Bumping Our Heads Against a Secular Ceiling

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Bumping Our Heads Against a Secular Ceiling

A conversation with Mike Cosper and Alan Noble


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Mike Cosper: What we’re here to talk about is kind of life in a secular age. We’ve both written books on the topic that have kind of deep roots in the work of Charles Taylor, which Alan will talk about here in just a moment. But it’s just gonna be kind of a conversation between the two of us for a little bit and then hopefully, we’ll have some time to open up for questions as well. So if questions pop into mind as we go write them down, and we should have some time for that before we wrap. So Alan, why don’t you give the 50,000-foot view of…

Alan Noble: Of the 800-page…

Cosper: Of the 800-page book with tiny print.

Noble: …of the tome. Has anybody here read “A Secular Age?” We got a couple. Derek, put your hand down you didn’t read. Anyway, “A Secular Age?” it’s a wonderful book, Jimmy Smith’s book, “How (Not) to Be Secular” is a great summary of it. I don’t really recommend that most people read it because it’s a lot of pages and it’s not all that easy to read, but it’s wonderful. To understand…

Cosper: I once heard Miroslav Volf talk about…give a lecture about the book. And like a few minutes into kind of talking about the book he paused, and he sighed real heavily and he goes, “Ah, Charles needed an editor.”

Noble: I feel so much better because I’m gonna quote him from now on because I’ve said that repeatedly and I always feel like I’m casting aspersions. But no, if Volf said it then I’ll just quote him then it’s not so bad. All right, both of our books really work based on Taylor’s concept of secularism, and I don’t know about you guys, but when I heard the term secularism growing up in evangelical circles it tended to mean something like the world, or atheists, or the boogeymen out there. It tended to be something out there. And that’s not what Taylor means.

Taylor’s thinking about secularism, not in terms of a belief system, but almost you could think of it as an openness to lots of different belief systems. This is how he defines it. “The shift in secularity, in this sense consists among other things of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic. To one in which it is understood to be one option among others and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

Now, let me put some meat on that so that you can understand this. So if you imagine that I lived in Germany in the 1400s I would be born a Christian, I would live as a Christian, and I would die as a Christian. Now I, in the 20th and 21st century, I was born into a Christian family, I was raised Christian and Lord willing, I will die a Christian. So on the surface, they might seem very similar. But Taylor’s point is that there’s something categorically different about the experience of being a believer, then compared to now.

Here’s one way of getting to that difference. My entire life, even though I was also like that medieval man raised as a Christian, I always knew I had options. I didn’t have to be Christian. I knew lots of people who lived very interesting, exciting, maybe even fulfilling lives from the outside, who believed things that were very different than how I was raised to believe things. This is the modern experience of being in the world, everything is contested. You’re always hyper-aware that you have other options available to you, other religions or no religion at all.

Another aspect of secularism he talks about is something called the immanent frame. He says, “We all live in the immanent frame.” Maybe an easy way to understand this is the sort of the material world. But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Because Taylor’s criticism is not that secularism is just out there among unbelievers but it is sort of a basic condition of all of us. Even Christians tend to have a secular understanding of the world in the way he means it, which is we are always aware that we have other options available to us. And we think about the world in terms of the immanent frame.

Let me give you an example to explain what this immanent frame is. Again, it’s a kind of materialist understanding of the world. And you might say, Alan, and I would say, actually it’s Dr. Noble but thank you. You’d say, Dr. Noble, I’m a Christian, I don’t believe in a materialist world, right. I mean, I believe in miracles, I believe Christ rose from the dead. So clearly, I’m not secularist in the way Charles Taylor talks about it. I get that.

But let’s play a little game here, rainbows are really fascinating. I’ve seen over the past few years, a number of commentators talk about the LGTBQ’s, communities use of rainbows as an image as sort of part of their brand. And the objection from conservative Christians, which is beside the point for my purposes here, is that they’re taking something that is a sign given by God that He will not flood the earth again, and they’re using it for, you know, a movement that is opposed to Biblical sexual ethics. You know, it’s kind of offensive in that sense.

Now, again, setting aside all that, you know, debate, what I find fascinating about this is I think for the vast, vast majority of evangelicals, we do not think about rainbows as a sign from God, and we haven’t for a long, long time. Think back to the way…when you see a rainbow, how do you respond to it? I think you got three basic options. One is you elbow the person next to you and say, “Ah, look, there’s a rainbow.” Two, you take a photo of it, and you post it on Instagram and say, “Ah, look, here’s a rainbow. ”

Cosper: It’s so intense.

