A Secular Religion: The Challenge We Face

By Tom Lambrecht-

A recent article in the journal First Things by Mary Eberstadt entitled The Zealous Faith of Secularism makes the case that the challenge we face in the United States and the Western World is one of competing faiths or competing ideologies. Christianity faces off against a secularism that has its own dogmas. Some of those dogmas are so entrenched in our culture that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs in competition with a Christian worldview.

One of these secular dogmas is that the purpose of life is personal happiness. This stems, of course, from the uniquely American DNA reflected in our Declaration of Independence, that holds that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our American “religion” believes that we have the right to pursue happiness in whatever way we believe best, whether we eventually find it or not. This has evolved into the idea that the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life. It has led to a focus on materialism/greed, sex, and power in a misguided quest for happiness.

Instead, we believe as Christians that the purpose of life is to know God and to glorify him with our lives. That may or may not make us happy in the moment, but it will lead to our ultimate happiness and the deepest joy. C.S. Lewis talks about that in his book, Mere Christianity. “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. … God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Another secular dogma is that sex is for pleasure, and I am entitled to have as much of it as I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want. The idea that we ought to reserve sex for the committed relationship of marriage is often thought to be quaint and old-fashioned, if not downright detrimental to happiness (see dogma #1). Paul faced this attitude in Corinth, which prompted him to write: “The body isn’t for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. … Don’t you know that your bodies are parts of Christ? So then, should I take parts of Christ and make them a part of someone who is sleeping around?” (I Corinthians 6:13-15, CEB). Sex is sacred, and we find our greatest joy in reserving the sexual relationship to be shared only with our spouse — but that is not the message that we hear from the world each and every day.

A third dogma is that a woman can do what she wants with her own body, and a fetus is only a part of a woman’s body, not an independent life form. Of course, this leads to the demand for abortion to be available at any time, for any reason, up until the last day of pregnancy. This fits very well with dogma #2, since abortion makes it possible for a person to enjoy unlimited sex without the inconvenience of a child (one of the actual purposes of sex). What a different attitude is portrayed in Psalm 127:3: “children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a divine reward.”

A fourth dogma is that marriage is a relationship between any two people (and sometimes not even limited to two) who want to commit themselves to each other. A corollary dogma is that sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable, and that it is unjust to expect persons with same-sex attraction not to find the fulfillment of marriage that heterosexual people do. Based on these beliefs, people are prepared to change the definition of marriage that has held true for all civilizations for at least 5,000 years. It doesn’t matter that the scientific evidence is decidedly against sexual orientation being an inborn characteristic. It doesn’t matter that some people have indeed changed their sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter that Jesus defines marriage as between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, cf. Genesis 2:24, I Timothy 3:2).

That last point is what reveals these dogmas as ideologies or quasi-religious matters of faith. They are not based on any kind of empirical evidence. They are just “truths” that people are expected to agree with. And if one disputes these dogmas, there is a visceral, angry reaction to silence dissent and compel (if possible) belief.

I could go on listing secular dogmas, but what the church faces today is a fully developed ideology or religion that cuts out God and substitutes articles of faith that it believes will lead to human happiness. Of course, we know (as Lewis stated in the quote above) that there is no lasting happiness apart from God. But we sometimes allow these secular dogmas to creep into our thinking and guide the church’s beliefs and actions. That is the source of our theological conflict in The United Methodist Church today. It is a conflict between traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity and a Christianity that is influenced by secular ideology.

There is a paramount need to self-critically discern where our theology, ethics, or actions are being influenced by secular ideology. The best antidote to this poison is to be thoroughly steeped in a biblical worldview. We need to know biblical theology to protect ourselves from the secular counterfeit, and we need to live out that biblical theology in order to have any hope of convincing the world it is wrong. It comes back to the formation of Christian disciples as the supreme task of the church. The challenges we face today show that we have not been entirely successful in that task.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

Comments

  1. Two thumbs up, Tom.

    And as you’ve alluded (or maybe I’m reading between the lines), this is the clash of ideologies (“faiths,” if you will) within our church that has brought us to the current moment. We’ve reached the point where it has become obvious that these two distinct, diametrically opposed ideologies simply can’t be accommodated within one church body.

