Advent, Christmas, and the Miraculous, Part 1

This is the first of a few posts (I hope) on Advent, Christmas, and the miraculous. To get at the these topics, though, I have to lay down a basic framework for discussion. So… if you can make your way through this geeky first post, you might find it helpful in thinking about the miracles we affirm in the Christmas story.

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This semester I read through Charles Taylor’s massive opus, A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007). In this work, Taylor spends nearly 800 pages tracing Western intellectual history over the last 500 years. He describes his task in this way: “[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (3). This statement defines the notion of secularism that Taylor investigates throughout the book. In the year 1500, basically everyone in the West was religious, and most people were Christian. Today, it is possible to live life entirely apart from any of the major religious traditions, and even within a purely materialistic framework.

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Taylor’s work is so vast and complex that it is difficult to summarize. There are three concepts, though, that I believe are particularly important for our discussions within the church today.

1. Disenchantment – We used to live in an “enchanted” world. In other words, we used to see the world as inhabited by a variety of unseen spiritual beings, such as angels and demons. Today, however, even if we conceptually believe in such beings, they don’t do much heavy lifting for us.

2. The “buffered self” – In the enchanted world, we understood ourselves as “porous.” By this, Taylor means that we saw ourselves as vulnerable to the ongoing influences of the enchanted world. Angels, demons, saints, and other spiritual beings exerted themselves upon our lives, and these exertions were consequential for our day-to-day activities. Today, not so much… We don’t see ourselves as porous, but “buffered.” We understand ourselves as largely autonomous, self-guided beings. To the extent that outside forces exert influence on our lives, we see these forces as cultural, rather than spiritual.

3. The “immanent frame” – This is a very complex idea, but, in a nutshell, Taylor argues that our primary means of engaging the world today is one of “immanence,” rather than “transcendence.” We understand ourselves and the world around us as something we make. We place a high value on “instrumental rationality,” i.e., what we can accomplish by our own skill and understanding. As we shape the world around us, we look to our own devices, rather than to a transcendent reality.

An immanent frame, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not religious. There are “open” and “closed” versions of the immanent frame. Think about your average mainline or evangelical church. Presumably, the people who attend there on Sunday mornings believe in God. They have an “open” immanent frame. God exists, and they may also, at least theoretically, believe that God is an agent in this world. That said, what do they expect of God? How do these beliefs affect their day-to-day actions and expectations about the world around them? In fact, the effects of these beliefs on their lives may be quite minimal. They do not profess a “closed” immanent frame, which is basically the rejection of anything beyond materialism. Nevertheless, their perspective is basically focused on the “immanent.”

Normally, when we think about the secularization of Western culture, we think of this in terms of a “subtraction story.” This story tells us that, as we came of age as a species, human beings evolved beyond the need for religious belief. Our growing understanding of the natural world has displaced the need for religious explanation. Our evolving moral understanding has replaced the need for religious norms. Once we needed religion for the world to make sense. Now we don’t.

The subtraction story, says Taylor, is woefully incomplete. Atheism and other forms of secularism result not simply from the subtraction of religious beliefs. Rather, secular positions, like religious ones, depend upon certain cultural and intellectual developments over time. In other words, to be an atheist is not simply the denial of certain propositions. It is also the assertion of certain propositions. For example, an atheist may assert that the universe is entirely material. He or she may assert that life is meaningless, or that the meaning of life is to be found in something other than the transcendent. In any case, the atheist’s positions involve more than simply the denial of religious propositions. They involve presuppositions that we can situate within the history of ideas. Taylor works through the Reformation, Romanticism, Deism, Unitarianism, and other movements that have contributed to the “immanent frame” in both its closed and open forms.

Okay… so back to Advent and Christmas….

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Photo by Oliver Cossalter [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D a caption

The story we celebrate in this season is a story that assumes an enchanted world. It is not the world of the buffered self. It’s the world of the porous self. Its frame is not immanent, but transcendent. It is a world in which the God of all creation comes to rescue us from the power of sin, death, and the demonic by becoming one of us in the womb of a young virgin. It is a world of angelic visitations, prophecies, and other signs and wonders. It is a different worldview formed by different cultural forces, but perhaps its grasp of reality is in some ways more clear-eyed than our own.

What if the stories that have shaped us in from the beginning of modernity into the present day have hobbled our ability to perceive the work of God in the world? What if they have unnecessarily diminished our expectations? Of course we have gained a great deal from the insights of modernity, particularly in fields such as science and medicine, but what are the liabilities of modernity? We’re often content to point out the cultural presuppositions of the pre-modern world while refusing to look closely at our own. Perhaps less immanence and more transcendence would help us to receive anew in this holy season what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

That’s all for now… more to come.

10 thoughts on “Advent, Christmas, and the Miraculous, Part 1

  1. This is perhaps the greatest battle of the modern church – The bible tells us to put on spiritual armor, but I don’t think the average church goers (and likely many pastors) really buy into the spiritual matters and realms. We can go into a movie and can be mesmerized by the magical world of Harry Potter but then we return to the world, we know those things don’t exist. I think many ‘Christians’ do the same thing with church. Perhaps we can enthrall them for moments of time with the talk of spirits, angels, and demons, but most of them simply return to their closed immanence when they walk out of the church. I will be the first as a pastor to admit that I personally need jump deeper into the battle. I am convinced that one of the major failings of modern science and medicine is that both have lost the spiritual component. How any illnesses, diseases, addictions and other maladies actually have spiritual causes and modern medicines only treat the physical symptoms when a spiritual cure is needed?

  2. Looking forward to your further posts on these matters, Dr. Watson. This is something I have grappled with for many years and found myself coming out on the other side back into the world of Bible. While the historical-critical method I was reared and educated in still has its value and place, I more frequently find myself devouring the work of the Church Fathers. Much of my movement is based on my friendships with those of the older branches of the Church (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, both laity as well as clergy) and the faith of my spouse, Renee. Without the deeper engagement our evangelistic efforts amount to “selling swimsuits in the arctic” (to quote the title of a popular author).
    Are you familiar with Conor Sweeney’s Abiding the Long Defeat: How to Evangelize like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age?

      • Definitely. Sweeney has worked for the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia which means he’s doing evangelization is a much more secular environment than ours (though we are rapidly catching up). One of the things he brings to bear is how the church has become secularized in the West in the pew as well as the pulpit and academia. He calls for a deeper baptismal identity as the foundation for engagement. Sweeney’s book is quite deep and philosophical, but I was pretty captivated and read through it in four days.

  3. Thank you for sharing this book with us. We have been discovering this too and how much the way we were raised has affected the way we view God and spiritual realms and our faith to believe in the supernatural intervention of God. It was good to hear the history of it.

  4. Pingback: On the Virginal Conception and Birth of Christ (Advent, Christmas, and the Miraculous, Part 2) | David F. Watson

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