Noble: Yeah, that’s right. Or maybe it’s a double rainbow. Three, you think back to the scientific explanation of what rainbows are that you learned in elementary school. If you were not homeschooled like me, I’m sure there is an explanation for rainbows I don’t know what it is. Maybe under that third interpretation of how you perceive rainbows, maybe you think oh, that’s right. God actually created this…part of its design is to tell us something about his relationship to us. So it’s not just a material phenomenon, not just a natural phenomenon it has some transcendent significance. But if we get to that, and I think most of us don’t, it’s probably beneath the more naturalist understanding.

And I think that’s a good way of understanding the immanent frame. It’s not like all of us Christians are walking around thinking in purely materialist terms, but it’s kind of our default. It’s hard for us to perceive the world as something created and sustained and preserved by a living God who loves us and died on the cross for our sins and preserves us. So that’s the immanent frame. It also involves things like expressive individualism, we won’t get into that. But that’s a kind of short version of what Taylor is talking about. Did I miss anything that you think needs to be?

Cosper: No, I mean, the other way I think about the immanent frame is if you sort of imagine your thoughts as these sort of thought balloons, right, where you’re trying to understand your life, understand your world, understand your reality. You will come to a point where you bump your head on the ceiling with this idea of this immanent frame that sort of covers our thought patterns. You eventually bump your head on the ceiling when you get to certain transcendent ideas. And it’s not “Oh, I don’t believe this” it’s this nagging voice in the back of your head that kind of goes, “Really? Do you really think that rainbow is a covenantal thing or is it just, you know, a water vapor and light thing?”

Noble: That’s really what it is?

Cosper: That’s really what it is.

Noble: Thanks.

Cosper: So, yeah, I think that is a really helpful way to frame that.

Noble: And part Taylor’s point is that it’s hard. I think that bubble idea is helpful. Because it’s possible for contemporary people to conceive of the transcendent, but it’s hard work. Our default is to understand it in purely naturalist terms, including people in the church. It’s difficult for us to conceptualize a God that is actually living what Taylor calls the open immanent frame. So we’re still here, this is still a kind of our default setting, but we can acknowledge that there is a transcendent God. So it takes work.

Cosper: Yeah. So for me, my bridge to Taylor was the work of James K. A. Smith, starting with some of the stuff in his books, “Desiring the Kingdom” and “Imagining the Kingdom.” And I made the mistake of reading the 800-page book right before Jamie’s little 100-page brief on it. Which is really so good you really don’t need to read the 800-page book.

But I found Taylor’s description of religious experience almost like he was reading my mail. This was my experience, my experience with faith and doubt. And it really rocked my world, at the time I was in the midst of writing a book on the spiritual disciplines and trying to kind of understand like, how do spiritual disciplines, you know, shape our lives and trying to really contextualize that. And that’s what led me to Taylor and it wrecked my whole thesis for the book, it really did. And I turned the book in 20 months late, it was a long time, a long process of working out the ideas behind recapturing the wonder because it’s so rocked my foundations for thinking about faith.

Because you know, I think this issue of life in a secular world, really is the primary challenge to spiritual formation in our time. We have to find ways to get underneath and past you know, these boundaries of sort of plausibility in order to get to a place where we really can engage in thoughtful and authentic communion with God through the means that he’s given us, spiritual disciplines, the gathered church, etc.

Noble: So, when you say plausibility, we gotta get through this plausibility and discipleship, right. So let’s say you have a community group or something small group meeting, presumably those people, you know, at least they’re confessing these things, right. So they’ll confess Christ rose from the dead for their sins. So when you say plausibility, haven’t they already gotten through that?

Cosper: Yeah, I think, you know, back to sort of Taylor’s notion of this is where it becomes interesting in a community group, you know, session or something like that is if somebody says, “I feel like the Lord is telling me x, y, or z. The presumption, I think, in the part of others in the group, oftentimes and even internally there’s this internal dialogue that goes along with this is, is God really telling you that or is that just something you ate, you know? Is God really telling you that or is that just what you wanna do anyway?

The way we, I think, needle other people’s religious experience with our own kind of questions about is that even possible. A recent example of this for me is a friend of mine was part of a church where the last couple of months, they’ve had some pretty crazy experiences with healing prayer in this gathering. And not only did I react with kind of like a “Really? Is that really going on? Did somebody really grow arches in their feet while you prayed for like? Okay, that sounds crazy.” Not only am I reacting that way, the pastors that are doing this praying and watching this stuff happen, are going, “I don’t know what this is, I can’t explain this. This is weird, this is bizarre, this is crazy.”

That’s life in a secular age. That’s belief under the condition of doubt, that’s pastoring and leading the church under the conditions of doubt. Because even watching things happen, watching people…whether you’re watching people move from death to life, through salvation, or whether you’re watching people experience healing, physical or emotional or whatever, you know, the reality of secularism is there’s this nagging, needling, condition of doubt.

