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Where Are You From?

Jan 18, 2022Blog, Culture

Having just moved to Nashville, it is very common to get into a conversation and within the first 3 minutes the question is asked, “where are you from?” Being the cosmopolitan city that it is, few actually answer with “here,” though I have had the privilege of meeting a handful of native Nashvillians. That question carries the potential to uncover something very important about the other person: from whence they’ve come.

The late writer and activist James Baldwin once said, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” I believe Baldwin is speaking to a settled identity rather than boundary-less ambitions, but he knew the importance of knowing “from whence you came.” So did poet and activist Maya Angelou, who once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” She was speaking more about being present in every situation, but to do that, she knew you had to have a sense “from whence you came.”

After a year like 2020, chances are that you’ve asked yourself some form of the question: how did we get here? The answer may be a little more complicated than you think. The truth is, the way you think about the world has been largely shaped by a movement that took place hundreds of years ago called the enlightenment.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor believes knowing “from whence you came” is important, but not merely for individuals, but entire cultures. He wrote a book called “A Secular Age” intending to help Western Society understand “from whence we’ve come.” And the nuance he brings to the conversation is this: “How did we go 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.” It’s a bold treatise. Few agree with everything he says, but no one can deny the breadth of thought and depth of insight he brings to bear on the age in which we live. 

Taylor picks up on some key things that took place in the Enlightenment era that began to shift the collective, cultural worldview. He details two main shifts that took place.

First, he said, the world had to be disenchanted. For ages, there has been some manifestation of belief that reality consists of things you can see AND things you can’t see and that there is some sense of overlap between the two. During the Enlightenment, reason and scientific method became the way something was determined to be true or not and belief in the supernatural was exiled from the way reality was perceived. Where once forests or castles were believed to host spirits, that train of thought was now being considered ignorant, superstitious and unenlightened. 

Second, Taylor said that people had to be buffered. The previous belief was that, because there were real things you could not see, humans were susceptible to those things. For belief in the supernatural to regress, not only did the view of the world have to change, but the view of the humans had to change as well. The Enlightenment put humans at the center of the story. So now, all the answers to the world’s problems could be solved by humans; by things you can see, taste, touch, hear, smell or reason. This created what Taylor calls “the Immanent Frame.” The Immanent Frame is simply a term he coined to describe what a closed view of the world is like.

The effects of these shifts have been legion, but two worth exploring that he mentioned are the nova effect of “takes” on the world and the subsequent cross pressure that comes at people within the immanent frame because of this effect.The Nova effect recognizes that if humans are at the center of reality, there is not governing story giving meaning to the world in which we live. Each human may have a different “take” on the world. Taylor says that the result of this nova effect is a cross pressure. If there are 7 billion people in the world and 7 billion takes on reality, which one is true? So what do we do? When you are the center of your own world, you make it up. Pull a little from here. Sprinkle a little bit of that in it. Let emotions and feelings take over that. Put a little dash of this. And voila, a self-made destiny starring ME. Hard to know what’s true, when 7 Billion takes on the world. For the last 500 years everyone from politicians to nation-states, to big Pharma and big Tech, to universities and, dare I say, religious institutions, have made promises about how they can be the one to make you your best you and solve all of humanity’s biggest problems and lead us into the flourishing we all crave and yet here we are: isolated, polarized, fractured, depressed, in debt and seemingly powerless to effect real change.

Why does this matter? It matters for several reasons, but two that are of particular interest is this: 

This helps make sense of where certain phrases have come from. If you’ve heard anyone say “that’s just my truth” or “you do you,” what you are hearing is someone who has been deeply discipled by their culture. This can at least train our ears to listen for it, empathize with them and help them to see where that has come from. Wise as serpents, gentle as doves, Jesus said. 

The normal, Western, cultural experience is infused with doubt. People are bombarded with millions of messages every day seeking to steer us in a particular direction. People who claim some sort of belief in the supernatural struggle with doubt, struggle to pray, struggle to stand firm. However, people who do not claim belief in the supernatural also struggle with doubt. The promises of humanism have not come to fruition, leaving many to wonder, “is there more to this life than merely what we can see, taste, touch, hear and smell?” If you were wondering where the whole deconstruction movement came from that is taking place in our culture right now, this is the impetus behind it. 

Taylor says to gain an ear in this kind of existence, storytelling, in community, must be prioritized. Art and togetherness are going to be so important, particularly for the church, if we are going to learn to proclaim the Gospel with effectiveness in the age we live. Things like humility, authenticity, persuasion, hope and joy are what people are longing for because people have been marketed too for decades now, and not knowing who or what to believe, a clear and compelling grasp on the Story of God, coupled with a transformed life, will be the way forward.

An understanding of how the world works, combined with a robust faith in the Holy Scriptures, and then taking the initiative to proclaim and disciple, is the missionary task of every Christian for every age. Taylor has helped us understand the world we currently live in so that, as followers of Jesus, we can take up that task with compassion and clarity in the coming days.