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“Secularization”—Plight, Promise, or Nonsense?

ISSUE:  Winter 1970

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens’ paragraph is a cautionary tale, for superlatives are no less idiomatic today than in the age of the French Revolution. Yet there are periods when the processes of time and the ambiguity of the times peculiarly conspire to enforce upon men a profound sense of mingled promise and loss, novelty and dislocation. Secularization, perhaps because it is so elusive of definition, has seemed an apt word to describe our world. But it is often more fashionable than descriptive. It is intended to designate what is happening in and to the church as well as in and to the world. Sometimes, however, its meaning is eroded by the obscurity of its real significance for religion. Sometimes, especially when it is used in a theological context, its significance is vitiated by the obscurity of its reference to our common life. Theologians have employed secularization not infrequently as a mere principium, glimpsed only the surface of the revolutions in our time, and been too quick to applaud or disapprove. Consequently, those who have been most attentive to the rhythms of social change have often become grudging in their use of the word. Some have argued that it ought to be excised from the vocabulary of the social sciences altogether. Nevertheless, secularization has become a focus about which theologians could gather with those who speak in other tongues. Too often, the tongues have been desperately confused—from which Babel there is no exit except by way of serious and sustained attention to matters of definition. That, however, lies still with the future.

Secularization has entered the province of theology by many doors. Numerous writers believe they have spied a new man in our midst, a secular man who no longer shares the premises of homoreligiosus and who requires a version of Christian faith that will be stripped of all its traditional religious dress. Others have understood secularization to mean a revolutionary complex of social processes that calls for a new view of the forms and mission of the church, as well as of its role in the relationship between the world and God. Still others have encountered the issue first of all as a phenomenon within the churches, blunting the edge of their witness and rendering them ever more difficult to distinguish from other social institutions.

Certainly the recent concern with secularization has afforded a new perspective upon the Bible. Many theologians argue that the roots of contemporary social change lie in Scripture itself. Even if there is no direct causal relationship in an historical sense, at least there seems to be Biblical warrant for the advocacy of secularization as congruent with Christian faith. For those who argue in this vein, secularization has tended to be synonymous with the historicizing of man’s understanding of himself. It designates the transition from mythic patterns of thought that stress man’s unity with the world to historical patterns that emphasize his responsibility for it. Other writers have employed secularization to designate the source of the constraint to hammer out a new grammar and rhetoric of faith that would reduce the Gospel to its ethical dimension, in the belief that not only traditional metaphysical language but any notion of divine transcendence has been rendered anachronous by cultural and historical change. Still others have emphasized the distinction between religion and revelation, in order to insist that man is redeemed solagratia and that religion offers him no privileged position before God. Therefore, it has scarcely been possible for them to regard secularization as an occasion for polemics against the godlessness of the world. So the word has come to be used in many ways and for many purposes in contemporary Christian thought, inviting considerable confusion in theology and even greater disarray in conversation with other disciplines. Nevertheless, the processes of social change offer no promise to abate their pace until we have put our semantic household in order.

The antecedents of contemporary theological concern with secularization do not lie in the attempts of the nineteenth century to reconcile Christianity and modern culture so much as they do in the work of Karl Barth. His “Epistle to the Romans” signified a new departure in Protestant thought because Barth did not champion homoreligiosus but argued that Christians are “compelled to set the righteousness of faith over against all religious and ecclesiastical being and having and doing.” He insisted that the Gospel is folly and scandal for religious man as much as for secular man, and for the Christian version of homoreligiosus as much as for the Jewish or Greek version. Religion stands no less under the judgment of God than does any other form of cultural activity; if it is justified when it appears in Christian guise, it is justified solagratia rather than by any intrinsic merit of its own. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented in “Prisoner for God,” “Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion—and that remains his really great merit.”

Perhaps because his comments on “nonreligious” Christianity and “man come of age” are fragmentary and elusive, Bonhoeffer himself was destined to exert considerable influence on recent theology—despite his early death in a Nazi concentration camp. Barth offers a perspective from which secularization need not be construed as the principal antagonist for Christian faith. Bonhoeffer proceeds to suggest that the truly secular man and the Christian are one and the same:

I have come to appreciate the “worldliness” of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homoreligiosus, but a man, pure and simple, just as Jesus was man, compared with John the Baptist anyhow… It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe.