Noble: That’s very helpful. The other way, I think this challenge of plausibility can work out in that sort of small group setting can be that, you know, it’s one thing to mentally, you know, confess certain things, right, and attest. And, you know, in a world where our institutions are crumbling, the church provides a wonderful community, which is a good thing, which is a very good thing. But I think it is possible for people…And I think this happens all over for people to get involved and the community is really the faith, right. And the faith becomes a lifestyle, and it has a language, it has a certain kind of dress, it has a certain kind of values. And you give you know mental assent to certain things. But I’m not all that convinced that all of those people actually, in a deep, meaningful way believe that Christ rose from the dead.

Now, that’s not something I would go to somebody and say like in my small group, I don’t think you believe in the resurrection, right because that would be…that’s how I get kicked out of small groups. But I will say that I think the way we structure churches, the way we talk about faith, what it can do is it can lend itself to putting religion into a sort of lifestyle box. Which makes it very easy to say during, you know, Easter time. “Hey, this is great. I’m celebrating the resurrection.” But what it really means is I’m having fun with my friends in my local community.

Cosper: And I would say I think to be fair, historically, I think the idea of sort of being culturally appropriated into Christianity has always been a factor. What’s unique to our time, is that this kind of exists without the possibility of transcendence, right? We’re participating in it and we’re participating in a religion that lacks mystery, that lacks a certain kind of beauty, that lacks a certain kind of expectation.

I mean, we were just talking about this upstairs…And I don’t mean to get ahead of ourselves. But, you know, I think for those of us that are in ministry, one of the ways that this sort of secular phenomenon shows up is that when we think about our church gatherings or church events, we feel a burden as church leaders to make something happen. I gotta make sure this experience feels like something is happening.

And underneath that is the doubt that you know, if we just preach the gospel, read the scriptures, serve the sacraments, etc. I’m not sure if we do those things that God’s really gonna show up and people are really gonna feel something. So I gotta make them feel something, I gotta get to work and make sure people feel something.

Noble: So they’re not recognizing the objective reality that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God is present?

Cosper: Right.

Noble: Because Taylor would say, that’s difficult for us to understand, it’s difficult for us to conceive. It’s easy to say, you know, I believe that this is what happens. It’s another thing to actually internalize that and believe it. So when you want to stir up these feelings, you’re gonna have to create an event, you’re gonna have to make things showy, more interesting to grab attention. Yeah, I think that’s right.

Cosper: Yeah, I’d love Alan may be for you to talk a little bit about…Because this is something you’ve explored a lot in your work is how secularism has shaped the church’s witness. And, you know, this is my term for it but it’s failure of witness in our time, I’d love to hear you.

Noble: So I think, you know, as you were talking about church services, I was thinking about Charles Taylor’s idea of excarnation, which I find really helpful. So we all know what incarnation is. Charles Taylor coins this term excarnation to refer to this move upward into our heads out of our bodies and a focus in our heads. And I had the same exact reaction as you did when reading Taylor. I felt like wow, he’s describing what it was like to be in church for most of my life.

For most of my life, I would go to church…There was a period of my life where I would intentionally skip the worship service because I don’t like the music, and I felt like it was extra. The purpose of church is just to hear good lecture so I’m gonna skip the music, right. I know it’s horrific, but just bear with me, it gets better. Sanctification. And then when I got there, even if I did sing, right, I was part of the worship, the music was so loud and I actually felt alone together with all these other people. It was like me in my head. And so like, I would be singing these songs, and I would be praying them just to God. And there happened to be a lot of other people around me, but they were doing their own thing. And there was no sense of community I mean, we were just around each other.

And this sermon was between me and God, and it was this focus between me and God. And Taylor talks about this as part of excarnation. And I do think this is a problem you know, it feeds into individualism, and it is a problem for the witness of our church.

To speak a little bit about what my book is about thinking about witness and bearing witness to the faith. Part of what I’m concerned about is that taking what Charles Taylor is talking about with secularism, which in general flattens belief and it makes things difficult to penetrate as far as these ideas. And so my concern is technology actually connects and makes all of those things worse. So the distance that we feel between the transcendent, the difficulty we have of understanding transcendence, I think technology just makes a lot harder. And so my book is just sort of exploring how those two things connect and work together.

Cosper: Yeah, give us a little more on how technology makes, you know, a sense of transcendence more difficult?

Noble: So this appears in all sorts of ways. So one way is that churches unreflectively adopt technology because it’s here and because people want it, but that could distance us from human interaction. So I’ve been suggesting churches not to use or not to allow smartphones in the service. I know it’s really wonderful, it’s really convenient to use the Bible translation on your phone. But it’s also once you’re there, very easy to start, I don’t know live-tweeting, text messaging, and then it kind of just goes downhill from there, right.