    Those of us who claim to be scriptural, biblical, orthodox, etc., need to be careful that we don’t slide into our own version of “pursuit of happiness” ideology (democracy?), because – to the point that we do – it will dilute our faith and the power of our witness for Christ’s kingdom. We each need to check ourselves in this.

    Thanks again for a great reminder.

    • I give a thumb up to Tom & Mike. I hope that the Bishops on the Way Forward would take a long hard look at these 2 Articles, including the Delegates to the 2019 Called Conference meeting.

  2. As Mike states, we have reached that point of two completely opposite theological and doctrinal places in the UMC. And, it all comes down to Scriptural authority. The question on the table now is WHiCH Biblical interpretation, traditional-orthodox or new age secular, does the UMC adopt going forward. It cannot adopt both. It cannot pretend that both can be accommodated under some big tent or local option. It would be absolutely impossible to articulate two opposed Biblical interpretations, doctrines, and theologies. The church cannot travel both east AND west simultaneously.

    As for Christianity facing a new secular religion, the prophesy of Jesus in his narrow gate analogy seems to be reaching a fuller measure in this age/21st century.

    https://www.gotquestions.org/narrow-gate.html

  3. The UMC minister in Port Townsend, WA was quoted in the newspaper a year ago or so saying that it is a good thing the UMC is becoming more like society in general. The story was about him revealing that he has sex with men…while continuing to live with his wife and children.

  4. It hit me hard today during worship service in the sanctuary of my UMC of what a pure blessing it was to be away from the secular world and its secular religion for that hour. And, looking around the congregants seated there, it also hit me even harder that I DO NOT want to have a discussion with them in that beautiful sanctuary over this human sexuality and marriage schism facing our church. God’s house is not a place for conflict, like outside in the secular world. Fortunately, we have avoided it, at least openly, to date. But, it looks like the day is coming when it can’t be avoided any longer. And, when it comes, I fear much more destruction than construction. The people pushing for a discussion of this conflict at the local church don’t know what they’re advocating. I just cannot visualize it going in any direction but bad at the local church. I dread that day. I also pray for the miracle that we don’t have to have that day at the local church that is living in accordance with the BOD. I pray that the General Church stay the course and that procedures be put in place to deal with the rebellious elements of our church in only those places where rebellion is taking place.

    May God see us through this thing so that brothers and sisters are not FORCED into damaging and non-repairable conflict due to the almost complete breakdown and abdication of duty of our district and general church leadership.

    • William I too dread the day when this has to be put before the church. You are right that it will cause division in all churches. My is 90% traditional but I will still lose some members if we have to vote. Like you I pray for option 1 and real enforcement, but that option too will cause much pain, especially in progressive churches. However because we dread an event does not mean we can or should avoid it. Jesus dreaded the cross so much he sweat blood the night before praying to the Father. But he went to the cross anyways. The conflict that we are being forced into is not nearly as important as keeping the church true to the word of God. Paul predicted this day 2 Timothy 4:3.

  5. Thomas Kyle says:

    The Methodist Church split over slavery in the 1840s’. It is my belief that in the early 21st Century it will split over biblical orthodoxy verses secular humanism. Those of us who choose biblical orthodoxy should take comfort in Joshua’s words: “…..but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:55b)

  6. Thomas Kyle says:

    I likewise dread the day this manner comes before individual churches for decision making. Nevertheless, I also believe it will most likely have to happen.

