Should Christians resist or welcome secularization?

23 Jan

There is a strand of Christian social teaching that, if it doesn’t welcome the secularization of culture, it’s at least pretty indifferent to it.  It posits that under conditions of secularization, the purification of the church can commence, as false believers lose interest in participating in the maintenance of a religion which the rest of the culture has now deemed outdated and unnecessary as an ethical system, a cultural icon and heritage, a unifying social tradition.  Yet, true believers will labor on, never falling away, making the church a closer approximation of the true eternal kingdom of God.  Isn’t that our primary concern?  When people live like Christians, benefit from Christian approaches to parenting, marriage, relationships, political convictions, etc., without being full committed followers of Jesus Christ, aren’t we just creating conditions that will make people feel like Christians under false pretenses only, allowing them to get the milk from Christianity free without bothering with the cow?  After all, what does it profit a society to gain anything from Christianity if its members lose their soul?  Indeed, some have argued that such a Christianized society is just what Satan has in mind.  Michael Horton relays such a sentiment in his book Christless Christianity (2008, p. 15):

“What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.”

Of course, there are those who would argue that secularization is a bad thing, not only for the church and it’s mission in the world but also for the culture in which the church operates, and that God is concerned with both realms respectively.  According to this perspective, a culture that doesn’t reinforce the basic Christian worldview, at least it’s ethical commitments, will make becoming or staying a Christian quite unnatural and therefore less likely.  Think of raising a child in a Christian home; it is natural for most of them to become Christians because so many aspects of their life reinforce their Christian identity, way of life, core convictions, etc.  A child brought up in another environment (read: secularized cultural situation), will find Christianity to be quite unnatural, alien even.  Moreover, this strand of Christian social teaching often argues that Christianity is good for society, even if no one is truly naturalized or converted to it, and that this in itself is good in the eyes of God.  They would maintain that God is pleased with a society where traditional marriages and families, respect for human life, authority, compassion for the poor,  justice, peace, healthy and fed children, and so on all flourish, whether such a society increases the total number of devoted followers of Jesus or not.  In other words, aren’t the Christian trappings that benefit society good in themselves even if the pure gospel isn’t widely received in faith?  Isn’t that part of what Christians are doing when they love their Samaritan neighbors?

To put it simply, is God’s only concern with a society the extent to which it embraces the gospel of Jesus Christ (which can save anyone) or can a society genuinely please Him when it merely practices His moral law rather well (which doesn’t save anyone)?

Rod Dreher speaks to this tension in Christian social thought in a recent blog post.  He writes:

When I was a teenager and suddenly all skeptical and righteous, I used the distance between what we said we believed, and the way we behaved, to challenge my father. He told 17 year old me to go to church on Easter with my mom and my sister. Oh yeah? said I. If it’s so important to go to church on Easter, why are you going turkey hunting instead? 

He went turkey hunting after all, and let me stay home, if I promised to read the Bible. I promised, and I made good on it, but boy, was I satisfied that I had exposed the hypocrisy of the adult world.

No big surprise, then, that encountering Soren Kierkegaard in college lit my brain on fire, and brought me to an adult faith in Christianity. I especially adored his Attack Upon Christendom, which was SK’s vicious broadside against the state Lutheran church in Denmark. His point was that when Christianity is reduced to bourgeois morality, and when we are considered Christians only by virtue of nominal membership in a community, then true Christianity ceases to exist. I thought then that he was correct, and though I have a slightly different take on it now, I think the radical Protestant SK was far, far more right than wrong.

He was right that “Christendom,” in his formulation, can serve as an inoculation against the kind of commitment true Christianity demands. I have known people who rarely bothered to check their own beliefs and behavior against a Gospel standard, because they assumed that because they were baptized and behaved respectably, that they were Christians in good standing. I have been that person. Still am to a great degree, but I’m working on it.

Put aside the theology, and consider the matter sociologically. We have lived through, and are living through, the de-Christianization of the West. It is very far advanced in Europe, and advancing here. An orthodox Kierkegaardian might say that this is a good thing, because though it will result in a widespread falling away from formal adherence to the Christian faith, it will increase the quality of those who do believe, because it will have been a conscious choice — a choice that, in many places, will have been made in full awareness that to be a Christian is to stand outside of one’s own culture, and even against it. I can see why this would appear preferable, from a theological angle, to a Christian culture of lukewarmness and conformity.

