Men of insight—prophets, poets, novelists, dramatists, philosophers—and the Word of God have spoken to this subject. Christopher Morley in that delightful book, Where the Blue Begins, has one of his characters say, “Modern skepticism has amputated God from the heart, but there is still a twinge where the arteries were sewn up.” And again, “The churches were so hemmed in by tall buildings they had no chance to kneel.” And Jesus, our Lord, has left us such imperishable sayings as these: “A man’s life consists not in the abundance of things he possesses.” “You are more than many sparrows.” “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth but in heaven.”
These quotations and many more point to the baffling yet challenging problems that perplex and console the serious mind.
We must make a distinction between the secular and secularism. These terms have their origin in the word saeculum, meaning age or world. In our criticism of secularism, it is our task to appreciate the secular. God is the Creator-God, not Aristotle’s Prime Mover, not Thought thinking upon Thought with no concern for the world and man. The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.”
Our Creator called the universe into existence, not in time, but with time, as Augustine says. He made a God’s plenty of matter. Man has known this for a long time, but it is impressed on him more and more in this age of stellar adventure and space exploration. When God created man in His own image, He placed him on this earth with the stars as a canopy. As part of the divine image man also received lordship over creation with no restrictions except the warning against pride, which could cause the tragic fall of angels and of men. In spite of the Fall the world is still “the theater of God’s glory,” as Calvin says. As far as we know, man is the only soul-and-body creature who can believe, think, feel, and will, and who by divine grace can utilize the implications of lordship.
The God of the Christian is a revealing God. His self-disclosure comes to us by means of a general revelation and a special revelation, both requiring the sensitivity of faith. The Word of God itself honors general revelation, though it never suggests building a natural theology on such a basis. In the nineteenth Psalm we read: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” In Acts 14 Paul at Lystra speaks of the God who has not left himself without witness, and in Acts 17 the Apostle, addressing the Stoics and Epicureans, again tells of the one God who made and takes care of the world and men. Only when he goes on to speak of the One who was raised from the dead do the “thinkers” bow him out with a smile. And only a few believe.
In the first and second chapters of Romans Paul once more takes up the matter of revelation. He speaks of the inexcusability of man within the framework of the divine wrath. And he speaks of conscience that accuses or excuses man. But more is needed. It is the Word, the self-disclosure of God in Scripture and especially in Jesus Christ, that gives the right view of man and the world. As Calvin says clearly, the Word serves as spectacles to enable us to come to an understanding of general revelation.
Secularism has been called the refusal to let God be God. It has been characterized as “practical atheism.” It denies the relevance of religion to the major areas of life and concerns itself with dominating interests other than loyalty to God. “But Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked: then he forsook the God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.” Swinburne sums it up in the familiar words: “Glory to Man in the highest, for Man is the Master of things.”
Shailer Matthews once used the phrase: “God emeritus.” This shocking statement is no figment of the imagination but a candid description of a tragic severance that leaves man scarcely suffering a twinge. The shift to nature, the present-day emphasis on science, is not to be overlooked. But preoccupation with the scientific has contributed to the atrophying of the sense of mystery, the ineffable, the noumenal, the holy. As Samuel Miller says in The Dilemma of Modern Belief: “Everything has become natural, biological, social, and quite clinical.” When man gets his every gadget, he can easily forget his God.
In Christian Faith and Natural Science Karl Heim speaks of two kinds of secularists. There are those who keep fighting God, and there are those mature secularists who are perfectly adjusted to a godless situation. We have with us and we have had for some time the religious atheists who are not devoid of fervor. Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud have their disciples. We think also of the gloomy existentialists marooned in their cellophane wrappers, filled with anxiety about death, yet drumming up courage to face the absurd.
The Fruits Of Secularism
One of the results of secularism is dehumanization. This is a strong term that reaches the heart of the matter. Very likely Gabriel Marcel had it in mind when he said, “Man has become a function.” It implies that there is no profound maturing of mind and heart. Science, the machine, organization, and massification have pushed man from the center of things. That spells spiritual tragedy, a return to chaos or the jungle. We can understand Kierkegaard’s lone battle against the crushing of the person and his pleading with “that solitary individual” to be the man God wants him to be.
Secularism results in fragmentation, pluralism, a loss of unity. In our time we have with a vengeance separation of church from state, of religion from education, of meaning from art. Philosophy has become the concern for the logic of words. There is no seeing of life steadily and whole. To speak of our age as pagan could be insulting to those Greeks who had a richer conception of, and a corresponding greater reverence for, life.
Secularism also spells a loss of mystery, a decline of the sense of transcendence. Life that is only horizontal crowds out miracle. An over-emphasis on visibility blots out vision. When truth and morals become relative, when the human character is caricatured, when art deals with the trivial, when tolerance means indifference, what is there left but an impoverishment in which glamor is a poor substitute for glory?
Economics and politics have also become infected. When dollar signs become our glasses, we have eyes mostly for the temple of Mammon. There is grave danger in thinking of good times only in terms of rugged individualism or Leviathan.