So that’s a place where here we are, we’re celebrating corporately, the Lord’s Supper, we’re confessing our sins together. We’re doing all these things that are inherently acknowledging that the world was created by God, that we serve Him, and that He’s alive. And these screens mediate that experience for us in a way that’s utterly unnecessary. Except for you know specific exceptions, right. So that’s one way that that happens.

Another effective technology that I think is difficult when it comes to bearing witness to the faith is that technology crowds out our minds. I think the experience of most of us is that we don’t have a lot of empty brain space. It’s very possible and in fact, it is the experience of many people in our time, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, that you are plugged into something.

And that’s only gonna get easier, right? I mean, you’ve never had this much access to high-quality content streaming in your pocket. And if you ever find yourself alone in the elevator, in bed, and you feel a sense of dread, of anxiety, that dread and anxiety of being alone with yourself and having to think through your day and your experiences, you have an aid to save you. Your phone, your smartphone can save you from having to be alone with yourself.

And I used to say that I think actually when I was writing the book that the shower was the…you know, that’s sort of the last place, and then they made, you know, water-resistant phones. So we’re kind of screwed, like, there is no space, where technology…you know, it’s everywhere. And here’s where I worry, let’s say you have a wonderful conversation with someone about the gospel and they walk away, and they immediately pull out their phone. And you know, maybe you’ve planted some good seeds, but the gospel is cognitively taxing, you’ve gotta think about it. You need to be convicted of your sins in order to understand the need for Christ.

But if you can just divert your attention…Pascal talks a lot about diversion. If you can divert your attention all the time, you really don’t need this. And so when you combine that kind of…that cultural barrier to contemplating faith with a cultural barrier of understanding transcendence, it’s a perfect storm.

Cosper: Yeah, I think that’s right on because I think fundamental to understanding the gospel is reckoning with our pain and our brokenness and our sorrow over our sin. And there’s nothing better than technology to numb you from your pain, and your brokenness, and your sorrow, over your sin. We don’t like negative emotions, we don’t wanna experience negative emotions. And if I can crowd out shame by distracting myself, what I could inevitably do is never reckon with it, and never reckon with the real estate of my soul.

And I think that’s a problem for Christians as much as it is for anyone else because this is a place we need to be continually returning. This is a reality we need to continually be returning to in repentance, as part of the maturing process of the Christian life. So it’s not just a question of evangelism and I think that’s really important, it’s a question of sanctification too.

Another thing, I think that’s important when we talk about technology and the way technology gets imported into the church is that technology has an inherent meaning and an inherent message that gets carried with it. I remember the first time I was actually at a conference, the first time that I saw somebody read scripture from the stage, from their phone. And it was the most distracting thing I’ve ever seen in my life during a worship service.

Because as soon as I saw their phone, my brain started going, oh, that’s a phone. I wonder what’s on that phone, I wonder what kind of phone that is, I wonder what else is happening? Is he getting text messages right now, did he turn his texts off? Is he on “Do Not Disturb?” I guess if he’s on “Do not disturb” and it’s open you still can get the text messages. Someone should text him right now. That’d be hilarious. And it just kept going. And I think…you know, I mean, we’re sitting here with iPads, maybe there’s some hypocrisy in this but…

Noble: But we’re not reading scriptures.

Cosper: But we’re not reading scripture and this ain’t church, people.

Noble: It’s not.

Cosper: But you know the other example Alan and I were talking about earlier today, the one that gets to me so much is image magnification. So this is when you’re in a large church room. I mean, they’re doing it in here, right now. I don’t mean to be digging on TGC. I love TGC. Thank God for TGC. But let’s talk about image magnification for a second because technology carries meaning with it when you import it. And where else in your life do you encounter image magnification? And by that, I mean, you know, the cameras set up around the room, zoomed in on the preacher’s face, broadcasting that on big screens. See this a lot in big churches.

You know, the argument for it is a good argument, like it’s maybe in a big space, it’s more engaging, you’re more able to see the facial expressions. It’s a little more…It creates an intimacy that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But then you have to ask the question, but, what else do we use this technology for? Where else do we see it? We see it at rock concerts, we see it at sporting events, and we see it at political rallies. And those are places where the people on the screen are the heroes. They’re superheroes, they’re rock stars, you know, it’s Barack Obama or it’s Donald Trump, and they’re gonna fix everything.

And so we import that technology, and we put a pastor on that screen, and we wonder why we have problems with idolizing pastors and with celebrity pastor culture. This I think all goes along with sort of these realities of secularism, these realities of disenchantment, because, again, we’re trying to make something happen, because we don’t have a great deal of confidence in the tools God has given the church whereby he promises to meet us and extend grace to us.

