Secularizing Christianity

In Spiritual Bankruptcy, you are very critical of secularism and call for the secularizing of Christianity. How does a secularized Christianity differ from secularism? How would it facilitate the church responding to global crises?

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Working on that book I came to the conclusion that the hope for guidance on a dying planet is in secularizing what are often called the great “religions” and especially Christianity. I have long opposed this use of the term “religions,” since “religiousness” is not what these traditions are primarily about. (See May 2009.) I prefer “wisdom traditions” or “traditional Ways,” meaning ways of life and thought. When I call for secularizing them, I am recognizing that all of them tend to take on “religious” characteristics and that this religiousness prevents them from making the critical contributions to our current thinking and practice that are so urgently needed.

To understand how one can affirm Christian wisdom while opposing Christian religiousness, think of the prophets’ denunciation of the religious practices of Israel. Think of Jesus’ insistence that the Sabbath is made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. The prophets and Jesus were secularizing the Jewish Way. That is, they were rejecting the treatment of inherited rules, practices, and writings as sacred, meaning, beyond critical analysis. They were refocusing the wisdom of the tradition on the needs of real people and real society. The need for such refocusing of our Christian Way on real people and the real world has never been as urgent as it is today.

Although my concern is primarily with Christianity, something quite similar applies in other great wisdom traditions. They all have much to contribute in the current global crises, but the religiousness that plays so large a role in all of them impedes this work. This religiousness has called forth the secularist reaction, most fully developed in the modern West. It has been the West’s most successful export.

As the question asserts, much of my book is devoted to a harsh critique of secularism. I do not question that it had much justification in its opposition to the religiousness of the past and continues to have much justification in its opposition to the religiousness of the present. But it has failed to generate a better world, and today it provides no wisdom for the response to radically deteriorating circumstances. It has defined its task as adding vastly to our storehouse of information and our ability to control and exploit nature. But it has blocked and undercut the wisdom that might have used all this information and power for positive purposes.

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The difference between the secularizing of the great Ways and secularism is that, whereas the former criticizes and develops the inherited tradition, the latter undertakes to clear the slate and create knowledge de novo. A particularly clear illustration is found in the difference between Greek philosophy and the program of Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. The Greek philosophers worked with the cumulative thought of Greek culture and produced clarified and systematized ways of understanding that continue to stimulate us today. Descartes proposed to build up an indubitable system of thought out of his own immediate experience alone. Obviously, in fact, the ideas given in his culture played a large role in shaping the actual results of his thought experiment, but the intention was transmitted to later Western philosophers, such as Hume, who carried it through more consistently. This program is secularist, and its results offer very little help in dealing with our new and desperate situation. Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, even though they lived in a very different world, offer us more useful guidance than Descartes, Hume, and Kant.

In the book I deal also with science, higher education, and economics. In their modern forms they are all secularist, and none of them provides the wisdom we need. In the case of higher education, the secularizing of Christianity survives in some liberal arts colleges, but it has disappeared in the fully secularist modern research universities. Modern science began with the aim to know God and God’s world better, but it evolved into a fully secularist self-understanding that cut it off from any possibility of contributing wisdom. Modern economic thinking was radically secularist from the beginning. Its goal of satisfying as many human wants as possible has been translated into an indiscriminate effort to increase consumption; and its hegemony in public policy is a main cause of the disasters that are already besetting us.

What then of secularizing Christianity today? I argue that it has in fact contributed some wisdom in the context of global problems. See the documents produced by the Vatican, the patriarch of Constantinople, and the World Council of Churches as well as many Protestant denominations. I commend especially the work of World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Nevertheless, the voice of secularizing Christianity has been very weak and has been little heard. Why?

Liberal Protestantism is an important example of secularizing Christianity. It submits Christianity, its biblical sources, and the life of Jesus to serious critical examination. It directs attention away from another world to this one. It has opened itself to learning from any who have something to teach. It has expressed itself authentically in the social gospel and more recently in its support of various movements of liberation. It has led in repentance for the sins of Christianity, such as its patriarchy and its anti-Jewish teaching and practice, and in attempts to develop theologies that deal more appropriately with the earth. It has much of which to be proud.

However, along with many other forms of Christianity, it has been largely acculturated. It has accepted many of the ideals and perspectives of the cultures in which it has lived. When these cultures were themselves deeply influenced by Christianity this was not disastrous, but when these cultures lost their Christian moorings, the consequences were terrible, as in the Nazification of the church in Germany. In that situation, the only serious resistance came from those who renewed commitment to the core of the tradition they secularized, the Lordship of Jesus.

Liberal Protestantism in the United States also can too easily merge into acculturated Protestantism. To the extent that this has happened, it deserves the bad name it has received. Secularizing a tradition ends when the distinctiveness of the tradition is submerged into the current cultural values. Religiousness is not the answer, since religious Protestants are even more likely to support corporate rule and American imperialism than are liberals. But liberal Protestants’ openness to learn from those in the surrounding culture thought to have knowledge to impart does pose a problem for them that the religious may not have. The religious can simply attack the knowledge that they do not like for being secular.

Christian beliefs overlap with philosophical teachings. Secularizing Christians have always been open to learning from the wisdom of others, and they learned much from Greek philosophy. As philosophy changes, they are likely to assume that the most prestigious new philosophies have the most to teach them. But in the modern world the most prestigious philosophies are secularist. When secularizing Christians turn to them for guidance, they are likely to appropriate ideas that weaken distinctive Christian convictions. Discriminating between secularism and the valid knowledge secularists have gained and can share with secularizing Christians is not always easy.

In this difficult situation, there is one particularly promising movement that can help those who would secularize Christianity. Modern philosophy generally has understood that knowledge of what is external to the human subject depends on sense experience. This understanding leads to ignoring important convictions, for example, about good and evil, that thousands of years of human experience have generated. But William James proposed a “radical empiricism” that affirms elements in experience that do not depend on the sense organs. Human experience has deeper sources. Alfred North Whitehead richly developed this fundamental insight through his doctrine of physical prehensions. Our access to the past and to the natural world through these prehensions is primary. Sense experience arises out of them. To ignore or deny what cannot be justified by sense data cuts us off from the accumulated wisdom of the race. This is a profound mistake.

Christians who want to secularize their faith, that is, to open it to criticism and to bring Christian wisdom realistically to bear on the urgent problems of our day, have help. They no longer need to choose between rejecting the best philosophy of their time and their own wisdom tradition. They have an ally inside the world of contemporary philosophy.

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

See also:

This article is borrowed from the Center for Process Studies

Process & Faith is a program of the Center for Process Studies, an affiliated program of the Claremont School of Theology.

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