Chapter 8: Gospel And Secular Culture

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 8: Gospel And Secular Culture

Presented to the meeting of theological students of the Federation of theological seminaries in Kerala at the Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam on 14 Dec.95.



What is Secular Culture? I suppose what the phrase denotes is the modern culture which gives great emphasis on human being as a creator of culture and of history out of nature and which also believes that human being and history require no transcendent reference to a Divine Creator or a Divine Redeemer from self-alienation to bring about the realization of the community of love which is the ultimate destiny of humanity. So, what we have in mind is a “secular culture” within the framework of a closed “secularist” idea of human progress.

My aim in this paper is to argue that the dynamics of modern “secular culture” have their roots in a concept of humanism derived from the Christian gospel but that because of the failure of the churches to respond positively to the values that emerged in Christian culture as implication of Christian humanism, they were sought to be realized in human history under the dynamic of “secularist ideologies of humanism” in opposition to the Christian faith. In fact, these ideologies of inevitable human progress whether in Liberalism or Marxism had the character of a secularization of the Kingdom of God envisaged as the goal of history by the Christian gospel; they were a kind of Christian heresies. This alienation between secular culture and the gospel led to the dehumanization of the forces of secular culture and has reduced Christianity to a kind of individualistic pietism or a spiritual cult to sanctify some self-centred communal existence. Therefore the contemporary Christian responsibility is to redefine the secular culture in the light of a more holistic anthropology built up through the dialogue of Christianity with secularist ideologies in the context of the religious pluralism of the present situation.


Firstly, let me clarify three aspects of modern culture. We have to distinguish between the Secular Forces, the Human Values and Faith-presuppositions of self-redemptive humanism within the framework of which, the forces and values of modernity are defined.

The three basic driving forces that have created modernity are firstly, the revolution in experimental sciences and the application of its findings in the development of modern “technology”; secondly, the awakening of the individual to the rights of “personhood” and of the oppressed groups of people to a new concept of justice based on equality; and thirdly, the break-up of the traditional institutional integration of religion, society and state in European Christendom, defined as “secularization” which removed state and society from the “control” of religion and made religion a “private” option for citizens as individuals and groups.

What was the reaction of European Christianity to these forces? Generally speaking, Catholic Christianity opposed modernity as a revolt against God and Protestant Christianity became a subjective spirituality of individualistic pietism. Between them the Christian understanding of human being and society as created, fallen and redeemed by God was made irrelevant so that these forces of modernity were left to be interpreted solely within the framework of the humanism of the Enlightenment which at best had a Deistic faith coupled with a mechanical view of the world and a self-redemptive idea of history making for an optimistic doctrine of inevitable progress. It was a “secularist” view because its concept of the human self-alienation had no spiritual roots in human alienation from God (sin) and therefore needed no redemption of the human spirit by the Grace of God in Christ. Self-alienation was a mechanical disorder corrected by technical rationality. Marxism of course had a more organic interpretation of self-alienation as social but still able to be corrected by class-revolution.

Starting in Europe, the modern forces and their Enlightenment secularist interpretations, have now become global in character. Western imperialism, English education and Christian missions introduced secular culture into India. Modern reformation movements in traditional Indian religions especially the movements of Neo-Hinduism indicated the impact of modernity on Indian life at its religious level, and India’s liberal democratic and leftist ideologies guiding the struggle for political independence and nation-building in independent India, indicate the assimilation of Enlightenment humanism at the ideological level, though qualified a great deal by the reformed religious view of Gandhism. In fact, modern Independent India has moved away from Gandhism in the direction of scientific and, technical rationalism. It is significant that the Preamble of the Constitution of India spells out transformation of Indian society in the light of the values Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (taken from the French Revolution) and Justice (probably derived from the Soviet Union) as the goal of secular India. Perhaps it may be right to say, that in general the politically conscious educated middle class of India were guided more by the Liberal and Marxian ideologies than the Gandhian or other versions of reformed Hindu thought. After the era of Gandhi, India does not give much emphasis on the renaissance of Hinduism as the dynamics of social justice. In Kerala it seems it has stopped with Sree Narayana Guru; even he has been interpreted by SNDP largely in the light of secularist thought.

