Our Secular Malaise

Our Secular Malaise

David W. Hegg

In his monumental work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the shift in society from what he calls the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” No, he’s not talking about Aspirin, but about the fundamental paradigm in our society today.

Until fairly recently, mankind considered the soul to be porous. That is, greatly influenced from outside itself. Truth, meaning, happiness, success and failure, as well as myriad other realities were largely dependent on our relationship to outside sources, the primary one being the spiritual realm. Standards of behavior, societal norms, core values, and other life principles were defined for us by God or gods, by historical precedent, or other truths that were held as necessary pre-suppositions. 

But, according to Taylor, the porous self, living in an enchanted world, gave way to the “buffered” self, living in a disenchanted world. That is, no longer was reality formed outside of us. Rather, the self became sovereign, able to create its own reality, form its own truth, pull its own strings, and make its own happiness. There was erected a powerful buffer between the outside world and the self, which effectively dissolved all belief that spiritual ideals or historical precedents were valuable. Where once everyone naturally considered the role God played in their worldview, Taylor now depicts our world as a place where theism is most often not even considered an option. 

But that’s not the end of the story. Taylor also points out that, despite our efforts to lock out the spiritual, we continue to thirst for it. In the weeks after 9/11 our churches were full of those wanting to pray, even though many had never before felt it necessary to make some connection with the Almighty. In the recent royal wedding we were treated to a God-pointed sermon, gospel music, and prayers, with the whole event taking place in, of all places, a church built for the preaching of the Bible, and the worship of Almighty God. 

Taylor’s astounding conclusion is really quite simple. While we desperately want to be independent and able to sustain our own human flourishing, there is in us a continued longing for the enchantments, the peace of finding refuge and rest in relationship with the One who made the world and everything in it … including us. 

Lastly, Taylor powerfully shows that living as a buffered self while longing for spiritual connection is a primary reason for our general unsettledness as a society. This malaise, as he terms us, demonstrates itself in our incessant thirst for some excitement to keep our days from feeling flat, devoid of meaning, and lacking in contented satisfaction. 

As I have read Taylor, his research and argumentation have been like a pair of good windshield wipers on my view of our world. Everyday, I watch people – good people! – come to the place where all their wealth, success, power, fame, and freedom fail to bring contentment to their souls. They are still worried about the future, worried that today will be boring and unsatisfying, and most of all, worried they’ve missed whatever life was supposed to be about. 

Of course, I think I know the answer. To the extent that we’ve eliminated God from our worldview, we’ve actually eliminated the source of the joy and purpose that comes only from the One who is the source of all life itself. 

There is a leadership illustration that fits our situation. It’s the one about the dog who is chasing the car. The question is this: what will he do when he catches it? Like the dog, each of us is chasing the car of independence from God, just like the snake promised Adam and Eve when it all began. What will we become if we succeed in believing all of life’s goodness, happiness, joy and satisfaction can be found within ourselves without any engagement with God? It seems this fundamental question is being answered before our eyes.

We’ve succeeded in eliminating God from our equation, insisting we can make our own reality, create our own truth, and get along just fine, thank you very much! But saying so can’t outweigh the fact that we live in a much more disillusioned, depressed, violent, fractured, and malaise-filled world than ever before. We are addicted to the pursuit of something new, more exciting, more fulfilling, and more satisfying while consistently feeling more lost, less significant, and certainly much more disconnected and afraid. 

Take some advice from a preacher. Stop looking inside, and start looking up. And if you need help finding who you were created to be, I’m here to help.