Monday, January 26, 2015

The Christian Response to Secularism

Last week, I attended Mere Anglicanism 2015, a conference hosted by a group of churches in the Diocese of South Carolina.  The theme of the conference this year was "Salt and Light: the Christian Response to Secularism," and it featured an impressive line-up of speakers: Bishop N.T. Wright, Os Guinness, Alister McGrath, and Ross Douthat to name a few.  I want to offer a brief summary of the conference for my readers and for my friends at church in hopes that this article might help facilitate some further discussion on an important subject. Unless we choose to live in insolation, every church and every Christian will need to respond to the rising secularism of our day.

I will not try to summarize all the speaker's talks here, but they will be available online soon (and similar talks by most of them are floating around the web).  What I'd like to do in this post is look at the themes that emerged from conference as a whole, and then point out the tensions between the speakers  ("tensions" being a polite way of saying "disagreements"). Finally, I'd like to present the solutions put forward at the conference.  (Much of this analysis is indebted to conversations with friends who are far more insightful that myself: Sarah Jane, Elijah, Ben, Alan, Art, and Andrew).

First, we need to define "secularism."  For the sake of this article, our working definition of secularism will be the absence of religion in a society.

  • Is Secularism our biggest problem as American Christians?  Most of the speakers at Mere Anglicanism assumed the rise of secularism to be the great threat of our time, both to the Church and to humanity in general, Os Guinness being the best example of this position.  He cited cultures where secularism took hold during the 20th century (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China), and let the audience contemplate the great evil these societies unleashed on the world. Guinness also named the secular worldview, which drove the creators of the abortion industry in the United States, as the vehicle of a continuing holocaust among us today.

    Ross Douthat, however, offered a different perspective.  In his talk, which largely summarized his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Douthat said that "secularism is weaker than you think," and put forward "heresy" as the American Church's greatest challenge in the 21st century.  Citing copious sociological reports, Douthat stated that America is not becoming less religious but more religious. This new rise in religion, however, has not resulted in an increase of adherents to any particular faith, but an increase of those whose faith is an amalgam of Christian, pagan, and psuedo-scientific philosophies.  These heresies operate from a basic Christian paradigm, but jettison Christian orthodoxy.  According to Douthat, Jesus's greatest competition in America is not Darwin or Dawkins, but Oprah.
  • Who is to blame for the rising secularism?  Though never explicitly mentioned, the question of blame ran through the whole conference.  If indeed secularism has replaced Christianity in the West, then who is responsible for the shift?  Some speakers spoke of the Church abdicating Her responsibilities to live out a truly biblical witness in the West (N.T. Wright).  Others saw militant secularists as the culprits of a massive social engineering project, resulting in the cultural revolution of the 1960's (Nazir-Ali).  The implications of this blame-game are huge.  If the Church is responsible, then we have much to repent of.  If Christians are to blame, then Christians, in one sense, are the solution.  However, if a small group of cultural elites brought about such a great transformation to our culture, then we need to ask how so few could influence so many.   If our culture is a practical oligarchy, then cultural change will only come from the top-down.  (See James D. Hunter's To the Change the World)
  • What is a proper Christian response to secularism (or Douthat's culture of heresy)?  It was surprise to me that none of the speakers offered an apologetic response to secularism.  N.T. Wright's talk, which began the conference, called for Christians to live out a God-saturated life (my words, not his).  This, he believes, is how we can "outflank" secularism.   While secularism, riding on the shoulders of the Enlightenment, confidently states that spiritual things are unknowable and that only "facts" about life "down here" are certain, Christians can demonstrate the nearness of God through a life empowered by the Holy Spirit and bolstered through Word, Sacrament and prayer.  By being the Body of Christ and by being the very temple of God's Spirit, we show God is not far off.  For Wright, the response to secularism is a life lived for Christ.

    In a similar vein, but with a different emphasis, Alistair McGrath painted a picture of secularism as dry, dull, and unsatisfying.   He called for Christians to show the "luminosity" of the Christian faith through the creative expression of the impact of Christ in the world and in our own lives.  McGrath, citing C.S. Lewis as an example for us to follow, called for Christians to shine forth the glory of God's Story as a means to make our secular friends "want" Christianity to be true.   This desire, he said, makes the truth of the gospel seem more probable.

    These grass-roots approaches from Wright and McGrath were the only explicit solutions given at the conference. No answers that I recall, were given to Douthat's heretical culture, and no possible inroads to the world-controllers of our culture were suggested either.  This leaves many questions for us to unravel:  Is the problem of secularism a problem at all?  Is the answer to secularism a bottom-up or top-down solution?   What, if anything, do Christians need to repent of in all this?  And, though it was largely passed over, what apologetics to defend the faith in our culture today?
Perhaps the most important question we can ask is this: "What am I going to do about it?"  Given who you are, who you know, and what resources God has given you, how will you respond to your secular friends and neighbors?  How will you help the "heretics" at your door come to know Christ?  

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