He became convinced that the premise on which Christian proclamation had traditionally been predicated was no longer valid. Man was homoreligiosus no more, and consequently “the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of our Christianity to date.” Strategies that would require the conversion of secular man to religion before he could become a disciple of the Christ are both anachronous and also lack any real Biblical foundation. Christian faith now calls its advocates to share with its antagonists the abandonment of all religious premises.

A great many Protestant theologians have come to agree with Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the individual in the modern world. Ronald Gregor Smith has written of “the new man,” Helmut Gollwitzer of “areligious man,” Arend van Leeuwen of “the arrival of a new type of man.” In “Christianity in World History,” van Leeuwen suggests that the technological revolution is only one aspect of a greater revolution that is rapidly destroying the cornerstone of all traditional forms of society, whether primitive or civilized—religion. In language reminiscent of Bonhoeffer, he adds that where the Gospel is believed, “there is the truth accepted that there can be no returning to the age of ‘religion.’”

It is Friedrich Gogarten, however, who has attempted the most systematic presentation of secularization as the goal of the Biblical tradition. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ means that men who have languished in bondage to the world are now offered the opportunity to become responsible for it. The Pauline denial that man can earn salvation by his works implies that all worldly activities are radically secular and devoid of religious significance. All the care and cares of the earth fall within the domain of human reason, and with their desacralization man becomes fully responsible for the world and entirely free within it.

Faith secularizes, in the sense that it enables man to move from nature into history, from dependence upon the world to autonomy. Gogarten has defined secularization as Vergeschichtlichung der menschlichen Existenz—man’sunderstanding of himself becomes fully historical. He describes the new situation of the believer as one of mature sonship. The man of faith is “mature” in the sense that he acts in accordance with his own powers of rational decision, not upon instructions from others. His sonship is evident in his gratitude for the world that is his patrimony and in his awareness of the mystery of his own origin and delegated independence. The secularity of faith can be lost, however, if men either absolutize themselves and their work and drift into the closed ideology of secularism or else capitulate to any heteronomous power in the world and fall back into bondage to “the elemental spirits of the universe.”

Certainly it is possible to recognize affinities between the world of the Bible and contemporary processes of secularization, even if the assertion of a direct causal relation between them, as Jacques Ellul writes in “The Technological Society,” depends merely upon “those facile, impressive, and altogether anti-historical explanations which theorists are so fond of.” In “The Secular City,” for example, Harvey Cox cites three particular motifs in the Bible that the process of secularization presupposes. They are the disenchantment of nature, so that it no longer seemed full of gods, the desacralization of politics, so that no one any longer ruled by divine right, and the deconsecration or relativizing of human values in the light of the sovereignty of God. In “The Relevance of Science,” the physicist C. F. von Weizsacker—like the philosopher Karl Jaspers—stresses the relationship between the Christian tradition and the assumptions that undergird the rise of modern science in the West. But perhaps the most trenchant comments are those of van Leeuwen, in his discussion of the conflict between ontocratic patterns of culture and Biblical faith:

The revolutionary history of the West up to the present time is rightly held to have been a continuous, ongoing process of secularization which nothing has been able to halt, let alone reverse…This takes its beginning in Israel. Here is raised the protest against the religion of cosmic totality, against the “sacralizing” of all being, against the supremacy of fate, against the divinizing of kings and kingdoms. Here a break is made with the everlasting cycle of nature and the timeless presentness of myth. Here history is discovered… Here there is proper room for man and here the taste of freedom. The world is now radically secularized.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for suspicion of the contentions that secularity is the proper Christian style for our time or that secularization is the intention and goal of the Biblical tradition. Precisely because secularization denotes the most important and pervasive change in the West since the rise of Christianity, the meaning of the word is complex and ambiguous. Sustained conversation with disciplines other than theology is urgent, in order that the real proportions and significance of the phenomenon might be clarified sufficiently to justify the various theological assessments that now abound. Let us raise three questions.


