Raag Rolfsen (t.v.) holder foredrag i Stora Salen på Sigtunastiftelsen i Sverige. (Foto: Tone L. Walgermo)

A Secular Age and the Role of Faith-Based Organizations

Foredrag på Sigtunastiftelsen mai 2016 under en konferanse arrangert av Areopagos, Sigtunastiftelsen og Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre. 

"The challenges and opportunities of faith-based organizations in our age" is, of course, an enormous topic. Consequently, I will limit myself to treat just two interlinked issues. Firstly, I will try to situate us in our late modern, secular age through a reading of Charles Taylor’s famous work, called exactly A Secular Age. My reading will not be objective. It has a purpose. This purpose is to search for an opening, a space for faith-based organizations in our own time. This will lead to the second issue of the lecture, namely to situate faith-based organizations in the space that has been opened.

This move will imply a second delimitation: I will not be looking at faith-based organizations as such, that is. I will not pretend to be relevant to the whole host of different faith-based organization, many of which are struggling to be important in our secularized age. The faith-based organizations that I have in mind, and whose relevance in our age I hope to demonstrate, are the ones that are represented here, Tao Fong Shan, Oikosnet, Sigtuna Foundation, and Areopagos.

This leads to a further delimitation, namely that I will not focus on the richness and diversity of the work done by our organizations. I will quite consciously seek out similarities rather than differences. I might very well prove to be inaccurate in these descriptions. That is, even though it is not intentional, still a mistake that I can live with, since the point of this seminar is to identify ourselves and our organizations in the framework that I will draw up here. So, in the talks, presentations, and in the concluding panel, that will follow this introductory lecture, we will correct, adjust and even reimagine our position in the picture. In this way, even the picture and its validity will hopefully have a changed status after we have finished.

Therefore, this short lecture is not a well contained whole. It does not pretend to provide a solution, but is to be understood, exactly, as a springboard, a place from where to take a playful jump of faith into a hopefully new perception of ourselves. Please join me!

A Secular Age


Is faith possible in our age? In my reading of Charles Taylor’s famous work, A Secular Age, he is saying, yes, perhaps for the first time in history, is faith a possibility among many other. In year “1500,” he says, “it was virtually impossible not to believe in God” (Taylor, 25). Faith, in other words, was close to a necessity. In our time, it is a possibility. As something possible, it is framed within a situation where other positions are available, such as non-faith, other faiths or indifference. Importantly, therefore, consciousness of believing in a situation of multiple options is part of faith itself, in our secular age. We are aware of the fact that our faith is not the only option, and this makes faith in our time reflective.

This, Taylor claims, is what secularity means, especially, he underlines, in the way we are encountering it in the North Atlantic community. Secularity can, in his view, mean three things: First, that religion is withdrawing from public space. Second, that both religious practice and adherence to faith communities are declining, or, third, it can mean, as I have already described, a situation where a diversity of faith positions is a reality. Taylor finds this third understanding of the secular the most precise, and his book of almost 1000 pages, is an effort to understand how we ended up in this secular situation.

How then, did we end up there, where Christian faith in one God, revealed in and through Jesus Christ is only one of multiple options? The beginning, if there ever was one, Taylor finds in the enchanted reality of the common and uneducated people of early medieval times. Enchanted means an atmosphere where reality and people’s minds are permeated by magical, mysterious and supernatural forces. In this early middle ages situation, ordinary people couldn’t separate between faith, knowledge, and superstitions. These people, moreover, were considered as belonging to a lower spiritual class than the clergy and the monks.

In this situation then, it occurred a movement of reform within Christianity. Both the reform as such, and the point that secularization originates inside Christianity, not as an alternative to it, are important points for Taylor. The goal of this early reform was to raise everybody to a higher level of spirituality. This reform within Christianity is the beginning and source of a development that replaces the “porous self”, as Taylor calls it, that is, a self that is constantly penetrated by external forces, spirits and demons, by a “buffered self”, that is, a self that is rational, self-determining, and free. This reform within Christianity also leads to a development in how to view the world. This development goes from, as we have seen, an enchanted cosmos of magical forces, to the universe of natural science, characterized by an “impersonal order of regularities” (Taylor, 362).

The medium stage, and somehow the main catalyst, of this one thousand pages and one thousand year’s grand narrative is according to Taylor constituted by “Deism”. The Thesaurus Dictionary (online) defines Deism as: “1. Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation.” Or as 2. “Belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.” As the human self is becoming more self-determining, God is reduced to the one who installs and starts the clockwork, and then withdraws, until the point of disappearing. The human being is accordingly left alone as a rational being with the task of decrypting mechanical reality.

