assess as ‘a pretty good life’, as their social and economic status prevents them from experiencing the worst of life’s ills. Rather than describing their life as ‘searching’ to fill their heart, they are offended at the suggestion they are not fulfilled already. 

Youth workers would take care not to make blanket-assumption statements that dismiss students’ understandings of their own fulfillment, regardless of our beliefs of their ultimate need for fulfillment in Christ. Rather than being obvious coping mechanisms, many students will argue that their consumption of drugs or alcohol, their sexual expression, their financial or social patterns, or their consumption of media provide meaningful and lasting fulfillment - and their lives reflect this outward reality. 

Instead, youth ministries must look past the ‘obvious’ stereotypes of the past, and consider Taylor’s 4th assertion - that all is not what it seems.

ArticlesStephen Yates