The Intellectual and Social Seed-bed of Secularism-Pluralism in the West is the Church

I have always found it intriguing—insofar as I have known about this relationship—the relationship between secularism, pluralism, and scientism, with its intellectual origins within Protestantism. In Kurt Anders Richardson’s book Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology, he offers a good sketch of this that I thought I would share with you all. Richardson writes:

brokenchurch1Religiously, although modern secularity and postmodern pluralism or relativism have been deemed excruciatingly low points, they are not the whole story. These religious realities are rooted in
the earlier movements of Reformation and post-Reformation, where religious dissent and the search for authenticity of Christian faith prompted first toleration and then liberalization in religious and legal theory. In the first instance, secularity is the conscientious objection to irreconcilable interecclesial conflict, and pluralism is the conscientious objection of multiple ecclesial bodies within a single civil order.

The conflicts that led to these states of affairs were not merely the failure of politics; they were the striving to interpret the Christian faith with greater authenticity. Failure to understand this often leads to recalcitrant nostalgia for an ecclesiastical golden age—a medieval one, which of course is no more real than a pre-Raphaelite painting. The trajectory of Christian culture has simply been in the direction of liberty of conscience on theological grounds and the unavoidability of religious pluarality, first, for the sake of one’s own conscience, and then also for the sake of everybody else’s. The power of a critical and/or secular perspective is always rooted in some religious, in this case the power of repentance or of conversion. Critical judgment and secularity have always been disingenuous when claiming to have no religious or theological nature. That the modernist belief in and quest for certainty of religious knowledge is rooted in late medieval and Reformation beliefs in certainty of religious knowledge is a highly important connection. For the Reformers, of course, the belief in certainty rested on the fundamental critique of the Roman ecclesia and the way it cast its own authority. The certitudes of magisterial authority were relocated in Scripture and certain self-referential hermeneutical practices of interpretation. That this move was made is not so surprising, given the hermeneutics of Christian belief. What is surprising is the secular detachment of certainty in philosophical rationality. Such certainty was divine from the outset and therefore mythical or at least something that divine providence alone could have omniscience. But the idea that omniscience had inscribed itself in nature meant that some native clarity of vision could attain certainty of knowledge. One can lament the history of secular certainty, but one must also remember the theology from which it sprang.[1]

It is more than ironic when confronted, usually on a daily basis, with people, “secular people,” who seem to think they are indeed “secular.” True, even by Richardson’s accounting, secularity is a real thing; but not in the same way that a secular person thinks. The intellectual heritage of both the secularist and pluralist, as Richardson develops, comes from a deep and wide theological foundation and premise; indeed, one that is ecclesio-political-social in orientation. The atheist and Christian alike have a shared intellectual heritage; of course where that goes in regard to submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, or not, will give this share commitment various expressions and externalizations into society at large and in the individual’s life personally.

What Richardson touches upon reminds me of something Karl Barth once wrote; Barth’s development is more of an application of Richardson has sketched, but an application that dovetails principially with Richardson’s premise. Barth writes:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.[2]

There is no doubt that the natural human bent is to elevate itself into a god-status, no matter the pain and destruction that might cause; and so it is interesting to note the intellectual heritage to all of this—that we can identify one. Just as with the nation of Israel, syncretism starts out with good intentions, but when it blossoms all that is left are the “high-places” of their own making; whether that be the nation of Israel (in the OT), or humanity simpliciter. What we end up with in the secular project is still a sense of divinity, it’s just one that ends up being a projection of ourselves; whether that be individually and/or collectively.

Western society (even Eastern society for its own intellectual and spiritual reasons) is one that has its seed in the church, whether it likes it or not. When we look at my home-state, the United States of America, this particular project expressly reflects the pattern we see described by Richardson; and embedded within that, we end up with theologians of all stripes, as Barth so eloquently develops.

 

 

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 34.

[2] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

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