07 October 2013

Modernity and the Tide of Secularism

Go here to read Michael Horton's lengthy piece titled "The Secularization Thesis." Horton is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Relying heavily on Steve Bruce's Secularization: In Defense of a Fashionable Theory, Horton notes that
Bruce begins by identifying the typical factors of secularization: a gradual weakening of social power and difficulty in socializing children in the faith. Without state support and the influx of immigrants who practice their religion freely, even a residual social consensus privileging one religion begins to fade. Without the ambient affirmation of a particular religion in public, the individual is left to the support of mediating institutions—family, church, school, and the wider subculture of adherents. Beliefs and practices once considered normal are now considered odd and perhaps even antisocial.
Like many others, Bruce (and Horton) find individualism at the core of secularism: "'As religion becomes increasingly a matter of free choice, it becomes harder to maintain boundaries.' This encourages 'first relativism—all roads lead to God—and then indifference as it becomes harder to persuade people that there is special merit in any particular road.'" Horton goes on to describe how for over 150 years American evangelical churches have inculcated individualism into their patterns of worship, congregational life, and ecclesial ministry. "Under these conditions, believers themselves begin to compartmentalize their lives" Indeed, this is so much the case that "under the terms of modernization we agree to leave our private convictions at the checkpoint before entering the public square."

The dominant economic motif of consumerism--the naked individual filling her desire apart from any notion of THE good--has come to dominate all of life. As Horton observes later in his piece, "while Europeans secularized by abandoning the churches, Americans secularized their churches." (For more on this check some of my earlier posts on Christian Smith's careful analysis of American Christianity as "moral, therapeutic deism" here, here, and here.) (FWIW, I agree with Charles Taylor who plots the rise of secularism from the late Middle Ages. Horton doesn't address why the individual, unencumbered self has become sovereign but Taylor does. Read some of my comments on Taylor's "This Secular Age" here, here, and here.)

Apparently successful evangelistic efforts are less impressive when considered from the perspective of continuing secularization: "Even when you can point to encouraging 'sales figures' as an evangelist, you've succeeded at the cost of translating objective truth-claims centered on God into subjective purchases centered on the self." So what, you ask? "Those for whom private therapy is the dominant religious motive will not likely transmit a body of doctrine and traditional practices to their children. The bubble will burst."

Nor is Horton optimistic that the tide of secularization will be reversed any time soon. Still, he has some suggestions. First, "Christians have to stop thinking that we're simply a passive victim of a highly funded cultural elite and realize that we ourselves—our families, churches, schools, and subculture—are not only centers of resistance but also carriers of secularization." We have met the enemy and he is us.

Second, Christians should "let go of our nearly idolatrous obsession with America ... as something that belongs to us that we must win back by another revival, great awakening, or political crusade." In other words, while "it can cause anxiety [to realize that America and American evangelicalism are part of the problem], but it can also help relieve it, by letting us focus finally on our Lord's commission to his apostles to preach the gospel, baptize, and teach everything he commanded." No surprise that we see in Horton shades of two-kingdom thinking yet relativization of the political in light of the ecclesial is always welcome.

Finally, and most hopeful, Horton observes the obvious: past performance is not a prediction of the future. "There is no way of predicting the emergence of the church from a nucleus of eleven terrified followers of a crucified Jew whose leader had denied—to a little girl—even knowing Jesus." Moreover, "given its history ever since, there is no way of explaining the existence of the church today, much less its spread to the ends of the earth, in natural terms. It's a miracle." If indeed the Christian account of reality is correct, then two things follow: idolatry of the self will eventually prove unsatisfying and God will eventually intervene. Secularism, like all other isms, ultimately will not prevail against Christ's body, the Church.

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