Secularism: Ignoring the Eternal (pt. 4)
We Are Called to Be Secular People
Such a standpoint cannot be found in the New Testament. The Christ of Scripture was profoundly concerned with this world. This world was the site and purpose of the Incarnation. The God of heaven so loved this world that He sent His Son to redeem it. This is the world God created. This is the world God is redeeming. There is no other theater of God’s redemptive action than this world. There is a profound sense in which we are called to be secular people.
When Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City, it was clear that one of his grand passions was that the church be “where the action is.” On this point he was echoing the plea of Martin Luther that the church be “profane.” What Luther meant by a profane church was not that the church should indulge in uttering obscenities or use gutter language. Rather, Luther was playing with the Latin roots for the word profane. Profane originally meant simply “outside of the temple.” In Luther’s terms a profane church is one that moves out of the temple and into the world.
There is a tendency for Christians to seek shelter in the temple. The disciples wanted to stay on the mount of transfiguration. At the death of Jesus they huddled in the upper room with the doors shut because they feared the Jews. Jesus sent them down from the mountain of transfiguration. He virtually broke down the door of the upper room to send them to the uttermost corners of the earth. Our Lord had no time for isolationism. He had an agenda for the world.
Luther also argued that a mature Christian must be secular in the sense that he must embrace the world. He detected a normal pattern in a growing Christian. The pattern begins with conversion, often followed by a sense of withdrawal from and rejection of this world. This period of retreat is marked by preoccupation with spiritual matters. But at the point of maturity there must be a kind of re-entry into the world. This is not a return to worldliness. It is not a fall into secularism. It is a new appreciation of the world as the theater of redemption. It is recognizing that this is our Father’s world and not a place to be despised or ignored.
The Christian must distinguish between the secular and the sacred, but never separate them. To separate them is to deny the agenda of Christ. The voices of the theologians who go too far in embracing secularism serve as a warning to us. They don’t separate the secular and the sacred; they confuse them. They stress the now and neglect the eternal. We must guard against stressing the eternal so much that we neglect the now. A Christian world view must be concerned with the temporal and the eternal. There must be no false dichotomy between the two.
At the core of our moral behavior are actions. Every action not only has a cause, but also a result. Results, or consequences, take us to tomorrow and beyond. What did Macbeth say? “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time.” But for the Christian, there is no “last syllable of recorded time.” Our lives are forever. Beyond the secular or saeculum there is the eternal. That is what the Christian faith is all about.
Why should a person be worried about salvation in terms of personal redemption if there is no eternal dimension? What is the mission of the church if secularism is correct? Why should we be concerned about the redemption of individuals if there is no tomorrow? All we can really do is minimize pain and suffering for a season. The secularist can never offer ultimate answers to the human predicament because, for him, there are no ultimate answers—because there is no ultimate realm. This side of eternity is the exclusive sphere of human activity. It is not by accident, as we will see, that most of those who accept secularism and who are thinking people, ultimately embrace a philosophy of despair. That despair will manifest itself in escapism through drugs, alcohol, and other forms of behavior that dull the senses from the message that is being proclaimed, indeed screamed, from every corner of our culture: “There is no tomorrow ultimately.” It is a philosophy of despair and it is right now competing for people’s minds in the United States.
In the chapters to follow, we will be looking at the elements that make up secularism: secularistic existentialism, secular humanism, and positivism. Although these different philosophies may seem to be on a collision course with each other, they all embrace one common point, namely, the denial of the transcendent and the eternal. Look for it in your culture. Be aware of it when you see it. We need to understand this world and this society in which we live.
This is part seven of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.