  7. UM News Service has just released updates on the commissions report. It is even worse than I thought. Option 2 would allow my conference to allow gay ordination and the churches would have to accept those pastors. Their only choice is whether or not to allow gay marriage in their sanctuary. Option three is a total joke. Multiple wings under one general conference. The wings have little independent authority under what I read and we would still have one council of Bishops with a married Lesbian as bishop of the entire denomination. Unless I things were left out of the article or I misread the only thing I can say is “Option 1 or I am done!”

    • Scott,
      Please permit me to post the article (below). No matter how Option #2 and Option #3 are reframed, restated, revised, reworked, or rewritten— they are one and the same. The church would be making it official with either that it stands against itself. No matter the language, the context, the culture, or the nation — it would NEVER be able to articulate two diametrically opposite Biblical interpretations, doctrines, and/or theologies.

      http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-leaders-hear-way-forward-update

      • What is the current sketch/model/option the UMC operates under? Call it #0.
        #0 Maintains the current language in the BOD, does not enforce it, provides an exit plan, and a form of unity. (Individuals and 2 congregations have already exited.)
        #1 Maintains the current language in the BOD, promises to enforce it, provides an exit plan, and a form of unity.
        #2 Changes the current language in the BOD, promises not enforce it, provides an exit plan, and a form of unity.
        #3 Allows multiple versions of the BOD, self enforcement (or not), provides an exit plan, and the illusion of unity.
        Since doing nothing is always an option, what is the likelihood that special GC 2019 does nothing and leaves #0 in place?

        • I have often thought that when it comes to the local church, what you call Option #0 would be the best for the local churches. It would keep the argument contained to General Conference and social media. I also dread the day when this discussion hits the local church–which it will if there is any kind of fix.

          Several years ago I stumbled into seedbed.com and immediately sensed it is the best hope for a spiritual revival within The United Methodist Church.I would love to introduce some seedbed materials to my local church, but I hesitate. I am somewhat estranged from it because of a badly executed experiment to make the church more meaningful for more people. As a result, I no longer know the local church and am unsure which way any discussion will lean. And then there is this attempt at a Way Forward that could leave the church trying to straddle incompatible, conflicting and contradictory beliefs. I also do not see option 1 as necessarily being straightforward because 45 years of similar legislation has not settled the question; I do not get the sense that progressives are ready to quietly abandon their life’s work of “redeeming The UMC”. Furthermore, I live in a truly theologically diverse conference in which no single view point possesses a strong majority; any fix will more than likely completely tear this conference apart.

          So, I vote for Option #0 which allows this failed experiment in Big Tent Methodism to come to its own natural conclusion.

  8. The “pursuit of happiness” in the church was around long before the Founding Fathers of America immortalized it in the Declaration of Independence two hundred forty-one years ago. John Wesley called it “antinomianism”, and set his face hard against it in the secular church of his day. The problem in the modern church is the steadfast unwillingness of church leaders to make the case for biblical faith as a viable intellectually arguable grounded position of the church. This is because at heart, they have accepted the secular world view as the 21st century new church canon, and no longer believe in the Scriptures as being the primary lens through which the world must be viewed.

  9. Is it better to be without a church than with one that:
    Is in constant conflict?
    Does not teach the scriptures?
    Teaches contrary to the scriptures?

    St. Paul had to deal with conflicts in his day, but Paul also lined out the moral laws in Torah vs the ceremonial laws in Torah and which applies to the Christ follower. Though there is a New Covenant, certain parts of the old covenant are applicable to the Christ follower whether he is Greek or Jew by birth. It would be a much more difficult process to convert to Christianity if the gentile were required to fulfill the ceremonial law. Full grown men might decide that Christianity is not all that appealing. In Judaism, a Gentile who converts must receive the covenant of Abraham. St. Paul thought this to be unnecessary to follow Jesus. Many other Jewish followers of Jesus in the church thought it necessary. Paul did not dismiss moral concerns though. Grace does require a change in lifestyle in order to be a new creation in Christ. Once a person begins a life in Christ, following moral laws is important. We cannot judge each other, but we can encourage each other to press onward and continually improve rather than try to justify our own sinful behaviors. Changing and improving is part of the walk with Christ. Jesus did not die to give us a license to sin but to give us a way back to living holy lives. The man or woman who chooses to try but fails is in a better position than one who is confronted with a truth but does everything to deny it and continue on that way including bringing others with them out of th. The others who become aware of false teachers ought not study under them or they might unlearn what they once knew.

