Navigating the Secular Age

10 Sep 2019

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As the Australian Government proposes a federal ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ there is a degree of apprehension as to its likely impacts on churches and the many not-for-profit ministries operated by faith-based organisations. It’s hard to reconcile many clauses in the draft Bill, to determine the interface between this proposed legislation and existing international and domestic legal frameworks that define discrimination and human rights in other areas of society. The Bill, in response to an expert panel in religious freedom[1], is still a draft and will undergo scrutiny this month as different positions are asserted with ensuing compromises inevitable. 

It poses an important question for church leaders, being: Are we operating defensively from the trenches trying to protect our positions, or are we leading out proactively, seeking to cultivate our values so they are dynamic and compelling in both culture and society? One position defines ‘what we are against’, while the other inspires us to offer ‘hope and life’ in an increasingly fragmented world.

There are many symptoms or ‘touch points’ of dramatic change currently impacting Australian society. They include: our rampant disrespect for our politicians and governing leaders; our obsession with sexuality and gender; our criticisms of education and learning paradigms; our definitions of the family unit; our future reliance on robotics and digital technology with subsequent employment impacts; our inability to live harmoniously in a global melting pot of terror; our climate stressors including significant drought; our world population shifts; our distrust of institutions including church, banks, education, healthcare and anything that reflects big business; our real threats from cyber criminals; and our belief that religion is an antiquated blight on our world moving futuristically into the secular digital age.

Canadian Catholic Philosopher, Charles Taylor in his insightful book ‘A Secular Age’ is helpful:

‘One understanding of secularity then is in terms of public spaces. These have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality. Or taken from another side, as we function within various spheres of activity — economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational — the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the “rationality” of each sphere — maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political area, and so on’. [2]

Taylor asserts:

‘The 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. Our secular world is pressing in to make atheism the new belief system’.

Australian society has shifted from acceptance and normality towards faith in God, (including church) to adopt adversarial and conflicted worldviews and positions. It is overt and (in part) potentially our own shortsightedness that has caused such reactions.    

So, what helpful actions will remedy or arrest our secularization? Anglican Theologian W.H Vanstone suggests:  

‘The church is like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end. But most of the wisdom is to be found in the deep end, among those who have taken the time and cultivated the habits and disciplines to learn to swim in deeper waters. If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, then we need the kind of sustained learning that leads us into the deep end of the pool’.

The distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter, in his book ‘To Change the World’[3] provides a helpful typology for determining Christian presence in our secular world.

  • Defend Against – the world is dangerous, one must contend with secular forces that oppose the faith.
  • Purity From – the world is evil, darkness and debauchery shadows everything, we must live unstained or corrupted from the world.
  • Relevance To – we must address people’s felt needs, conform to the world if necessary to make contact and connection.
  • Faithful Presence Within – ‘Let your Life Speak’ – be a ‘living epistle’, engage the world by your faithfulness expressed in love.

To be ‘faithfully present’ within our world is to reject Christian consumerism. Our fruitfulness is tied to ‘perseverance’ with a posture of listening and serving: – may it be so, for all who profess to follow Jesus, seeking to bring the Kingdom to bear in our great nation with integrity and tolerance.


Dr Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director


[1]  See

[2]  Taylor, Charles.  A Secular Age. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

[3]  Hunter. J.D., To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press, 2010.