Preaching Christ in a World That Doesn’t Need God: Orthodox Christianity and Secularism

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The following is from a larger talk I am working on about Orthodoxy in the West.

Secularism is essentially the idea that one can conceive of a world without God. It is the belief in an autonomous order existing apart from the divine order. It is not necessarily a denial of God’s existence, by the way. Such outright atheism has never been that attractive and still isn’t even for the West. Rather, it is the conception of a world without the constant presence of God as a necessary influence on everything. The created world is seen as self-sustaining, capable of existing without the presence of the uncreated God.

Without getting too deep into yet another enormous topic, we can at least recognize a few varieties of secularism. One variety is the deism which many of the founding Fathers of American embraced. God created the world, but He doesn’t really interact with it.

There is an atheistic secularism, as well—having conceived a world ordered without God, any mention of Him must be expunged from the public order. All public policy therefore must not only not favor any religion, but it cannot be influenced by it.

There is also a kind of secularism which divides the life of a person into separate spheres. There is a sphere for God and then a sphere for “common sense,” everyday, ordinary sorts of activities. What does God have to do with my grocery shopping? Is He interested in how I cut my toenails? If most of life is really not relevant to God stuff, then it makes sense of course to set aside only one part of morning per week for God, and let’s not make it too long, shall we? I have everyday, ordinary things to get to.

This division actually has its origins in medieval Catholic theology. Some theologians who followed Thomas Aquinas posited “natural” and “supernatural” spheres of order and knowledge, apprehended respectively through reason and faith. While some emphasized the essential union between the two, others focused more on their sense of opposition. Thus, rationality without the direct influence of revelation came to be elevated and given its own domain of inquiry.

I am simplifying things here considerably, but I hope you will excuse me for that. The way that this opposition has come down to us is, in any event, also rather simplified. Is it not true that most people these days here in the West consider their own reason the primary ruler for their lives? They may not be very logical, of course, but the perceptions and decisions of their own minds are what govern day to day living.

The idea that God would be an ordinary part of life, or even that life itself would be fully enveloped in the divine presence—these are not the norm for most people, even religious people. That is why they “go to church” for an “experience” of some sort. They desire to have a supernatural moment or two in what is otherwise a natural life.

We ourselves probably function this way most of the time. We ourselves are products of our time. I cannot claim that I have an absolute sense of the presence of God here at this very moment. I feel that I have to go looking for Him or do something special to bring Him here. Our default way of functioning is as though God is actually absent. And most of the time, we do not feel His absence—that is, we do not miss Him. Rather, most of the time, we just go about our lives without any sense that Someone is missing.

Here is yet another way that any sharp contrast between Orthodox Christians and the West is collapsed. We ourselves have become secular, even if we have a fervent faith. We have to force ourselves to have a sense of God’s presence and influence. So if secularism may be identified as the “Western mindset,” then we have it, as well. It is a very real struggle for me, and I imagine that it may be for you, too. That it is a struggle at all is an indication of the pervasiveness of the mindset of our times, whether it is in the West or in the East. The person who has a constant sense of God’s presence with him is a rarity.

We may be tempted here to try to fight back against the secular mindset, especially the secular fundamentalism that pervades our public culture and tries to expel even the admission of a divine order from public view. And we might think that fighting back is perhaps best done on the grounds of the great moral issues raised in our time. What is marriage? What is a person? What is a man? What is a woman? What is life?

While I believe that we need to teach clearly what we believe about these things, I also think that attempting a frontal assault on secularism will not actually do us much good. We tend to rant when we do that, to come off as angry and condemning, to be anything but loving. Why? Because we often turn our ethics into ideology. And when we embrace ideology, then we give ourselves permission to hurt other people in service to what we believe.

So we have to be wise here, to address the secular mindset not as an enemy but rather as a pathology of the human person. Those who think secularly—which includes us!—are not our enemies. Rather, they are suffering from an invasive mental virus which infects not just the mind but even the heart.

A doctor will tell you that when he diagnoses and treats a disease, he does so not just in terms of the theoretical form of the disease but of the actual affliction that the patient has. And I think that the Christian response to secularism these days is generally not in terms of the actual affliction that we the patients are suffering but rather in terms of the theoretical form of the disease. What do I mean by that?

We tend to think of secularism as atheism, as an outright attack on the divine order. But most people with a secular mindset are not atheists. As I said, we usually function with a secular mindset ourselves. And we are not atheists. The same holds true for the vast majority of Americans. Belief in God co-exists in the minds and hearts of most Americans along with their secular worldview. We can point that out as inconsistent and contradictory, and of course, it is. But telling people that they just have to choose between secularism and God is probably not going to get us much of anywhere.

So what do we do? What is the actual form of the secularist affliction?

The secularism most Americans believe in has actually been identified as a form of religion. And it’s called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The term is the invention of sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, and they coined it to describe the beliefs of American teenagers in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Although Smith and Denton were talking about teenagers ten years ago, their description of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is apt for most Americans these days, of whatever age and even of whatever religious affiliation. My experience even with Orthodox Christians is that they largely function in these terms.

