Spiritual connections with students in a secular age

by Tom Knight
Wednesday, June 8, 2016 | 4 yrs old

I think that most of us who are involved in collegiate ministry would agree that we are in a post-Christian era. But what does post-Christian mean? In his book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor helps us flesh out the idea of post-Christian by using the terms secular and authentic. By secular Taylor means not that people do not believe, but that not believing in God is conceivable. We have passed from Christendom to a time when faith is now contested. We know that we do not have to believe, and that there are alternatives that we can choose for ourselves.

By choosing, we authenticate meaning for ourselves. Choice is king. As Taylor says, choosing is “a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain.”  Surely all of us have heard the campus mantra of “but it is my choice.” Perhaps the most celebrated example of “choice” recently is the transformation of Bruce Jenner, a Gen X icon who brought pride back the the USA as the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” into Gen Z icon as Vanity Fair pinup Caitlyn Jenner. But there are a myriad of other examples in our daily lives.

From our Christian perspective this type of post-Christian authenticity leads to many pessimistic declarations by clergy, Christian leaders, and worried parents. And there is a lot of destructive behavior and anti-Christian sentiment on the college campus and in the public arena in a secular age. But Dr. Taylor also postulates that those choosing to live in an exclusively humanistic frame also feel the inadequacy of such a narrative.  That it is, in his words, a “thin and narrow” explanation of existence. For this reason, non-believers living in a secular age are also cross-pressured in their lack of belief. They too live in a contested age. There is still a haunting in the soul, and a doubt of “is this all there is?”

For Taylor, three areas highlight this cross-pressure that non-believers experience. They are aesthetics, ethics and agency. Why do art and nature move us? Why do we sense spiritual and ethical motives? Why do we see ourselves as creators and shapers that have agency? These are touch points that continue to echo in the heart of believers and non-believers alike.

So, if Taylor is right about these areas of cross-pressure for non-believers in our culture and on our campuses in particular, how are we as collegiate ministers speaking into these areas? How are we helping Christian students speak to the restless hearts on our campuses?

Perhaps of the three mentioned by Taylor, the ethical cross-pressure on campus is greatest. It seems protesting for a cause, or at least buying a “fair trade” brand of something, helps students feel as if they are doing something ethical to help others. But why should they if there is no purpose to life? What is the “ought” that they are feeling in their lives? The term “social justice” is ubiquitous on the campus. But why do people care about justice? How are you leading students to discuss the cross-pressure of ethics on campus, and where are you able to partner with non-Christians to work out your Christian ethics as witness?

How are we “creating, shaping agents” if all is determined? Why do we want to be creators, and “agents of change?” But if all our actions are determined by our environment or psychological factors, so what? How do we engage non-believers on the topics of change and culture making? Are we good examples of culture making, or just consumers of culture? How do we express God as the ultimate Creator?

As Taylor sates in his book, “nature moves us.” This also seems like a natural contact with the campus mood as well. Many students are pushing for greater responsibility in protecting nature, and see a “spirituality” in nature while also holding on to materialism. What is the rationale to protect nature, and why do we have awe at seeing a sunset? Do we have a plan to reach the next generation of artists and musicians who are usually great imagination catalysts? Is the art department our mission field or a lost cause?

Much has been written about the rise of the “nones” and “post-Christian” America. And yes, we are not living in Christendom anymore, but Taylor leaves us with a new understanding of how a secular, contested age, though not without serious struggles for believers, is not without its own push against unbelief.