Even if the end result of this development is that faith in God remains a viable option, it is still the “childish option”. The brave assumption of a totally disenchanted universe appears as the mature alternative. The question, then, is: If this grand narrative, according to its own rationality, is so convincing, why then doesn’t non-faith reach the same dominance that faith once enjoyed?  Why, when Darwinism has revealed the origin of the humanoid, and natural scientists have uncovered the secrets of the physical, chemical and biological world, why hasn’t faith just been abandoned as a viable option in a secularized world? Why is faith still possible, when the development of science and reason has seemingly refuted it? This is where we approach the question if there is space for faith-based organizations in our time.

Space for faith?

Some theorists would say that the change is only taking longer time than expected, and that the development eventually will reach a stage where the majority of people will be indifferent to religion. Taylor strongly argues against such an understanding. Yes, he admits, Christendom, seen as the one institutionalized religion of the West, will be on the retreat in an age where individual authenticity and self-determination is gaining momentum. That does not mean, however, that faith, religion, and spirituality will disappear, or even lose ground. Spiritual practice will go beyond ordinary church practice to include meditation, charitable workstudy groups, retreats, pilgrimage, special and new kinds of prayer, etc. There is a movement towards unhooking. Established churches will unhook from serving as a legitimization of the state, and spiritual practices will unhook from established churches. Religion, faith, and spirituality, however, will far from disappear. Taylor claims: “We are only at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee” (Taylor, 535). Why is that?

The main heading for explaining why faith is still possible, Taylor names “cross pressure”. He claims: “Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief … The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured” (Taylor, 727). The term “cross pressure” tries to capture a double fact of our stage of secularization. On the one hand, it is a fact that the discrediting of faith and the grand narrative of disenchantment and non-belief as the mature alternative is attractive to many, not at least because it functions emancipatory for the individual, freeing her or him from often unreasonable moralism, for example connected to sexuality, social belonging, gender, culture or ethnicity. On the other hand, this grand story is still not able to provide existential sense in itself. It can free someone from something, but it cannot create new meaning and new belonging. How can, in fact, when all comes to all, physics, chemistry, or biology provide a person and a society with values?

It is possible to outline four ways, under which the disenchantment story, however obvious it appears, is under cross pressure:

A) It cannot seem to account for itself as theory. Its truths are suspended in the air, without any external support, they “function” in Taylor’s words, “as unchallenged axioms” (Taylor, 590).

B) The disenchantment story is experienced as flat, empty, and barren when it comes to providing, depth, substance and height to existence. Yes, Darwin and evolution changed the whole thing, but there is still “a need to articulate something fuller, deeper” (Taylor, 391).

C) The secular age is situating us within an immanent frame, but Taylor argues that immanence can be open in the way that it allows for the possibility of something transcendent breaking in, or it can be closed, denying such a possibility.  Taylor’s point, however, is that both these alternatives stances implicate a leap of faith in that they “involve a step beyond available reasons into the realm of anticipatory confidence” (Taylor, 551). The important fact is that it is only the open position that can account for this leap of faith, since the closed position insists that there is nothing outside immanence, and that the position needs to be self-sustained.

D) The fourth and final point why a purely immanent secularist theory is under cross pressure, is that it fails to give an account of the meaning of the body. This fact appears as paradoxical, since the return to the body that we experience in our time can very easily be construed as the end result of a development exactly towards the immanent and secular, and away from the religious. According to Taylor, the story is not so simple. The reemergence of the body in Western culture is a reaction against what Taylor calls the “excarnation”. This exile of the body started as an estrangement within our religious orientation. The excarnation happened as “the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it [came] more and more to reside ‘in the head’” (Taylor, 613). This disembodiment is part of the disenchantment story, because it is a part of everything becoming more rational. So, in faith, dogmas, metaphysical theories, and the “word”, understood in its theoretical sense, came to take the fore, especially in Protestantism. But since non-faith is the inheritor of this bodiless disenchantment, exclusive humanist beliefs also reside mainly in the head.

