Secularism’s Impact on Contemporary Theology

by Langdon Gilkey

Langdon Gilkey is Shailer Matthews professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, April 5, 1965. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Secularism is not so much a philosophy as the pre-rational basis of all potent contemporary philosophies. Four terms seem to be helpful in describing it secularism: naturalism, temporalism, relativism and autonomy. Theology must reflect the secular consciousness of our time if it is to be relevant. This means that whatever language it uses must be both discovered in and related to the experiences of man’s natural, temporal and communal life in this world.

The peculiar character of the current theological situation lies in the fact that it is dominated by the massive influence of secularism. Secularism is, so to speak, the cultural Geist within which all forms of thought, including the theological, must operate if they are to be relevant and creative. It functions in our period much as idealistic dualism functioned in the Hellenistic world, providing basic attitudes to reality, categories of thought and evaluations of meaning and goodness.

This is not to argue that all of the implications of secularism must or could be accepted by theology, any more than all the implications of idealistic dualism were accepted by the thinkers of the early Church. But there is no question that the creative forms of patristic thought, as well as the "heresies," were set within the fundamental structures of Hellenism. My own feeling is that our theological relation to secularism as the basic mood of our age is roughly analogous, and that our task is in this sense similar to theirs.

Secularism is not so much a philosophy as the pre-rational basis of all potent contemporary philosophies. Like all fundamental cultural moods or historical forms of consciousness, it exists on the level of what are called presuppositions and thus is expressed in the variant forms of a given culture’s life rather than being one of these forms. It is, therefore, not easy to characterize briefly.

Four terms seem to me helpful in describing it: naturalism, temporalism, relativism and autonomy. These words express an attitude that finds reality in the temporal flux immediately around us, effectiveness solely in the physical and historical (or human) causes in that process, knowledge possible only of that passing flux from the position of one within it, and value only in the fulfillment of its moments. This attitude emphasizes the here and now, the tangible, the manipulatable, the sensible, the relative and the this-worldly.

This cultural or historical viewpoint, practically synonymous with the modern mind, has been expressed with progressive radicality in a wide variety of philosophies beginning roughly 200 years ago: empiricism, Kantian criticism, Hegelianism, evolutionism and process thought, pragmatic naturalism, and now existentialism and positivism. What is significant about the historical development of this Geist is that all the elements of what we might call "ultimacy," with which it began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have steadily vanished from it: The sense of an ultimate order or coherence in the passage of things, of a final purpose or direction in their movement, and of a fundamental goodness or meaning to the wholeness of being.

We are thus left with a kind of "raw" or radical secularity in which no ultimate order or meaning appears. This is expressed both by positivism and by secular existentialism, especially in the latter’s literary forms. However different these two points of view may be, each in its own way reflects a concentration solely on immediate knowledge or value, and asserts either the meaninglessness of ultimate metaphysical or religious questions (positivism), or the complete absence or irrelevance of ultimate answers (existentialism). Man is no longer felt to be set within an ultimate order or context, from which he draws not only his being but the meanings, standards and values of his life; he is alone and alien in the flux of reality and quite autonomous with regard to meaning and value.

This is almost as vast a departure from the "secular" evolutionary philosophies of a century ago as it is from the classical Christian world-view. It is no accident that the phrase "God is dead" is taken as the symbol of present-day secularism. But since for this mood existence also "is the absurd," we should add that all the gods are dead—that is, all those structures of coherence, order and value in the wider environment of man’s life. Darwin and Nietzsche, not Marx and Kierkegaard, are the real fathers of the present mood.

This developing modern mood has, of course, had increasing influence on the theology of the last two hundred years. At first this was largely confined to (I) the acceptance of naturalistic causality and, by extension, the methods and results of science with regard to spatio-temporal facts; (2) the appropriation of the attitudes of historical inquiry, resulting in at least a qualified relativism with regard to both scriptural writings and doctrines; (3) the emphasis on religion as of value for this life and on ethics as having relevance only for one’s concern for his neighbor’s welfare. In the nineteenth century these and other elements of the modern mentality began to transform traditional theology completely.

Liberalism succeeded in relating itself to the earlier forms of this secular mood by using the remaining elements of ultimacy (an ultimate order of process, the progressive direction of change, etc.) as the ontological bases for its theological elaborations; but this broke down in the twentieth century with the general loss of faith in these immanent structures of ultimate meaning.

Neo-orthodoxy rejected these "secular" ways of talking of God and used the older non-secular biblical categories, while accepting the whole modern understanding of the spatio-temporal process now de-sacralized of all ultimacy. Out of this came an uneasy dualism, with a naturalistically interpreted world and a biblically understood God giving meaning and coherence thereto.

The developing problem of this God’s historical activity—where the two diverse worlds were joined in his "mighty acts"—became more and more evident. One might say that, not unlike today’s Roman Catholics, the neo-orthodox thought they could accept secularism secularly," i.e., as exclusively an attitude toward ordinary history and nature, without compromise to the autonomous biblical superstructure that was set upon that secular base. The present crisis in theology illustrates the increasing difficulty of that strange marriage of heaven and earth, of Heilsgesclzichte and Geschichte.

What is the form of this crisis? In theology the crisis has revealed itself in the virtual disappearance of discourse about God, surely a crisis in that discipline if there ever was one! This was first evident in the aforementioned difficulty of relating the biblical God to a naturalistically interpreted process. Then in Bultmannian theology, where the problem was made explicit, God was shoved farther and farther into the never never land of sheer kerygmatic proclamation.

