by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Jan. 24, 2014
What is this column all about? Doesn’t it undermine Christianity rather than present it as worthy of serious consideration? Questions such as these keep coming. I am accused of being bent on accommodating Christianity to this secular age rather than have Christianity challenge it, which some feel would be more to the point.
So a priest writes: “It would seem that one of the reasons that Christianity has survived all the ages is that it has not let itself be defined by the age. Instead it has challenged every age without giving in to it.” He questions whether the secular ethos is as widespread as the column implies (“it wouldn’t evoke much sympathy in Maori, Polynesian and Melanesian circles”). Some contemporary attitudes to truth also concern him: “Once we reject the possibility of objective truth, it seems we get into all sorts of difficulties, especially with regard to moral truth.” Behind the comments lies a clear view of what Christianity, the secular ethos and truth really comprise.
There are problems, however, in regarding Christianity as a package of fixed beliefs and practices. One is that certain beliefs and practices which one church says are indispensable, such as the baptism of adults only or what exactly happens in the Catholic mass, are rejected as wrong-headed or mystical nonsense by another. Appeals to the Bible, divine authority or a church’s tradition will convince only those for whom they are already persuasive.
Another problem is the gulf that yawns both within and between churches on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and war. Proclaiming the finality of one’s own moral convictions does not necessarily make them true and unchangeable for all time. Once, for example, it was a religious duty to stone adulterers and burn witches, but not any more.
So it seems to me more fruitful to think of Christianity as a broad religious and cultural stream. Christians are then truest to their religious and cultural heritage when they follow the age-old process of tracing the source of that stream, tapping deep into it, and finding ways of expressing it in terms of their culture and worldview – which for 21st-century westerners happens to be secular. The alternative is to keep expressing their faith in terms of ancient Greek culture (the creeds), or Roman culture (authority), or medieval culture (the superstition and the magic of a spirit world). That looks less like keeping the faith than keeping fossils warm.
Instead, let’s accept that the past 400 years have happened, and interpret the core tradition accordingly. Then Christianity might have some hope of challenging – and enriching – the life of our secular age. That may puzzle those who think of the secular as inherently hostile to religion. It simply is not – a better word for that stance is “secularist”.
In the original, neutral sense of the word, “secular” refers to this time or age, without invoking a supernatural or spirit world beyond them. It is in this world of space and time that people experience their religious reality and shape their religious practices. “Secular” is therefore not hostile to religion, but merely describes its setting. The secular then becomes the context for thinking and acting with religious integrity.
As for other cultures, they must also be free to tap deep into the Judaeo-Christian (or any other) tradition and find their own cultural ways of expressing it. There has been talk in New Zealand of a Maori response to the gospel. If a Maori response, why not a Pakeha response? And if, as in western society generally, our Pakeha culture has become predominantly secular, why not a secular response?
In a globalising world, signs are that Maori, Pacific Islanders, Melanesians and others will increasingly be exposed to the influences that have produced the secular outlook of the West. To the extent that they accept those secular understandings, they too will become aware of a dissonance between their old ways and the implications of the new. That can be painful. It has certainly been painful for countless westerners brought up in traditional ways. Many find the old patterns no longer sustain them, yet see their churches more intent on building fences to protect past formulations than leading them into faith’s new age.
Some people, however, are adjusting, or at least they are willing to explore the possibilities which the secular terrain opens up. If they can do some worthwhile groundwork, people of other cultures may find some useful guideposts already in place when they come to the same religious crossroads.