Seriously Secular? (John Gunson)

  (09 May 09)

Seriously Secular?


By John Gunson



Why are we SoFiA members or Progressive Christians? I think it is because we are in fact secular people and not religious people, though many of us have some sort of religious background, and we are trying to make sense of this implicit conflict that has sneaked up on us. The dialogue that goes on in the Sea of Faith Network in Australia and in its Bulletin seems to illustrate this confusion and conflict.


I was delighted to read Peter Bore’s article in the last issue of the Bulletin because he recognizes one of the things that contributes to our confusion - the problem of undefined terminology. Much that is written or spoken assumes that we all know what people mean when they use words like God, religion, church, and especially spirituality. Helen Mason, in the same issue, is also careful to define what she means by spirituality before she sets out to write about it. On the other hand, her definition leaves us somewhat mystified when it refers to a “moment of enlightenment” and the experience of “feeling connected and at one with the rest of creation”.


The other missing dimension in so much of our exploration of religion, faith and meaning, is a focus on the ethical. “How ought we to live?” is the fundamental question at the heart of secular life, and without which insights about meaning and religion and self-realization have little of importance to say to our world. To illustrate just one aspect of our dilemma let me take some examples.


It is said by some, for instance, that “a sense or an experience of awe and wonder is the truest form of religion or religious experience”. So often we hurry to agree with statements like that. They sound good or right. But before we take a position for or against such a statement, we need to ask what is being said here. Is it intelligible? Is it persuasive? Is it based on some sort of objectively testable evidence? Are the terms defined or commonly understood and agreed? Is the statement merely a tautology? What do we mean by awe and wonder? What do we mean by religion? How do we know something is a religious experience? How can we possibly have an opinion about something that is internal to someone else? How can we know from his/her words what he/she has actually experienced?


We could do the same questioning and analysis of the currently fashionable view of the God idea that has its origins in process thought and quantum mechanics.


Panentheism is readily latched on to by progressive Christians because with the discrediting of theism we are searching around for a satisfactory alternative. Panentheism is popularised and it sounds good, but what on earth does it mean? God is in everything and everything is in God. God is a process or in process rather than a concrete reality. Have we really subjected this concept to rigorous scrutiny? My impression is that by and large we have not.


How is a panentheistic God of any significance? The question needs to be asked : “So what?” Why do we continue to look to an external power for the source of those values and experiences that matter most to us? Even if we are not captive to old- time religion, it appears we are still captive to old-time philosophy, vis-a-vis Plato. Nor, by and large, have we had the courage to confront the unpalatable thought that the God idea may have passed its use-by date, has no longer any hope of being communicated to a secular world, perhaps can only be meaningfully expressed in a secular world not in new religious or cosmological or philosophical terms (like panentheism) but in value words or ethical concepts that are part of everyone’s language - namely goodness, truth and love. Though each of those words also needs careful definition.


So my plea is that we should start to take the secular seriously. And that also means taking science seriously, taking scholarship seriously, and taking the ethical seriously.


Taking the secular seriously

The mindset of our contemporary Western world is very clearly secular. That is, the focus of people’s lives is very clearly about this world, about existence now, about getting and spending. The scientific, industrial, technological, communications revolutions have made life something to be desired if not enjoyed. With these revolutions have come economic development, employment, better health, cheaper more abundant food, labour-saving devices, and above all time for the leisure to enjoy both culture and recreation.


Prior to these revolutions life was brutish and short and full of danger and suffering, because the powers of nature, including famine, illness and disease, and the power of the rich and powerful dictated people’s lives. We were at the mercy of worldly and other- worldly powers, superstition was rife, and much attention was paid to placating the spirits and the gods to keep us safe from harm; and religions flourished.


Today, superstition and religion continue to persist in the West, but they are peripheral to people’s lives, and for many they play no part at all any longer. Religion has always been primarily about another world, and its impact on this world. An indulgent old man in the sky and the assumption of an afterlife are probably widely believed in today, but they are cultural carryovers that only rise to the surface when we have unexpected good fortune or face some personal crisis.


For many of us who are no longer young, back in our childhood that other world was still largely assumed by most people to be at least as important as this world. And though most of the older generation are still influenced by that belief it is not central to our lives, and it is not so for the majority of the young.


For many religious people the secular nature of our world is regarded with negativity, and that is profoundly unfortunate. We prefer a world where God is acknowledged, i.e. a religious world. We see deteriorating standards of behaviour, and we blame the loss of religion and the secular society.


But the world is not secular because people have rejected religion. It is rather the other way round. And this really is the central point of what I want to say. Not secular because people have rejected religion, but people have rejected religion as a consequence of the scientific and intellectual revolutions that have changed our world forever.


Secular knowledge, knowledge of ourselves and our world, sourced from rational thought and scientific discovery has resulted in a turning away from religion, because religion posits answers to life’s questions by pointing to another realm - the action and power of God - based on truth criteria that are not applied to other aspects of knowledge.


Contemporary men and women look within this world and to evidence-based knowledge for the answers they need to their everyday concerns. We all know that most of the things once attributed to the action of God have scientific and rational explanations.


God has largely been squeezed out of life. He is nonetheless retained by many, however, for those relatively few matters for which science has not yet provided the answers.