Noble: So another way of understanding this is so you know, Taylor’s point is that everything is contested, all faith systems are contested. Then Christianity becomes one option but it’s one among billions of options available to us. As Christians, we know that’s simply not true. Our faith is the truth, it’s categorically different. But when the faith is presented by Christians as a really good option to improve your life, to make your life better, to improve your family, right, to find community, right. When we speak in these terms, we have to recognize that the people hearing that are also hearing that exact same language from other institutions, other companies, other brands. People selling lifestyle options to them. And I think you know, the point about image magnification is a great example.

So if you’re conditioned to see people blown up on the screen in a certain way, as you pointed out as a kind of hero, or a kind of icon, or as a kind of idol. And you go to a church and you see the same thing, what can happen, perhaps not on a conscious level is that you see these as all options available to you. They’re all sort of flattened out. The church is not distinct, it’s not categorically different, it’s not offering some truth about reality. It’s offering one lifestyle option, just like, you know, being into a certain kind of band or being into a certain kind of political party or movement is an option available to you.

Cosper: Or attending a Tony Robbins seminar, which feels a whole lot like attending a contemporary church service.

Noble: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you, here’s what scares me. If that’s the case, okay what happens when…as is increasingly the case, it is less and less socially acceptable to adhere to Biblical orthodoxy on things like sexuality, right. And if Christianity is just like…if your church experience is just like a Tony Robinson event, right it’s a great lifestyle option that promises to improve your life. What if it’s not improving your life? What if it’s actually making your life a lot harder because you’re really unpopular, right, and people are, you know, calling you beget or whatever it might be? Then all of a sudden, I need to find a better lifestyle option. And there are lots available to you. And that scares me.

Cosper: And I would just stick with Tony Robbins for one more second because I think he’s fascinating. There’s a great documentary about Tony Robbins called “I’m Not Your Guru” it’s on Netflix. And it kind of walks you through what one of these seminars is like, it’s fascinating. And the reality is like Christians are often uncomfortable ceding this ground. But I’m not because I think it’s true, because I know people who’ve done the seminars, is those things will change your life, they will dramatically change your life. Because it’s gonna…you know, basically what he’s gonna help you do is help you clarify, this is who I wanna be, and this is the lifestyle I need to live in order to be who I wanna be. And I’m gonna become somebody radically different.

And the church puts itself in a position where they’re saying, we wanna compete with that. We wanna be the alternative to that, and we’re gonna change your life. And the fact is, that most pastors are not equipped to run their churches like a Tony Robbins seminar and are not gonna be as effective or not gonna be as charismatic or not gonna be as dramatic as sort of encounter to create that kind of life change.

We have to be dependent upon the Holy Spirit showing up and doing his work to transform people’s lives and hearts. Because if we try to compete at a flatline level at, in a sense, godless level, not in a, you know, pagan way, but in a way that’s not dependent upon the work of the Spirit, if we try to compete like that, we will fall short. We’re not that talented, we’re not that charismatic. But we don’t need that in order to be effectively carrying out God’s mission.

Noble: And here’s one of the ways we’ll lose too. You know, if Tony Robinson is saying, I will help you become the person you want to be, here’s the rough thing. Christianity says, you don’t get to choose who you want to be, not entirely, there are some pretty firm limits. And we’re called towards righteousness towards sanctification, and the church does help you grow in that, right and it does change you. But it’s not like, okay, I wanna be a CEO, right and I wanna have this kind of family, and I wanna marry this kind of person, that’s not the role of the church.

And this is difficult for us as modern people because one of the things that we’re taught continually is that to live a fulfilling life, you have to identify who you want to be. And you have to achieve that, you have to seek it out, you have to achieve it. You need to actuate your individuality. And the church says, “Well, you need to grow in Christ-likeness.” And some of the things that you identify as part of your individuality are sinful desires that you need to, you know, orient toward the good. And as you said, if we’re competing, if it’s, you know, Tony Robinson style, or the church, the church is not…that’s not popular. Nobody wants to say “die to yourself” like that doesn’t sell.

Cosper: I’m trying to decide if I should correct you that it’s Tony Robbins, or if that would be a jerk move.

Noble: Who’s Tony Robinson?

Cosper: I don’t know.

Noble: : What have we been talking about.? Because I don’t go to those kinds of things.

Cosper: Watch the documentary.

Noble:  Okay. I don’t do that. I believe in Jesus.

Cosper: One of the things you talk about a lot and…

Noble: Did you decide whether you wanna correct me or not?

Cosper: I’m gonna let it go.

