This is part 4 of 4 in the series “Wondering about the Resurrection”

Dave hurried up to me in the church parking lot. You could see from a distance that he was bursting at the seams to tell me something.

Initially, I worried that this was about to be one of those scenes that we pastors have witnessed all too often. Somebody was about to tell me what “they” are saying about me. And “they” tend to be disappointed or angry. 

But not this time.

Dave was smiling and waving a sheet of paper in the air. It was like he had been awarded a Nobel Prize or had won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. When he reached me, he was breathless with excitement.

“Look. Look at this! My daughter has written her own personal creed!”

His daughter Lisa was a remarkably gifted young person. She was charming, exceptionally bright, and wickedly funny. She performed in her school’s theater productions and aspired to a career as an artist. From what I could see, Lisa was wise and mature beyond her years.

And while I’ve always been an advocate of independent thinking and critical reasoning, still in that moment hearing the phrase “personal creed” made me wonder. Don’t get me wrong. The idea wasn’t new to me. These days plenty of people talk about having a personal creed.

But in that brief exchange with Dave, I began to get an inkling about some of the assumptions we make in our age. Assumptions about what it means to be a person. Assumptions about where and how we’ll find meaning and purpose in our lives. And how these assumptions have landed us in the trying, anxious circumstances we are now contending with.

To use the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s phrase, I began to glimpse what it means to live in a Secular Age. In an age shaped from the ground up by secularism.

In what follows, I want to talk with you about being a person of faith in a Secular Age. So, I’m going to pose and respond to three questions:

What makes our era a Secular Age?

How has the Secular Age led us to a crisis?

How does faith restore meaning in a Secular Age?

Let’s start at the beginning. What makes our era a Secular Age?

Whether you’re a church-goer or a confirmed atheist or still trying to figure spiritual stuff out, you dwell in a Secular Age. Just like me. You interpret the world and you navigate your life under the influence of some deep, often unexamined assumptions.

If you’re religious, you might object. “I believe in God. There’s nothing secular about me!”

An atheist might say something like, “I wish we lived in a Secular Age. But millions of people still believe in absurd superstitions and keep trying to impose them on everybody else.”

As I said above, I get the phrase “Secular Age” from the philosopher Charles Taylor. And he has lots to say about secularism in his 900+ page book A Secular Age. You’ll be relieved to know that in this context I’m only going to talk about one vital point.

We live in a social, cultural, and intellectual climate that makes a crucial distinction. Science, social science, and logic can prove some ideas and so justify and even compel our belief in them. But our values, the purposes that motivate us, and the sources of life’s meaning reside with each individual.

Our freedom lies in choosing for ourselves what our lives should be about. Nobody can tell you what makes life worth living. Well, actually, they can and frequently do. But if you just follow the beat of someone else’s drum, you’re relinquishing the very freedom to choose that makes you truly human. That makes you truly you.

Think about my young friend Lisa. Her dad Dave was so proud of her because she was really growing up. She had written her very own personal creed. And that is precisely what even a religious person might do in our Secular Age. She was being true to herself.

But as it turns out, our individualistic, subjective approach to finding life’s meaning has come to a crisis point. We are sick. And the symptoms of our disease are violence, addiction, and anxiety. And this leads us to our second question:

How has the Secular Age led us to a crisis?

We’ve all read the news from Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children massacred along with two adults. 

It’s crushing. And it’s ominous. Because we keep hearing some version of this news from other towns about other innocents. There is so much violence. So much hurt. And we seem to be unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it. It’s as if we’re being swept along by forces we cannot see and only vaguely understand.

Human beings need a why to keep going. As the not-so-religious Nietzsche put it, we can get through pretty much anything so long as we have a why. And in our Secular Age we tell people to find that “why” by looking within and being true to themselves. And that is a problem.

As it turns out, our sense of meaning does involve our interior life. But our true self derives from more than our feelings, impulses, and personal opinions. Our true self develops when we follow a call and from our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. In order to be true to ourselves, we have to be connected to and committed to something beyond ourselves. 

Violence, addiction, and anxiety are symptoms of existential hollowness. Presented with the project of finding meaning but given no external compass points for locating it, many are left with a feeling of emptiness. Meaninglessness. And so they are haunted by a sense of life’s pointlessness and respond with rage or by anesthetizing themselves. They burn it all down or numb themselves out. 

There’s something absolutely vital missing: the felt connection to something beyond ourselves that anchors our sense that life is genuinely meaningful. And that brings us to our final question:

How does faith restore meaning in a Secular Age?

Let me start by making this clear. The Secular Age has given us a gift. Well, many gifts actually. But let me just state the central one for this context. It highlights for us that faith is not about objective, demonstrable facts. And yet, none of us can really escape our need for it.

Consider this passage from Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of : “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Even a confirmed atheist can be haunted by the desire for faith.

Now compare what Cheryl Strayed said in her memoir Wild: “I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things. I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn’t know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even what the word faith meant, in all of it’s complexity. Everything seemed to be possibly potent and possibly fake.”

As Taylor puts it, in the Secular Age all belief will have a sort of fragility. It’s as if we’re all that father in Mark’s Gospel who pleaded with Jesus to heal his son. Jesus asks him if he believes. His response echoes in the hearts of us believers in this Secular Age: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

The account of Day of Pentecost in Acts points us toward faith’s life-sustaining power in this secular era. The Holy Spirit comes to reside at the very center of the Apostles’ being. And not just theirs. But everyone’s. 

As I’ve outlined in the previous essays in this series, the coming of the Holy Spirit is the culmination of the Resurrection. The risen Christ dwells in and among us. We are connected to the holy at the center of our being. God is always already present. Not as a fact to be proven. But as a person to know and to love. A person who knows and loves us. What’s missing is our awareness.

And crucially, that same person—the risen Christ—dwells in our neighbor. By virtue of God’s presence among us we can speak the same language even in our very real differences. 

As the Scriptures put it, the Apostles began to speak to a gathered crowd. “Each one heard them speaking in their own tongue. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:6b-8)

As I have written elsewhere:

Faith, [according to some people], requires asserting the truth of certain ideas. I am encouraging us, however, to hear Jesus teaching us that faith is about faithfulness to a person, about being true to him as friend at all times and in all places. Jesus was clear about how to do that. He said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). We remain faithful to Jesus and we grow in our relationship with him when we love others like Jesus loves us. (Looking for God in Messy Places, p. 111).

So I suppose my young friend Lisa was right in one important respect. Faith, life-sustaining faith, is deeply personal.

You can read more about faith, meaning, and hope in my latest book Looking for God in Messy PlacesTo learn more or grab a copy click here.