The reason for the return of the body as a central carrier of meaning in our time, is probably as simple as that since we exist in time and space as bodies, the body will, so to say, push itself forward. Insisting that it is an inalienable part of being a human being. One simply cannot just be a head. Paradoxically, it seems that only a religious approach can give sense to this return of the body. Spirituality directs the body, gives it a focus, a role, and a meaning. When the return of the body is expressed in concrete practices such as pilgrimages, retreats, yoga, meditation, social activism, and so on, it thus manages to give sense to this reemergence in a much more coherent way then a biological secularism. A purely scientific approach cannot, in the end find a credible argument to view the body as more than so much meat.

The reason therefore, that the space of faith is still open in a secular age, is that the main narrative of disenchantment does not deliver on its promise. It cannot, to put it short, provide existence with a meaning. Taylor says: "The whole culture experiences cross pressures, between the draw of the narratives of closed immanence on one side, and the sense of their inadequacy on the other" (Taylor, 595).

Faith-Based Organizations

Allow me on this background first to present, in a very sketchy way, the four organizations present here, and then lift up, again very roughly, four catchwords that can serve as a starting point for a refection upon the role of our faith-based movements.

Two couples

The Sigtuna Foundation and the Oikosnet movement on the one side, and Tao Fong Shan Christian Center and Areopagos on the other, belong together as two old couples. The Sigtuna Foundation constitutes an impressive achievement on its own, but it is also a forerunner to the German, and later European, church academy movement that today is known as Oikosnet Europe. Manfred Björkquist started the founding of Sigtuna in 1915, and since 1918 Sigtuna has constituted a continuous meeting place, where industrialists, workers, students, artists, scholars, lay people and clergy have met to raise the fundamental questions of their time.

The church academy movement was established after World War II. The founders of the movement responded, not at least, to the recent and concrete experience that an authoritarian ideology such as National Socialism could damage the responsible character of a person and of a people. Today’s Oikosnet movement was thus born from a breach of trust in the authority of hierarchical power in state and church.

One of the main purposes of the movement has been to create meeting-places where ordinary people, laity, and workers can discuss, learn and be empowered. The goal, as it seems to me, has all the way been that an educated laity shall constitute the basis and the balance of the power of leading authorities in church and state, and if necessary, to resist it.

Since I know it better, let me go a bit deeper into the relationship and history of the other old couple, that between Tao Fong Shan and Areopagos. The best way to see us, probably, beyond as an old couple, is to perceive us, since 2010, as equal partners who are managing a unique heritage. This means that we share a common history, values and formulation of purpose in our basic documents.

Our common history places us in a tradition that goes back to our founder, Karl Ludvig Reichelt, who in 1930 built Tao Fong Shan Christian Center in Hong Kong in Chinese Buddhist style. The work of Reichelt was from the very beginning groundbreaking, brave, controversial, and innovative. At the same time, a deep Christian spirituality motivated the work.

Reichelt’s unique ministry started in the 1920s. That was a time when dialectical theology was becoming a dominant approach. , saying that there is an abyss – a deep gap – separating God and the world. In clear opposition to this, Reichelt found theological proof, first and foremost in the writings of John, and in the story of the apostle Paul at Areopagus, that there is a continuity between the diverse cultural and religious expressions on the one hand, and the love, grace and wisdom of the one God on the other.

In the gospel according to St. John (John 18:37), Jesus says to Pilate: “All who belong to truth, hear my voice”. From this, Reichelt developed a theology and a ministry that presupposes that no cultural conversion is necessary to hear and understand the good news of the gospel. In what he termed “higher Buddhism and Taoism”, Reichelt found people that belonged to truth and therefore could readily receive the word and love of God within their own tradition, and not through leaving it. Moreover, the spiritual practice of the monks influenced Reichelt’s own faith and practice.

Our common values stem from this theology and this ministry: Hospitality and Dialogue should characterize our faith and work, and Studies should be our basis for understanding rather than prejudice. Our work should have as its living and beating heart a Spirituality that is expressed in concrete and situated faith practices. When we then say that our purpose is to share the gospel in a multi-religious world, this means much more than preaching the gospel. It means that you cannot speak the truth if you do not at the same time listen. It means that you cannot even dream of influencing anyone if you are not prepared to be influenced yourself, and it means that beyond informing people of other faiths and cultures about Christian faith, you should search for and recognize the triune God in the cultural, religious, and personal expression of the other.

Areas of Relevance

Finally, let me, as a springboard for our discussions just mention four headings that seem both to connect our movements and to make us fit to find our place in the space that Taylor’s description appears to open.


