“Signals of Transcendence” in a World of Practical Atheism
For many in the modern West, life proceeds without even considering God.
Many Christians, a college buddy of mine once observed, are “secularists with a twist.” They believe in God and hope to go to heaven when they die, but they live lives that are largely indistinguishable from everyone else. Secularism is, after all, the default way of thinking about life and the world in our culture: It is the water we swim in, the air we all breathe.
In his book, The Way of the Modern World, author and theologian Craig Gay described this pervasive everyday secularism. The problem, he said, isn’t that most people are atheists, because they are not. Though more people, especially in rising generations, identify as non-believers and religiously unaffiliated, a red-blooded atheist is still hard to find in the wild. The most common thing we encounter, Craig Gay wrote, is “practical atheism.” In other words, what shapes our world is not so much a proliferation of people who believe that God does not exist; rather, it is that so many people live as if God does not exist, as if God is irrelevant to most of life.
Secularism, in other words, has not been nearly as successful in disproving faith as it has been in dismissing faith. Within a secular framework, faith is relegated to the realm of the personal and the private, irrelevant to larger questions about reality or truth.
In his monumental work A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argued that the marginalization of religious belief has led to the “disenchantment” we experience in the modern world. While the sacred aspects of life and reality were plain and obvious to prior generations, those who have been shaped by the ideas, technologies, and habits of a modern world tend to miss the sacred, the transcendent, and the Divine.
Scripture’s metaphors also make little sense to most in a disenchanted culture. As practical atheists, we can grow deaf to the heavens’ loud proclamation about the glory of God. Stars and rainbows remind us of human achievement and self-authentication, not of God or His promises. Even breathtaking events like weddings, the birth of a child, and death itself fail to point our hearts and minds upward and outward. Instead, we can become trapped in the here and now, in what Taylor called the “immanent frame.”
In other words, we live in a world where the assumptions that govern how we think and what we do are almost always secular ones. For many in the modern West, life proceeds without even considering God. Good things come from our hard work and planning, not from the gracious hands of our loving Father.
Practical atheists are, in this way, at constant risk of idolatry. As John Calvin said, humans are incurably religious creatures, and a secular age offers all kinds of God-replacements: sex, self, stuff, state, and science. A secular age is, ironically, filled with faith … just in all the wrong gods.
One way that Christians can intentionally swim against the secular currents in today’s culture is to constantly look for and point out those indications of God that He has placed in the world about Himself. God has infused His world with glimpses and reflections of His character and His grace, experiences that can wake us from our secular stupor. In God’s common grace, a stubborn sense of discontent, an unresolved question, a deep sense of some foundational truth become profound gifts to draw people outside of themselves to the eternal. He has, as the author of Ecclesiastes stated, “put eternity into man’s heart.”
In a new book, author and social critic Os Guinness calls these “signals of transcendence.” In it, Os tells of 10 individuals who sought God after a moment of joy, beauty, comfort, or failure. The remarkable stories told in Signals of Transcendence are a profound testimony of the power of God to invade the hearts and minds of even the most stubborn secularists. And thank God, He did. Otherwise, we may never have known the blessings of Narnia and Middle Earth, among other things.
Signals of Transcendence: Listening to the Promptings of Life is a profound tool for living and pointing others to Christ in a time of practical atheism. It will sharpen your own senses to find a God who is present and active in the world He has made. Receive a copy of Signals of Transcendence for a gift of any amount to the Colson Center this month. Just visit colsoncenter.org/March.
For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
This Breakpoint was revised from one published 9.25.19.
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