My Youth Are (Not) Secular 3: Under Cross-Pressure

This week, the Next Institute continues 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, and our second entry “Living in the Immanent Frame” here.

THESIS 4: Under Cross-Pressure

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If you remember what we’ve discussed so far, you’ll find we are now under ‘the immanent frame’ - a belief that there is no need for supernatural support, intervention, or meaning in the world. We make enough meaning for a fulfilling life ourselves. The big difference between this view and classic atheism is focus - rather than outwardly denying the existence of God, especially in a culture that largely affirms the existence of some supernatural or divine reality, Taylor’s view sees more and more individuals who simply don’t care. If there is anything supernatural in existence, it is unnecessary, for the individual and his community can provide all the meaning he requires to live a meaningful, fulfilled life in the world. God is not ‘missed’, because he simply doesn’t matter.

Taylor argues, however, that this is an untenable position, and the big secret of the immanent frame is that we know it. Often erupting out of deep existential periods such as moments of profound joy or heart-wrenching suffering, many ‘secular’ individuals feel the failure of the immanent frame to provide enough meaning for their lives in these tender moments. They have a sense that there must be more. James KA Smith further notes that these illogical cracks in the immanent frame are commonly recorded by artists, who mourn the shallowness of the meanings we are able to create.

Taylor calls this sense that there must be more than the immanent frame a ‘haunting’, that the age itself is haunted by what could be, and what is, just beyond the frame. Smith notes that this is one of the key opportunities for Christians - not that we would ride into the picture in seeming arrogance, proclaiming that we know what they are missing. Rather, that we would invite them into our communities and lives, becoming mentors and helpers who interpret the ‘hauntings’ modern people feel as they allow us to. This is a wonderful opportunity for youth workers, who already have a basis for relational discipleship. However, it also poses a question - do our communal spaces (events, large group gatherings) have the space for those ‘haunted’ to come alongside? Do we have students who can pair off with those considering Christianity, who can give them the safety and explanation at a pace they set themselves, without throwing them into the deep end? Are our teachings sensitive to these students?

THESIS 4b: Us, Too!

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We’re cheating here - this is still about cross-pressure. Taylor notes that even those who don’t choose to live under the immanent frame end up doing so. We ALL live in a world that has squeezed out the supernatural from the spaces of daily life. So, just as non-believers are haunted by the possibility that there could be cracks in the frame, that they don’t really have to bear the burden of their meaning making, believers are also haunted. Believers are haunted by the cross-pressure that the frame makes more sense than we want to give it power. We are haunted by the idea that we could be wrong, a nagging doubt that is now more a par-for-the-course part of the Christian experience than we want to admit. Why is this? It is because we see, every day, people existing without God. We see them living happy, fulfilled lives. We see them not experiencing the angst of confession, of sanctification, of devotion to anything or anyone outside of themselves. Some who have left the faith have even called their experience ‘de-conversion’, and have described it in very biblical terms - as a burden being lifted off of them, as them entering into a new life of freedom.

In youth ministry, we need to be aware of BOTH cross-pressures. Even as we serve our student communities of faith, we need to re-define what we think of as a ‘seeker’ (not the market-to-me individual of the 70s church growth movement, but a ‘wonderer’, someone needing guidance and care who ‘wanders in off the street and sits in the back pew’ of our youth ministries). We need to have space for such seekers, and the patience to walk alongside of them and help them commit, bit by bit, as they reconsider their understandings of the source of meaning in the world. At the same time, we need to understand that ALL of our Christian students are also caught in the cross-pressure of the immanent frame. Doubt is now a common facet of student faith - thus, youth workers must help students navigate between necessary doubt (the fruit of a maturing and tested faith) and apathy masking itself as doubt.

Next week, we’ll discuss Taylor’s final thesis - the effect of his understanding of secularization, placed under cross-pressure. Check back in for the explosion.

ArticlesStephen Yates