First, is secularization really as hospitable to Christian faith as Christian faith seems hospitable to secularization?

While many theologians have followed Bonhoeffer in speaking of “man come of age,” possessed of a new freedom and autonomy that render anachronous old religious questions and prescriptions, those outside the theological camp often warn of the loss of freedom and autonomy that plagues man in the modern age. Perhaps we witness the maturation of a Christian process by which man moves from responsibility to the world into responsibility for it, from childhood to maturity. But perhaps the processes in which we are enmeshed are more labyrinthine, fraught with more complex dangers than our present theological vocabulary can admit. Perhaps we would do well to heed Jacques Ellul:

Enclosed within his artificial creation, man finds that there is “no exit,” that he cannot pierce the shell of technology to find again the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years. The new milieu has its own specific laws which are not the laws of organic or inorganic matter. Man is still ignorant of these laws. It nevertheless begins to appear with crushing finality that a new necessity is taking over from the old. It is easy to boast of victory over ancient oppression, but what if victory has been gained at the price of an even greater subjection to the forces of the artificial necessity of the technical society which has come to dominate our lives?

It is questionable whether Christian advocates of the secular have adequately explored some facets of contemporary life that appear integral to secularization, at least insofar as we can know it now, but which seem hostile to any form of Christian faith, not merely to its religious dress. Without pretending to offer an exhaustive account, one might cite at least six aspects of secularization that require greater theological attention than they have yet received. As Thomas Luckmann writes in his brilliant book, “The Invisible Religion,” there is the progressive privatization of freedom. Vast sectors of Western civilization have developed their own cohesive functional logic and now tend to evolve autonomously, without reference to anything whatsoever beyond themselves. This phenomenon is what secularization primarily denotes. The freedom and responsibility reputed to be attributes of “man come of age” can dwindle to romantic illusions of individualism devised for private consumption in order to compensate for the loss of autonomy and agency in the public sphere. Of particular importance is the quantification of time, the tyranny of the clock that deprives men of spontaneity, further erodes their freedom, and imposes an alien and mechanical pattern upon the rhythms of truly human life. Time becomes a continuum in which man is ineluctably driven toward the loss of power and function, rather than a structure that always affords a “right time” for some expression of the varied cadences of life. One contemporary consequence of secularization in America is radical change in the mores of both young and old, change that testifies to the defeat of Kairos and the victory of Kronos over us all.

Perhaps no less consequential for Christian faith is the mood of self-seriousness that mutes our laughter, inhibits our spontaneous actions, and dulls our sense of the comic. If revelation in Christ frees man from bondage to the world so that he might become responsible for it before God, surely revelation also frees man from a sense of the irremediable seriousness of life so that he might understand it under God as a human comedy. Numerous writers have mentioned the affinities between a sense of the comic and the Christian perception of life, affinities that do not occur between the latter and the tragic vision. Few, however, have written of the conflict between this spirit and the mood of self-seriousness that attends secularization and technological progress. Such seriousness is exacerbated by the tension between limitless power and responsibility and, because of the way that aspects of civilization develop their own autonomous logic, the suspicion that control of such power no longer lies with the rational decisions of free and responsible men. As Julian N. Hartt has written:

Man does not get on with his proper business in a mood of unrelenting self-seriousness. Contemporary culture lays that mood upon us all. That is a major triumph of secularism as a paradoxically religious force. For if there is no one else to keep an eye on our interests we cannot afford ever to close both eyes or even to wink promiscuously. That is what I call self -seriousness. I do not of course know whether The Player can cure this disease of the spirit of modern man. Nonetheless we should send for him.

If He should appear, the time of his advent will be Kairos. If He does not appear, we shall certainly witness the “arrival of a new type of man”—for as Johan Huizinga persuasively argued in “Homo Ludens,” civilization in the West has been erected on and by playing. Western man is man the player. Need we not say the same of Christian man?

