Secular or Religious?

Recently, the head of the Evangelical charity "World Vision" came out and said that "Conservative Christians" need to stop waging their so-called "culture war" on "secular culture", and instead focus on doing Jesus' works of Love in society. Bravo! I heartily applaud this move, and support it with all my heart and mind.

And yet, I do want to call the question of what is "secular" and what is "religious". How do we identify secular things and religious things? Is something "religious" simply because the name God or Jesus is slapped on it (along with appropriate Biblical proof texts)? Or is something "religious" when it embodies the values and policies of religion, even if it does not claim religious identity or even recognize God?

While I do think we need to maintain terms that help us differentiate whether we are doing something with reference to God (i.e. religious, spiritual), or without reference to God (i.e. secular), I do think these same terms can sometimes hide the realities at work within cultural phenomena.

What if the word "secular" as used in our "culture war" rhetoric is a misnomer? What if what is actually happening is a movement of God's Spirit leading to a convergence of public policies which institute the dignity and worth of all people- gay, straight, women, men, non-religious, and religious? What if many of the manifestations of public religion in the United States have become so retrograde and backward looking, that they cannot discern the trajectory of the Spirit of Christ leading culture to realize the ethical and social values embedded in texts such as Galatians 3.26-29, 1Corinthians 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' ministry of healing and hospitality?

If the Church will not follow where Jesus leads, and where the trajectory of the Bible points us to, then Christ's Holy Spirit has only one option left: To work among those who will follow this trajectory, even if they do not realize it is the Spirit leading them.

And I'm not saying this is the Spirit doing "a new thing". This is the Spirit completing a very old thing which has been borne witness in Scripture for ages. Some folks say that the Spirit is leading us into "new truths". But I'm not so sure there are any new truths to be had out there. Perhaps it is just the application of the same Eternal Truths to new environments, contexts, and cultures. If it is eternally true that "God is Love" (1John 4.8) rooted in understanding God as perfect inter-communion in the Holy Trinity, then perhaps we are witnessing ever-new applications of this self-giving, self-sacrificial Divine Love as culture develops over time.

Yet, I'm also not saying this cultural movement is purely from God. It's not. No cultural movement ever is. In fact, I take severe umbridge at a couple of planks in the so-called "secular" platform. For instance, I do try to practice and preach a "consistent life ethic" which defends life from womb to tomb. Thus, not only do I find the use of the death penalty reprehensible in advanced industrial societies. I also think the use of abortion as a regular means of birth control is reprehensible, although abortions should remain safe and legal when they are used as a means of last resort to protect the mother's health and life.

So, some of our "secular" cultural values do seem to be at odds with the Kingdom of God. But much of the "secular" platform does seem to lead to a fulfillment of Jesus' Kingdom programme: Genuine hospitality to "the other", universal respect for human dignity, access for all to health care that leads to better life and human flourishing. And if we are going to define these values as "secular", while opposite values and policies are "religious", then I suppose we need to flip our definitions and proclaim Jesus as "secular" too.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.