Theological understanding contented itself with an existential analysis of man and a hermeneutical analysis of a relativized Scripture and experienced "word-events"—though why such analyses should be called "theological" without the inclusion of God remains problematic at best. For if only the effects of divine activity in history, documents and experience can be spoken of—but not that activity itself—one is very near to sheer secularism.

It is not surprising that at this point a "religionless Christianity" should appear powerfully in our midst, a Christianity that seeks to understand itself in some terms other than man’s dependence upon God, and to realize itself totally in the "secular," in the service to the neighbor in the world. The end result has been the appearance of the "God is dead" theologies, which openly proclaim the truth of the new secularity described above, reject for a variety of reasons all language about God, and in a thoroughly secular way concentrate on life and action in the modern world. The power of secularism is vividly revealed here; for in these most recent theologies secular presuppositions and attitudes have utterly infected those formerly inoculated against them.

Probably, however, the purely intellectual difficulties of neo-orthodoxy did not themselves lead to its sudden demise but were reflections of a more basic problem: the fundamental mood of secularism in all of us with which neo-orthodoxy was in the end unable to cope. Apparently what has happened has been that the trans-natural reality that neo-orthodoxy proclaimed—the transcendent God, his mighty acts and his Word of revelation—became more and more unreal and incredible to those who had learned to speak this language. Younger enthusiasts began to wonder if they were talking about anything they themselves knew about when they spoke about God, of encounter, of the eschatological event and of faith. Do these words point to anything, or are they just words, traditional symbols referring more to hopes than experienced realities?

Because of this experience of the unreality, or at least the elusiveness, of the divine, younger theologians began to listen anew to positivist accusations of "meaninglessness" and existentialist affirmations of the death of God. And since, it seems to me, this sense of elusiveness remains the predominant reality of the present religious situation, the questions of the reality of God and the possibility of language about him are our most pressing current theological problems, prior to all other theological issues.

I say this for two reasons. (1) The effort to interpret Christian theology without God is a failure. Such efforts have had vast significance in revealing the power of secularism inside as well as outside the Christian community. But they show themselves to be halfway houses to humanism and thus unable to maintain, without some category of deity, any peculiarly Christian elements.

(2) Other contemporary theological problems—for example, the question of the Christ of faith, the historical Jesus and their relation to the words of Scripture, or the issues centering around the Word of revelation, our reception of it and its relation to Scripture and to the modern mind (i.e., the currently popular "hermeneutical problems")— are clearly secondary to the problem of God. While the Bible remains in any theological atmosphere a book of immense historical, literary and linguistic interest, it is of direct theological concern only if it is first presupposed that through it a divine word comes to man. Only if we know already that the Bible is the word of God can theology unfold its concepts without further prolegomena from its contents. And only then does the question of the meaning of its message for our day become the logically primary theological question.

At present, however, serious questions are being asked about the reality of God, and all the more about the reality of any revelation, let alone one through these documents. In such a situation these questions must be settled before we can treat the Bible as the source of truth and, therefore, of theological truth.

Of course it is possible that the question of the reality of God may be answered in relation to our hearing of the biblical word—but then that "word-event" becomes a category in philosophical theology and not merely in hermeneutics. That is to say, "word-event" becomes the argued basis for our assurance that we have here met something real we must call "God"—and such an argument has infinitely transcended the hermeneutical question of interpretation into the philosophical-theological question of what ultimate reality is.

One result of this change of theological concentration will be a separation for the next few years between biblical studies and theological concerns. No longer can the theologian or biblical scholar merely appeal to the "biblical view" as an assumed theological authority, since the questions of whether there be a revelation or a revealer at all are the ones he must deal with. And it surely begs these questions to cite only what the Bible says about them! This may seem to take the zip out of biblical studies—but a goodly number of eminent scholars will welcome for a while this cooler atmosphere in which to do their work.

Above all, dealing with the question of God in the radically secular atmosphere we have described will not be easy. For if the starting point of "biblical faith" is under question., so are the other two starting points of recent theology. In the first case the effort is to begin with "the stance of Christian faith" and to unravel theological conceptions from an encounter or faith situation" of some sort. But secular acids have touched this foundation too, and rendered the questions "Do I have such faith?" "Have I experienced an encounter ?" pressing questions for contemporary theologians. No one can start from a faith that is itself in question; the felt unreality of faith is an inevitable correlate to the felt unreality of God, and thus is also an aspect of our secularism.

The other starting point has been metaphysical inquiry à la process philosophy. But such a metaphysical knowledge of God itself presupposed the coherence of reality and the correlation of our thought to that orderly reality—else the metaphysical enterprise has no ground or legitimacy. Clearly radical secularism, whether in its positivistic or its existentialist forms, doubts that coherence and the relevance of our thought to such ultimate questions as firmly as it doubts "God" and the reality of faith. I do not pretend to know where the new theology will go; but I am sure that in dealing with the question of God, as it must, it can now neither be purely biblical nor simply metaphysical. This means a very new day for all of us.

I said initially that theology must reflect the secular consciousness of our time if it is to be relevant. This means that whatever language it uses must be both discovered in and related to the experiences of man’s natural, temporal and communal life in this world. It is true that the latter-day secular denial of all categories of ultimacy makes theology impossible. But I also think it reflects a false analysis of man’s secular experience, of nature, of himself, of community and of historical existence. A more valid analysis, probably of a phenomenological sort, of those realms of ordinary experience that we call secular will reveal dimensions for which only language about God is sufficient and thus will manifest the meaningfulness of that language. Such a prolegomena to discourse about revelation, word-event, Christ-event and Church is necessary if these forms of theological discussion are to be meaningful in our secular age.