Jan  2017 03
I Am a Secular Christian

In my last blog, I began to wrestle with the fact that my Protestant home is not “the mainline” in any meaningful way. I represent a minority point of view within both U.S. and world Christianity. If my family is not “the mainline,” what do we, in this minority expression, call ourselves?

Well, I already know the following proposal will not stick because the attributed connotation is too negative. But I’d argue that “secular Christian” is accurately descriptive and invites creative criticism of what secular Christianity has been and might become.

The negative connotation of the word “secular” is associated with the denotation that secular means irreligious. However, there is another meaning of secular, equally valid, that I think captures much of what “mainline Protestantism” actually has meant. That meaning of secular is “of this age.” To be a secular Christian is to learn to live with God in this present world.

In the following ways, my Protestant family has been secular, dedicated to working with God to make this world a better world:

  • The incarnate love of God in Jesus is expressed in the yoked commandments to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. One cannot love God without loving God’s world.
  • We exemplify Paul Tillich’s insight that religion is the soul of culture and culture is the form of religion. We can see God’s work in art, film, and music that never mention “Jesus.”
  • More attention is paid to working with God for justice and compassion in this life than to life after death, to salvation in this life rather than being saved from hell in the next. Answering the questions of “salvation from what?” and “salvation for what?” is done from within a this-life perspective. The Lord’s Prayer petition for “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is a secular/of-this-age petition, rather than a plea for the end of the world.
  • We embrace experimental science and scientific insights, for example, evolution, age of the universe, climate change, brain research’s revelations regarding the motivations of behavior, the range of human sexualities. Scientific pursuits expand our understanding of the wondrous universe God created, even as those pursuits raise new ethical and existential questions that sometimes challenge ancient “truths.”
  • Theology is forged in a mutually critical conversation and argument between theological sources per se (such as the Bible and the lived experience of Christians) and contemporary sources of knowledge. We do not measure the truth and validity of all knowledge by a theological mold cast in other eras and cultures, rejecting all ideas that don’t fit inherited beliefs.
  • We believe God is bigger than our religion, that God speaks and acts in the ecumene, throughout the whole world—including other religions. 

I am a secular Christian. The six bullet points above are core tenets of my theology.

But in naming my type of Christianity “secular,” I can see problem areas more clearly than I might otherwise.

Secular Christianity gets into trouble when:

  • We marry an era rather than live in it as migrants and sojourners. Ages and eras change. So many 1950s and 1960s congregations were founded after the GI Bill era expanded home ownership and suburbs. Migrating families needed friends. Church functioned as a place to connect with geographical neighbors and receive assistance in raising children. Today, there are many “friendly” yet dying congregations. Friendliness as a virtue belonged to an age. In addition, political and cultural establishments come and go. We do not need a friendly political regime to do our work. The early Christian movement did amazing work in an Empire—at a cost.
  • We do not provide compelling (even awe-inspiring) religious and spiritual symbols, rituals, stories, practices, and reasons for holding the stances we do. Historian David Hollinger believes ecumenical Protestantism (his term) won the culture battles of the late 20th century, meaning that we and urban cultures moved in the same direction (embracing feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and expanded rights for minority groups). Yes, this happened while, at the same time, we were losing numbers in worship and the conservative areas of the country were growing in electoral college power.

My seminary preaching professor told us we should test every sermon we preach by asking whether it could be a Rotary speech. If so, it was not Christian enough. I apply a similar criterion to all church practices: what are we teaching/doing/practicing/being that can only be happening in a Christian context? What is the difference between acting for justice and acting as a Christian for justice? What is the difference between being a moral person and being a Christian moral person?

In our desire to engage with the world, I fear we sometimes neglected our explicitly theological and spiritual work. I recall the story that journalists were often disappointed when they heard a sermon by Dr. King. Why? Because they did not expect to hear a Black Baptist sermon, meaning they did not get the spiritual well that fed his public work.

  • We are so engaged in worldly work that we neglect the critical task of preparing individuals to deal with their own mortality. If you reflect on the scope of this task, you’ll see that dealing with the fact that I will die has broad-ranging implications—e.g., how shall I live, what is the meaning of my life/what am I here to do, how do I show up in my intimate relationships, how do I practice letting go, how do I treat bodies (my own and others), where do I find joy? In my opinion, a church that does not regularly remind me I am going to die is probably not doing enough to help me live.

Any other secular Christians out there?

And, yes, for those of you who are thinking, “You need to re-read Bonhoeffer.” My reply is: “Thanks, I know.”


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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