The forces of destructiveness and the dehumanization which have become manifest from the late 19th century onwards have put a question mark on the secular modern culture. The two World Wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, mass poverty in the midst of plenty, the moral anarchy of individualism, the States given to totalitarian planning, new technical theocracies under Hitler and Stalin, the destruction of natural environment and above all the mechanization of life changing persons into things and emptying inter-personal bond of family and community of love reducing them into manipulative relations of utilitarian functions, may be mentioned in this connection as offending the human dignity of persons and peoples which modernity affirmed as values.


There are two or three reactions in this context. One is to give up the whole package of modernity and return to the traditional pattern of religion-society-state integration with a new militancy and strengthening it with modern technology. Eg: Return to Christendom and the Moral Majority movements, the Iranian Islamic revolution and its export, India’s Hindutva politics of Communalism and Hindu Rashtra, the revival of primal vision and other expressions of religious fundamentalism and neo-theocracy. Two, there is the acknowledgment by many noble people that human community awaits a tragic doom from which there is no escape but they will fight to defend human values on the basis of the faith that there is no support for them behind or within the universe and therefore building their lives on “unyielding despair” as Bertrand Russell once said.

However, there are groups of tamed adherents of secular ideologies and religious faiths who feel that in the dialogue between religions and secular ideologies they must find some alternative path to save the positive human values and what modernity has realized of them through the last three or four centuries. They are seeking what has been called post-modern paradigms for “an open secular democratic culture” within the framework of a public philosophy (Walter Lippman) or Civil Religion (Robert Bellah) or a new genuine realistic humanism or at least a body of insights about the nature of being and becoming human, evolved through dialogue among renascent religions, secularist ideologies including the philosophies of the tragic dimension of existence and disciplines of social and human sciences which have opened themselves to each other in the context of their common sense of historical responsibility and common human destiny.

In the Life and Work movement of the non-Catholic churches in their search for social justice and international peace (which is now part of the WCC) and in the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Church, Christian Ecumenism has given up the church’s traditional pietist and negativist approaches to modernity and has been involved in the attempt to redefine the forces and values of secular culture within the framework of Christian anthropology. Dialogue between Faith and Modernity has been taking place within the church between the Christian theologians and the scientists and politicians committed to work out the implication of their Christian faith in their profession, and later through some formal dialogues with secularists open to dialogue with Christian tradition. After religious pluralism and ecological issue have been recognized as realities of the present, the ecumenical movement has widened their internal and external dialogues to include adherents of both ideological and religious faiths who have provided their insights to the churches in clarifying their contribution to humanizing modernity. Ecumenism in this process has been dealing at different periods with concepts of goals like “responsible world society”, “ a just participatory and sustainable society” and “justice peace and integrity of creation”. The Vatican II document on the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” has been of crucial significance in the ecumenical approach of a positive character to the redefinition of the forces and values of secular culture within the context of Christian faith and ethics, themselves renewed in the modern context.

Of course there is a lot of confusion in the churches and the ecumenical movement regarding the distinction that has to be maintained between the integrity of the Christian faith and mission and that of a secular culture which has to be based on a syncretism of varied insights about the humanum drawn from many religious, ideological and scientific sources. There is always a conflict between Fundamentalism and Liberality in maintaining this distinction. More so in a country like India with its religious cultural and ideological pluralism.

I believe that the Christian contribution to a “secular” concept of humanity as essentially a Community of Persons can be best made if we maintain the message of the gospel that God became incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ to overcome the alienation of humanity from God and to create a Koinonia in Christ around the Eucharist, a Community of divine forgiveness and mutual forgiveness acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, transcending all religious cultural and ideological divisions with a mission to build a wider Secular Koinonia of mutual forgiveness and justice among the peoples of the world, as witness to the ultimate goal of creation, namely the Kingdom of God.