Saturday, July 18, 2009


There seem to be an increasing number of conversations going on in theological and ecclesiastical circles at the moment related to the subject of secularism. The ideas involved are no longer based on a simple contrast between the church and the world, or the religious and the secular. New vocabulary includes terms such as "Christian Secularism," which turn the old debates upside down, and more recent and frequent references to "procedural secularism" and "programmatic secularism."

Should we as Christians be keeping abreast of these "isms" - how they came or come about; in what manner they grow or evolve; how and when they give way to yet another "ism?" The answer is a certain yes if we are able to do so, and if such knowledge will improve our communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our neighbor. But we can't be tricked into thinking that knowledge of an "ism" means that we can control it. This is a mistake that too many politicians, theologians, and political theologians have made before us.

There is another problem too. Not everyone agrees on the nature of secularism, how it originated, and the good or harm that it does to the Christian Church or the faith of its members. The following quotation from "No Future in the Ghetto" by Francis Campbell (The Tablet, 18 July, 2009) provides a good example of some of the interesting twists in opinions on this issue:

"Europeans take it for granted that modernisation and secularism go hand in hand. But the experience of the rest of the world tells a different story. The challenge is maintaining faith while living peacefully with those who do not share it. Retreat is not an option.

"In A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor asks how we moved "from a condition in 1500 in which it was hard not to believe in God, to our present situation just after 2000, where this has become quite easy for many". Taylor contrasts secularism with religion. For him secularism sees human good and human flourishing as being focused solely in this world, while the religious outlook is transcendent.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is rather more specific. He describes secularism as opening a space, but also potentially closing a space. Positively a secular society would hold up ideals of freedom and equality. It would oppose any kind of theocracy, any privilege given to an authority that was not accountable to ordinary processes of reasoning and evidence. More negatively, secularism could rule out arguments that would arise from specific commitments of a religious or ideological nature. This approach is underpinned by the Enlightenment conviction that authority which depends on revelation must always be contested in the public sphere.

"When getting at the meaning of secularism, Taylor rejects what he calls the "subtraction story" which sees science gradually chipping away at the credibility of faith. Instead he argues that secularism and faith come from the same well and that secularism emerges not through scientific discovery, but through history. In this way secularism is not pitted against religion but is part of a proper distinction between the temporal and religious realms.

"Secularisation theory on the other hand attempts to describe a process of change ushered in around the time of the Industrial Revolution, whereby states modernise as they secularise. The idea is very simple: the more modernity, the less religion."

To my mind all of this is made much easier if, no matter what else we hear or read, we remember that as Christians we are in the world but not of the world (John 15-17) - and that Jesus Christ has empowered us to serve Him as a light to the world. (Matthew 5:14).

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