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God in the New World by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, St. Paul’s House, Warwick Lane, London. Copyright, 1968 by Lloyd Geering. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: The New Secular Culture


How has the life of our world today already reacted to, and to a large extent been moulded by, the new views of man and his world that we have just been considering? The word which best describes the dominant trend in our world today is secularization. By this word it is commonly implied that more and more of man’s life is being emancipated from the concern of religion, and hence from the power of church authorities. One area after another, such as healing, education and politics, has been secularized. In view of this it is not surprising that Christians have most commonly been led to regard secularization as an enemy to be fought. In their eyes it is the modern manifestation of the earlier foes of Christianity, such as paganism and apostasy. The church often sees itself as an army engaged in an orderly retreat to defensive positions from which, when the time is ripe, it will sally forth to win back to true religious faith those areas of human life, which for the moment are in the hands of the secularist forces.

Although most of the present activity of the church seems to rest on such a view as this, we do well to ask whether this is not altogether too superficial a diagnosis of our present situation. We must not hide our eyes from the fact that what we have called secularization is an entirely new phenomenon in human history, that it has been brought about by a number of new factors in human knowledge, the more important of which we have looked at, and that for these reasons a secularized culture has come to stay, at least in some form. Certainly there will be changes in the future which we cannot now foresee, but it is unreasonable to suppose it at all likely that there will be a return to the pre-secular world. To appreciate this contention, we must examine secularization a little more closely.

We can learn something first of all from the very curious history of the word ‘secular’. It is derived from the Latin word saeculum which meant a long period of time, and in particular the age or period of world history to which the present belongs. One age or saeculum when it comes to an end was thought to be followed by another, which could, of course, be very different in character. Endless time was described in the phrase in saecula saeculorum, translated ‘for ever and ever’. It is worthwhile mentioning that the equivalent Greek word aeon, along with its derivatives, occurs quite often in the New Testament and is translated as ‘eternity’, and ‘eternal’.

Now the word saeculum came to mean ‘the world of this present age’, i.e. the present world. In Christian usage in the course of time we find the word ‘secular’ being used to describe this visible tangible world in contrast with another world, the unseen supernatural world, which is the world of eternity. Any activity directed mainly to the natural world is described as secular, while any activity directed to the supernatural world is ‘religious’. The distinction was found in the Christian priesthood. Those who withdrew from the world to live the life of Christian devotion in the monastic cloister were the ‘religious’, while those who ministered in the everyday world were the ‘secular’ priests.

Medieval Christendom was subject to a dualistic tension between the secular and the religious, the temporal and the eternal, which made itself evident at many points. Society itself closely reflected the commonly accepted Christian view of the individual man as a combination of a visible body and an invisible soul. The state or kingdom was the ‘body’ of society and was ruled by the secular prince or king; the church was the ‘soul’ of society and was ruled by the prince of the church. As practically all Europeans were Christians, the powers of church and state were geographically co-terminous. The interests of the two powers penetrated each other at all points, and this led to conflict, of a kind that a man may feel in his own experience when the flesh and the spirit are at war. Now the curious thing is that these two distinct worlds of interests, the secular and the eternal, were known by names derived from words which were once synonymous. This may help, to illustrate if not exactly to prove, one of the contentions in this book, namely that the dichotomy of the two worlds recognized by medieval Christendom and by much of traditional Christianity, has been in fact a false one, just as the traditional view of the dichotomy of man is invalid.

During the Middle Ages the two worlds of interests were theoretically in a happy state of complementary co-operation and mutual respect for each other’s rightful authority. In practice, this was rather a state of truce, which from time to time broke down as either one or the other became dominant. But from the Renaissance onwards, the interests of the secular world have step by step been winning increasing emancipation from the interests of the eternal world, and at the same time secular pursuits have been growing in number and diversity. The reverse side of this picture is that the interests of the eternal world, in so far as they are identifiable with ecclesiastical practice and rule, have been steadily retreating. This process is secularization, i.e. the apparent victory of the secular world.

Let us take the example of education. In Europe it was the monasteries which kept alive what learning there was in the Dark Ages, and as the Middle Ages emerged, there grew out of these the first of the great European universities. They were founded for the study of theology, as the Divinity Hall still standing in Oxford so clearly illustrates to this day. Theology was seen, as the core of all sound learning. In the oldest universities the Faculty of theology still holds the place of honor. Wisdom began in the fear of the Lord, but reached out to all sound worthwhile human interests. The very idea of a university was that it should bring together all academic pursuits and give a man a completely balanced, an all-round, a universal education. Theology was the queen of the sciences, and these latter gradually began to emerge as individual disciplines.

