Like modern art, or an avant garde poem, or the latest haute fashions, secularism has always been hard to define. Though often pronounced with algebraic lucidity, its topsy-turvy logic is often as unintelligible as the dog-Latin of monkish hexameters. In practice, it is an odd attempt to forge a cultural consensus on the fact that there really can be no cultural consensus. It is the unspoken assumption that a happy and harmonious society can be maintained only so long as the only common belief is that there are no substantial common beliefs. It is the reluctant affirmation that the only moral absolute is that there must not be any moral absolutes. It is the brash affirmation that meaning and purpose in life may best be found in meaninglessness and purposelessness.
Philosophers and historians might argue that secularism is merely the inevitable fruit of Enlightenment materialism, skepticism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. But, social theorists point to the smothering influence of partisan ideology, which is now everywhere evident. Wresting control of every academic discipline, of every cultural trend, of every intellectual impulse, even of every religious revival in our time, ideology has become the organizing construct of the secular society. From Nazism and Stalinism to Pluralism and Multiculturalism, from Liberalism and Conservatism to Monopolism and Socialism, ours has been an epoch of movements beguiled by the temporal seductions of ideological politics.
Nearly every question, every issue, every social dilemma has been and continues to be translated into legal, juridical, economic, or political terms. They are supplied with bureaucratic, mathematical, or systemic solutions. If there is something wrong with the business climate then government must fix it. If family values are absent then government must supply them. If health care provision is inefficient then government must rectify the situation. If education is in disarray then government must reorder the system. Whatever the problem, it seems that politics is the solution.
That is why every election is portrayed in the starkest of apocalyptic terms—both within the church and without.
Virtually all social historians agree that this is indeed one of the most distinctive aspects of our age: the subsuming of all other concerns to the rise of political mass movements based upon comprehensive, secular, closed-universe, and millenarian intellectual systems. Thus, at one time or another, Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Paul Johnson, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard have all dubbed this secular moment the “Age of Ideology.”
The name of the secularist’s ideological game is power. With all the cool detachment of wintry witchery every other consideration is relegated to a piratical humbug. G.K. Chesterton observed, “There is, as a ruling element in modern life, a blind and asinine appetite for mere power. There is a spirit abroad among the nations of the earth which drives men incessantly on to destroy what they cannot understand, and to capture what they cannot enjoy.”
According to philosopher Eric Voegelin, this awful tendency is essentially “the politics of spiritual revolt.” It is, he says, a kind of a “psychic disorientation,” a “metastatic faith,” a “modern prometheanism,” or, perhaps most accurately, a “dominion of pneumapathological consciousness.” It is the worldview of secularism—and it gives shape to nearly everything we think and do.
Political scientist Michael Franz has elaborated, saying, “Ideological consciousness is typified by a turning-away from the transcendent ground in revolt against the tension of contingent existence. In the modern era this revolt has taken many forms, all of which are expressive of dissatisfaction with the degree of certainty afforded by faith, trust, and hope as sources of knowledge and existential orientation. The great ideologists seek to displace Christian revelation by misplacing the transcendent ground within an immanent hierarchy of being, identifying the essence of human existence as productive relations, historical progress, racial compensation, libidinous drives, scientific rationality, or the will to power. Within the intellectual systems constructed around these misplacements of the ground, humanity appears as an autonomous, self-created species capable of assuming control of its destiny through the self-conscious application of new forms of knowledge.”
In short, secularism is little more than a revived gnosticism, an abiding humanism rooted in the naked politicization of every detail of life. Or, as Herb Schlossberg has argued in Idols for Destruction, it is merely an updated, Americanized form of idolatry. It is a worldview as thorough and as dominating in our time as was the Faith during the epoch of Christendom.
And, lest we think Reformed and Evangelical Christians are somehow exempt from the smothering dominance of such secularism, just think back to the ribald ideological rhetoric that swirled about on our blogs, Facebook posts, memes, and tweets during America’s most recent presidential election. It became very apparent where many of our brothers and sisters have placed their immediate hope in life, if not in death.
As a pastor, I know first hand the allure of secularism’s siren song—to hermetically seal off theological concerns from the “everyday operations side” of managing ministry. The temptation of pursuing plans, programs, and policies on the basis of perceived pragmatism, the assumption that success can best be measured in numbers, in dollars, in worldly patterns of influence, these are all snares that all too easily entangle.
Thomas Chalmers once asserted, “If ever there was a crisis in our history, when courage and consistency have been more called for, it is the day on which we have now fallen, when the poison of false and hollow principle is undermining our strength from within, and thousands of our deadliest enemies from without are on the tiptoe of high expectancy for a coming overthrow.”
In practical terms, how do we walk out that kind of courage and consistency? If we are like fish swimming in a secular sea, how do we order our worship, our discipleship, our ministry to the world without resorting to a secular default mode?
Merle d’Aubigne suggested, “The Word of God is the only power that can subdue the rebellion of our heart. There is a power in our fallen nature which revolts against divine truth, and which nothing human can overcome. No teaching of man will do it, not even that of your father or mother. The teaching of the church and of the most beloved pastors will not do it, nor time-worn tradition, which is the teaching of the ages. All this is as powerless as the slenderest thread to lift the weight which presses us down. To make the Kingdom of God enter our hearts we need a battering-ram that can overthrow the strongest walls, and that ram is the Word of God.”
In these smotheringly secular days in which we live our best recourse in the church is to sing the Word of God, pray the Word of God, read the Word of God, and teach the Word of God. As Thomas Chalmers has written, “The Bible is the Magna Carta of our liberty; when it is neglected, it is not merely its morality that is jeopardized; it is not merely its virtue that is undermined; indeed, all the good it has wrought is thereby despised.” Therefore, as he exhorted, “let us be quick to be in the way of grace.”