Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Secular Age: Human Flourishing

In the good ol' days, religion was everywhere. Religion was not a part of life; one's life was part of a religion which touched every sphere of a community. This is not the case any longer, and Charles Taylor explores why. According to Taylor, we live in a secular age which seeks to liberate us of our need of God, thus relegating his existence -- if he does exist at all -- to that of personal saviour, belief in whom has no bearing on public life.

Our secular age is defined by three aspects of belief:

1. The sphere of belief has shifted from public to private.
2. The prevalence of belief has diminished. We have put away childish, naive notions of a divine being.
3. The conditions of belief or the nature of belief have changed.

Taylor focuses on this third aspect, with our shift to immanence being the condition that has paved the way for the removal of God from both the public and the private sphere of life. By "immanence", Taylor means that  the question, What constitutes a full life? can be answered with reference to nothing outside of human possibility and no final reality other than human flourishing.

Though I'm only about 2% into the book, there are two things worth mentioning:

Christianity has a specific vision for what constitutes human flourishing. Many Christians in our secular age (and it remains to be seen if Taylor follows this pattern or not) talk about it as if we all more or less agree with what flourishing looks like, with religious people then going beyond that to the transcendent, or foregoing it for the sake of the flourishing of others. This may be a reality, but if not carefully articulated it is quite often a dangerous one that justifies the kind of public Christianity manufactured in the United States, the kind of private Christianity lived out by far too many churches in the West, and the kind of missions work that we then engage in. We do not invoke "God" in politics in order to legitimate our own concept of flourishing that is wholly independent of the God revealed in Jesus. We do not seek to flourish just like those around us, except with the added aspect of church attendance and the knowledge that we and not them get to go to heaven when we die. And we do not renounce our wealth in the West in order to go to the South or to the East and make them more like us. Liberation must be something other than the have-nots becoming the haves; the poor becoming the rich. If that is our goal for those who are in desperate need, then by the time we are finished with them it will become impossible for them to enter the kingdom of God, for they will be just like us.

I don't think Christians have to say that we are interested in something beyond human flourishing - that we are in touch with the transcendent as well as the immanent. I think what we have to say is much more radical: There really is nothing for us beyond human flourishing, but human flourishing is not a human possibility, and it cannot be understood apart from the God who became human in Jesus.

What "self-sufficient humanism" cannot understand is this: The foregoing is the flourishing. The relentless sharing is the possession of an abundant life. The servanthood is the greatness. The kenosis is the fullness. This is God's humanism, to use Barth's term, and it only makes sense in light of His kingdom that is being formed on earth as it is in heaven.

The irony of our secular age is that in seeking to flourish apart from the God who became human it became impossible for humans to flourish, for it is this God alone who makes human flourishing both possible and describable.

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