Just as Harvey Cox celebrates the freedom and discipline of the secular city, so I celebrate that of the secular university. If I, like Cox, seem over-optimistic, it is not that I do not see the dangers. Bishop Lesslie New-bigin in Honest Religion for Secular Man strikes the right balance when he points out the inevitability of secularization as well as the ambiguities in the notion of a secular society. He writes: “The more one explores the idea of a secular society, the more clear does it become that such a society could be maintained only by the participation of men and women in whom commitment to Christ is a living, personal, religious reality.” In such a context secularization need not be anti-Christian, and the Christian need not fear it. It may even be beneficial to Christianity and to the dissemination of Christian thought. A secular society may well give the Christian a better opportunity to serve God and share the Gospel than a religious, even a Christian, society. On the secular campus Christian students can learn to serve God today and prepare to be leaders in tomorrow’s secular society.
The secular campus provides every sort of opportunity for discussing the basic questions about life, and one hopes that Christian answers are offered along with others. With the anti-Viet Nam students I know—and with love-hippies, too, I imagine—one can have a field day in discussion. If one listens a lot, one begins to understand their concern and then will in turn be listened to. As the various standard objections to Christian faith are trotted out, one has a splendid teaching opportunity. While helping recently in a student mission I ran into objections having to do with the problem of evil, the character of God, sin, love, the past behavior and present attitude of the Christian Church, freedom, justice, the empirical basis of the Christian faith, hell and damnation, Christian teachings on sex, and the notion that science and evolution are disposing of the need for God.
There are a number of identifiable sources for the objections one meets.
1. Many result from ignorance. As ignorance of Christian teaching is increasing, we cannot say Christian things to students in Christian language and expect them to understand. Pre-evangelism will become increasingly important.
2. Other misconceptions are not simply the result of ignorance. Some may be traceable to faulty Christian teaching, others to the inadequacy of some traditional Christian conceptions.
3. Hosts of obstacles are generated by unexamined presuppositions. For example, lots of questions about why God permits evil arise from tacit assumptions about the character of God, or his relation to the universe. Ignorance of the presuppositions of science is a fruitful source. Many a student will start off, “Wouldn’t it be more rational …,” and then proceed with a mechanistic explanation. If I then help him to look for the starting points of his reasoning, he will generally agree after examining them that they too are based on faith. As a university teacher I believe I render the student a service if I help him to be critical of his presuppositions, even if I cannot help him to Christian faith.
4. One family of difficulties that arises for Christians and non-Christians alike stems, I believe, from employing a wrong model of the universe. Since the common use of a faulty mechanistic model weakens Christian apologetic, I shall elaborate this point later.
5. As civilization progresses, new situations arise that cause new problems for Christian understanding. A current example bears the tag, “man come of age.” We must let the non-Christian see that though we have no ready answers we are not afraid to face the issues.
6. The last source of obstacles to belief is the content of the Christian faith itself. Although one may be able to show the coherence of the facts of the faith, one cannot answer the question, “Why should it be this way?” One can only bear witness, and worship.
A Faulty Model of the Universe
Quite often I am asked to speak on science or evolution in relation to Christian faith. In discussing problems in these areas with Christians of all sorts, I early became aware that for them Creation was an event that happened a long time ago, and nothing much has happened since. Things go on by themselves; matter is eternal. Thus while few of us accept consciously the deist position that the Creator is no longer involved with the world he fashioned, important elements of that crippling view linger still.
When people discuss the sovereignty of God, human responsibility, and free will, their notion of God’s relation to his creation often seems mechanical. Christians who talk of being “in” or “out” of God’s will make it sound like a railway track, and they may wonder fruitlessly how, when they have got off the track, they can get back on. A mechanical image such as this seems to conflict with the concept of forgiveness of sins. We entertain such static notions of God! To many, heaven seems a boring place, because nothing ever happens or if anything does happen it is dreadfully repetitive, like “harpers harping on their harps,” to quote an Anglican hymn.
All the points I have mentioned cluster in my thinking around two words, “machine (or mechanism)” and “blueprint”—both completely static concepts. In my mind, “blueprint connects with metaphysical statements about God, the God of the philosophers, who can be clearly defined and who is quite unlike the God of the Hebrews whom we meet in the Old Testament. You cannot guess, much less predict, what Jehovah will do. St. Paul speaks of the mystery of the Gospel—a secret revealed, not a theorem latent in a set of axioms.
