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The Challenge of Secularism

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting follow-up of sorts (Times Select link here) to Mark Lilla’s more extensive analysis of the relationship between religion and politics from a few weeks ago. Stanley Fish reiterates the deep divide that exists between secular liberalism and those who subscribe to some more “ultimate” explanation of what is (or will be) really true about the world.

According to Fish, liberalism is not, despite its own self-understanding and presentation, the default position of all reasonable people, nor is what is “reasonable” defined or shared by all in the same way. Like Lilla, Fish sees a fundamental incompatibility between “religious” and “secular” understandings of reality. As long as people have such profound disagreements regarding what counts as “reasonable” or worth pursuing, prospects of a fruitful, shared future seem bleak indeed.

To be honest, I think that Fish overstates things a bit. One gets the impression from him that religious folks and those committed to secular liberalism have literally nothing in common—that all they can do is blankly stare at one another across a chasm of hopeless incomprehension. Important differences do exist at the margins of both worldviews, of course, but I don’t think I share Fish’s conviction that religious people are operating with fundamentally different understandings of reality than those committed to secularism. People may disagree about what, ultimately, supports the ends of our political activity, or the means best suited to get there, but I have to believe that human beings are created to long for similar kinds of things—things such as peace, justice, harmony, and wholeness.

Having said that, I, like Fish, find secular liberalism’s tendency to only “tolerate” religious belief to the extent that it reinforces or reflects their own view of ultimate reality problematic. Liberalism’s relegation of religion to the realm of private beliefs where it is expected to exercise no influence on one’s political beliefs and actions is, I think, insulting and unrealistic. If people subscribe to a belief about what is, ultimately, true about the world, it is absurd to expect that this could be confined within the boundaries of private needs or moral preferences. More to the point, secular liberalism does not itself do this. The fact that a particular worldview is more vague and benign than others, does not change its status as an interpretation of reality that informs all areas of one’s life.

Any “official” view which claims to bracket meta-concerns in the pursuit of political peace is itself an interpretation of reality. In a sense, it says “nothing important hangs on what we decide about, for example, the ultimate ends toward which our political activity is directed (or if such ends even exist).” This interpretation may turn out to be true, but in the meantime those who favour it ought to at least acknowledge it for what it is. Assuming that one’s position is the (singular) “reasonable” one, and characterizing all who do not share this view as “extremists,” or “intellectual inferiors” doesn’t do much to help relations in the fragile political situation that these writers so helpfully describe. I do agree with Fish about at least this much.

The question I am left with after reading this article (and the previous piece by Lilla) is “where to from here?” Both writers are fairly pessimistic about our prospects given current political and religious realities. Coping seems to be the order of the day, with both Fish and Lilla implying that about the best we can hope for, given the fundamentally different interpretations of reality subscribed to by proponents of secular liberalism and those with a religious interpretation of reality, is a minimal level of grudging toleration, always in the full knowledge that wildly different (and contradictory) understandings of reality lurk beneath the surface, threatening to erupt at any time.

As a Christian, I think that our current political climate, and the influence being exercised by religion within it, could require a renewed emphasis upon the Sermon on the Mount as our way of being in the world. In a highly pluralistic context where many people believe many different things, and where people have unprecedented access to and understanding of the worldviews of others, it seems that a good place to start would be for Christ’s followers to interact with those they come into contact with in a manner which reflects the one we claim to follow.

Our context does not seem conducive to ideological unanimity, and it is naive to demand this—especially as a foundation for our political system. But rather than just gloomily lamenting the present state of affairs, I think that Christians (at least in the West) can use our unique context, with its many and diverse worldviews, as a chance to try something different: to achieve the ends of Christ via the means of Christ; to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have our influence in society more closely resemble the redemptive, non-coercive character of Christ.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think the “foundation for our political system” on its most basic level (democratic) requires an “ideological unanimity” and it is extreme to assume otherwise. I do agree, this probably won’t “do much to help relations in the fragile political situation,” but that never stopped political change for the better in the past.

    Ryan, I don’t know if I can stress enough how much I struggle with your desire to mix church with state. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the democratic process of voting asks each individual to decide once, for themselves on whatever issue, rather than have someone else decide for them. To me, I understand this as not having person ‘A’ vote again through person ‘B’ by person ‘B’s’ obedience to person ‘A’.

