How might Christians respond to secularism, the relegation of religion to the margins of public life? Must Christianity dwell only in the pew, home, and heart and not step into the public square?
Six plenary speakers addressed such questions during this year’s Mere Anglicanism conference held Jan. 22-24 in Charleston, South Carolina.
“The Church has too often colluded with secularism by letting God be pushed upstairs, out of sight, into a split-level universe,” said the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham.” He traced secularism to Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who said: “If the gods exist at all it is far away; they take no notice of us.” This belief grew in popularity during the Enlightenment, when people had grown weary of religious wars.
“If there is no serious commerce between earth and heaven, then God is out of the picture and humans can control earth with no fear of divine retribution,” Wright said. “But the Bible tells us that heaven and earth are not entirely separate entities but overlap and interlock in serious and vital ways. In the temple in the Old Testament heaven and earth meet; you really entered the dangerous presence of God. At the Exile, the glory of the Lord left the temple but that shekinah glory returned to earth in the person of Jesus himself. ‘We beheld his glory.’ Jesus is the true temple. Jesus reflects God’s glory into the world, and his followers should too.”
Wright added: “God rescues us to become rescuers. We are put right (justified) so we can help right things on earth. God is restoring his world. We’ve been restored so we can be creators and sustainers of beauty. Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion have held secularism back better than we have. Truth is more than beauty but it is not less.”
The ancient Judeo-Christian hope for justice and peace on earth will be attained not by grace, say the secularists, but only by advances in science and technology and by steady moral and cultural evolution called progress. “Progress is secularism’s attempt to combine materialism and optimism,” Wright said. Even after all the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century there is still blind faith in secular progress.
“The devout secularist holds the door marked ‘tolerance’ open to all kinds of views but quickly slams it shut when he sees a Christian coming,” Wright said. “Too often when Christians speak up for the poor, the secularists say, ‘Stick to saying your prayers and going to heaven.’”
Wright, who has protested the heavy burden of foreign debt placed on poor countries, described the biblical concept of Jubilee as being about “the forgiveness of debt and the forgiveness of sin.”
“Live out the gospel not as a private club away from the world but as a public reality which challenges the world to see itself in a new way. The Church should hold the principalities and powers of the world to account,” Wright said. “Secularism wants to pressure us to accept a private gospel and a private spirit and an escapist salvation. We shouldn’t allow the secular world to bully us into either an arrogant liberalism or an embattled conservatism.”
The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, said that since humans are made in God’s image they are “agents who can make a real (though not an absolute) difference and have a degree of (but not absolute) freedom.” One need only look at the massive contribution made by the Evangelical Revival not only to ending the slave trade and slavery but also to campaigning for radical change for the poor during the Industrial Revolution.
“While the U.N. and the E.U. talk of the ‘inalienable dignity of the human person,’ the Bible speaks of the person in relationship to others. We are not atomistic individuals,” Nazir-Ali said. “On the surface we may not appear equal, but we have a common origin. Christianity believes in an equality of persons, not the equality of all lifestyles and behaviors.”
Ross Douthat, the youngest regular op-ed columnist in the history of The New York Times, assured the conference: “Secularism is weaker than you think, with cracks almost everywhere. The American elite is disturbingly secular, but secularism doesn’t have a hold on the breadth and depth of American culture.”
Douthat told of how in the West after World War II there was an unexpected religious revival. Religious ideas were propounded even among the elites, and the 1940s and 1950s saw a renaissance of Christian humanism in the writings of C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. In the early 1960s Roman Catholics moved out of the immigrant ghetto into the American mainstream. Evangelicals moved out of the fundamentalist ghetto. And the black church, which had been culturally marginalized, promoted nonviolent resistance that helped the civil rights movement triumph peacefully.
“Ironically, while many in the West now question why one particular religion should have a monopoly on the truth, Christianity is having an explosive growth in the non-Western world,” Douthat said.
Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, spoke of Christian-bashing in the West. New atheism has a “rhetorical viciousness,” going so far as to call religious instruction in the home “child abuse.”
“Most people don’t come to Christ through theology but something quieter: the ordinary rhythm of family life in birth, marriage, and grief,” Eberstadt said. “The family has been the human symphony through which the voice of God is heard; there is conversion within the family. Secularism interrupts the transmission of religion.”
The days of comfortable Christianity are over, but so are the days of a divided Christianity. As the parachurch ministry Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship is being hounded off some campuses, Protestants and Catholics are working together as never before. That is the “invigorating upside,” Eberstadt said.
Os Guinness, a prolific author and social critic, argued that the chief reason for European secularization was a reaction to the oppression and corruption of state churches. Now there is a reaction to the corruptness and barrenness of secularism. “Atheism is cold, dull, and boring, not wondrous.”
Guinness posed three questions: Will Islam modernize peacefully? Which faith or ideology will replace Marxism? Will the West sever or recover its Judeo-Christian roots?
“Our generation in the West can live by bread alone better than any other generation in history. There is such prosperity we don’t need religion,” Guinness said. “Atheism says that the impulse towards the transcendent must be resolutely resisted. Yet life points beyond itself. When you take away God, everything dissolves.”
Early Christianity flourished amid pluralism. “We must develop the capacity not to demonize our opponents but to persuade them. We need persuasive Christians to make arguments in the public square. We need not just ideas but engagement, discernment, and courage,” Guinness said.
The Rev. Alister McGrath, once an atheist and now a theologian widely published in apologetics and biography, found Christianity a “far more robust and intellectually satisfying explanation of the world than scientific atheism.” He holds a doctorate in molecular biophysics as well as in theology and divinity from Oxford University, and is now a professor of science and religion.
McGrath believes secularism is “a glib and shallow rationalism,” but warned that we should not lock the gospel in a “rationalist straightjacket.” He appreciates how C.S. Lewis mingles reason and imagination. Reason alone can be “dull and limited,” while imagination alone can be “illusory and escapist.” We must not reduce Christianity to ideas only but recognize that “imagination is the gateway to the soul.”
“With Lewis we think we are listening to an argument, when in reality we are presented with a vision that carries conviction.”
There are many stories or explanations of reality, but they cannot all be true, McGrath said. He encouraged those seeking truth to ask two questions: How much sense does this story make of what we observe? How trustworthy is the storyteller? “Then allow your story to be part of the bigger story.”
McGrath added: “There is a luminosity and joy in our faith that secular culture does not provide. There is an existential shallowness to secularism and a dullness to atheism. We tell a better story.”
Image: Alister McGrath and Bishop Tom Wright in conversation • Sue Careless