In the first part of The Secular City, Cox points out correctly that God the Lord is known through history and that history knows no blueprint. Science, of course, is an enterprise whose main goal is to discover or reconstruct a blueprint describing the universe as science knows it. That science deals in blueprints is not surprising, because one of its basic assumptions is the uniformity of nature, which means that the passage of time is irrelevant, that the behavior of the universe does not change. If time is irrelevant, then all that science can discover is an unchanging set of relationships that can be schematized one way or another, even in a blueprint. In short, it can only discover what it assumed—an unchanging, static pattern. I am told that the Greeks, to whom in part we are indebted for science, had no concept of history. For them the passage of events was circular (“the ever-encircling years”), not linear; that is, it did not move from a beginning to an end as in biblical thought. The Greek notion of the passage of events is compatible with the blueprint idea and with the idea of a machine, because all depend upon the view that reality is unchanging, static.
One of the qualities of machines is that they are independent of their makers, and of their designers. It is because we normally think that the universe is a machine, that matter is eternal, and that nothing ever really happens, that we no longer effectively believe in God as a Creator and Sustainer. If the universe were indeed a machine, then the current scientific theory of evolution would dispose of the need for God. But if instead the scientists assured us that every kind of living thing had existed in the universe as far back as anyone could go, we would still, if the universe is a machine, have no need of God. We would just need a different blueprint.
Since in a machine universe nothing every really happens, human work has no real meaning apart from its usefulness in providing the means of living. I think it is because most Christians still believe in a mechanical universe that they have so little positive thought on the subject of work and culture to offer the world.
I have no quarrel with the scientist for likening the universe to a machine. The utterly remarkable thing is that he can get away with it. There really are points of similarity between the nature of the universe and that of a machine. No one yet knows how far the similarity goes. For the purposes of science, the scientist can properly regard the universe as a machine. The Christian ought to know better than carry the image beyond this. The Lord revealed himself in history, in ways that defy blueprinting. The whole of creation, then, cannot be adequately modeled on a machine or a blueprint.
An Unfinished Novel
I want to suggest that if we liken God, in relation to his creation, to an author writing a partly finished novel, we have a much better model to guide our thinking and stimulate our intuition. In a good novel the characters have a surprising degree of freedom, within the giveness of their natures and environment. Moreover, their actions and choices seem to flow naturally from their natures and circumstances. At the same time we know that, without forcing his characters, the skillful writer is in control of the situation and knows the end from the beginning. Is it too much to claim that the author and his characters cooperate in creating the ongoing tangle of events and relationships that make the novel?
Such a model is rich enough to contain the complex personal interactions that we know are part of human life but that, probably because of their complexity, are not dealt with by the reigning priesthood, the scientists. It also easily contains the machine-like aspects of the inanimate universe. Within this model, a discussion of predestination and human freedom presents much less difficulty than it does within a mechanistic and hence deterministic model. I think the model also helps us grasp more clearly the utter freedom of God to create what he wanted, plus his lack of freedom in changing the ground rules once he started.
Like all comparisons, this one will not match reality perfectly. Before acccepting it wholeheartedly we should test its explanatory power more thoroughly.
The Old Testament is readily understood on the basis of the novel model. People have certainly used the expression “the drama of the Bible” often enough, but they do not seem to have applied the concept to reality and then asked what sense it makes of the Old Testament. Put simply, the Old Testament brings together the most significant events and ideas in the whole history of the human race. From it we learn that the Author of the novel loves his characters and intends to have a special relationship with them that the Hebrews called “knowing him.” In the twentieth century we can best liken it to an intimate, personal relationship like marriage. The writers of the Old Testament books were men who believed in God and so could infer his character from his deeds and from his words through the prophets. By faith they understood, and by faith they grasped the beginning and the distant end of the story. Thus they were able to select intelligently the significant events for inclusion in what Bishop Newbigin calls an “outline of world history,” and in another place simply “universal history.”
In this kind of model, “things happen.” Hence we can readily cope with ideas of development and progress that are in no sense mechanical or automatic, such as the ordinary Hebrew’s growth in understanding the character of the Lord and the rather general growth one can trace throughout history in moral discipline and care of the other fellow.
I find the model particularly attractive when I think of Christ as the Logos or Word, the Self-Expression of God. No word of wide human use can serve as a tool of communication out of context. What do I mean if I simply utter the word “love”? Nothing, It must be spoken in context. Similarly, the author of the universe took a long time in history to prepare an adequate context in which he could utter his Word and then be understood. This is why I believe the Old Testament to be a most important book.
In discarding the mechanical model and opting for the novel model of the universe, we break out of a closed system of thought and move toward an open one: we are freed from a metaphysical bondage. An important result is that our thinking can become at once more biblical (see Ps. 104 for the LORD’s involvement in the everyday) and more like that of our contemporaries in this empirical, secular age.