From a sociological point of view, though, I think the news is very bad indeed, and for the reasons the New England reader brings up. However imperfect and flawed Christians have been over the cultures and centuries, Christianity has been, in my view, on balance a very good thing for us. The book to read is Paul Among The People, by the classics scholar Sarah Ruden. Ruden is a young progressive Quaker who defends St. Paul from his many modern critics. I interviewed Sarah on my old Beliefnet blog, but you might also want to check out this Christianity Today piece. Ruden’s view is that we read St. Paul today and compare him unfavorably to the way we see the world, especially on matters related to feminism and homosexuality. When you read Paul alongside pagan literature of the period, a very, very different image of him emerges. Paul actually comes across as a radical opponent of some extremely ugly normative practices in Roman society and culture. For example, male homosexuality in his day was almost entirely about powerful Roman men enslaving and raping boys — something that was widely accepted. Paul stood against that, Ruden shows. And Paul also defended the dignity of women in a classical world that devalued them. Her main point is that taken in historical context, Paul’s views are actually far more in line with what we believe today than with what was mainstream in the Greco-Roman world. It was the faith Paul preached and did more than anyone else save Jesus Christ to define that gave us most of what is particularly good about Western civilization.

The point is that Christianity gave us a set of standards around which to measure our conduct, and our progress toward moral goodness, in the same way Islam has done for the Islamic world, and other creeds and schools of thought (e.g., Confucianism) have done for other civilizations.

Back in 1989, in The Atlantic, Glenn Tinder wrote an essay about the political meaning of Christianity, titled, “Can We Be Good Without God?”. His point was that the loss of Christianity was bound to have effects on our civilization that many people only dimly see, if at all. Here’s how it begins:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.

Many will disagree with my argument, and I cannot pretend there are no respectable reasons for doing so. Some may disagree, however, because of misunderstandings. A few words at the outset may help to prevent this. First, although I dwell on Christianity I do not mean thus to slight Judaism or its contribution to Western values. It is arguable that every major value affirmed in Christianity originated with the ancient Hebrews. Jewish sensitivities on this matter are understandable. Christians sometimes speak as though unaware of the elemental facts that Jesus was a Jew, that he died before even the earliest parts of the New Testament were written, and that his scriptural matrix was not Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Gospel of John but the Old Testament. Christianity diverged from Judaism in answering one question: Who was Jesus? For Christians, he was the anticipated Messiah, whereas for traditional Jews (Paul and the first Christians were of course also Jews), he was not. This divergence has given Christianity its own distinctive character, even though it remains in a sense a Jewish faith.

The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason—a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. Here I cannot be as disarming as I hope I was in the paragraph above, for underlying my argument is the conviction that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Granted, it has sometimes played a constructive role. It has translated certain Christian values into secular terms and, in an age becoming increasingly secular, has given them political force. It is doubtful, however, that it could have created those values or that it can provide them with adequate metaphysical foundations. Hence if Christianity declines and dies in coming decades, our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril. But I recognize that if secular rationalism is far more dependent on Christianity than its protagonists realize, the converse also is in some sense true. The Enlightenment carried into action political ideals that Christians, in contravention of their own basic faith, often shamefully neglected or denied. Further, when I acknowledged that there are respectable grounds for disagreeing with my argument, I had secular rationalism particularly in mind. The foundations of political decency are an issue I wish to raise, not settle.

If you liked that, read the whole thing. I think it goes a long way towards addressing the concerns New England Reader raised.

One more thing about Christianity and society. Yesterday on NPR, I heard a report about the rise of the Nones – people who don’t claim any religious affiliation. Excerpt from the interview with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam:

ROBERT PUTNAM: I agree that there is this creeping secularization that Greg talked about, but I don’t honestly think that that’s the main reason for the rise in nones. I think there are factors that are really more important.

GREENE: OK. Give them to us.

PUTNAM: One of those is the distancing of this younger generation from community institutions and from institutions in general, actually. That’s the same pattern, actually, that we find in politics. These are the very same people who increasingly describe themselves as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. And those are the same people also who are not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or whatever. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.

You can see right there a negative correlation between the loss of religious faith and broader health of the polis. Correlation is not causation, but it is pretty interesting to observe the increasing atomization and individualization of American society, as expressed in a loss of involvement with all institutions, not simply the church.

So far, nothing above has actually answered my original question.  Is secularization a good thing for society?  For the Christian, it seems to me that the answer must be a mixed bag.  Christianity gave us so much of the good that we cherish (take for granted) in Western civilization.  Whether we are talking individual rights, freedoms, equality of women, separation of church and state, modern science, universal education, respect for human life and dignity, protestant work ethic, moderation in many personal and social vices, etc., we have much to applaud (and some to condemn) that came with the rise of Christendom and the Protestant Reformation.  How can a Christian be indifferent to that?  But, as a Christian, these beliefs, these practices, save no one ultimately and so they must be celebrated with a rather heaping dose of spiritual realism.  These outcomes must always be seen as merely nice byproducts of Christianity, but never the core or object of it, since being a decent human being is relatively good but doesn’t come close to hitting the Holy standard established by God, satisfied by His Son, and credited to us by faith in Christ.


One Response to “Should Christians resist or welcome secularization?”


  1. Should Christians resist or welcome secularization? - January 24, 2013

    […] Presbyterian Church (PCA) with his wife, Natalie, and three children, Caleb, Noah, and Sarah Ann. This article first appeared on his blog, The Reformed Mind, and is used with […]


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