Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2009 Question

Is it better for a Christian to be secular or religious?

Dr. Cobb's Response

To some Christians that question sounds silly. If one thinks that Christianity is a religion, perhaps the one true religion, then of course to be a Christian is to be religious. But the idea that Christianity is a religion is by no means universally held. It was strongly opposed by Karl Barth, for example. In a quite different way, Harvey Cox celebrated the secular as a Christian.

Although the word “religion” is used occasionally in the English translations of the Bible, it is never applied to Christianity as a whole or in general. The closest approximation is where James speaks of “religion that is true and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). The term here and elsewhere seems to have the connotation of devout practice, often referring to devout Jewish practice, which might include persecuting Christians. James wants to direct it in a different way, toward practical help to the most helpless members of society.

When we ask what practices are considered specifically “religious,” we think of prayer and Bible reading and worship. We may also think, dependent on our upbringing, of abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, dancing, working on Sunday, fancy apparel, swearing, and so forth as reflecting a “religious” style of life. The religious person is often thought of as one who follows a strict code of personal behavior.

If that is what we mean by “religious,” then we find that the prophetic tradition in the Bible is not supportive of being religious. The prophets were critical of the religiousness of their fellow Hebrews, telling then that instead of their religious observances what God wanted was social justice. Jesus and Paul both taught that the only law God really cares about is the law of love, that is, that we should love one another and that this includes even “enemies.” In an important sense, this love expresses itself in “secular” ways such as feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners. James would say that this is true religion.

One way of distinguishing the “religious” and the “secular” is in terms of the two love commandments: loving God and loving other people. But from the point of view of process thought, this does not make much sense. If we think that God is really separate from the world, then perhaps we could imagine serving God as a different set of acts than serving other people. We might suppose that God really enjoyed our praise and adoration independently of how it played out in the world. But if we understand that God is thoroughly compassionate, so that whatever we do to our neighbor we also do to God, then the difference becomes minor. We serve God best by serving our neighbor. Trying to please God in some way that does not benefit the neighbor is not likely to work well. Our love of God directs us to the service of the neighbor as well as caring for our own needs. We are back to the secular.

In my view, and I think in process views generally, Christianity in its purest forms is a quite secular affair. The value of whatever religious disciplines we adopt is to be found in their contribution to our own well-being and that of other creatures. Being “religious” is good in so far as it makes us more loving. It is bad in so far as it restricts our love of creatures and its practical expression. It can do either.

However, the Christian affirmation of the secular must be sharply distinguished from secularism. Secularism has many forms. Organizing our lives around any limited object of devotion is what we mean by idolatry, and most idolatry is secularist. Treating our nation as ultimate is one important form of secularism. But more tempting to us may be treating Christianity as ultimate. That too is idolatrous, even if it seems very religious.

Secularism may oppose any object of devotion whatever. It may deny any call or claim on our lives. It may leave us with no purpose beyond satisfying our private desires. It may deny that it is any better to have one set of desires than another. It often leaves people with no goal beyond getting along economically so as to be able to buy what they want.

Many people find they must give themselves to something. They may do so without regarding that something as the only thing of importance. In that way they avoid idolatry. They seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, art for the sake of art, or technology for the sake of technology. All this is sometimes celebrated as the end of ideology, and, of course, of religion.

I am suggesting a profound contrast between secularism and the secularization of Christianity. The secularization of Christianity is freeing it from views of God that can lead to destructive action in the world, from subservience to absolute authorities or unquestionable truth claims, from legalistic morality, from an otherworldly orientation. All this secularization is for the purpose of liberating us to love and serve our neighbors, to think tough-mindedly about what God calls us to be and do for the salvation of the world God loves, to be true disciples of Jesus Christ in doing what we are called to do, to live in authentic fellowship with other followers of Jesus and openness to learn from all and to work with all. Secularized Christians have a great contribution to make to the salvation of the world.

But the secularist in the strict sense rejects not only any absolutization of past authorities but the wisdom of the past in general. Secularists seek to base beliefs on what they can derive from their own experience or the experience of others who, like them, reject all wisdom derived from the past. They do not find any reason to care about others or to sacrifice themselves to the common good.

The consequences of a fully secular approach are obscured by the fact that so many people reject Christianity, often for good reasons, but carry with them the best of its concerns and values. Among those who have worked hardest for the justice and righteousness about which the prophets speak or who have most fully embodied the concern for the powerless that James calls pure and undefiled religion, many do not recognize the influence of Christian faith on their thought and lives. Sometimes they are the truest disciples of Jesus.

Why, then, should we care about labels or about the way people identify themselves? During the heyday of “secular humanism” there were many people of the sort I am describing. Some still exist. But they often find that they cannot transmit to their children the values that they have often regarded as simply common sense. They regard the service of others and the quest for the common good as such evident desiderata that no system of beliefs or community of support is needed to teach them. But in fact this is not the case. These are Christian values that do not survive when subjected to “the acids of modernity” or the strictly secularist thinking that now dominates our universities.

We suffer from a polarization between the scientism, the economism, and the secularist organization of knowledge into value-free disciplines, on the one side, and the supernaturalist, authoritarian forms of Christianity that have gained strength in reaction to secularism. If the world is to be saved, there must be an alternative. Process forms of Christianity join with other progressive forms to offer such an alternative. This alternative, secularized Christianity, is far more faithful to Jesus Christ than is either a rigidly “religious” version of Christianity or the secularism that has become the greatest threat to human flourishing.       

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.