So what is this belief system? What does it entail? Smith and Denton identified five teachings of this worldview:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

And that’s it. That is the secular mindset that most Americans have. God is definitely out there for them. He definitely wants us to be good. But the point of life is to be happy, and God doesn’t have to come into the picture unless there is a problem. And if you’re good, then you get to go to heaven when you die.

What makes it possible for people who actually belong to churches to believe and function according to this mindset of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that its teachings (if they can be called that—there’s no official teacher) are roughly similar to many religions’ ethics and general cosmology.

And because this is a problem both for those who are not yet part of the Orthodox Church and for those who are already part of our flocks, if we learn to address this worldview, we will be both evangelistic and also strengthening the people whom we have in front of us. So how do we as Orthodox Christians address this?

The problem with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is its vague non-specificity. It believes in “God,” a god who wants us to be “good,” a god who will see to it that we get to go to “heaven” when we die. This is all very general, all very uncatechized and non-specific.

But we Orthodox Christians do not believe in some vague “God”; we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We believe in the incarnate God-man Jesus Christ. We believe that life is not merely about being “good,” not even merely about a specific set of ethics, but about cooperating with divine grace so that we might become like God. We do not believe in “heaven” as a vague, “good place” reward for the ethical. We believe in union with the Holy Trinity in Jesus Christ, a union that can last and deepen and become more intimate and powerful unto the ages of ages.

We also believe that Jesus Christ is available, touchable, near to us, ready to relate to us and commune with us. And we believe that cooperating with that heals us and brings us together, curing our sin and our loneliness and isolation.

In short, the Orthodox Church, because it has never dumbed down its teachings, offers something that breaks through secularism, including the specific variant ascendant in our culture—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. But we have to teach it, and we have to teach it in such a way that it communicates the closeness and reality of Christ.

This is not just about believing a list of more correct things about God, though. One can agree to these ideas and still be secular, still subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Rather, the point is that our teaching points to a real Someone Whom we can encounter. And we begin by naming Him with the Name He Himself has placed above every other name—Jesus Christ.

I fear that much of the time, we do not actually catechize our people, being content to teach them piety and morality. Here’s how you do this pious thing. And don’t have sex before marriage or do drugs. Those are perfectly true things to teach, but if we do not have an existential encounter with the Christ Who has commanded these things and Who commanded them for specific reasons, then our listeners won’t see the point in them.

Many young people today (and many other people, too) aren’t drifting away from God because they are rebelling against Him. Rather, they are drifting away because no one ever introduced them to Him. They just don’t see the point in going to church or being moral or church authority, because they weren’t directed to Jesus Christ. It’s hard to believe in and worship a “God” whom you don’t know.

In terms of its encounter with the secularism of the Western mindset, the Orthodox Church’s mission is to preach like Paul on Mars Hill. Him Whom the secularists around us and even we ourselves worship without knowing—the Unknown God—that is the One Whom we proclaim.

If secularism is seeing and living in the world as though it were autonomous and without the presence of God, then Christianity is the key to introducing people to that God Whom they do not know. So we are on a mission to introduce this God to our flocks and to those who are not yet of this fold.

13 comments:

  1. Father Andrew, this is very important. American faith, as you described is a vague religious sentimentality with some general ethical expectations. North America is were Europe was a century ago. Nietzsche cut through this vague religious sentiment. This non-specific faith masks the true nature of secularity. A God who is not intimately part of our world is not the Christian God. Nietzsche then describes a culture without God. I mention Nietzsche because he strips away the false veneer. If we function without the need of God then we need to look at a society and life radically without God. He would say this vague faith is bull&*$#. I am told that Nietzsche predicted the rise of people’s obsessions with their bodies, the cult of body building. I don’t know the reference for this. I attended a series of lectures by a Nietzsche scholar who is a Christian. He was asked why he as a Christian spends so much time with Nietzsche. He responded, because I believe the Gospel is Truth without it we are left with Nietzsche. He believed Nietzsche offers a correct diagnosis of western culture absent God.

    What really strikes me about your title is the statement, “we don’t need God”. This is our default position as you rightly said. How do we create need? Can we create need? The academy the media etc. tell us that we are in control and can explain pretty much explain everything. If we don’t understand something now we will eventually.

    Are you familiar with the work of John Milbank, James K.A.Smith and Charles Taylor? From an very academic point their writings have sent a shot across the bow.

    I really appreciate your tackling of this topic. How do we evangelize those who don’t need God? Would truly loving Christian communities as alternatives to individualistic, hedonistic and consumer driven American society create a longing desire for something meaningful?

    1. Yes, they will! “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

      People who love one another remind the world of the ache for true love that we all have. And if it is true love, then it will welcome others and grant them rest. Hedonism and consumerism really tire out the soul and cripple its powers. Perfect love casts out the fear that is the root of hedonism–the fear of death.

      1. Your comment reminds me of St. Augustine’s famous quote that are hearts are restless till they find there rest in you (God). Consumerism and technology lure us into thinking we do not need God. Our attention is focused not on ultimate things. All these things help us to do our best to avoid the thought of death.

