The Search for Meaning and Order in the “Secular Age”

Throughout the summer, a group of students gathered weekly at Princeton Theological Seminary to discuss a pressing question facing the Church and one, undoubtedly, every individual will face while serving a congregation: what does it mean to live in a so-called “secular age” and, consequently, how are we to live as faithful Christians in this “secular age?” In order to fully grasp this question and address it with appropriate care and concern, we realized that it was important to understand how we actually came to reside in a “secular age.” It was this meta-question that guided our thoughts and discussions while navigating Charles Taylor’s massive work, A Secular Age, an explanation of how the Western world shifted from being uniformly Christian in the pre-modern period to a world infused with a plurality of choices for individuals to discern in the modern era.

Prior to reading Taylor’s work, the rise of secularism was quite nebulous for many of us in the group. While we knew the historical stages from the Reformation up to the present, we possessed little knowledge of what changed and, more importantly, less knowledge of how it changed. As a result, we wanted answers, or at least hypotheses, that would help us understand the world that we live in for the betterment of the church.

We thought of secularism along one of the two following (or both) common approaches: first, the understanding of the withdrawal of Christianity from the political theatre; second, the general decline of Christianity in the Western world. But Taylor is not concerned with either of these because they fail to answer the how question — the question we want an answer to. Thus, Taylor’s approach to secularity is different from the common approaches. Taylor is concerned with the conditions of belief — basically an analytical how that prioritizes the existential nature in order to grasp what is believable and how it came to be so. This means that Taylor is less interested in the development of theory and more concerned with the existential development of the human and how this takes us from a world where belief in God is unchallenged to a world where belief in God is just one of many options available. Thus, Taylor is telling a complex story of how and what changed within the human to arrive at a “secular age.”

In the course of navigating Taylor’s work and watching this story unfold throughout the summer, two main themes continuously arose in our conversations that pivoted back to our meta-question. The first was the continuous endeavor by humans to search for and find a sense of fullness within their lives. Although this search seemingly varies in form and approach throughout the chronology of Taylor’ account, this search, nonetheless, continues in one form or another. Importantly, this search for fullness is rooted in the meaning of life. When we find meaning in life, we can easily determine what fullness consists in and how to achieve it. For example, the pre-modern individual found meaning and fullness in the church, while the modern individual has found meaning and fullness in a variety of avenues ranging from mere human exclusivism to contributing to society for the sake of mutual economic and political benefit. So, no matter the period, the purpose of life is established in what we understand the meaning of life to be and how to proceed in accomplishing this fullness.

Now this is quite ordinary to suggest that all humans search for meaning in order to arrive at some kind of fullness. Taylor even suggests that there is a meaning and fullness “which transcends the ordinary” and cannot be “easily uprooted from the human heart” (677).  Thus, this is basic human nature. However, the source of meaning, especially where it is properly located, radically changed between the pre-modern and modern world. The Christian God was no longer the lone source of meaning as other alternatives emerged.

According to Taylor, the emergence of alternatives began with the “cross-pressures” of holding together the transcendent and the drive towards immanentization. This basically amounted to a tug-of-war between the transcendent and the self. But these “cross-pressures” eventually produced an explosion of “third ways” which Taylor comes to define as the “secular age,” the age which we now live in. Since a plurality of options have now become available, the source of meaning is tossed into the air and left to be discerned by human feeling. Consequently, only echoes of the transcendent remain and individuals crown themselves as rightful sources of meaning. Thus, meaning and fullness come to be defined by the individual. And of course, meaning varies from person-to-person with their right to choose their own path to fullness.

This is very much an anthropocentric turn that is directed towards human flourishing. But what also emerges is the need for an individual — whether claiming to possess the source of meaning or holding to another alternative — to establish or find a form of order that supports their perceived meaning of the world. This is the second main theme that arose throughout our conversations.

Seemingly, meaning takes a form of legitimization when properly ordered and placed within a system. In medieval Europe, for instance, the sacramental system provided an ordered way of distributing the Catholic Church’s meaning of grace to the laity. Thus, order helps keep meaning directed and oriented towards our understanding of fullness. Practically, order gives us a blueprint on how to live life in pursuit of whatever we find or locate meaning to be.

But meaning also gives order its proper purpose. A system without meaning is then just a set of codes with no practical end that are followed merely arbitrarily. In simplicity, meaning and order have to be seen in a symbiotic relationship affirming one another. Both have to work together in a reciprocal relationship in order to produce a coherent worldview. Neither can be completely isolated from the other, but both have to work together in order to ensure a worldview safe from massive contradictions between theory and practice. This is the type of relationship that all people have to be aware of in a “secular age,” and one where Taylor implicitly shows that an improper or faulty relationship between meaning and order can create unavoidable dilemmas within any worldview.

Now for Christians, especially those interested in understanding how to live faithfully in a “secular age,” we really have to be mindful of the importance of Christian meaning and order when belief in God is no longer a given, but an option that is highly contested in our present age. Furthermore, we have to be mindful that our meaning and order is not built on faulty soil, but is grounded in sound truth. As a group, we saw importance in affirming the relation between meaning and order in Christianity because it serves as a witness of our faith in a secular world. It is a way to show that our meaning is to be found in Jesus Christ and in Him alone, with Holy Scripture and, subsequently, the historic creeds and confessions, as the norm of ordering our faith and practice.

While we learned the what and how we came to live in a “secular age,” we came to better understand how to live in this world. Since there is no turning back the clock, we cling to what gives us meaning and order to achieve the utmost fullness in life: the Christian faith.

Jaston Brink is a third-year MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary