A Christian response to our secular world

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It is often noted that Western society has become increasingly ‘secular’ since the eighteenth century, and the reality of what this means has been brought home to me afresh by two events that occurred while I was on holiday recently. In this article I shall reflect on how these two events illustrate what it means for a society to be secular and three ways in which Christians should respond to such a society.

A town guide which doesn’t mention what a church is for

The first of the two events that I mentioned occurred when I looked at the town guide produced by the local chamber of commerce in the town in which I was on holiday. The town in question has at its centre a very large, very ancient, and extremely beautiful parish church. In the town guide this church is described as an ‘inspiring 5 star community space’. The guide goes on to say: ‘Established by the Normans in the late 11th century the church is a key link in the town’s history and heritage’ and it encourages visitors to enjoy the stained glass windows, the medieval misericords and the view from the top of the church tower. Finally, it says: ‘Do check what’s on – community arts events, concerts and recitals are held all year round.’

This entry in the town guide is in one sense totally unobjectionable. All the statements of fact it makes about the church are correct. However, what I found disturbing was that the entry viewed the church as a place of purely historic and cultural significance (and a place to get a good view of the town). Viewed in this way the church has exactly the same significance in the life of the town as its medieval castle, which is also a place of historical and cultural significance and whose main tower also gives a good view of the town.

What is missing from the entry is any idea that the real importance of the church is that it is a sacred place. It is a place set apart for the worship of God in which for centuries, week in week out, God’s word has been preached and the sacraments have been administered, and in which, through these means, countless generations have been offered and received God’s miraculous gift of eternal life. It is this, and not simply its historical and cultural significance, that makes this church a truly special place. The problem with the entry in the town guide is that none of this gets a mention (there is not even a hint that it is a place where church services get held on a regular basis).

If we ask why none of this gets a mention, the answer has to be either that the person who wrote the entry was completely ignorant of the church’s true religious purpose, or that they assumed that no one would want to know about it.

An unreligious religious scholar

The second event was taking time on holiday to watch the American TV series Madam Secretary. This series is an American political drama about Elizabeth McCord, the US Secretary of State (their equivalent to the British Foreign Secretary), which traces her path to becoming the first female President of the United States.

Unlike in the town guide previously mentioned, the existence of religion is fully acknowledged in Madam Secretary. Elizabeth McCord’s husband Henry is a theologian and ethicist who is frequently referred to as a ‘world renowned religious scholar’ and the fact that people hold religious beliefs features frequently in the story line. For example, in one of the episodes I watched recently Henry works out that a Russian nuclear submarine has become stranded off the Alaskan coast because he sees the Russian president praying fervently in front of an icon of St. Nicholas, the saint to whom Russian orthodox believers appeal for help in the face of catastrophe.

However, there is no suggestion in the series that God himself ever plays any part in the events that are described. Religion is about what human beings believe, and what human beings do. God himself appears to be totally silent and totally inactive. Furthermore, even Henry McCord, who we are told is a Roman Catholic, appears to study and teach religion, but not to practise it. He does not go to Mass or to confession, he does not appear to pray – even in situations where his life or that of his family is at stake, religion plays no part in McCord family life, and although the sex life of Henry and Elizabeth features frequently in the series there is no suggestion that they adhere to Roman Catholic sexual ethics by eschewing artificial birth control in favour of natural family planning.

It would be fascinating to have a TV series which looks at how a traditional Christian believer, guided by God, lives out his or her faith in the modern political arena, but Madam Secretary misses the opportunity to explore this issue. The world depicted in Madam Secretary is one in which God himself is absent and in which religion is ultimately peripheral to what takes place.

What the town guide and Madam Secretary tell us about what it means for society to be secular

What reading the town guide and watching Madam Secretary illustrate is that Western Society on both sides of the Atlantic has now become ‘secular’ in the sense of being a society in which there is what the Canadian scholar Charles Taylor calls a ‘social imaginary,’ a generally accepted view of the world, in which God is assumed to be absent and religion is seen as peripheral or ignored altogether. It is because of this social imaginary that the writer of the town guide wrote as they did and why God and religion have such a restricted place in the world of Madam Secretary. Both the town guide and the TV series are simply reflecting the prevailing view.

How should Christians respond to a secular society?

Given that Western society has become secular in the sense just described, how should Christians respond? I think they need to respond in three main ways.

First, they should challenge those who hold to a secular worldview as to whether they really want to believe in a world without God. In Madam Secretary the absence of God is treated as making no difference to people’s understanding of the human condition. However, to think like this is to hide from the consequences of one’s worldview.

As the twentieth century British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was honest enough to write, once you give up on God the necessary consequence is the belief:

‘…that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcomes of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.’

The question that Christians need to press is whether people really want to embrace a worldview that requires a life of ‘unyielding despair.’ To quote Shakespeare rather than Russell, do they really want to believe that their life is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

Secondly, they should challenge the idea that it is rational to believe in a world without God. The scientific evidence for an intelligent creator remains as strong as it ever was, if not stronger. Anthropological studies indicate that human beings have had an awareness of the existence of one moral creator God since the beginning of human history. The study of ethics shows that only the existence of a wholly good God supports the universal human intuition that there is a genuine difference between right and wrong. Finally, the detailed study of the biblical material that has taken place in the last few centuries, when properly understood, strengthens rather than undermines the traditional Christian claim that God has acted in human history in the way in which the Bible describes (with the necessary corollary that he is still active in the world today).

Thirdly, before they do one and two, Christians need to live as provocative people. As Graham Tomlin argues in his important book The Provocative Church, the modern suspicion of people trying to ‘sell us’ things means that people will only listen to what we have to say about why it is better to believe in God than to view him as absent, if we live a Christian life that can be seen to be different in a good way from the lives of those around us. Only if we do this will we provoke people to ask us why we live as we do and thus open the way for a profitable conversation about why a Christian view of the world is better than a secular one.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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