Noble:  Okay, thanks. Go ahead

Cosper: I’m gonna be more mature about it than I wanted to be.

Noble:  I appreciate that.

Cosper: One of the things you write about, you tweet about, you actively participate in is social media, the role is social media in all of this.

Noble: I’ve heard about it.

Cosper: I’d love for you to talk about the role social media plays in all these dynamics.

Noble: You know, the medium is the message, but some of these mediums are pretty fluid, and you can do lots of different things with them. You know, posting pictures on Instagram, I mean, you can post a lot of different kinds of things. And you can shape your content, shape your message to do lots of different kinds of things. So I think we have a lot of freedom and I think there are ways to use social media that do not trivialize the faith and make it just another sort of secular option that don’t treat it as just you know, a lifestyle choice.

But I will say that there is a kind of cultural momentum so that the people who are in charge of communication teams at churches and things when they think about, okay, how do I tell the people in my area, right, what we’re doing. Your default is gonna be to look to businesses, and what they’re doing, right. And they are not offering something transcendent, they’re just fundamentally not right. And so I think the first thing we need to think about is okay, what are the models that we are looking at? Are we treating this in the same way as we’re treating other things? And that’s a hard conversation to have, I think for a lot of people.

The other thing I’d say is that you know, using social media to talk about our faith is not… This is best done in person. And I think I don’t ever encourage people to shy away from talking about faith in social media. But I will say that when you have a platform where people are arguing about basketball, and politics, and you know, a TV show and you know, a Marvel movie and the resurrection, I don’t know that that’s all that great.

But here’s the flip side, though, is I wanna say, you know, when there’s for example, you know, a tragedy or something, we should not be afraid to say, you know, God help us or something to that effect. Or when somebody is suffering online, you should not feel afraid to say you know, I’m praying for you, as long as you’re actually doing that.

So hear me what I’m not saying is don’t talk about your faith online because it’s inherently going to trivialize it, I don’t think that is true. But I do think our default is to use the rhetoric and style that we’ll see from the business world and that’s categorically different. We need to get away from that. And then we need to think about, okay, what are sincere ways of talking about our faith? And how can we shift those into in personal conversations where it’s a lot easier to demonstrate these things?

Cosper: That’s good. So just thinking about time here, should we talk a little bit about what we’re not saying so we have some time to get to questions.

Noble: What time do we have until 5:30?

Cosper: We have till 5:30.

Noble:  We better get to a couple of these.

Cosper: So one of the things you know, we wanted to talk a little bit about is having had these projects, these books out for a little while and interacted with some people on them. We’ve seen certain questions kind of reemerge again and again. And one of the ones that I’ve encountered the most in my book…So I talk a lot about disenchantment, I talk a lot about secularism, I talk a lot about how we live in this sort of disenchanted irreligious age, you know, conditioned by doubt, etc. And a good friend of mine is a guy by the name of David Dark, and David published a book about the same time I did called Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious.

And David’s you know, thesis in his book is that everyone’s religious, all behavior is inherently religious, it’s inherently performative, you know, working towards righteousness. You can’t separate your anthropology from religion because we’re inherently religious creatures. And so, David has sort of challenged me from time to time on the book and on Twitter about this idea of, you know, how can you say we live in a world without transcendence or whatever, because inherently that’s not true. And so I think it’s helpful when we’re talking about you know, Taylor’s project when we’re talking about secularism and disenchantment. We’re talking about people’s experience of the world. We’re not primarily talking about…We’re not describing the realities.

Taylor is not saying this is the way the world really truly is, that we’re trapped in this world of immanence, and there is no transcendence, etc. He’s saying this is the framework for how we’ve seen the world. The reality is we are religious creatures, we are inherently religious, the reality is that transcendence does exist. And it’s beautiful and there are these cultural moments where it breaks through, you know, either in moments of great beauty or in moments of great tragedy. The transcendence has its way of breaking through the immanent frame.

So I think that’s a helpful thing to kind of keep in mind when you hear this conversation. We’re not saying, you know, religion has no validity. We’re not certainly not saying that people aren’t inherently religious anymore. People are going on these spiritual quests but they’re finding the answers to their spiritual questions through secular means.

And a great book that actually just came out today on the topic is by David Zahl called Seculosity. And he looks at work and health, and fitness, and parenting, and these various things, and looks at the ways they’ve become you know, our new categories for religion. And that they function like religions, in the same way that the law can crush us without God’s grace, these secular religions can actually crush us. They’re just as soul-crushing as well.

He wrote a really interesting op-ed in “The Washington Post” about this college admissions scandal. And what he talks about in this thing is, you know, if parenting and if success are religions, then you’re willing to sacrifice all kinds of things, including your integrity in order to achieve what you think is the sort of religious ideal to get that righteousness, you know. That I’m okay, my kid got into USC, I’m willing to sacrifice whatever to get there. And that ultimately, again, the result is that religion, that law will crush you like any other.

