Being Christian in a Secular Society - A Message for Young Adults
Young Christians today know well that the background culture of the society in which their grandparents were raised offered basic support to religious commitment. There was a broad social consent given to the Christian decision back then, such that being a Christian was something like a “default” option for most people and thus for most it didn’t feel like a decision at all. This would have been especially true of Catholics and mainline Protestants, who had long understood themselves to be Christians by family tradition, having been baptized as infants, raised in Christian practice, and initiated into an adult society which presupposed that whatever one’s particular Christian outlook, one’s outlook was particularly Christian.
Times have changed. Younger Christians today realize that a life of faith must be an intentional commitment defined at least in a certain sense against present societal consensus if it is to be at all. Family traditions are felt to be a weak influence which can hardly stand against the social background, dominated as it is by the all-powerful media which broadcasts secularist propaganda day and night. As young Christians step into adulthood today they see their peers opting out of religious practice as casually and unceremoniously as one tosses away an old pair of jeans or a dilapidated car. Christian youth are able to transition seamlessly into secular life as they leave home, identifying with alternative “communities” based in socio-political commitments and ideologies while otherwise looking to get ahead and rack up the good times. Whatever future this secular age dreams of, it agrees that Christianity need have no place in it.
Pluralism And The Fragility Of Belief
The problem: lack of confidence in Christianity as the ultimate truth
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor defines the word “secular” in an interesting and helpful way. Our society is “secular” not because Christianity is outlawed (of course it isn’t) and not even because it is often socially frowned upon, considered a “thing of the past”, misunderstood, ignored, or thought by many to be an evil (many people do think these things). Rather, our age is secular because belief is just one option among many. Our society is ideologically pluralist. Christians now live with the awareness that there are alternative views of the world and human life that many reasonable, intelligent, educated and sophisticated people apparently find satisfying and hold with conviction. Thus it follows that among Christians there is fragility of belief. Christians know that for any truth claim they might make there is some rival claim that bears serious weight for many people. In such a climate Christians tend to hold their religious commitments with a significant degree of doubt: maybe the Christian view of the world isn’t the only valid one, or even the best or truest. This abiding doubt about one’s faith can be paralyzing. Christians find it difficult to expand and deepen their religious commitments and to translate them into action, especially public action. In the meantime, the secular drum of society beats constantly in our ears, beckoning, demanding, that we check our faith at the door of the Town Hall and enter the value-neutral public space of “tolerance”. The secular song is an enchanting and powerful music difficult to resist and Christians become “secularized” almost by necessity. We are vulnerable to a practical loss of faith and thus to assimilation by the secular society. As a young Christian in our time the story of my coming of age is in all probability the story of “losing my religion.”
The opportunity: a new basis for evangelization
It turns out that Christians aren’t the only ones who suffer this “fragility of belief.” Pretty much everyone else does too, even if secretly, for fear of the culture. To the one who wants to find it, evidence that our secular society remains haunted by God and by Christianity abounds. This God-haunted character of our society opens up an opportunity for those who have been able to pass through the fragility of belief and emerge with a firm commitment: believing and living authentically as a Christian gives me a point of contact with secularized people who themselves might very well wonder if Christianity isn’t going to turn out to be true in the end. Living with fragility of belief is something that, strangely, unifies our culture: believers doubt their faith, but unbelievers doubt their faithlessness. This makes a common basis for authentic meeting between believers and unbelievers, if we all can learn to enter the conversation honestly, truly listening to the concerns, doubts, and anxieties of others without representing artificial certainties in ourselves which undermine this strange new basis for solidarity.
Christians are in principle well-positioned to initiate and mediate the conversation about belief. But we can’t do it if we’re not well-formed in our faith. The well-formed, actively and regularly practicing Christian in our time can dispel by personal witness many of the erroneous, wrong-headed, and even bigoted assumptions that he encounters in conversation with those who think they already know what they are rejecting when they reject Christianity. More importantly, committed Christians will increasingly stand out among their secularized peers, whose uncritical skepticism about truth and value renders them intellectually impotent, indecisive, and simply confused. One who knows who he is and what he is about will be a magnet for those lost in the ideologies and pluralism of our time.