A few years ago I had a neighbor from Texas. He was in his mid-30’s and had already served two tours in Afghanistan. His southern drawl was deep, as was his love for his country. If anyone embodied the southern, Texas stereotype it was him.
One night we were out talking in front of our homes and the conversation of faith came up. I was very excited at the opportunity to share the gospel with him, and so I wanted to try and ground the conversation in Scripture. In my head I thought, “Well, let’s go to a passage everyone knows.” The passage that came to my mind was the Parable of the Two Brothers from Luke 15. I began to refer to the parable as I was sharing with him. But after only a few short sentences, my neighbor stopped me and said, “Ben, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
At the time, I was stunned. How does someone not know this parable? Even more shocking – how does someone from the conservative Bible belt not know this parable?
In his book A Secular Age (which has been made popular by the likes of James K.A. Smith and Tim Keller), the philosopher Charles Taylor says we now live in an age where people are not bothered by the God question. That’s because they inhabit the immanent frame; as such our friends and neighbors become devoted to exclusive humanism – a way of living and being that offers significance without transcendence. It offers meaning, values, virtue and purpose without God in the picture. When this happened – when this secular belief became a widely held and plausible view of the world – we entered into the secular age. We went from a time where a belief in God went unchallenged, to an age where a disbelief in God is assumed.
Like many people today, my neighbor had never heard this popular parable because he had never stepped foot in a church. And he had never stepped foot in a church because he’d never been bothered by the God question. For him, it was unnecessary.
It can be difficult for those of us in the church to realize this is the world we live in now. But the more I’ve thought about this conversation with my neighbor, the more I’ve realized that the Parable of the Two Brothers actually has a lot to say to us today – our secular age. You see, we all live in the secular age – regardless of what beliefs we hold. It all comes down to how we inhabit the secular age.
When we examine this parable from Luke 15:11-32 with the background of the secular age, what we find is that each of the two brothers represent a way of being that is insufficient to carry the weight of our existence.
So what do these two brothers look like today, in our secular age? Well, Taylor might say that these two brothers each represent a kind of fundamentalism. Both brothers represent a naïve spin on the world, a naïve way of seeing things. Neither is a sufficient take on the world that can make sense of our human experience.
The younger brother is a secular fundamentalist, someone who says, “I don’t need God. Everything I need I can get without God in the world – my questions will be answered, and I can make better sense of the world without God (Luke 15:12-13).” Taylor goes on to say that a secular fundamentalist rarely leaves religion because of science or “the facts,” but because they’re following a narrative. Most of the time, that narrative is: More mature, courageous and humanistic people leave religion behind.
Who doesn’t want to be mature? Who doesn’t want to be courageous? Who doesn’t want to grow up?
But the younger brother view is naïve because it over extends itself. It claims more for itself than it should. That’s because this view – exclusive humanism – it can’t explain everything it says it can (by the way, the honest secularist or non-theist will be able to admit this. Not all secularists are fundamentalists.). For all the science, data and rational thinking, exclusive humanism doesn’t have a good answer for human imagination and creativity. It can’t explain our compelling drive for virtue and to put others above ourselves. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov sarcastically critiqued the secular fundamentalist view when he said, “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.” Similarly, exclusive humanism can’t explain the awe and wonder someone feels when they look up at the stars. As Jeremy England, a physics professor at MIT recently said, “Equations can elegantly explain how an airplane stays in the air, but they cannot convey the awe someone feels when flying above the clouds.”
So a secular fundamentalist view is naïve because it over extends itself, it can’t admit something is missing from its view. It can’t admit that it longs for something that it can’t seem to find. This longing and sense that something is missing is what Taylor calls being haunted. We’re all haunted in a secular age, and younger brothers are haunted by the thought that something is missing. The sentiment goes something like this, “I don’t believe in God, but I sure do miss him.”
But at the same time, the elder brother represents a kind of religious fundamentalist, someone who reduces Christianity to a set of statements, rules and principles. Elder brothers hold to a reductionist Christianity that says, “Here’s what you need to believe, here’s the principle to follow, and that’s all you need.” Just follow the rules (Luke 15:29-30).
And if the first brother is naïve because his spin on the world over extends itself, then elder brothers are naïve because their views are far too simple and far too flat. Simple principles and belief statements hardly relate to the highs and lows of our lives, the range of human experience, or the depths of suffering and affliction. An elder brother faith has nothing to say to the joy of bringing children into our family, or the grief that comes from the death of a loved one. Elder brothers have nothing to say when things don’t go their way. After all, their whole view on the world is built on the idea that they’re owed for their obedience (vs. 29). They have put God in their debt.
One of the easiest ways for us to gauge whether our Christianity has become a hollowed out faith is by measuring the impact our faith makes on our lives. Is our faith simply one more option or choice right next to everything else? Or is it the framework by which we make all our decisions? In his book Making Sense of God, Tim Keller argues that in a secular age, we’re all impacted. He writes, “In a secular age even religious people tend to choose lovers and spouses, careers and friendships, and financial options with no higher goal than their own present-time personal happiness…Even if you are not a secular person, the secular age can ‘thin out’ (secularize) faith until it is seen as simply one more choice in life…rather than as the comprehensive framework that determines all life choices.”
But what is the our Christianity if it isn’t the foundational building block of our lives? What is our Christianity if Christ isn’t everything to us? It is a hollowed out, loveless elder brother faith.
So where does this parable leave us? The famous puritan John Bunyan once said that when God wants to put a soul in tune for himself, he often starts on the lowest note. What he meant by that is before someone comes to Christ, God often uses someone low moment or season in that person’s life.
For elder brother types, the low note they need to come to is realizing that the faith they’ve been professing – perhaps for their whole lives – has been a sham. There’s been no love. They’re a fraud. They realize that for all their obedience, they’re actually left outside the kingdom feast (vs. 28). Elder brothers must come to a place where they recognize that they need to repent not only of the very bad things they’ve done, but also of the good and moral things they’ve done to try and earn God’s favor or to put God in their debt.
And the younger brothers in our secular age? They need to have their own low note too. So often today, what that looks like is coming to the realization that living the secular life, being our own authority, it’s not everything we thought it would be. It’s coming to a point where we’re able to say, “I have longings I’m not able to explain. I have desires which aren’t filled. The more I’ve tried to muscle my way through life, the emptier I feel. This wasn’t everything I thought it was going to be.”
Like the younger brother in the parable, secular younger brothers today need to come to themselves (vs. 17). What that means is, we need to be honest with ourselves and be willing to confess that secularism has left us haunted. And just maybe – that means Christianity still has some stones worth turning over.
Because here’s the good news: God saves sinners. He saves loveless elder brothers, and He saves prideful younger brothers. He does it all through Jesus. He directs our imagination and creativity to himself, the one who is the source of all creativity and wonder, the one who created each and every star in the heavens and set it in place. He shows us true virtue, that there is no greater love than a man who lays down a life for his friends – and we see that foremost in the death of Christ for us. He shows us the beauty that we all long for but can’t explain, in the beautiful Son of Man who condescends and takes on human flesh, who is stripped of his robe so that we may be clothed with his.
And then God says to us, come home. And we turn to him with love, and he welcomes us into the banquet feast of the kingdom with joy and celebration – younger and elder brother alike.