Noble: That’s good. Let’s take some questions. We only have 14 minutes left.

Cosper: Yeah. Sounds good to me.

Noble: All the way in the back.

Man 1: Where do we buy it?

Noble:  It’s in the bookstore. And there’s still copies sitting there, I checked and I was a little disappointed but yeah. So that’s a really fascinating question to me because, you know, if we are in this secular age, right, and if we have these technologies of distraction that make it difficult to encourage people to contemplate things like their own need for Christ, okay, what happens when I sit down with a coworker if I worked at a non-Christian place. But if I sit down with a coworker and I share the gospel with them, and they’re really not thinking in the same categories as me. So when I talk about Jesus and how he’s changed my life, he’s thinking of Tony…

Man 1: Robinson.

Noble:  …Robbins, just one. That’s it?

Man 1: That’s it

Noble: Why do people go see him, Robbins just so you can be Robinson. Anyway. So, you know, he’s thinking in those sort of categories, right. So he might say to me, “Hey, I’m really glad that church has been good for you and your family. You know, have you considered CrossFit? Because it’s been really good, you know, it’s kind of turned my life around, you know.” And, you know, maybe he gives me a pamphlet, instead of leaving a tract, instead of me giving them a track, right he’s like, “Hey, you can come to my gym, right it’s gonna turn your…This is what you need to get your life in shape, Alan, and I’ll be like, Dr. Noble.”

So this is a really important question, right, how do we get… And Mike pointed to something, he just mentioned something a couple of minutes ago, you probably slipped by. Hopefully, it didn’t because it was really good. But he talked about moments and experiences of beauty and tragedy. And Taylor talks about this and I just think that these are… So here’s a concept Taylor talks about, he says, “We all live within cross-pressures.” So even though we live in a secular age, nobody fails to desire or be oriented toward the transcendent. Okay, if you have a child, you watch your child being born, that is a moment where you recognize some aspect of human beauty and loveliness in the world that is in a way transcendent.

Now you can explain it scientifically, you know, you can, you know, photograph the new baby and mediate that experience. But when you’re in that moment, you recognize that there is some beauty and truth in this world that is powerful and it hits you viscerally. A similar thing happens when you lose a loved one, right? Throughout literature… So I teach literature, there’s a common trope and that is that when someone a character loves dies, the character wishes that the world would stop. And I think that is a kind of basic reaction to death, the death of a loved one. It seems like all the world should recognize this is eternally tragic. It’s not just me, all of you should be recognizing, nobody should be going to work today. We should be stopping to recognize a human has lost their life today, okay.

So in those moments, when you’re thinking about apologetics, I think as we come alongside, we build relationships with people and they naturally go through these moments of beauty and tragedy, having a way to lean into those moments, to not explain them away, to not medicate them away, to not mediate them, but to offer a framework that actually validates those experiences and says, “This is why you’re feeling like this. It’s not a rational, it’s not a purely chemical problem.” No, you’re recognizing the truth about the universe. Here’s how you can make sense of that. And that’s it, but I also have a book.

Cosper: And I would just…

Noble: Disruptive Witness.

Cosper: I just have one thought to that, which is, I think a lot of times when we talk apologetics with people, we cede a whole lot of ground immediately. Because, you know, for instance, when apologetics in the Bible comes up it’s interesting to me how quickly we go to, “Well, here are all of the scientifically verifiable ways that I can tell you that these texts are as accurate as they possibly can be. And, you know, all of the evidence that we have that backs this up, you know, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, etc. And don’t get me wrong I think all of that is worthwhile.

But fundamentally, we’ve ceded a certain ground, saying, I have to prove to you on your terms, that this book is what it says it is when I think fundamentally, one of the opportunities that we have as the church is to go, “I want you to encounter this.” So we can talk all this historical stuff, but I have confidence that this is the word of God and it’s alive and it’s fiery, and it’s powerful. And if you immerse yourself in it, if you taste and see, you’ll find that it’s good.

I don’t think we should be afraid of inviting people into the experience of the church as part of the process. And just recognizing, look, I’m not gonna try to convince you because I’m not gonna cede the ground that I have to convince you under these terms. I’m just gonna invite you to experience it and believe that God is a person who you can meet.

Noble: [inaudible]

Cosper: What’s that?

Noble: Pick somebody

Cosper: Sure. How about Ole Miss.

