Understanding the rise of the secular, including in Christian colleges

Guest commentary by Robert L. Montgomery

books college library freeAbout 50 years ago I began an exploration trip into the social sciences in order to better understand the aboriginal Christian movement in Taiwan, where I was serving. From that time I began wrestling with the relationship of the social sciences, which use a secular methodology, with theology, in which I had been trained. My first article after obtaining my Ph.D. from Emory University in social scientific studies of religion reflected my wrestling match. I am still wrestling, but I invite others here to join me. I believe we Christians need to understand the secular better. It is not a realm that is outside of and apart from God, just as nature is not outside of and apart from God. Yet it is true that both the secular and nature may be approached as though God was irrelevant to them. Sadly, they both can be worshipped and used only for the self, as Eve saw the fruit on the tree. That is a human option, but Christians have the option to see both the secular and nature as gifts from God, in which God continues to be active and as providing a means to praise and give service to God. In fact, I believe the rise of the secular has clarified the faith option for all.

To begin with, the modern secular cannot be understood apart from religion because it appeared in modern thought, beginning in the 18th century, in opposition primarily to Christianity. Thus, Christianity was largely responsible for the rise of the secular. “Secular” as a term originated in the church, indicating the worldly concerns that workers in the church dealt with – as in local parishes rather than in monasteries and convents. However, in the modern world it became a term in opposition to all religion – Christianity in particular. Secularization was the force that took away the religious canopy over Western society as authority over property, but more importantly, over thought. Sadly, secularism developed as an ideology or lifestyle that considered God as irrelevant to life. It rode the impressive wave of science, which uses an obvious secular methodology with no mention of God as a cause, although many scientists were and are people of faith who saw God in nature.

It is important to recognize that Christianity rightly built up a mixed image of itself over the centuries, particularly since the 4th century when it became closely allied with the state. Although Christianity did not spread to the European barbarians primarily by force, as some think, but primarily by the tribal people themselves, the state church became the dominant pattern. Rulers even used Christianity in the age-old pattern of rulers to help unite populations under them, as well as raise their cultural level. Periodic attempts at reform were crushed until the Protestant Reformation was supported by northern European nationalists. The religious wars that followed reached a climax in the 17th century. They were a kind of “last straw” that led to rejection of “official religion” as a source of governmental power in the following century. This happened most clearly in the United States, while the vestiges of “official religions” remained in Europe. Yet, surprisingly, intellectual rejection of Christianity has been more obvious in Europe and religious life more obvious in America.

I believe it is important to apply the doctrine of total depravity to understand the rise of the secular. This is not the belief that human beings are totally sinful, but that sin pervades all aspects of life, especially those areas where the most damage can be done – the religious. If we believe that the revelation of God is the most important knowledge for human beings to know, then the major evil effect of sin is to distort the good news revealed in Jesus Christ. What became clear in the checkered history of the church is that Christianity created great opposition to the gospel in the West and in many other areas. The rise of the secular has been a way for religion (and Christianity in particular) to be judged and its message clarified. I believe the secular has been a God-given means for correcting mistaken religious ideas about the world and also providing protection from bad government actions taken in the name of religion.

Science, the first clear secular methodology to appear, is based on seeking to allow nature to speak for itself. This is the alternative to allowing religious people to impose their own ideas on the interpretation of nature. In a parallel way, secular government is based on respect for the innate or God-given human ability to recognize just actions when given the opportunity as in a democracy. Thus, in a parallel way to science, secular government can be a protection from bad government historically associated with religions, including Christianity. Therefore, the secular approach to knowledge and in government is a methodology that protects against human misunderstanding and mismanagement, especially when they come from religion. That is why the doctrine of sin supports the use of the secular as a methodology.

It is worth noting that the secular pervades much of modern life, but in many ways it has always pervaded everyday life. In other words, hard work and skill is important whether in plowing or operating on the brain. These human factors certainly do not need to replace prayer, but neither is prayer a substitute for hard work and skill. In the end, the secular has no ontological reality, but it may be considered a gift from God as providing methodologies for life; it is especially a gift from God to prevent human beings from misusing religion and religious thought and especially for improving and increasing both our understanding of ourselves, of God’s world, and most importantly, of our religious life.

There is an important practical implication for Christians in the rise of the secular in public education that is becoming increasingly obvious: the responsibility for Christian education has fallen heavily on the Christian family and the church. In addition, the history of education in this country has demonstrated that most subjects, including in the liberal arts and even religion itself, can be taught with a secular perspective and methodology. That is, religion can be described as a human phenomenon and theories developed about what in the world has affected it and what it has affected. This reality has caused colleges initiated by Christians to secularize over time much of their teaching. However, as we Christians believe, God has revealed God’s self, as authoritatively witnessed to in the Bible, and this revelation is received by faith and lived out in lives. I believe Christian colleges have the opportunity and duty to make clear the distinctiveness of faith and the availability of the faith option to their students. In their eagerness to present Christ to students, some colleges are proclaiming themselves as “Christ centered.” I believe this approach fails to properly respect the power of nature and the secular to reveal truth and presents the danger of introducing Christian interpretations of life that are beyond what is revealed in the Bible and in Christ and may be false. At the same time, I believe that Christian higher education has the responsibility of showing that through faith we can recognize that all reality is held together in Christ. I believe this perspective is best taught by a theologically trained teacher using the Bible as a source for teaching.

It has only been 2,000 years since Jesus Christ came. Much of the world has not perceived the Good News of Christ, but as the failures of religion and the value of the secular as a methodology becomes clearer, then we may hope that the faith option of belief in the great Gift of Jesus Christ will also become clearer.

image001ROBERT L. (BOB) MONTGOMERY was born in China of missionary parents. He served as mission worker in Taiwan for 16 years and is now a member of Western North Carolina Presbytery.