Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.

In Plain English

A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.

– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15

Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.

In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.

In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.

Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.

Baxter writes:

If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.

– Baxter, 16

Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.

He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”

It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.

Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.

Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.

The Google Search for God

What is God? It is only a subject that has inspired some of the finest writing in the history of Western civilization—and yet the first two pages of Google results for the question are comprised almost entirely of Sweet’N Low evangelical proselytizing to the unconverted. (The first link the Google algorithm served me was from the Texas ministry, Life, Hope & Truth.) The Google search for God gets nowhere near Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, Russell, or Dawkins. Billy Graham is the closest that Google can manage to an important theologian or philosopher. For all its power and influence, it seems that Google can’t really be bothered to care about the quality of knowledge it dispenses. It is our primary portal to the world, but has no opinion about what it offers, even when that knowledge it offers is aggressively, offensively vapid.

– Franklin Foer, “The Death of the Public Square”

While it is not necessary for you to know Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, or Russell to make a run at answering the question “What is God?”, engaging with these voices certainly will not hurt. (When it comes to anything ultimately useful, either with regard to theism or atheism, Dawkins might be relevant at the moment, but will eventually prove inconsequential. He is a polemicist and populist, not a careful philosopher.)

I would, however, recommend acquainting yourself with pastors, theologians, and friends who know these voices and can answer this worthwhile, ancient question with the wisdom of years, scholarship, experience, and the knowledge of the Holy Scripture. Foer is right on this front: the workings of web search engines are not to be bothered with the quality of knowledge dispensed. Instead, seek out flesh and blood companions who know the answers human beings have offered to the question “What is God?,” who are kind enough to have the conversation, and who are willing to help you discern truth from error in your thinking.

True is Better than Done

While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.

In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.

But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.

In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.

Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.

Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.

The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.

A Meaningful Life?

The key to a meaningful life is to know God and enjoy fellowship with God, the source of all joy, now and forever.

But that is not so easy. Why? Because we are acclimated to another climate, a different set of ideas, a frame that is foreign, so oppositional to that God, that while we might long for that kind of fellowship and companionship and constant joy, and even though we may even taste it fleetingly, momentarily, we will find ourselves feeling pulled, by an orbital force, away from that God. We will attempt to center our universe elsewhere, because until we meet that God, our universe is centered elsewhere, centered on another reign, another rule, a different set of priorities and objectives.

Some call this “the world.” Until we see otherwise, the world is all we know.  It is tangible, visceral. Its impulses and key stories are our impulses and key stories, no matter how good-natured and kind we may be, or think we may be. For the forces of this world, the powers and principalities, are subtle and complex, not to mention seductive. They exert influence not only in the domain of our choices, but on our motivations. They not only warp our vision of what is ultimately good, but our character, which is vital for our ability, in the end, to choose and to do what is good. These “powers and principalities,” if I may call them such (for the Bible does), are manifold and multi-form, visible and invisible.

This is why the Christian message of salvation, or good news, is so startling. It moves us from one realm to another, from darkness to light, from one way of seeing to another, from one set of rules to a new understanding of rules altogether. A meaningful life, one that rings out in eternity, is one that is part of eternity now, one that lives by a dissonant sets of principles and commitments from that which is familiar.

When Jesus entered the world, he did so as true light, as God. Jesus came preaching, yes, but he also enacted and embodied an alternative reality. He called this the kingdom of God. Some theologians today speak of this as the reign of God, or God’s family, or God’s eternal kinship. Whatever you call it, this reality was his message. And as he preached, enacted, demonstrated and embodied this message, Jesus was, in a sense, displaying the fullness of meaning. His life demonstrates, in a deeply profound way, what it means to live a life of purpose, vocation, harmony, and blessing, a life that lasts. Nothing Jesus did was in vain, for all was done for the glory of God and for the good of this world, according to the plans and purposes that had been appointed specifically for him.

This is why Jesus was rejected. His life was in dissonance with everything else that had ever been in this world. But his life was, in actual fact, the true song, the song everlasting. His words and his deeds, they still ring out. For while they were done and said within time, they transcend time. In his life, he accomplished the most meaningful thing that has ever been done.

And because of this, we may find meaning by no longer living for ourselves, but by dying and being made alive in Christ.