Male: [inaudible]

Noble:  Yeah, so I mean, we already have the rhythm of Sunday worship built-in. And I think… So at our church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and I think that’s one way of helping separate that and recognize this is something sacred we do on this day, right. But then you know, we have Easter, right and we have Christmas, you know, those are at least basic opportunities for us to do exactly that. I don’t know, you have…?

Cosper: You know, I think I’ve seen churches doing things like…There’s a church friend of mine pastors where they open the beginning of every single year with 40 days of prayer and fasting. They try to sort of create inflection points in similar ways in the life of the church. There’s something beautiful to me about the church calendar and the liturgical calendar, where it’s this idea of, we’re part of a global thing that’s happening, but we’re Protestant so that’s probably not gonna happen.

But learning from the calendar, I think, fundamentally, that if we look at the church calendar as a pastoral tool that was used by pastors who were trying to immerse people over a long period of time in the story of the gospel, I think there are ways that we can sort of contextualize and reinvent that in our own congregations. Yeah.

Woman 1: Yeah, so I was gonna ask [inaudible] with some mentalities sort of like allows us to see the transcendence of God as appreciated [inaudible].

Cosper: Yeah, we’ve seen this a lot like with church planting and with church revitalization and things like that, where pastors are coming in going, “How do we create this kind of stuff?” And I think you have to move very, very slowly. Anytime you’re transitioning anything in a church, you have to move slowly, because everyone’s a traditionalist, even if they think they’re not, they like the way things are.

And so whenever you start to change things, you move very slowly. But I think slow steps towards… You know, I would agree with Alan I think the importance of the sacraments are tremendous. So slow steps towards incorporating the Lord’s Supper in our gatherings. Slow steps towards incorporating liturgical ideas, even if it’s not, you know, you don’t start doing Cranmer tomorrow or everyone’s going to hate you.

But liturgical ideas, you know, adding prayers of confession and words of assurance, slow baby steps with your church, and lots of explanation. Lots of here’s why this matters, here’s why we’re taking this step and you know, making these kinds of changes.

Noble: But once you’ve done that, I think, at least in my own experience, once you sort of get those elements in your service, it’s pretty hard to go back. Like once you start practicing, and you’re like, “Okay, I’m not doing this again.” All right, somebody had…Let’s see, you in the black stripes.

Woman 2: So could you speak to how secularism has played a role [inaudible]?

Noble:  The temptation is going to be to look to closer models to structure all of our institutions, right. The New Testament feels further away than a business management strategy. So, you know, I can’t give you examples about specific institutions that have done these things. But I would say that you know, the temptation to look towards something closer to home, rather than look to, you know, the New Testament or long church traditions is an example of how secularism sort of flattens everything. So that we feel like okay, what’s gonna be the most efficient way to do this? And that’s the question asked, not what is the right way to do this? That’s pretty general but I think that’s… Yeah.

Man 2: [inaudible].

Noble:  And this is a great question. And if you don’t know you know, most of these companies, the social media companies, the people who design your smartphones, they hire people who study persuasive design and, you know, this is the same sort of feel that goes into casinos, right. How do we give you the sights, the sounds, the colors, the positive reinforcement to release enough dopamine so that you continue to stay on Instagram and you continue to keep scrolling. So they have a direct incentive to cultivate in you habits that are not good for your soul.

Now, I do not think that we have to abandon this technology, I think we can use it with discernment. But we need to go in with eyes that recognize this technology was not designed to make us better human beings, it was not okay. They want your eyeballs, your attention is one of the most important…you know the highest commodities, you know in the current market. So I do think we need spiritual discipline. And as people have been asking based on this book, “Okay, so what do you suggest? Should I just get off social media or how much time?”

I think we have to cultivate a mindset of perpetual discernment. And the reason for that is if you’re a parent, you know this, you know, you confront your kids about their use of Facebook or Instagram, and then they’re like, “Oh, I’m not on that anymore you know, I’m on Snapchat.” And you’re like, “Oh, cool.” And so you investigate this new platform, you’re like, Okay, I got it. Now I know what’s wrong with this, and you confront them again, and they’re like, “Cool, now I’m on this other thing.”

And this happens to us as adults too, right. So, if our mindset is not okay, I need to be perpetually examining myself, examining my use of this in this particular context, then we’re just gonna be swept away by the technology. And we’ll always be playing catch up and that’s a terrible place to be.

Cosper:  I think we’re out of time.

Noble:  Fine. Thank you so much.

Cosper: Thank you guys so much for coming.

“That’s life in a secular age. That’s belief under the conditions of doubt. That’s pastoring and leading the church under the conditions of doubt. Because even watching things happen—whether you’re watching people move from death to life, through salvation, or whether you’re watching people experience healing, physical or emotional or whatever—the reality of secularism is that there’s this nagging, needling condition of doubt.” — Mike Cosper

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.