    This seems like a basic doctrinal concept of Christian teaching. You won’t hear of it in the UMC though Wesley probably would agree and maybe even refine it and improve it.

  10. Michael Peters says:

    Sad but true.

  11. As I understand the author’s view, secularist thought has led to a series of dogma’s, and these dogmas “creep into our thinking and guide the church’s beliefs and actions.” His answer to this creeping and guiding is “to know biblical theology to protect ourselves from the secular counterfeit”.

    There may be a certain amount of truth to secularism creeping into modern theology. I would suggest though, that this happens in all “camps”. Christian traditionalists are no more immune to this “creep” than Christian progressives.

    I would also argue that devoted Christians are perfectly capable of praying for guidance, reading scripture, understanding theology and developing a Biblical worldview that includes a belief that homosexuality is not sinful. It does not mean they have been “poisoned” by secularist dogma. To suggest that any understanding of God’s will for us that doesn’t agree with yours, must come from a non-Christian worldview would seem to lack an understanding of how people develop their biblical theology.

    • David,

      I think you capture the author’s thoughts fairly well in your first paragraph. Additionally, you are correct none of us are immune to the creeping effect of secularism (ultimately, sin) into our thinking. However, even in those first two paragraphs, you are trading on the fact that words have an objective meaning. We don’t have perfect understanding of that meaning, but we do have a sufficient understanding as you ably demonstrate above. So, if there is a common understanding on an issue across cultural contexts, genres, and at least 1500 years, encompassing both before and after Christ’s resurrection, you cannot then argue (in an intellectually honest way) the opposite of that understanding. People have written books attempting it, and each book falls flat on its face because there is simply no scriptural pro-same-sex “marriage” argument.

      • There have been common understandings across 1500 years on the ordination of women and slavery. As Methodists, we have made some quite dynamic (and intellectually honest) arguments that were opposed to those understandings.

        • I believe you misunderstand my statement. The 1500 years was not a reference to the church age, but rather the time over which the Bible itself was written (Roughly the Exodus, around 1500-1300BC to about 90AD). Over all of that time and in all of those cultural contexts, and with all of the progressive revelation going on that we have inscripturated for us now, there is simply not even an ambiguous statement on this issue (much less an affirming one). So, there can be no intellectually honest argument for a trajectory as can legitimately be made on the issues of the ordination of women or slavery (particularly racially-based, chattel slavery). See the writings of Ben Witherington or Thomas Oden as more recent examples of the egalitarian argument on those issues, The point is there are at least hints of a discussion on those fronts, but there is no ambiguity in the pages of scripture that acting on homosexual urges in sinful, just like any other incarnation of adultery.

  12. David suggests that a Christian may believe that homosexuality is not sinful. Actually He is correct. The Bible does not address an orientation or an attraction to the same sex one way or another. A person who is oriented any which way can be a Christian or a Jew ect. The Bible only addresses actions or inactions as sinful, some actions cannot be known to anyone but the actor since no outward observation can be made by another.. There is no kind of person that is inherently more sinful than another. Jesus said that no man is good in response to being addressed as “good teacher”. Indeed all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. What is a person who is capable of sinful deeds to do? All people are capable of sin. Mankind has free will. Though no man is good, a man or woman can make choices about which actions we take. Some actions are not endorsed by scripture and some are forbidden. If a man chooses to have an affair with another mans wife, the scriptures would call that sinful. Jesus ancestor, David participated in such an activity which resulted in some negative outcomes. David’s orientation has nothing to do with his ability to choose and act or not act upon his desire for Ba’athsheeba. David was redeemed because he sought forgiveness and repentance. He also took responsibility for a widow. Out of that came Solomon. God is faithful to forgive those who ask and are willing to turn from a sin once realized. David did not understand his error until a story about a lamb was told to him. David then chose a new path for himself and all those who would follow his distant son, Jesus.