Benefits of Secularism
Secularization is the process in which human government and laws and human thought are removed from religious control. It seems to stem from a realization that we can neither get nor compel human agreement on ultimate questions, whether of government, morals, or faith. The enterprise we call modern science prospered when men ceased to concern themselves directly with ultimate causes and investigated the local causes of phenomena instead. Some scientists have great hopes for human welfare from the application of genetic knowledge for the improvement of human heredity. But all such schemes founder upon the lack of agreement by the planners (and the planned for!) as to what are desirable long-range goals.
In the symposium Man and His Future, P. B. Medawar concluded that we must limit our aims to “doing good in small particulars.” I like that phrase. It expresses well what I think may lie behind the process of secularization—a becoming humility.
What are some examples of the process of secularization? An obvious one in the United States is the separation of church and state. Another is a refusal to consider a person’s religion in assessing his suitability for employment. The ruling that prayers and Bible reading should not take place in public schools is another instance of the apparently irresistible logic of secularization. Protestants generally object when Roman Catholics support certain laws because of their teachings on birth control, when the Protestants do not agree with those laws. Simple justice, then, prevents us from imposing our wills on other people for purely religious reasons. The modern state of India is another example of secularization. In contrast, Burma has declared itself a Buddhist nation and is opposing secularization. One predictable consequence of this is that they are excluding Christian missionaries.
From what I have said about secularization, it should be clear that the end result, a secular society, is a pluralistic society in which one is free to believe as one chooses and free to win others by persuasion. A secular society would be a very different thing from a secularist or materialist society, or indeed from Christendom as we have known it in the past. In a materialistic society one would not be free to be a Christian or a Buddhist or anything else, because the government of that society would be committed to a certain philosophy or world view—to a religion, one might say.
Do I think secularization is a good thing? The scientist in me reacts to that question by observing that the process is occurring whether I like it or not. Personally I feel it is inevitable. Why? Because I am very aware, as a Christian, that whatever freedom I want for myself I must work to obtain for the other fellow also. It is clear that the underdeveloped countries think that industrialization, technology, and science are good things, because countries that have these facilities and skills have a comfortable material life. It is quite clear that these things historically have gone along with secularization, and that if one wants these, secularization follows along, if for no other reason than that to get industrialization is to become part of Western civilization, where the process of secularization is occurring. It is not arrogance to say that in order to industrialize, nations will have to abandon or seriously modify their traditional cultures and religions. This, after all, is what has happened to Christendom.
What makes it hard for Christians to cope with secularization is that our religion is the source both of the process and of the cultural and institutional features of our society which the process is destroying or modifying. The Western attitude toward nature—namely, that man is superior to nature—makes possible technology and science, and it is widely recognized that this attitude derives from Christian faith. The empirical approach so characteristic of modern society echoes a biblical attitude and accords with the fundamental Christian assumption of the contingent nature of the universe, a nature, therefore, that we can know only by discovery and not by reasoning alone. The same insight that moved the Pilgrim fathers to reject the divine right of kings also enabled Moses to confront Pharaoh and, I believe, informs the struggle for civil rights. The God of Abraham and Jesus, whom Christians worship, is greater than any government, even a Christian one, and is not to be identified with any. Obviously his will is not to be identified with any set of social customs, however gracious. This prophetic, biblical conviction lies behind the process of secularization and means that the status quo is under continual judgment.
I see all secular activity, and secularization in particular, in relation to the revealed purposes of God. When I read the prologue of John’s Gospel, I learn of the activity of Christ, the Logos. I learn that he was active in creation (v. 3), that all men live because of his life (v. 4), and that men’s reason, moral and intellectual (v. 4, 9) comes from him. I learn that he is opposed but that the enshrouding darkness has not overcome his light (v. 5). No human activity occurs apart from God.
God, in giving man dominion over the universe, made him, in a limited sense, co-creator with Himself. In telling man to be fruitful and multiply, the Lord God set him free to make society; in giving him dominion, he made man his agent for the development of civilization—technology, science, the arts, social institutions. While I think it likely that God limited man’s choices, it is abundantly clear that he ratified what man chose to do, for good or for evil.
Secularization as a process involving human choices could, of course, be evil, basically contrary to God’s intention; but this would have to be squared with the fact that it has its historical roots in the acts and words of God as we have them in the Old Testament.
At all times our task as Christians is to seek to understand what God is about and to declare this to all men as the basis of their self-understanding. As I have considered our ways of thinking about the universe, and the sources and features of the process of secularization, I have begun to discern God at work today in social change. His actions have a historical continuity with the Bible and display the same style as seen there. As we Christians cooperate with God in creation, talk about it, and share our insights widely in today’s empirical, secular style of thought (which is so like the biblical), we shall raise fewer obstacles to faith on the secular campus, and shall prepare a good background against which the Gospel of redemption will be intelligible and profoundly significant.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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