Thoughts on Christianity and Secularism

March 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Old ChurchIt’s hard to deny that secularism is on the ascendency in America. Indeed, even if one points to the fact that roughly the same number of adults believe in God now as did in 1947, secularism’s intellectual and cultural capital in broader society has steadily increased. As James Davison Hunter deftly notes, the raw numbers of a thing don’t always indicate the influence of a thing. He explains:

With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most. It is the status of cultural credentials and accomplishment and status is organized between the “center” and the “periphery.” The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the “center” where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low.

And so, USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery, and its symbolic capital is much higher.[1]

Secularism’s proponents may not be large in number, but a great number of them are certainly at the center of our cultural production. And they are working hard to move Christians to the periphery. Even more, secularists are working hard to shift the center of Christianity itself to something that is closer to their way of thinking, even if it is not in perfect alignment with it. This is why there are great numbers of what could be called “secular Christians” who, though they may pay certain homage to the artifacts of their faith, are largely either politely mute or openly in disagreement with much of what historic Christianity confesses.

So how are Christians who are more traditionally orthodox in their confessions to respond?

In my sermon two weeks ago, I outlined three ways that Christians have sought to respond to secularism’s inroads over the past few decades. They are worth rehearsing here.

The first is that of capitulating. There are some Christians who, be it happily or reticently, capitulate to many of secularism’s tenets. These are the “secular Christians” of whom I spoke above. So, for example, one of secularism’s primary tenets is tolerance, or, stated more forcefully, relativism. In secularism’s creed, one religion’s claims cannot be truer than another religion’s claims unless, of course, that religion’s claims conflict with the claims of secularism. Christians who capitulate to the secular tenet of tolerance may speak of their personal path to God as through Christ, but will deny that Christ’s claims are exclusively true for everyone. There must be other, equally true, paths available to these people. These Christians thus capitulate to secularism’s tenets of tolerance and relativism.

The second response to secularism’s inroads is that of cloistering. There are some Christians who, horrified at secularism’s ascendency, immerse themselves in a Christian culture that breezily and probably unknowingly separates itself from broader culture with its many secular entailments by creating its own subculture. The Christians listen to Christian music, read Christian books, and frequent Christian businesses while looking with skepticism at what they perceive to be the irreversible corruption of broader cultural trends. They cloister themselves off in hopes of maintaining more “traditional” values.

The third response to secularism’s inroads is that of conquering. Christians who conquer are fully engaged in what is popularly known as “the culture wars,” launching a virulent apologetic against everything from abortion to gay marriage to Hollywood. They hope that if they can just take these institutions – as well as their sympathizers – down, usually by political means, a sanctified sanity will be restored to the culture-at-large.

I must say that I am largely disappointed by all three of these strategies for stemming secularism’s tide. I think each of these strategies, though they may have certain useful elements that should be retained, are largely ineffective and theologically anemic. Indeed, Scripture already outlines a strategy for engaging secularism in all its forms and with all its tentacles – that of converting. Simply stated, Christians are to seek opportunities to present Christ’s claims to as many as possible so that as many as possible – including secularists – may come to faith.

One of my favorite insights concerning secularism and conversion comes from Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote:

The world and Christianity have completely opposite conceptions. The world says of the apostles, of the Apostle Peter as their spokesman, “He is drunk,” and the Apostle Peter admonishes, “Become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness. “Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness.[2]

Here, Kierkegaard uses Peter’s speech in Acts 2 as a case study in just how far apart secularism and Christianity really are. Somewhat hyperbolically, Kierkegaard says they “have completely opposite conceptions.” So how does Peter counter the “completely opposite conception” of the secularism of his day? In Kierkegaard’s paraphrase, he admonishes the secularists, “Become sober.” In the Bible’s text, he says:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter calls for conversion. And “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41).

Peter’s call to conversion, it seems, worked. Perhaps his call still ought to be our strategy – no matter how secular our age.

__________________________________

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[2] Cited in Lee C. Barrett & Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard and the Bible: The New Testament (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), 89, ftn. 62

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