From the Renaissance onwards, the young sciences struggled to get to their feet, and later, with the vigor of adolescents, they broke free from theological restraint and ecclesiastical control. Mother Church was overslow in recognizing the real worth of these rebellious young offspring which had come to birth in the very places of learning founded for the glory of God and the defense of the true faith. By the nineteenth century, universities were being founded which had no faculty of theology at all, and some had constitutions which declared that they were purely secular institutions in which no religious subjects could be pursued. The older universities began to abolish the required entrance examinations m Biblical knowledge and the necessity to give assent to Christian doctrines before matriculation was possible.

The same trend of secularization can be seen in general education. Literacy and education for all was largely pioneered by the church. From the Reformation onwards the availability of the Bible in the vernacular was in Protestant countries an added incentive to become literate. Even the Sunday School took its rise in a move to provide the elements of education for the working children of the poor on the only day they were free. Until this century primary education was mainly a matter of mastering the three R’s, sometimes known as the four R’s because religion figured pretty largely through the study of the Bible. Primary and secondary education then became increasingly secularized as they were taken over more and more by the state. Any religious or biblical teaching that is given at all is right out on the periphery. The great heritage of knowledge made available by the sciences and the modern ‘knowledge explosion’, determines the pattern and content of education today. The average adolescent of our day is being molded by his education to take his place in secular society as a secular man.

What has been briefly described in the field of education can be paralleled in several other areas, all of which have been sometimes referred to as ‘the lost provinces of religion’. The time was when the church was the only agent in society which concerned itself with the study of the nature of man and with the promotion of his spiritual health, but now there are other agents with similar concerns. Psychology -- the study of the mind or human behavior -- is a secular science. Psychiatry -- the art of healing the psyche or mind -- is a secular pursuit. Social welfare, marriage counseling, various kinds of therapy designed to restore a person to the maximum mastery of his natural abilities, are often secular professions promoted by the state. The priest or pastor is sometimes confused today as to what constitutes his real role, for it seems so much more limited than it was in an earlier day when he was a ‘father-in-god’ to his flock in every possible way. This role seems so often today to be parceled out to a number of specialists, usually working on a secular basis.

Let us now turn from the social changes which reflect secularization to the way in which it has changed what men think about the world and the life they live. We have already referred to the dualism of the two worlds in the medieval view. The supernatural world, though normally unseen, was believed to impinge upon the natural world at many points. An unusual or otherwise unexplainable event was readily interpreted as being caused by the unseen powers of the supernatural world. In popular thinking, evil spirits, ghosties, saints and guardian angels were conceived as carrying on an unseen war around one. Many processes which we now regard as quite natural and logical were mysteries to medieval man and consequently offered a ready seedbed for all kinds of explanations which depended upon intervention by some supernatural force.

But as the sciences began to develop, they gradually brought to light quite natural explanations for some aspects of observable phenomena which had previously been regarded as of supernatural origin. Unseen forces of a natural kind came to be recognized. To the ordinary man there is no obvious connection at all between the tides, the movement of the planets across the sky, and the falling of objects to the ground. It was a brilliant leap forward when Isaac Newton recognized that they can all be explained by the one force, which we now call gravity. He proceeded to enunciate in 1687 the inverse square of universal gravitation. This confirmed Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, which had so far been unexplained even though they correctly described how the planets moved. Knowledge of such laws as these made it much more difficult than before to contemplate the possibility even for God suddenly to cause a planet to behave in an irregular way, or to make stones fly up in the air instead of falling to the ground.

The areas of mystery, in some respects at least, seemed to be closing. There is a story told of how the famous astronomer Pierre Simon de Laplace was explaining to Napoleon his theory of the origin of the planets. When Napoleon asked him where in his theory he had left a place for God, he replied, "Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis." This is true of all the natural sciences. God is not a factor who has to be allowed for in their calculations. Now that kind of thinking about God which looks for evidence of His activity in phenomena which have no natural explanation is often referred to as a belief in the ‘God of the gaps’. At the moment admittedly there are still many gaps in our knowledge, but the closing of so many gaps in everyday experience has meant that it needs no great stretch of the imagination to see that the gaps could readily close to the point where there is no room left for any faith in that kind of God.

The image of God as a supernatural being, who from time to time intervenes in the affairs of the natural world in clearly recognizable ways, and who can suspend or reverse the usual behavior of natural phenomena, if He so wishes, in order to perform His will, is one which has become less and less tenable as the new world has emerged. As the sciences have moved from one apparent success to another, and paved the way for the rapid advance of technology, the ordinary man has felt more and more confident that he understands the natural forces and processes with some degree of certainty. And at the same time the sense of the supernatural which once weighed quite heavily with him has now receded, and plays a decreasing role in his thinking and experience.