    I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the political make-up of Monotheist religions is not a democratic one. Followers are ultimately asked to obey God because God said so – no matter if God has a good reason for it or not.

    I know it’ll upset you that I’m saying this, but I think it’s relevant that dictation of morality is where fundamentalist extremists believe their power comes from. And I think we’ve missed the root of the terrorist problem by saying they misrepresent their religious beliefs.

    The root of the terrorist problem, I think, is allowing God to have a moral voice (I’m sure what I’ve said here will also upset you). Yes, there are places within the church where through a democratic process believers come to an agreement on God’s will, but non-believers are not welcome in this democratic process.

    Democracy, by its very nature, is inclusive. The fate of our society is “For the people, by the people,” not ‘For God, by some people.’

    Here’s another extreme reason God shouldn’t have a moral voice: God has a history of asking his followers, according to their scriptures, to obey him even up to the point of being faithful enough to commit to an act of murdering your own child…

    Genesis 22:
    15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” NIV

    …then in the New Testament, God continues to lead his followers in a willingness to sacrifice their children for him (if he asked for it) by being an example of it. (By the way, I saw an interesting CNN documentary called God’s Warriors where a Muslim mother declared her pride in her son’s dedication to God/Allah by being a so-called martyr through his own suicidal/murderous sacrifice of blowing himself up along with innocent bystanders.)

    You may think I shouldn’t be using extreme examples and that I’m asking for the abolition of religion here, but the point of my examples is to address the political underpinnings of Monotheist religions.

    And I’m not asking for the extinction of religion. Let all those who believe there is a triune Creator of the universe gather together in a loving manner, bonding in their fellowship, ritually communing together to grow in relationship and the practice of traditions – like a family. But, please, help keep the politics of morality where it belongs – in a democracy.


    September 4, 2007
  2. Jerry, I’m certainly not upset by anything you’ve said, although I am rather confused and surprised. I’m absolutely mystified as to how you could read the last two paragraphs of the post (or the second) and come to the conclusion that I’m advocating some kind of a theocratic fusing of church and state.

    You’ll be relieved to know that I am not in favour of subverting democracy, taking away the individual’s right to vote, recommending blind obedience to religious authorities, or returning to an OT model of government (or sacrificing/ martyring my son, just to be absolutely clear). In fact, I am quite strongly opposed to all of the above. I quite like the idea of a liberal democracy and am happy to be governed by and participate within one. I think that of all the political institutions that have come and gone, it most closely approximates anything like what Christians believe will ultimately characterize the kingdom of God. To ask that those advocating a specific political philosophy be more honest about their presuppositions or generous with those who do not share them is not the same thing as rejecting every element of that philosophy.

    September 4, 2007
  3. Gil #

    Sorry to join late here. I was reading your interchange with Ryan and looking forward to your response so I hope the above comment doesn’t mean that you’ve decided to carry that conversation on elsewhere. I’d like to comment on a statement that you made in your first response. You say:

    “The root of the terrorist problem, I think, is allowing God to have a moral voice (I’m sure what I’ve said here will also upset you).”

    Well it’s not all that upsetting but I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that you’re referring to virtually all of human history when you refer to people allowing God (or the gods) to have a moral voice. So I’m a bit confused about which ‘terrorist problem’ you are referring to. The global conflicts that have emerged post 9/11? The Israel/Palestine conflict? What about explicitly secular revolutionary terrorism like Basque separatism in Spain (a movement whose ideology at the outset was Marxist/Leninist)? Or perhaps the Shining Path movement in Peru which emerged out of the explicitly atheist communist party?

    If the mere fact of ‘allowing’ God to have a moral voice was the root cause of terrorist violence then I think history would look a little different than it does. Global terrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon, a bit younger than the idea that God cares about human morality. So, with respect, I think understanding terrorism’s causes are a bit more complicated than simply ‘allowing God to have a moral voice’.

    September 4, 2007
  4. jc #

    He is probably talking about Islamic Terrorism since he references it later in his post.

    Are you trying to suggest that ‘allowing God to have a moral voice’ isn’t part of the problem of Islamic terrorism?

    I don’t speak for Jerry obviously.

