Has the Church been Secularized?

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 4.11.37 PMThere is a theory, called the secularization theory, that says the church has gradually surrendered its heart and limbs to the public, to the state, to culture. The theory contends that modernity’s marches of rationality and science inevitably secularizes society and therefore the church falls in line. In an informed note in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s  Ethics volume (p. 113 n. 47), the editor says secularization “means becoming worldly in the sense of severing politics, science, culture, and the natural order from their connections” with the body of Christ. So let us agree that secularization is the surrender of the Christian shaping of society and culture.

What are the three most visible, noticeable, important marks of secularization in Western societies today?

Terry Eagleton, however, offers a more insightful, if less academic, framing of secularization, and one worth our reflection today — as I riff off of some of his observations (and this is riffing, not summarizing his chapter). “Societies,” Eagleton says in Culture and the Death of God, “become secular not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer especially agitated by it” (1).  In a note of satirical wit, “it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up” (1). Thus, another way of saying it all: secularization is “when religious faith ceases to be vitally at stake in the political sphere, not just when church attendance plummets or Roman Catholics are mysteriously childless” (1). Poking at the gentility and politeness of religion in England, Eagleton sardonically observes: “One would not expect the Queen’s chaplain to inquire whether one had been washed in the blood of the Lamb” (3). Secularizing, then, mutes the voice of Christianity into publicly acceptable claims.

If there is an intentional aim in the secularization process, and in suggesting so we are giving the process a personality with purpose, this might be it: the “task is not so much to topple the Supreme Being as to replace the benighted version of religious faith with one that might grace coffee-house conversation in the Strand” (6). In secularization, the Christian gospel becomes an interesting conversation but not much more.

Here is a fundamental feature of Eagleton’s set of brilliant claims: “The Enlightenment was a political culture, not just a set of philosophical texts” (8). It’s war was a political one, the desire to control the country from the centers of power (12). A distinctive element of culture wars is when Christians on both side of the supposed war think the State is the place worth saving, the place above all where we ought to focus attention — for good and the better — in a redemptive sense. Why? Because modernity made the State the center while pushing the Church to the suburbs and countrysides of the private life. The culture war then is an admission that the State has dethroned the Church.

Speaking of politics, Eagleton will later quote Gibbon: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful” (26). Do culture warriors ponder their usefulness, or used-ness-ability, deeply enough? Secularization co-opts and colonizes the church into partisanship and advocacy.

Reasonable religion, or what I’d call secularized versions of the Christian faith’s central ideas, Eagleton suggests, is made of “such thinkers … who ‘believe that Christianity is true precisely to the extent that it is superfluous’” (11). The Enlightenment sought to “oust a barbarous, benighted faith in favour of a rational, civilised one” (12). In secularizing the Christian ethic — robbing it of Christology and belief in God, robbing it of the necessity of the cross and resurrection, erasing all traces of Spirit of God — the public proponent tacitly articulates his or her faith in a way that removes the heart and the limbs of the Christian faith. In the name of Christian influence. The secularized Christians then “renounced the sovereignty of the church and Scripture, but betrayed a naive trust in the authority of Nature and Reason” (16).

One vision of the secularized society was for the governors and aristocrats and power brokers to be secular while tolerating and encouraging the superstitions of the masses (20). Since the populace is impervious to the almighy-ness of Reason, let them believe. Jefferson and John Toland and Nietzsche, countered by folks like Thomas Paine and Baruch Spinoza, thought in such terms. Eagleton’s capable of the amazingly potent anecdote: “They [Enlightenment atheist thinkers] courageously discussed atheism but not before the servants” (24). Ah, but not a few pastors and priests operate analogously, eh?

“God, truth, and Reason would all appear to be bottom-line or end-stopping terms, impossible by definition to delve beneath” (33). [Worth a long excursus, no doubt, on what is properly basic.]

The only faithful Christian “influence” is the embodiment of the gospel, the full gospel, not bits that can be translated into secular, amenable categories. And the gospel is not embodied in the warrior but in the Lamb, in the cross not in the sword.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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