Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part One)

In his huge, prize-winning book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three forms of secularization. (1) The state and its governing apparatus deny religion an official or formal role in its functions. (2) Religion is removed from such social institutions as science and technology, business, civic and charitable associations, education, and recreation, while explicitly religious institutions lose influence. (3) Individuals in greater and greater numbers cease to practice religion and, more importantly, cease to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions. No country has ever become completely secular in all three senses. It is a matter of debate just how secular Western Europe and the United States have become; and it’s not my purpose to enter that debate.

Although these three forms of secularization differ and we can imagine one existing in a particular place without the other two, they seem to be related. It’s hard to imagine social institutions becoming secular unless the state had already moved some distance down that road. And it’s almost unthinkable that individuals would lose all religious awareness if they lived where the state and all social institutions reminded them constantly of the religious dimension. On the other hand, one can speculate that it might be harder for an individual living in a secular state and among secular social institutions to maintain a lively religious consciousness and robust religious practice.

Much debate among sociologists and historians of secularization focuses on the first two forms of secularization. My concern is with the third form, individual consciousness, and I am interested in the other two only insofar as they condition the third. As I have described it so far, we might get the impression that secular individuals possess no religious impulses but are otherwise the same as they would have been had they been religious; that is to say, the secular person has discovered not only that they don’t need religion but that they don’t even need a religion substitute. The function itself is superfluous. Taylor (The Secular Age) rejects this interpretation, and I agree.

Taylor criticizes what he calls the “subtraction” theory of secularization. Adherents of this theory understand secularization merely as the removal of all things religious from the state, society or individual consciousness. Everything remains the same apart from the presence of religion. Taylor argues against the subtraction theory that as religion is removed something else takes its place and plays the role it had played. The process of secularization includes not only subtraction but also addition and transformation.

Whereas in centuries past God, divine law, nature, and natural law provided a matrix of meaning outside and beyond the human sphere, the process of secularization transfers these functions to human beings. Human beings become the creators, lawgivers and controllers of the world. God’s creation becomes raw material to be shaped according to the creative will of human beings. Human nature becomes plastic to be molding according to individual and collective desires. In other words, the flip side of secularization in state, society and individual consciousness is deification of humanity collectively in the state or individually. To be continued…

In Part Two, we will examine the theological the concept of “worldliness” in its similarity and difference from secularity.

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 2)?

In Part 1 of this essay I dealt with two tendencies by which churches and individual Christians change in ways that often lead them to drift away from authentic Christianity. Those were (1) the law of logical progression and (2) the law of dialectical change.  Some readers found my explanation of those “laws” a bit hard to follow. Perhaps I’d better not try to clear up those obscurities lest I make them even more opaque. This week I will venture 10 points to keep in mind as we attempt to preserve faith for our great, great grandchildren in the year 2113.

As I admitted in the previous post, there is no way to guarantee continuity of faith from our generation to the fourth generation, a hundred years from now; not apart from God’s help anyway. But here are some things we can do even as we trust in God’s providence.

(1) Since we have a tendency to drift far away over time, we need to teach and practice what has been called semper reformanda  or a continuing reforming of the church.  We do this by institutionalizing the continual return to the original sources of our faith with a critical eye on the contemporary form of faith.

(2) To facilitate the continuing reformation, we must constantly study the scriptures. This task is the special work of Christian teachers, but every Christian has a responsibility to deepen and reform their faith in conversation with the scriptures.

(3) Christianity is not merely a system of doctrine to be memorized and discussed. It is also a way of life. Hence those who would pass it on to future generations must embody its message in every aspect of their lives: their acts, their thoughts, their affections and their relationships with others.

(4) As I argued in Part 1, statements of doctrine become ambiguous when separated from the matrix of their relationships to other teachings. Hence we need to keep the whole faith in mind in every discussion about what the church and individual Christians should be and do and believe. God is not only Savior but also Creator, Lord, Law Giver, Providential Guide and Judge. The entire teaching of the scriptures must be taken into account even in the most specific case. And of course this requires much study and wisdom.