    September 4, 2007
  5. Gil,
    You’re right, I wasn’t exactly clear in my explanation of the root of the terrorist problem. One of the things I said was, “I think it’s relevant that dictation of morality is where fundamentalist extremists believe their power comes from.” I didn’t mean to refer to God exclusively as the only totalitarian authority figure here. My emphasis is that terrorist activity is a result of a totalitarian authority figure, being God or man, demanding a fundamentalist obedience to their commands. (I just happen to be focusing on God’s role as a totalitarian authority figure in response to Ryan’s post.) So, you’re right, all of your examples correspond with what I was trying to emphasize.

    I’m not saying that you, among many who happen to be Christians, should not have an influence in the political state. I’m saying that God should not have an influence in the political state. So if Christians are speaking on behalf of God instead of themselves, I think there is a huge problem in that because the Church’s relationship with God is not a democratic one.

    A non-democratic process would be infused into a democratic process if Christians voted on behalf of God. God can incarnate himself again to come down here and vote – once, but not again through others by any means. And since he requires complete obedience to his will (by all), God’s voice (filled with moral convictions) should be silenced before the state.

    In other words, I’m saying democracy and Christian politics conflict at a specific fundamental motivational level, rather than every element of either philosophies should be rejected. Again, the motivation for a Christian philosophy is that the fate of our society be for God, by those who follow him. Where as, democracy is, as I said above, “For the people, by the people.”

    And that’s why I’m confused where you say, “I think that of all the political institutions that have come and gone, [a liberal democracy] most closely approximates anything like what Christians believe will ultimately characterize the kingdom of God.” To me, a liberal democracy contradicts the political underpinnings of God’s Kingdom if it includes God’s literal presence (can God be out-voted?).


    September 4, 2007
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Somedays you just get lucky…a day off, a good cup of coffee and worthy prattle…

    Jerry, I think Ryan’s point that secularist and Christian perspectives aren’t as polarized as Mr.Fish, and others would claim, is a good one.

    Social justice, as defined by liberalism, and Christian missional responsibilities insofar as they refer to the physical state of human welfare,(leaving evangelical concerns aside for the moment) speak to complimentary and not contradictory worldviews.

    Further I think that it can be effectively argued that western ideas of liberal democracy are dependant upon the evolution of Christian ethics for their very being. What western historical efforts for human justice can we point to and not see the inspiration and underpinning of Christian missionality at work?

    The aims and ambitions of Christianity and liberalism, with regard to the distribution of the material, are mostly one and the same. And that because liberalism has grafted most of it’s ethos in this regard, from Christianity.

    What seperates the worldviews, in my opinion, is the limited objectives and benifits of secular liberalism.

    Christianity’s themes speak to the wholeness of being. Meeting phyiscal needs to survive, offering moral instruction directing the quality of suvival, and offering the hope of continued “beingness” after our physical lives have come to their conclusion. It speaks to all of my intuits with regards to what life “feels like” to me.

    While the liberal can argue that she offers a moral perspective affirming the quality of life, and a broader one than Christianity offers, it does not speak of truth to me. Afirming every choice as a valid one assuming that it does not infringe upon the rights of others, seems to me to blatantly disregard the welfare of the individual making the initial choice. People make bad choices, society encourages and informs bad behaviors. If we are called to stand up for what is right, surely we must also stand up against what is wrong. Liberalism, as it has become defined politically, affirms and accepts too much that is wrong; too much that corrupts, and honest liberals, of which there are many, know this to be true.

    Liberalism lacks a sense of discipline and consequently just ideas as to how discipline should be ordered. Life without just discipline leads to anarchy. Unfettered liberalism would do likewise.

    As for arguements with regards to the afterlife let me just say that I hope, as Christianity hopes for us, that God awaits. Death is not an end but rather a new and glorious beginning. Such a worldview inspires not only an individual’s view of the future but as well edifies her present. Acts of love, selflessness and fraternity are not just well intended but meaningless vanities, but rather become the connecting means by which we continue to grow in their experience. Ultimately with our God, through the course of eternity.

    Christianity offers an eternity of God, an eternity of love and an eternity of community with one another..the whole enchillada, my friend.

    Liberalism offers us something a whole lot less.

