A Fool’s Errand
I’ve been out in Winnipeg this week attending a pastor’s conference on faith formation in a secular age. At one point during yesterday’s proceedings, the keynote speaker, Andrew Root, asked a couple of gut-level questions—questions that most of us feel on some level or another, but rarely name so bluntly. Why does faith formation seem so hard in this time and place? Why does it feel so hard to be a pastor in this time and place?
The answer to both, according to Root, is rooted in what Charles Taylor has famously described in The Secular Age. According to Taylor, modernity has been hollowed out and disenchanted. In a relatively short period of time (historically speaking), faith in the West has been almost completely dislodged from the taken-for-granted substrate of almost everyone’s experiences and assumptions. Now, where faith exists at all, it is mostly private, mostly practical, often individualistic, consumeristic, and therapeutic. Faith is far from the response to questions of existential life and death that it once was. It is now almost fully tailored to the felt needs of the self and its projects and ambitions.
In our secular age, Taylor says, all of human belief and unbelief are contested and fragile. We always believe (or not) knowing that we could do otherwise. We always believe (or not) knowing that our beliefs do not represent the only plausible way of interpreting the world and that other people can and do believe differently than us. This has a profoundly destabilizing and fragilizing effect upon all forms of faith. In the secular age the believer almost always has their doubts and the doubter occasionally longs to believe in something, anything. Faith as a default is no longer an option in a secular age.
And, yes, this does make forming faith in people hard. It does make being a pastor hard. Few pastors need to look far to see evidence of this. The secular age is where we live and move and have our being. Churches are shrinking, obviously. And even those who are in church often treat it as one more thing to do with their discretionary time (or not). Few people come to church agonizing over the state of their souls as they might have centuries ago. We come to church looking for a bit of inspiration or therapy or distraction or connection with friends. We come because it’s one of the last places people sing or eat together. We come out of habit or duty or because we want to get out of the house for a few hours or because we like to feel “spiritual.” We may even come because we are curious about God, but of course we take what the preacher says with a grain of salt. We’re not idiots, after all! We are rational, modern, enlightened human beings.
I was speaking about some of these matters last night with my host at the bed and breakfast where I stayed during the conference. He had been vacuuming when I arrived, but put the vacuum cleaner down to ask about how my conference was going. Once he heard about the topic, the floodgates were opened.
He began to essentially narrate the view from the pews of the decline of the church in a secular age. He is part of a massive and influential church that had contributed to the founding of schools, parachurch ministries, programs and cultural events in the city, that now finds its pews emptier, its budgets smaller, its congregants older. He spoke of empty Sunday school rooms that used to bustle with children’s activities and now simply served as storage space for donations for refugees. He recalled the last time the choir sang Brahms’ Requiem for Easter how there weren’t that many more people in the congregation than in the choir. He lamented the absence of middle-aged and younger people in the hands-on work of the church. He wondered why it was often the seniors that often have to carry the load. How much longer can we do this? What will happen to the church when we can’t do it anymore? What will become of our institutions? How will faith be formed in our young if they die?
We sat with these questions for a while. Neither one of us really knew what to say. The structures and institutions that formed many of us in the Christian faith don’t seem to be being embraced with any enthusiasm by upcoming generations. The structures and institutions aren’t perfect, of course. And of course God can always do something new. But I don’t know what will happen if these die. I don’t know what this will mean for our future.
At the end of one of Andrew Root’s presentations yesterday, someone asked an interesting question. Will it be up to the theologians and the poets to “re-enchant” the world in a secular age? Or is this a fool’s errand. Root paused before responding. And his response wasn’t what I expected. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I think it probably is a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. What else can we do? Isn’t the message and the way of the cross on some level always destined to be seen as foolishness?”
Near the end of my conversation with my bed and breakfast host last night, there was a long pause where we were just silent. I think we were both sort of lamenting the state of the church, perhaps grieving the church as we once knew it and wondering what the future would look like. After a few seconds had passed, he sighed, picked up his vacuum cleaner and said, “Well, this year we have enough people to fill four rows of the choir loft to sing Brahms’ Requiem. And so we’ll sing.”
Yes. We should definitely sing, while we can. What else can we do? It’s probably a fool’s errand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.