First,plurality as such. We should read Taylor’s narrative in a way that says that plurality and diversity are here to stay. The inconsistency of the disenchantment story does not mean that a monolithic and totalitarian Christendom “was right after all” and that it will return. We should not even hope that it would return. Diversity reflects God’s will with the creation, and we should embrace it.

This is how I interpret our organizations. Our origins are all about resisting uniformity. WE insist on the necessity to listen to all voices, and that creating spaces for these voices to be heard means resisting monolithic, totalitarian power. God is not revealed in rigid, fixed, uniform, and predetermined shapes and places. God pops up everywhere, and it means that we must be on the look. We must search for and direct our attention towards that which is new, unknown and different, since truth might be there.

As people and organizations of faith, we need diversity. To be disturbed in the effort of self-contained ways, we need to be renewed, to live, to be reached by something beyond ourselves. Plurality, diversity, the breach of our expectations and prejudices are not something that happen in our time, when a dominating cultures fall in the age of globalization. We recognize plurality as part of the creation, as belonging to the very meaning of existence.

Theology – God is on the loose

The second point, which refers to the first, concerns our theology, that is, to our perception of God’s way of being. We say: God is on the loose. The founding idea of Sigtuna, and the reaction from the church academies after WWII against the blind obedience required by hierarchical structures, states explicitly and implicitly that God is not at our or anyone’s disposal. God goes beyond every attempt of creating self-contained entities, be they individual or collective. Rather, God is manifested exactly as that person, as that force, or as that indictment that disturbs self-contained and waterproof totalities.

Reichelt’s deep conviction that the life of the spirit cannot be restrained to one set of cultural expressions, is making a similar point. In Christian mission, God is not something I have at my disposal and then give to you. God is happening, God is appearing in and through the encounter. God is in the space that separates me from the other. God is at the same time connecting us in mutual responsibility and in love. God is not under my control, as a tool to be used to have power over the other. Thus, we are saying: God is on the loose. God is out of control, and, thank God for that.

The body

A third point that that seems both to come out of Taylor’s analysis, and that refers to us, is a preference for the physical. Firstly, we seem to like places. What would Sigtuna Foundation be without, well Sigtuna Foundation? What would Areopagos and Tao Fong Shan be without, well Tao Fong Shan, and what would the church academy movement be without, well the church academies. We prefer places and buildings that beyond providing space for encounters also give us identity.

Beyond this focus on concrete meeting places and buildings, the physical expression of faith seems to be a shared feature. Our movements are anti-metaphysical because we insist that faith is not a head-thing. We focus on faith as it is expressed in culture and art, or in coming together, meeting physically, or in faith practices such as pilgrimage, retreat, meditation, or body prayer, or we insist that that faith is expressed in social engagement, and in caring for creation. Faith, for us it seems, is unthinkable without a body. A preference for the body is also a choice for diversity. Because, if we appreciate the need of the physical, the body, the building; the concrete place, then, for faith, it means that we prefer the particular, the concrete, that which actually exists in all its different identities. We prefer the particular to the general, universal, and empty.

Comprehensiveness – the leap of faith

At the end of the presentation of Taylor’s work, I stated that a religious position is somehow more comprehensive and consistent than the position of an immanent and exclusive humanism. The reason is that both positions seem “to take a step beyond available reasons”, while only the religious position can warrant for this “beyond”. According to Kierkegaard, living somehow implies, and only a religious position can account for this leap of faith. This point is important, because it counters the widely shared image of the faith position as childish and the non-faith position as mature. Perhaps, the more comprehensive stand is the one that admits that any meaningful life-view will have to admit the necessity of a leap of faith.

In this lecture, I have presented a reading of Charles Taylor’s major work, A Secular Age, in order to argue that it is a space for faith-based organizations in our time. I have ended by claiming that the place for faith I our time opens a space for bodily expressions of faith, the embracing of plurality and diversity, an open theology, and a position in late modernity that comprehensively includes the necessity for a leap of faith.

Having thus underlined this dimension of openness, the daring jump, and diversity, let me end with a fundamental question: Do we embrace openness, diversity and plurality because we, in the end, expect to find the same behind all these different expressions. Do we, in other words, accept the manifold, because we believe that at the end of the day, we will discover the One Triune God, who we already know, after all? The One, who will gather everything into one meaningful whole. Or, do we embrace diversity as such, taking plurality as a value in itself, expecting to be surprised, to learn new things, to take the leap again and again, to be disturbed and enriched, all the way, also in the end, because there will be no end, in the end? Or, does the life of faith mean to exist, to be awake, attentive, suspended between these alternatives?