    September 5, 2007
  7. Jerry, I have to admit that I’m having an extremely difficult time understanding what you’re getting at re: the relationship between God and democracy, and your view that “Christian politics conflict at a specific fundamental motivational level.” It’s hard to know if you’re attributing some of the things you mention to me and my original post, or if they just reflect your aversion to a specific group of Christians whose political views you have come into contact with.

    Here’s what I’m saying: I am a Christian who believes certain things about the nature of God and what he ultimately wants for the world. As such, my political beliefs and actions will reflect this. I will vote and participate in a liberal democracy (which, again, I am happy to do) according to what I believe about God and reality. Nothing more.

    I would venture to say that you do precisely the same thing. Your political beliefs and actions are guided by the comprehensive worldview you have adopted. Everybody does this – I don’t see how it’s avoidable.

    Re: “In other words, I’m saying democracy and Christian politics conflict at a specific fundamental motivational level.”

    I’m not sure why “for the people, by the people” has to be necessarily opposed to “for God.” Is it possible that God’s designs for the world could include things that are beneficial to human beings? I certainly conceive of the kingdom of God as a time/place where human beings enjoy maximal flourishing, where what is best for human beings becomes a reality. Christianity did, after all, play a significant role in the rise of democracy in the first place. It’s hard to see how that could have happened if it was as fundamentally opposed to all things liberal and democratic as you seem to be implying.

    You seem to be opposing your understanding of democracy and how one should participate in it to a very specific conception of “Christian politics” which resembles something like an ancient theocracy. Perhaps you know Christians who continue to think this way about religion and politics; I can only assure you, as I thought my initial post would have made clear, that I am not one of them.

    September 5, 2007
  8. Gil #

    Of course I’m not trying to suggest that ‘allowing God to have a moral voice’ has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. I’m simply saying that reducing something as complex as global terrorism to a simplistic explanation like ‘they believe God wants them to do things’ is not enough. There are a whole host of political, economic and historical factors that need to be considered as well. Religion is too easy of a target here yet it’s constantly referred to as if the simple fact of religious difference explained all the complexities in the Middle East or any other global hot spot. Religion is clearly implicated in many of these situations but I seriously doubt that it’s the idea of a moral God per se that’s the key issue.

    Are Islamic militants the only people who believe that God commands a certain kind of ethical behaviour? It would be very hard to argue that the fact that one particular group of people construes the will of God in this disastrous way means that every person who believes that God cares about morality is implicated.

    September 5, 2007
  9. Great post Ryan – I really enjoy reading this blog.

    I recently read something that seemed to sum up the political nature of the church in David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite”. It’s in the section on salvation which has been, in my opinion, the richest part of the book so far (honestly I have been working on this book all summer, it has NOT been an easy read!)

    “Christ’s pattern has been handed over and entrusted to the church as a project: he does not hover over human history as an eschatological tension, a withdrawn possibility, an absence, or only a memory, but enters into history precisely in the degree that the church makes his story the essence of its practices. The church, then, as a pilgrimage, whose light and motile transit through time is recognized an an intrusion upon the culture property of the secular world, should often appear as a transgressor of social order; at other times it should judge social order good and necessary; but it either case it should act only from the vantage of the kingdom.”

    September 5, 2007
  10. Thanks Jessica! Wow, you’ve certainly tackled quite a daunting book. I went the library the other day with every intention of signing it out, and after reading a few pages came to the conclusion that this was a book that would have to wait until I could actually give it some serious time and attention. So many big words, so many casual references to thinkers I’ve never heard of… Sigh.

    Re: the quote. I appreciated Hart’s emphasis on how the church can contribute to and be partially at home in many social/political movements or ideologies, but that its activity and witness cannot be contained within or defined by them. I think the church’s future orientation is at least partially responsible for this – we live according to what we believe will one day be true but is not yet fully realized. There’s a kind of restlessness built into Christianity, from my perspective, and I think Hart captures it well.

    September 5, 2007
  11. Yes, it’s taken me all summer and I still have about 50 pages to go. Wikipedia has been my close friend these last few months. The first section is definitely the most difficult (you could get away with skipping it – I think I probably only understood about 35% of this section)… But it’s worth it. It has become a formative book for me.

    September 6, 2007

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