Taking science seriously

Because we all want to be seen to be taking the contemporary scientific secular world-view seriously, we look to science to find new ways of expressing the God concept. We know that the old language of faith, with its trappings of a pre-scientific age, and its image of a threestoried universe, and its theistic God (a personal super being) can no longer be taken seriously or speak meaningfully to our present age,


The average person today sees the various religions as a kind of superstition or a hobby for the religious - a sort of weird superstition for the elderly, or the impressionable vulnerable young, and also for those seeking security in the certainties of fundamentalism.


So progressive Christians, for instance, believe we need to talk the language of science if we are to be seen as modern and relevant, speaking the language of secular people. The favoured disciplines seem to be physics and cosmology, with some limited interest in biology. This is surely a false trail. The average person in the street knows little or nothing about quantum mechanics and string theory, and the mysteries of the big bang and the universe are beyond their ken. So in trying to tie our image of God to science we are limiting our opportunities for discourse and sharing our faith to the elite alone, or even aiding and abetting so-called “intelligent design”.


Science and religion writers who find support for religion in science by and large do so on the grounds that such incomprehensible wonders must be the product of mind, and surely quantum mechanics suggests parallels in the so-called spiritual realm - ideas that are very close to a sophisticated version of “creation science”. But none of this is deduced from the evidence. Rather it is an attempt to reinforce an existing belief system by what might be called parallels or probabilities from science.


Seeking support for religion in the findings of certain scientific disciplines is to miss the point of both science and the secular mind. The point of the secular mind-set is not that the average citizen understands much science, but that he/she approaches truth-seeking and truth-finding via the scientific method. If we want to convince secular people of the truth of anything we will need to start there. The scientific method is at odds with belief systems. It starts and ends with the facts. It relies on observation, experiment and testing, and repeatable results. If, for instance, we accept the supposedly science-based panentheistic idea of God, then this life-force or spiritual reality or energy is enmeshed in nature, and hence ought to be subject to the secular scientific method of seeking the truth.


If, on the other hand, we want to insist that knowledge of God is of a different order to scientific knowledge, that there is such a thing as the knowledge of personal experience or whatever, then that is fine - we can believe what we like. But we should not expect it to be communicable or convincing to other secular men and women. They will be happy enough for us to have our personal beliefs, - lots of people do, - but those beliefs will not be persuasive in a secular world.


Taking the ethical seriously

As I read the treatises on science and religion, and the new ways of conceiving and talking about God, especially the panentheistic approach, there seems to me to be a glaring omission. If one follows the arguments for a cosmological or panentheistic God there is a deafening silence about the ethical nature of such a God. That of course is not surprising , because the cosmological or panentheistic God is so closely identified with the natural universe and the energy or life-force within it. It is pushing credibility to seek to derive an ethical dimension from the natural world. We may indeed be overwhelmed by the mystery and wonder of creation, but what we know about the evolutionary process which gave us life is its massive indifference to life and its huge wastefulness of life. Survival strategies, however, such as maternal care of young and tribal solidarity can finally lead intelligent humans themselves to extrapolate these to a global perspective. So, the very process of creation and of evolution - the work of this God - is either amoral or lacking in any respect for life itself. As secular scientific people , to be honest we must take account of the evidence.


Our tradition is the God of the Bible. This God is above all the ethical God, the God of justice and righteousness, the God who intervenes in the lives of people and nations because he cares, he loves. Indeed at the heart of Christian religion is the assertion that he cared so much that he intervened in the man Jesus to save us.


Progressive Christians have been eager to banish this God because in a secular world a personal and interventionist God is no longer credible. We are left instead with the God of science - but he can never be the God of justice and righteousness. In the secular world of today, with its life and death ethical challenges, if our God is not first and foremost an ethical God, then he or she or it is hardly worth our interest or devotion.


Taking scholarship seriously

As secular people we need of course to take all scholarship seriously. That is the mark of the secular man or woman. But especially in our search we need to listen carefully to the latest and best Biblical scholarship if we are interested in the Christian religion.


In particular we need to attend to the work of the Jesus Seminar, a coalition of some 200 scholars doing historical Jesus study. Recent textual discoveries and methods, and historical, archaeological and cross-cultural studies, present us with a radically changed understanding of the New Testament and of Jesus of Nazareth.


Little of the Gospels can be attributed directly to Jesus, and our central credal affirmations about him - virgin birth, resurrection, Son of God, Saviour are not supported by this new light that has been thrown on the Biblical records.


And we need to ask ourselves, since we demythologize much of the Bible, is it not time also to demythologize the central Biblical “myth” - the God concept itself?


And of course, if we are serious about the centrality of the ethical to our continued existence on this planet, then what scholarship does tell us about the man from Nazareth and his teaching can provide the basis for the radical ethic that we need. He was not the Son of God, but he was a man passionate about justice and the poor and marginalized. Ant the best scholarship tells us that he didn’t start a church but challenged his contemporaries to bring healing and sustenance to those in need.


What we need today is not church or religion or God, but goodness, truth and love, and people willing to form ethical communities to do the work of love in the world.




John Gunson's book, "God, Ethics and the Secular Society" has recently been published as an ebook, and is available from most of the major distributors.

Posted by John Gunson

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