  13. David,
    If it can be concluded that the practice of homosexuality is not a sin after prayer, scripture reading, and theology understanding, then we can then take the next logical step by adopting this part of the new secular religion into our church — thus erasing ALL sins of sexual immorality, in order to be fair and inclusive, and exonerating this sexual revolution/obsessed age of these inconveniences. After that, we could go the remaining list of sins to decide who gets pardoned next from God’s law.

    • With all due respect, that is a straw-man argument of the slippery slope variety. Promiscuity, incest, theft, and murder are sins that have a clear victim and “bad fruit”. With these sins there is a person that is oppressed, people hurting themselves, one another, and their relationship with God. A devoted follower of Christ could come to the belief that committed homosexual relationships bear good fruit, oppress no one, hurt no one, have no victim and do not interfere with a relationship with God. Even though many people stood against women in church leadership (on Biblical grounds) allowing women to preach from our pulpits did not open the door to an onslaught of sin in our church.

      • It really isn’t a slippery slope or a straw man. The problem is one of authority. If the authority is simply cultural mores, then what about when culture shifts a little further? There is not ground left to stand on to say that anything is wrong. You certainly can’t stand on the Bible at that point, since you have already decided to overrule it here. Overrule this prohibition not based on a better understanding of a passage in light of the fullness of the teachings on the topic in scripture, but overrule it because you don’t like the conclusion to which that brings you.I would encourage you to pray and study the Bible and repent. I am praying that God might give you eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand (Isaiah 6:10b).

        • David Cott says:

          I originally posted because I believed that Thomas Lambrecht was mistaken in associating a faith that accpets homosexuality with secularism, discounting the possibility that a faithful Christian could reach that understanding without “worldly” influence. That’s all I really want to say, so I won’t post anymore. BTW I have prayed and studied and repented (but not for what you suggest). God has indeed given me eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart that understands. I guess I was foolish to think that adult Christians could discuss issues here with out self-righteous accusation.

          • David, I don’t know if you will see this or not, but I do feel like I need to reply to you. If you are taking offense at my tone or word selection, then I am sorry. My goal is not to cause unnecessary offense, and I am not so arrogant as to think I have the corner market on truth. However, the root of our disagreement is authority not homosexual relations. We are both sinners saved by grace, and I am perfectly happy to start there. The only way I know that, however, is because God has told me so in His Word. The only standard I have to check myself and “the law of sin in my members” is an inspired Bible. I can’t simply follow my heart because, to quote Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That isn’t to say that our consciences are not a guide, but that they are not the guide. So, I am happy to have a discussion if you want to walk through texts on this issue, and I think most everyone here would be right there with me on this. However, what I cannot do is both be faithful to the revealed will of God AND allow discussion that legitimizes views that the Bible does not. So, if you want to work through texts and show me where there is any deviation from a univocal position through the scripture, I am happy to work through that with you (and we would probably both be better off for it), but, regardless, I must remain in submission to the revealed Word of God.

      • Again, using that line of logic could also conclude that a devoted follower of Christ could come to the belief that committed heterosexual relationships bear good fruit, etc., etc. —- ultimately encompassing all forms of consensual sexual immorality. Scripture is perfectly clear —- all forms of sexual relationships outside that of a man and a woman in marriage constitute sexual immorality. Paul warned us.

        https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+6%3A18-20&version=NIV

  14. Gary Bebop says:

    Any argument that the Bible has no objective morality or anthropology is basically a specious alt-right novelty that mocks progressive Christianity. The alt-right would have us believe that Christianity is an infinitely malleable cultural creation with a “liquid creed,” no common understandings and no “received tradition.”

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