Secularism: Ignoring the Eternal (pt. 3)
Secularism Versus Christianity
This is precisely where Christianity and secularism collide. This is the point of conflict. The biblical world view has a long-term view of human life. The term is much longer than that of secularism.
For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time. The secularist either flatly denies or remains utterly skeptical about the eternal. He either says there is no eternal or if there is we can know nothing about it. What matters is now and only now. All access to the above and the beyond is blocked. There is no exit from the confines of this present world. The secular is all that we have. We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time—the here and now.
That obviously brings conflict with Christianity. In the New Testament the biblical world view is always concerned with the long-term. The Bible teaches us that we are created for eternity. The heart of the New Testament message is that Christ has come to give us a life that wells up into eternal life. The startling news is that we will get out of this world alive.
The biblical starting point for understanding the world is found on page one of Genesis. We read, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). We look at the earth and we see that it has a beginning in space and time. But before there was even a world, there is One who transcends the world, One who is outside of the restrictions of this space and time order that we call the world—namely God. “In the beginning, God.” At the core of our Christian faith, we believe in a God who is beyond the confines of this planet and who is eternal. All judgments that God makes, all things that He does, are done from the perspective of the eternal.
In philosophy, we say that God considers everything sub specie aeternitatis. That is merely a fancy Latin phrase meaning that God considers everything “under the species” or auspices, or from the perspective of, the eternal. The admonition and rebuke that Christ brings to this world is that men are only thinking of the short-term. They are thinking of the now and only the now, instead of the long-term consequences of their behavior. Jesus says that He comes from above. He descends from the eternal realm. He calls the Christian to live his life in light of eternity. A Christian’s values are to be measured by transcendent norms of eternal significance.
I write a column in TableTalk, the magazine of Ligonier Ministries, and I call it “Right Now Counts Forever.” I chose that title for a reason. If there is one message that I can give to my generation it is this: Right now counts forever. What you and I do now has eternal significance. The now is important because it counts for a long, long time. The secular is important because it is linked forever to the sacred.
When I chose that title I was acutely aware that we, as Christians, are being pressed on every side by the philosophy of the secularist. The secularist declares, “Right now counts for…right now!” There is no eternity, there is no eternal perspective. There are no absolutes. There are no abiding principles by which human life is to be judged, embraced, or evaluated. All reality is restricted or limited to the now.
We see this view in different forms in theology. We have seen an attempt in the twentieth-century theology to produce a secularized gospel. Remember the “Death of God” movement? One of the most important books that came out of that movement was called The Secular Meaning of the Gospel by Dr. Paul Van Buren. Van Buren talked of synthesizing classical Christianity with the philosophy of secularism. That simply cannot be done without first declaring the death of God. Secularism as an ism must include within its world view at least an implicit atheism.
The death of God, in terms of the loss of transcendence and the loss of the eternal, also means for us the death of man. It means that history has no transcendent goal. There is no eternal purpose. The meaning of our lives is summed up by the ciphers on our tombstone: “Born 1925, died 1985.” We live between two points on a calendar. We have a beginning and an ending, with no ultimate significance.
We need not go to a library and take down a dusty tome of philosophy to be exposed to the world view of secularism. The media screams it. We think, for example, of the beer commercial that says, “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get.” We see a man on a sailboat, the wind blowing his hair and the salt spray splashing in his face. He’s having a fantastic time right now. Pepsi calls ours “The Now Generation.” “Do it now!” “Get it now!” The message that comes through is, “You’d better get it now because there is no tomorrow ultimately.” Life is to be consumed in the present. Our philosophy must be a philosophy of the immediate.
The secularists of Jesus’ day summed up their philosophy like this: “Eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow you die.” Contrast that with Jesus’ words: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Think in terms of eternity. Think of the long-range implications. This touches us most directly, not simply in how we handle our bank accounts, but at the level of how we invest our lives. Life is an investment and the question that modern man has to answer is, “Am I going to invest my life for short-term benefits or for long-term gains?” Every time we are faced with a moral decision, with the temptation to do something now that may have harmful aftereffects, we are caught in the tension between two world views.
We cannot escape the secular. The world is our dwelling place. At times, Christians have sought to escape this world, to abandon it as an ungodly place. But where do we go? If we flee to the desert we have not left the world. Even monasteries have clocks. Our task is not to escape the secular, but secularism. We must embrace the world without embracing worldliness.
The theologians who have sought to combine Christianity and secularism are on a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. The root concepts of Christianity cannot be unified with the root concepts of secularism. If we seek to breed them the result will be a grotesque hybrid. It will be sterile, like a mule, powerless to reproduce. If we seek to effect a synthesis between two radically conflicting world views, we must inevitably submerge one into the other. The result of such bastardization can be neither Christianity nor secularism. If a Christian buys into secularism his world view is no longer Christian. If a secularist buys into Christianity he is no longer a secularist.
It was Aristotle who said that in the mind of every wise man resides the corner of a fool. Perhaps the reverse is also true. Perhaps inside the head of every fool resides the corner of the wise man. In biblical terms foolishness is deemed a moral act as well as an intellectual one. It involves more than mental error; it is also wicked. We are not to suffer fools gladly. Yet there are times we can learn something even from the fool.
What, apart from wickedness, could ever motivate someone to seek an unholy alliance between Christianity and secularism? Is any good motivation to be found there? I think there is. The secularist reacts negatively to religious people who are “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” He reacts against a kind of distorted religious faith that neglects the vital concerns of this world. He rejects a reservation mentality where Christians isolate themselves from the pain and struggles of this world. Many professing Christians have “dropped out,” preferring to look to the future world alone. They embrace a spurious spirituality, which gives license for neglecting this world.
This is part six 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.