Secularization is not simply something which divides men into two distinct classes -- the secular and the religious. Practically all contemporary men show the marks of secularity in some form or another. The new secular man is in all of us to some degree. At the extremes only do we see two distinct classes. On the one hand there is the materialist who believes he has abandoned completely the religious heritage of the past, and on the other there is the conservative Christian believer, who believes he has resisted completely the inroads of secularization. (To the extent that he is still thinking within a framework of concepts which is far more medieval than contemporary, he is correct.) In between these two extremes there are many grades of secular man. The great mass of people of western culture still play at least lip-service to past religious traditions, but the proportion of their daily life that it directly influences grows increasingly less. Let us mention three examples.

In the first place man looks more and more for natural causes in the problems which beset him. If the potato crop fails, he does not regard it as an intervention by God to demonstrate His judgment -- a judgment which must be accepted in humility and responded to with penitence and fasting. The natural causes are looked for, precautions are taken to prevent the calamity from spreading, and the most adequate remedies known are put into operation. Indeed in agriculture and in human and animal health, diseases are now forestalled wherever possible, by such methods as the application of trace elements to the soil, sterilization, a balanced diet and immunization.

This leads secondly to the fact that secular man neither expects nor believes in the miraculous intervention by God in the times of his desperate need. At this point the word ‘miracle’ needs to be more carefully analyzed. The word originally meant a marvel, something which was so extraordinary as to attract attention, wonder and even awe. In this sense the word still has a valid meaning for us, since there are many things in our experience which make us marvel. The advent of television, penicillin, nuclear fission were all marvels. When modern surgery restores sight to a blind man, when a drunkard is reformed, when what appears to be certain catastrophe is averted, then the word ‘miracle’ arises naturally to our lips in order to describe them.

But if the word ‘miracle’ is used to describe a supernatural intervention by God, which is possible only through the temporary suspension of natural laws and forces, then we are talking about something else. It is this kind of definition which lies behind much popular talk of miracles. But it is a view of miracle which does not properly belong to the ancient world, where there was no clear understanding of permanent natural laws, and where they could distinguish only between the usual and the unusual. Certainly the Bible bears witness to the wonderful works of God, the signs and miracles of His grace, but it is anachronistic to read into these affirmations a much later understanding of miracle, one which belongs particularly to the medieval view of the interpenetration of the two worlds -- the natural and supernatural. The receding of the sense of the supernatural world, characteristic of the secularizing progress, is bringing an end to that idea of miracle which implies a temporary suspension of natural law. We know that if the world is to avoid being thrown into the holocaust of a nuclear war, we must not look for a supernatural intervention in the form, say, of a regiment of angels. Men themselves must learn to handle their own passions. It is within the framework of natural forces that the miracles of God’s grace will be recognized.

There have been periods when it has been popular to appeal to miracle as a means of proving the validity and truth of the Christian faith. Until only a hundred years ago the Gospel records of the ‘miracles’ of Jesus were regarded as one of the most telling ways of substantiating the divine powers of Jesus and hence the Christian claims about Hun. But the historicity of the ‘miracle’ stories has now been severely undermined by modern Biblical study, which has shown that we have here no infallible historical records, but the testimony of Christian traditions which had been molded by two or more generations of oral transmission. Even many of today’s Christians, who in other respects may be regarded as being very liberal in their outlook, have been inclined to rest their faith on the historical reliability of the resurrection narratives, as pointing to at least one incontestable miracle of a supernatural character, and they have been alarmed when the ‘Empty Tomb’ stories came to be regarded as legendary. Even in the Easter affirmation of the Resurrection of Jesus, so important for Christianity, we can now point to no firm historical evidence to show that there occurred there a miracle which involved suspension or reversal of natural laws -- in this case, the normal processes of decay into which the physical body enters after the point of death. The truth of the Resurrection of Jesus must be understood in terms other than these.

We shall take, as the third example of the influence of secularization, the practice and meaning of prayer. In a world where cause and effect have been shown to operate at so many more points than was earlier imagined, we are forced to ask to what extent prayers of petition and intercession which plead with God for the speedy fulfillment of certain clear objectives, really depend upon a belief in the ‘God of the gaps’. To what extent can we believe any more that "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects"? Secular man finds it hard to be convinced that there is a chain of cause and effect which follows a channel leading from the believer to God, and from God to the physical context to which the believer directed his prayer.

Some believers claim that their prayers have been marvelously answered. But there is never any way of showing that what they regarded as an answer would not have happened anyway. And when the particular answer the believer had in mind does not eventuate, then that which actually happened is interpreted by him as the answer God chose to give. This means that the believer knows from the outset that his prayer will be answered, and nothing that happens will convince him to the contrary. But at the same time it reduces ‘answered prayer’ to something like a meaningless statement.