(5) As time passes the language in which our faith is expressed changes meaning and becomes obscure. Old, familiar words are repeated comfortably but without understanding. We must, then, constantly ask ourselves whether or not we understand what we are saying. A teacher of faith or a theologian must continually find new ways to communicate the faith “once delivered to the saints.” Repeating old phrases from Scripture or the creeds should not count as faithfulness to the substance contained in those words.

(6) We need to relate Christian doctrine to human existence. No teaching in the Christian faith is merely speculative, that is, knowledge for knowledge sake. Every teaching calls for transformation. Every teaching reaches the human condition in its depth and height and length and breadth. The doctrine of creation tells us what and who we are. The doctrine of salvation tells us what we have done, how much we are loved and for what we may hope. We will misunderstand the teaching about God, Christ, and Spirit, the church and all the rest unless we get clear that every line touches us, calls us, commands us and comforts us. How can we expect to pass on a faith that our children find meaningless repetition of words?

(7) Set contemporary issues in historical perspective. Studying the scriptures is essential and of the highest priority, but we need also to understand how the contemporary world arose out of the intervening events. Unless we grasp firmly how modern thought and life developed slowly or in revolutionary leaps, in contradiction to or development from, past ways of thought and life, we will thoughtlessly treat them as necessary, self-evidently true and good. Modern understandings of the status of individuals in relation to the community, of freedom and dignity, of nature and the universe, of political justice and order, of happiness and of morality will either be read back into the scriptures or the scriptures will be criticized on their basis. Additionally, many contemporary problems have been discussed before, and engagement with prior discussions may shed light on our problems. Finally, by studying the past one can get a feel for approaches that produce good and those that produce evil.

(8) We need to understand the economy or ecology of communities of faith and their forms of life and thought: You can’t change just one thing, because all things are interrelated. Move one molecule and the whole universe compensates! Revolutions tend to destroy more than they build; yet, attempting to stop all change is just as destructive. Both require autocratic leaders and ruthless tactics. Good Christian leaders manage change so that the essence or substance of the faith remains even when expressed in different languages, institutions and modes of life. Don’t attempt to remove every last weed from among the wheat; but be sure the wheat is not completely choked.

(9) The ninth “commandment” of faith survival has been implicit in the previous eight. We need to get clear on the essential/core Christian message, which must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship to him.  Some church leaders have so expanded the list of things essential or absolutely necessary to Christian identity that the distinction between the permissible, the forbidden, the alien and essential becomes completely blurred. This expansion sometimes arises from the theory that the New Testament is a book of laws and commands each having the same weight because all have the same source, the command of God. Or, another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to think of the Bible as a set of precisely stated propositions of doctrine that affirms truths to be believed and lays down principles from which other propositions may be inferred. Neither one of these notions is correct, but that is a topic for another day.

On the other hand, some church leaders and thinkers reduce the core or essential Christian message to socially acceptable morality or warm regard for Jesus or vague theism. These leaders think of the Christian religion (and other religions) as a system of symbols and metaphors that articulate human experience or intuition. Hence they feel free to change and adapt Christianity to contemporary values and expectations.

(10) We should give the future into God’s hands. The Christian life begins in faith, works by love and lives in hope. Will there be faith on earth in 2113? Be not afraid. God’s eternity embraces what we call the future. Our task is to be faithful today, and this is the best gift we can bequeath to our great, great grandchildren.


In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…

Questions and Answers on Fear and Freedom, God and Providence, Faith and Scholarship: A Written Interview

For this week’s entry I’ve reprinted a written interview just posted on Pepperdine University’s “Research News” page. You can see the original interview by following the link pasted below:

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book [God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (IVP, 2013)] finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a “me-centered culture” and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is “me-centered” I don’t mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The “me-centered” culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God “the Creator” of the world and “Lord and Governor” of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the “science and the Bible” debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the “God-creature” relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the “God-creature” relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education (“the academy”) seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. “Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth. End of interview.

How would it affect the way we approach theology and church life if, instead of thinking exclusively about pressing issues and short-term goals, we extended our horizon a hundred years to 2113? Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Are we pursuing practical goals and working on theological issues now in ways that will contribute to the preservation of faith for our great, great grand children? Or will the trajectories we are following in the present make it less likely that 2113 will greet future generations with the word of faith? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth in 2113?

Until next week…