        About loving community I am reminded of a book recommended to me while a student at Gordon. He was Dr. David Schoeler(sp) a professor of NT at Gordon-Conwell. E.R. Dodds at Oxford U. wrote the book, “Pagan & Christian In An Age of Anxiety”. Dodds an agnostic attempts to answer the question; how is it that a persecuted Jewish Sect became the official religion of the Roman Empire. He concludes by offering four reasons.
        I will quote the fourth point since it affirms your idea of a loving community. He says, “But lastly, the benefits of becoming a Christian were not confined to the nest world. A Christian congregation was from the first a community in a much fuller sense than any corresponding group of isiac or Mithraist devotees…. Their promptitude in bringing material help to brethern in captivity or other distress is attested to not only by Christian writers but by Lucian, a far from sympathetic witness. Love of one’s neighbour is not an exclusively XP virtue, but in our period the XP’s appear to have practised it more effectively than any other group…..it cared for widows and orphan, the old, the unemployed, and the disabled; it provided a burial fund for the poor and a nursing service in time of plague. But even more important, I suspect, than these material benefits was the sense of belonging which the XP community could give….a XP community might be the only way of maintaining their self-respect and giving life some semblance of meaning. Within the community there was human warmth: some one was interested in them, both here and hereafter. It is not surprising that the earliest and most striking advances of XPnity were made in the great cities of Antioch, in Rome, In Alexandria. XPns were in a more than formal sense’ members of one another’: I think that was a major cause, perhaps the strongest single cause, of the spread of XPnity”
        I apologize for such a long quote. I think this captures the power and attractiveness of a true Christian community.

    2. John, I remember something about the prediction you noted of Nietzsche and I’m pretty sure its somewhere in his book “The Gay Science.” He makes many astoundingly accurate predictions in that work.

  2. One concern I have as I move closer to the Orthodox Church is that I see this issue, my priest is aware of this issue, but I don’t see anyone addressing it. I don’t see any actual teaching of what is wrong/right and why. When I inquired, I was told that the teaching of the Church is the Liturgy.

    I understand and accept this but I think there needs to be more to address this issue, especially for the younger generation(s). They will come into contact/conflict with it at some point and I am very concerned that the Church is actually preparing them for this effectively.

  3. That last sentence should read “and I am very concerned that the Church is ***not*** actually preparing them for this effectively.”

  4. This brings me back to “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe by Fr. Stephen Freeman. Thank you for bringing this to my attention – again.

    I feel we drift away at times and you are absolutely right that we don’t miss God when we are away. We live as though God were upstairs, reading a book or something, while we are downstairs working on a project. If we should need some help with something, we can always just call and ask Him to do that for us, or provide an extra hand. But we rarely see Him as involved with us- by our side guiding, suggesting what to do next.

    I have heard that those who fail to read are no better off than those who cannot read. The same must be true of God. Those who do not practice His presence are no better than those who never know His presence.

    I pray that this day that we “may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death”

    1. This brings me back to “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe by Fr. Stephen Freeman. Thank you for bringing this to my attention – again.

      Just for clarification: I’ve never read that book, so I do not think I’ve ever brought it to anyone’s attention.

  5. Wow. This really hit home for me, as something who previously was a proud deist, and is moving closer and closer towards the Orthodox Church.

    IMHO, those in the secular world all have a deep emptiness inside. Life is pointless except for attending to mundane things and trying to make life, comfortable, easy, happy. But no one is really “happy.” We self-delude. We get depressed. We see therapists that are part of the secular system that are incapable of filling the need we have but don’t recognize–spirituality. A completeness of the soul. A greater purpose for living.

  6. Great article. Thank you. I must confess to being aware of the presence of God most of the time but I feel stuck in between mindsets sometimes. A few Christian friends and myself often talk about how to conduct our business as Christians in this American landscape. That there is God’s way of doing business that will lead to success at some level; sort of a formula. While I’m aware that this is an American preoccupation it is also a necessity in todays world. It is a necessity forced upon us. And I don’t know if God wants me to be successful or even cares. This is my spiritual thinking. My secular mindset is focused on achieving. So while we are caught in this economic and cultural riptide many of us wonder what in the world are we supposed to do but to look to examples around us. Hopefully it’s the Orthodox milieu that wins in the end.

  7. Excellent article, thank you father. Sadly in the West, the name “Christianity” has been hijacked by Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, this makes it particularly hard for the real/full Christians (Orthodox). If the Father, Son & Holy Spirit are listening (I know they are) may they bestow upon us and the people of the West many miracles of the type we read about in the bible and amongst the Saints of the Church.

  8. Not finished reading yet because I got stopped with this:

    “The idea that God would be an ordinary part of life, or even that life itself would be fully enveloped in the divine presence—these are not the norm for most people, even religious people. That is why they “go to church” for an “experience” of some sort. They desire to have a supernatural moment or two in what is otherwise a natural life.”

    Very simple but profound thought. If I remember nothing else from this article this will be enough.

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