Petition and answer should not, of course, be regarded as the sole content of Christian prayer, but in the popular mind this has often been the case, and it is just at this point that secularization has greatly undermined the practice of prayer, and has made the Christian much more cautious about the forms of his petitions and the areas in which they may be regarded as legitimate. One of the benefits of secularization in this field has been that it has shown up the fact that much that has passed for Christian prayer was in fact a form of magic, by which the Christian was attempting to operate supernatural forces to bring about his own ends, however laudable they might have been.

Finally it is to be noted that secularization is now spreading over the whole world. In the same way as it has undermined many aspects of the medieval form of Christianity, so it is affecting those civilizations which have grown up on the foundation of other religious faiths. The new secular man is being born in the Indian, the African and the Chinese as well as in the European. In Russia and China we find a particularly militant form of secularization which sees religious faith as an enemy to be fought and vanquished.

The world is today becoming in effect a smaller and more closely interdependent society. Communication, increased opportunities of travel, interchange of knowledge and forms of education all mean that, though the old cultural characteristics will linger on for a long time yet, there is already being sown the seed of a global culture. So far as we can see at the moment the chief characteristic of such a possible global culture will be its secularity. This is the one common element which is spreading everywhere.

From the time when the Pope divided the new geographical world between Spain and Portugal until the great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century, it was the firm belief of Christian Europe that the Christian religion of the European pattern must eventually encompass the earth. At the beginning of this century some Christians were hopefully raising the slogan "The evangelization of the world in our generation". But after some encouraging beginnings, particularly in Africa and in the Pacific, the great missionary expansion of the last two centuries has now ground down to a dead slow. The churches in Europe and in those countries where European culture was planted by early colonization, now find that they face a missionary situation at home. Within the last generation secularization has made greater inroads into the framework of Christian culture than in the previous three centuries, and it is still accelerating.

Out of the missionary movement there was born the Ecumenical Movement. This was slow at first, but since the Second World War, it has grown in strength, and has now taken root in the Roman Catholic Church -- the largest and hitherto the most conservative church of the West. Many see in the Ecumenical movement the hope that the institutional Christianity of Europe will yet encircle the globe and provide the spiritual basis for the global culture. But has the Ecumenical Movement come one hundred years too late? For while ecumenical leaders strive to meet the challenge of the times by bringing together the living elements in their churches, they still find themselves weighed down as with chains by ecclesiastical machinery and dogmas of the past. By the time visible unity is restored to the church, the community of active committed Christians may have been reduced in size and influence to a quite insignificant island in a vast secular sea.

Secularization, as it is at present spreading and developing, is dividing the modern world into two. On the one hand there is an official and institutional form of Christianity seeking to be faithful to the beliefs and forms of Christendom’s past glory, and on the other there is a secular, non-religious society which tends to assume that emancipation from all religious faith is part of the goal of complete secularization. This division, if allowed to continue, could prove more disastrous than the divisions to which the Reformation gave rise.

This division is a false one, first, because it fails to recognize that secularization originated in Christian Europe and not elsewhere. Admittedly not all the products of European culture have necessarily been of Christian origin, but before the church abandons secularization as if it were a foundling child, she must look more carefully to see if this is not Christianity’s own offspring. For if it is (as later we shall try to show), then the church has the responsibility to guide the process of secularization forward and assist it to keep to its proper path, the very path whose beginning and direction are to be found in the Judeo-Christian heritage. The secularist who regards secularization as a matter of winning complete emancipation from the old heritage, is in fact turning secularism into an absolute, and without realizing it, he is in danger of becoming enslaved to a new form of idolatry. The present growing schism between the remnants of Christian orthodoxy and the secular world is a false one, which can lead both to ruin. This schism can be healed only if both are prepared to acknowledge the essential relationship between the Christian faith and secularization.

Then secondly, the church must realize that the influence of the Christian faith is not at all confined to the sphere of the organized church. It is often being said today that the church is back again in the first century situation. This is a dangerous half-truth. In the first century the church was a growing spreading minority in a completely non-Christian environment. Today the church is a diminishing minority in a cultural environment which has been largely shaped by its Christian past; and while orthodox Christianity is making only minor advances in Christian culture, the pattern of secularization to which it gave rise, is still spreading rapidly. It is rather paradoxical that while European political colonization is nowadays firmly rejected, the spread of European culture goes on apace in such forms as education, science and technology, democratic rule, and Western standards and ways of thought. Fewer and fewer people remain uninfluenced by the Christian faith, however slight it may appear on the surface, or however distorted the form of influence may be judged to be.

The old pattern of European Christendom with its complementary roles of state and church is fast disappearing. Secularization on a global scale is bringing in a new situation in which the Christian community and the secular society within which it lives, must both discover their proper mutual relationships. The Christian community in particular must be careful not to waste unnecessary energy fighting an enemy that her own misjudgment has largely created. Even the first disciples, St. Mark tells us, nearly fell into this error, and the Master said, "He that is not against us is for us."

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