Secularism has invaded education. It has become “the supporting atmosphere” in colleges and universities far adrift from the moorings of the churches. Religion and Bible are not to interfere with the “full-orbed” training of the young. Psychology and sociology tend to replace theology and Christian philosophy. We are reminded of Paul Ramsey’s 151st Psalm, which begins like this: “Oh! come, let us sing unto Sociology; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our group consciousness.” The rest of the song is a jolly exposure of the new idiom that seems to give some people status.
Even the churches seem to have lost their zeal for a God-centered education. True, we have the difficult problem of academic freedom with us; but the solution does not lie in the churches’ indifference. When the Christian faith loses a comprehensive Christian view of life and the world, education is impoverished.
Secularism is evident in much of contemporary literature. T. S. Eliot affirms “that the whole of modern literature is corrupted by what I call secularism.” It does not understand the supernatural.
The study of literature is very important because it reveals the pulsebeat of modernity. Man received a tremendous shock during the war years and their after-math. Idealism and optimism have given way to realism, naturalism, and pessimism. Hemingway tells us that there is no remedy for anything. Steinbeck reminds us that what God formerly took care of, man must now take upon himself. A character in Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest says he belongs in the world of petrified stumps where even death has little or no meaning. Stephen Vincent Benét frankly admits we will not be saved by anything, not by General Motors, nor by inventions, nor by Vitamin D.
John Killinger in The Failure of Theology in Modern Literature analyzes the writings of our times and sees in them the lostness of man because he has lost God. The pale Christ figures are quite ineffectual. They do not stand up or out. They represent the ideals of humanism, a secularization of Christ with no resurrection and no triumph.
There was a time, as in Dante’s day, when man was surrounded by the presence of God. There was a time when men searched for the Holy Grail. Today man is in quest of himself on a rather fruitless search. What was once a cosmic struggle has become a skirmish between the Id and the Ego. Redemption is an atmosphere foreign to most of our writers. Alienation and gloom compose the theme of the existentialists such as Sartre, Kafka, and Camus. The self faces the meaningless, the tragic, the absurd, with only enough courage left to face death with a minimum of quiver.
Inroads Upon The Churches
Since God has become a blur to millions, the churches also are affected. Where congregations become “the gateway to the country club,” where lectures and harmless homilies ten miles from any exposition of a text beguile the listeners, where sin and atonement are toned down, where love loses the content of faith and doctrine, where Jesus is sentimentalized and demythologized, where people no longer understand biblical terminology and prefer a new idiom, there secularism has also made its inroads.
We are well aware of the charge made by Bishop Robinson in his Honest to God and by Bonhoeffer. We need not agree with all their reasonings and their conclusions, but we do well to heed the warnings. Institutionalized Christianity is no substitute for a personalized faith and love. Christendom can be such a far cry from Christianity. Clericalism may crush the spirit. The noise of our solemn assemblies easily drowns out the voice of Jesus Christ. Churches concerned only with themselves are quite ineffectual in the world. Samuel Miller reminds us that religion concerned too much with itself is “spiritual incest.”
The fault does not lie with God. For many he may not be there, but that follows from man’s not being there.
For some people theology is unintelligible; for others it is unnecessary. But for the churches it is essential because their concern is to grasp the self-disclosure of God. In the light of the divine revelation life has meaning, purpose, and destiny. By it man comes to understand his tragic plight and the only escape from it. God in Christ as the center of the center alerts us to the triviality of our petty loyalties.
Today the cry for a new terminology is in fashion. But is God as “the ground of our being” more meaningful than God as Father or Jesus Christ as Shepherd? The latter designations have nothing to do with a three-story universe in which God might get lost.
As Christians we must correct our docetic tendencies. Concern for personal salvation must not overlook Christ’s significance for the whole divine plan. In Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr maintains that Christ is the transformer of the best in culture. Herman Bavinck in his Philosophy of Revelation suggests that man needs a twofold conversion, first from the natural to the spiritual and then from the spiritual to the natural.
Scripture itself gives us the image of wholeness. The Hebrew writers speak of the God who may hide himself from our comprehension but who also leaves a great deal for our apprehension. The heavens proclaim his glory; the little hills skip before him; the pastures are fat because of his goodness; his voice rides on the winds.
In the Incarnation Jesus hallowed the natural. His resurrection assures ours. The Book of Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth.
It should be evident enough that as Christians we are not to flee the secular but to be God’s agents in sanctifying that realm. Only a true sense of stewardship and of our high calling will bring that about. Christians are called, not only from, but also for. Privilege always goes with responsibility. The follower of Christ should have his head in God’s sunlight but his feet on the ground. His pilgrimage should be marked not so much by speed as by high seriousness within the atmosphere of divine revelation. It is Paul Scherer who reminds us that the world has been changed not so much by those who have both feet on the ground as by those who have one foot in heaven.
We believe that the rising tide of secularism will never inundate the City of God. This calls, however, not for a ghetto existence but for a strong faith that has both content and the power to revolutionize where man’s revolt has failed.
With deep humility and only in the strength of Christ we Christians may chant:
For we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more