Imitation and Innovation in the Secular Age

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


I hear the same story routinely from members of my congregation. It goes something like this. “I raised my kids in this church. They were baptized, confirmed, and highly involved here. But then in college or shortly thereafter, they decided that it didn’t work for them anymore.” This week, I hear the story from Mike. Each of his three boys has walked away from a life of faith and the church in which they were raised. He tells me they’re neither bitter nor angry, just disinterested.

When I ask Mike to tell me his story, he recalls that he was raised in the church but checked out during college and his young adult years. When I ask him why he returned he tells me that when he and his wife were expecting their first child it was the “thing to do.” By contrast, Mike’s sons have grown up in a world where the “thing to do” is “to do your own thing.” No pastor or church has the power to reverse the social, political, and economic changes that have created this world, but understanding these shifts can help us find a faithful response. I want to sketch out here a brief account of how we got this ethics of individualism and personal authenticity, and offer what I hope is a faithful response in the intentional practice of imitation.

Every instance of actually and voluntarily following the example of others involves imitation and innovation, both following and going in a new way…We may not be able to control whether or not young people like Mike’s sons will find faith in God believable in a secular age, but we can connect them to significant individuals who have responded to Christ’s call and walked the path of faith ahead of them in ways that might tempt them to believe themselves.

Charles Taylor helps us understand that maintaining a particular religious identity is no longer the “thing to do” in the modern, Western world. Whatever social pressures or expectations that pushed Mike back into the household of faith thirty years ago do not exist today. We live in what Taylor calls the secular age, an age of contested belief, where all faith endures the cross-pressures of doubt and suspicion. In his award-winning book, A Secular Age, Taylor questions why it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God” 500 years ago in Western society when today many “find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”1 According to the story Taylor tells about how we arrived where we are today, the secular age is much more than simply the evacuation of God from public spaces or the decline of religious belief and practice.2 Rather, on Taylor’s view, the secular age describes “a move from society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”3

Taylor’s account is immensely rich, covering 500 years in over 700 pages. What matters for Mike and his sons, however, is this: In the secular age, there are more compelling reasons than ever before not to believe, and combined with the social pressure to “do your own thing,” young people are often left on their own to create the frame for a life of meaning and purpose. This is the result of what Taylor calls the buffered self. If premodern selves were “porous,” which is to say, open and vulnerable to the enchanted world of spirits as well as to the collective good of the community, the modern self is “buffered,” protected from the outside world and capable of autonomy.

But the same buffering that protects us and helps us to construct our identity can also isolate us. The result is a kind of individualism built upon the assumption that we each have our own way of realizing our true self (i.e. do your own thing), which we must do without conforming to a model imposed on us from the outside – by society, a previous generation, or a religious or political authority.4 This is how Taylor describes the age of authenticity in which we currently live. But it leaves us with an impoverished account of faith formation, which in the Christian tradition involves receiving God’s grace from outside of ourselves and learning to be part of a community striving to follow Jesus Christ. Part of belonging to such a community entails imitating others who have learned how to follow Christ in powerful and exemplary ways. In the closing chapter of his book, Taylor suggests that what it means to belong to a church is to be put in regular contact with exemplary figures who tempt us to believe through shared religious language and practice.

In his book, How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith wonders whether Protestants such as myself will follow Taylor’s celebration of exemplars. According to Smith, this bubbles up from a uniquely Catholic imaginary.5 While it is true that Protestants loathe to think about hierarchies of excellence among those who follow Christ where some are elevated to an exemplar status, the truth is that some will follow better than others, imitating Christ and the lives of the saints the scriptures make known with a higher degree of excellence than others. Some will do so in ordinary ways while others will do so radically and thereby fundamentally transform what we take Christ’s call to be. Protestant theologian Karl Barth argued that the health of the Christian community depends on such exemplary witnesses to rescue it from its own mediocrity. For Barth, while none of these exemplars are “by a long chalk a second Christ,” each can be received with gratitude because they represent God’s action in the community to “awaken interest” or “arouse respect.”6

Still some might say that imitation will not work in the age of authenticity. If authenticity is the virtue of our age, and authenticity is defined by a kind of autonomy which is buffered from any outside authority or relationship, how does one cultivate a faith in the language of a received tradition? One possible way is to highlight innovation’s role in imitation. Every instance of actually and voluntarily following the example of others involves imitation and innovation, both following and going in a new way. It has to be because the circumstances responded to will always be slightly different. Without innovation, imitation becomes hypocrisy. Historically, the Church has been more comfortable with imitation than innovation. But in a secular age, we need both. We may not be able to control whether or not young people like Mike’s sons will find faith in God believable in a secular age, but we can connect them to significant individuals who have responded to Christ’s call and walked the path of faith ahead of them in ways that might tempt them to believe themselves. We can also encourage them to innovate on those examples and Christ’s own example thereby enriching what we understand faith in the modern world to be. Perhaps if we do both well, their faith as well as our own will hold steady in the cross-pressures of the secular age.

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Footnotes:

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 25.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ibid., 475.
5. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 133.
6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Trans. G.W. Bromiley, IV/3.2 (Peabody, Mass: 2010), 888-889.

 


Wasson

Jon Wasson is ordained in the PC(USA) and serves as the Associate Pastor for Discipleship at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. He earned his M.Div. and M.A. from Princeton Theological Seminary and is primarily interested in Christian ethics and formation. He also cheers regularly for Arsenal. You can follow him on Twitter @jonwasson.

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