By Mike Michielin
When I join some friends for a beer after playing hockey once a week, I always have this sense of entering a different universe. It’s a universe that hasn’t just rejected God, but in which he never existed in the first place. For instance, when my hockey friends asked me about what I do (I am an Anglican priest), they listen politely. But I can tell from the glaze in their eyes that they think I come from another planet. It doesn’t take long for our conversation to turn to other matters: “Bartender, another beer, please!”
My sense is that I’m not the only Christian experiencing this feeling of displacement in our western culture. I hear the same thing from many of my parishioners. Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age has given me some insights as to why Christians feel so displaced in our culture. For Taylor, the most important question facing the Church today is why has there been a massive shift from a time in our western culture when belief in God was unchallenged and unproblematic to today, when it’s natural to reject God altogether?
Taylor argues that all beliefs are held within “a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains intact, and may even be unacknowledged by the agent” (p. 11). What’s changed in our “taken-for-granted” framework is a new sense of the self and its place in the world. A few hundred years ago our sense of self was open, vulnerable and thus, “porous” to a world of meaning and purpose shaped by spirits, magic, and God. Today our sense of self is “buffered,” believing it can be disengaged from these forces. For today’s “buffered” self, instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular (p.542). Therefore, the idea of spirits, moral forces or causal powers with a purposive bent are incomprehensible (p. 539). Our assumed “transcendent” understanding of the cosmos, when it was inconceivable to dismiss God, is replaced by an “immanent” framework, in which transcendence and eternity are not necessary for human flourishing.
Christians today live in a culture where most are “exclusive humanists” – a way of being-in-the-world that offers significance without transcendence (p. 19). Furthermore, this exclusive humanist framework for understanding the world is regularly “contesting” our Christian one. Exclusive humanism, along with its assumed immanent framework, is so much in the air we breathe in today that we’re most often not even conscious of its formative impact on what we, as Christians, think and feel. Flannery O’Connor summarizes this struggle in a letter she wrote about her first novel:
I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work for it. (p. 10)
We may still be attracted to the holy, but disbelief permeates our faith in God because it’s what we “breathe in our times.” Therefore, it’s becoming harder – even for Christians – to view God as believable in today’s age.
So, what can we do as a Church to counter the disbelief in the air that we breath in today? At a recent conference my church hosted, Peter Robinson from Wycliffe College, Toronto said the real problem facing the Anglican Church today is not a lack of “seeker friendly” liturgies or cultural relevancy. Instead, it’s a “crisis of catechesis.” Robinson’s comment was confirmed for me in a recent series of parish house group visioning meetings. I asked the following two questions at each meeting. Why would you invite someone to our church, and why would you invite someone to become a Christian?
The typical response to my questions focused on being welcoming, sense of community, and learning values. Notably, little was said about Jesus Christ and the new life of freedom he offers us as his disciples. Now, don’t get me wrong. Things like values and community are good things. Yet, people can just as easily find these things at yoga class or a local service group as they might find them in the Church. So, why was Jesus missing in their answers?
The mistake I’ve come to realize in my ministry is I’ve assumed learning how to be disciples of Christ is about “information” rather than “formation.” I’ve assumed that If I provide my parishioners with all the right information about Jesus, they’ll naturally develop into his disciples. But, as James K. A. Smith says, people are not just “thinking things” (p. 3). We assume once we get our thinking straight, our behavior will follow. But that doesn’t happen because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we’re primarily desiring creatures, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (1.1.1) And desires cannot be shaped simply with information. They need to be formed. How?
Before I was a priest, I was a bricklayer. I learned my trade by apprenticing alongside master bricklayers. Of course, I made mistakes, but that’s how I learned. Likewise, that’s how the early followers of Jesus learned their trade as his disciples. Jesus sent out 70 of them carrying no purse, no bag and no sandals (Luke 10.4). No 10-week course on mission was offered. They learned by trial and error.
So, that is why I’m now adapting the same strategy with my parishioners. My ministry of Word and sacrament, of course, continues. But I’m also inviting them to enter into a lifelong apprenticeship program of learning how to be a disciple of Jesus, i.e., leading Bible studies, helping in the liturgy, inviting friends to church, following up with newcomers etc. Encouraging my parishioners to, yes, learn about, but also, practice being a disciple of Jesus is the only way, I believe, I can help them to, not only counter the impact competing stories of disbelief in our culture are having on their faith in Christ, but also better equip them to be a witness of the Gospel to those who abide by these stories of disbelief.
The Rev. Dr. Mike Michielin is incumbent of St. John’s Anglican Church, Kingston, Canada.