Three Roman Catholic philosophers have discussed three other facets of modern society, industrialized and urban, that raise scarcely less urgent questions for Christian faith in a secular time. In “The World of Silence,” Max Picard writes of the noisiness of an age that threatens to reduce man to no more than “a space for the noise to fill.” What we euphemistically call media of communication invade the privacy of the self—with a noisiness beside which the stealth of modern techniques of information gathering seems almost welcome—and prevent the encounter of the self with itself that is the prelude to authenticity and wholeness.

In “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” Josef Pieper protests against the busyness of secularized society, most especially because Christian faith requires the sort of leisure that affords men the opportunity to see themselves and their world as a whole, not merely in terms of the functions of the self and the instrumentality of its environment. There is reason to suppose that, as the basis of the American economy has shifted from competition to co-operation, the noisiness and the busyness of life have grown more intense. Finally, Gabriel Marcel devotes “The Decline of Wisdom” to what he considers the principal danger of an instrumental approach to the world. Reason tends to diminish to the proportions of functional reason, so that reflection falls into discredit and both the wisdom it offers and the existential questions it raises to the light of consciousness are no longer available to men. Vanished is the sense of wonder that sparks the awareness of transcendence in man’s encounters with his world, with other selves, and with their ultimate source and end.

In “Religion and the Rise of Scepticism,” Franklin L. Baumer writes of a post-Christian “layman’s religion” and suggests that the Christian tradition may be vanquished in its entirety by the forces cited by Picard, Marcel and Pieper. Even as technology awards man a greater measure of “free time,” the noisiness of the world and the restriction of the range of reason reduce leisure to far less than Pieper intends. Silence, reflection, and leisure are important not only for any version of faith, no matter whether religious or nonreligious, but also for any satisfactory achievement of selfhood. The human spirit cannot long survive when the self and its projects are construed in functional terms alone. The relevance of the Biblical story of Mary and Martha is not restricted to the context of traditional religion but extends to any traditional interpretation of man, no matter whether Christian or not. In any event, if these six features of contemporary life are really endemic to secularization in the West, there is certainly reason to qualify the current theological endorsement of the phenomenon. At least it is imperative to explore more carefully the relationship between secularization as a principium in theology and as the pervasive reality of our common life.


First, is secularization really as hospitable to Christian faith as Christian faith seems hospitable to secularization?

Talcott Parsons has often argued that secularization involves a differentiation of roles that is consequential for religion but not intrinsically hostile to it. In a now famous essay, Robert Bellah has described something of the proportions of an American civil religion nourished on secular soil. Luckmann writes of the emergence of an invisible religion that flourishes within the privacy of the self and that is a sort of rebellious stepchild of the process of secularization. Even in an ostensibly secularized society both individual and social forms of religiosity tend to proliferate. The use of traditional religious language within some of these forms suggests that such a vocabulary retains its cogency still, at least from the perspectives of psychological effect and social functionality. Whether it retains its theological validity is, of course, another question, but one that theologians would be well warned not to answer simply by allusions to “irrelevance.”

The presence of a powerful civil religion in America, our Pelagian faith in education, the romantic religiosity of dissenting movements that assume a phoenix will flutter from every pile of ashes, our celebration of the divinity of power, our sacralizing of the medical profession, our cosmetic impulse and faith in drugstore magic, the vestigial religionis imbedded in cliché and folklore and mythology about sex, the Gnosticism involved in some of our reliance upon drugs and the Manichean stance toward life evident especially in our political affairs—these as well as the protestations of the churches testify that America is religious still. There is massive evidence to suggest that the secular city is not inhospitable to religion, that the question of whether man remains homoreligiosus has yet to be resolved, and that there is reason indeed to understand much of the mission of the church as a venture in exorcism.

But the mention of exorcism raises a further question. Can the potential demon of civil religion, for example, be domesticated consistently except in the name of another religion that aspires to more universal community? Can religion be exorcized except in the name of religion itself? The unquenchable desire for ritual, for the adornment of life, for holy days and myth and symbol, for celebration that lifts man above his instrumental world and functional understanding of himself—will these continue to demand some form of religious expression? If that demand is not satisfied by the Christian tradition, will it then issue in other varieties of piety that render life less than human, fostering expectations that can never be realized and warping discernment of self and world?

Perhaps the most pervasive form of idolatry in America is the idolatry of other selves and of images of the self. The cure for the tyranny of such images does not lie in sober recollection of the frailty of man. It can be found only within the domain of the imagination and in another constellation of images, perhaps one such as that furnished by the sacramental and liturgical aspects of Christian faith. The sacrament of the Eucharist, for example, functions to liberate persons from the consequences of the idolatry of other selves. It offers a way of transition fron1 the child’s broken faith in the father as divine to the man’s acknowledgment of the divine as father.

At this juncture, however, it is scarcely possible to evade another question. Must the future of Christianity as a religion be defended upon merely prudential grounds, and therefore provide a further instance of the triumph of functional reason, or has it some theological justification? Certainly the juxtaposition of religion against Christian faith does not provide satisfactory principles of interpretation for much of the Bible. In both Old Testament and New, religion is understood as a means through which God discloses his nature and will. It is the guardian of revelation and the matrix for further divine disclosure.

God is at work in the contemporary world, but divine activity does not validate itself as such. Christians believe that because He is the Father of Jesus his works continue to display a Christic form, but that form is not manifest to the casual glances of passersby. Religious practices are intended to acquaint the believer so intimately with the Christ that he will be able to recognize the Christic shape involved in whatever God is doing in the present age. If there is continuity between what God once did and what He is doing now, the religious tradition with which he once identified himself will still function to enable men to recognize his presence among the many agents at work in the world. If revelation liberates men from the divinities of this world and the varieties of religion they inspire, is it not also true that from a Christian perspective religion is necessary for the deciphering of the revelation? Theologians can learn much from contemporary poets and novelists about the importance of liturgical and Scriptural detail for the interpretation of the secular city.

So, in theological perspective, secularization seems a paradoxical affair indeed. Christian faith seems to constrain its adherents to be skeptical of secularization precisely because the whole phenomenon is toohospitable to religion, and especially to forms of religion that are particularly vicious because they are so often covert rather than acknowledged. On the other hand, Christian faith seems to constrain its adherents to be skeptical of secularization precisely because it is nothospitable to the forms of religion that Christians may require for the deciphering of the contemporary divine work. Now would be a poor hour to lose the code, as the Lord struggles for and with man to preserve the fragile and precarious humanity of man—imperiled by busyness, by noisiness, by the decline of reflection, and especially by the quantification of time, the privatization of freedom, and (can one wonder or blame?) the loss of a sense of the comic.


In the issue of whether secularization and religion are in every way hostile our third and final question is implied: Is it true that homo religiosus is rapidly becoming extinct? In the contemporary American way of life there are such numerous traces of religiosity that one might argue religion and various surrogates for it enjoy greater prominence than they did thirty or forty years ago. The comments of Bellah and Luckmann on the hardiness of civil religion and the pervasiveness of invisible religion suggest that it may still be somewhat premature to hail “the arrival of a new type of man.” Whether his advent would be a matter for pure rejoicing is a different question. Certainly the Christian faith has a stake in the extinction of many and various forms of religion, but it is, after all, an interest that may be subject to serious qualification.

In “Unbelief and the Secular Spirit,” Langdon Gilkey recently contended that when modern “secular” man reflects upon his own characteristic attitudes, he discovers the traditional religious questions implied within them. Man’s experiences of contingency, relativity, temporality, and autonomy—all these “contain latent within themselves certain disturbing and inescapable dilemmas, which point beyond the realm of the secular.” Perhaps the individualism and metaphysical language of earlier versions of the Christian message are no longer valid. But guilt, bondage, suffering, and death remain problems for every man, and their terror is often heightened by the processes of social change. The secularization of life enforces upon us some new questions, but it reinforces the bite of a great many old ones. Some of these may appear in new forms, but the questions retain unavoidable ontological dimensions and still demand answers in terms of the individual human self.

Is the Kingdom of God a secular city? Surely one ought to hope it will be more secular than man’s present condition. But the social and technological revolutions of our time have their ambiguities. The only certainty is that secularization will not soon be retired, either from our vocabulary or our public life.


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