Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What are the main characteristics of a culture that is influenced by a secular worldview?




















/I wrote this essay a couple of years ago to submit to my tutor in "Mission Theology in Context". Hope you find it interesting./

1. Introduction: the myth of secular society.
2. Defining the terms ‘culture’, ‘worldview’ and ‘secular worldview’.
3. Main Characteristics of a culture that is influenced by a secular worldview.
a. Faith in man, progress and science.
b. Faith as private not public truth.
c. Individualism.
d. Materialism and hedonism.
e. Nominalism.
f. Religious pluralism and relativism.
g. Tolerance.
4. Questions posed by a secular culture and their relevance for mission.
a. Doing incarnational evangelism.
b. Speaking the truth relevantly.
5. Conclusion



What are the main characteristics of a culture that is influenced by a secular worldview? In what ways are the questions posed by a secular culture important for mission?


1. Introduction: the myth of secular society.

A few decades ago Max Weber expressed the belief that ‘modern society is on a steady and irreversible course toward increasing secularisation’. It was maintained that this process ‘would inevitably lead to the gradual disappearance of religious belief and … religion will have a receding role in that society’(1). This, as Newbigin points out, has turned out to be a myth (2) since the process of secularisation, instead of leading to the gradual disappearance of religious belief, demonstrates 'the continuing and often greatly increased vigor of religious belief in that society'. It is so because a view which excludes the belief systems of other religions is also a worldview, even a religion (3).

Second, Newbigin states that the effort to separate public life from private behaviour and morals is impossible in the long terms, because the way a society behaves is a function of the personal values and beliefs of its individuals. He goes to say that ‘the unprecedented crop of new religions’ in the west also proves this myth (4).

Still, secularism is still prominent in our culture. So, it is important for us to consider in what way culture is being influenced by it and in what way are the questions posed by a secular culture important for mission today.

2. Defining the terms ‘culture’, ‘worldview’ and ‘secular worldview’.

Before we consider the main characteristics of a culture, influenced by a secular worldview, we need to define what the terms ‘culture’, ‘worldview’ and secular worldview’ mean.

There are many definitions of culture but for the present work we shall use the following one: culture is ‘an integrated system of beliefs, of values, of customs, and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs, which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity’(5). ‘Put simply, it refers to the way that a group of people do things together(6).

Culture is not the same as worldview. Peter Cotterell defines the latter as ‘the individual’s understanding of the world and his relationship to it, his behaviour in it’(7). It is ‘determined by that individual’s religion’ to a great extent(8). So, we may say that secular(9) worldview is an individual’s naturalistic understanding of the world and his relationship to it based on that understanding. The secular worldview’s ‘plausibility structure’(10) excludes the possibility of any religious explanation of the world.

3. Main Characteristics of a culture that is influenced by a secular worldview.

a. Faith in man, progress and science.
Premodern time was defined by faith in God and was best captured in Anselm’s phrase ‘I believe in order that I may understand’(11). What people knew about the world was preconditioned by their belief in the Bible. By the late 1400s, due to the geographical discoveries and scientific and theological developments, the belief in the ‘divinely constituted world’(12) began slowly disintegrating and ushered in the Enlightenment or the beginning of modernity(13). The ultimate authority of knowledge and behaviour shifted from God to reason(14). In order to prove to him and to other sceptics that God really existed Descartes developed the principle of doubt, namely, cogito ergo sum(15). Yet, instead of giving a firmer basis of the Christian faith, this principle led to a major shift in epistemology as finally reason ousted God(16) and turned itself into the only legitimate source and foundation of all knowledge.

This is the first and most important characteristic of a culture influenced by the secular worldview. As a result, God was declared dead and humanity took its place as the centre of the universe. Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ led to the belief that human beings are naturally good and as such were doomed to progress(17). By reason people could boldly launch into a process of scientific discovery. At the same time, this new anthropocentric worldview led to a shift of interest in science from the metaphysical to man and the physical world. It was characterised by the optimistic belief that science could bring heaven on earth. Humanity did not need God anymore since through reason and scientific progress it could eliminate evil and suffering and bring universal happiness(18).

b. Faith as private not public truth.
Descartes’ principle cogito ergo sum ‘drew a distinction between ‘“the observer” and the “object”, and thus between “mind” and “matter”’. It created a dualism between the material universe and the metaphysical world. The former was to be researched by scientists, and the latter, by philosophers and theologians(19). This

separation of reality into the objective and the subjective has produced a situation in which the objective, or public sphere, has been seen as the important area in which the real world operates. The subjective has come to be seen as the world of opinion which, by implication, is less important(20).


In other words, personal beliefs have ‘gradually become equated (21) with the word “opinion” and the concept of “values”’(22).

c. Individualism.
Since man, and not God, is in the centre of attention in a secular culture, it is the individual and not society which now matters. Society now is merely ‘the product of individual choice’(23) and not something which individuals should respect and try to accommodate to. Whereas in the premodern the emphasis was on the individual’s ‘place and duty within society’(24), in secular cultures the focus is on the individual’s rights(25). Furthermore, the improving standard of living, social benefits and health service in secular states leads to greater independence of individuals from their immediate friends and neighbours, and thus to alienation and individualism.

d. Materialism and hedonism.
If humanity is the only agent of progress in the universe, it follows by implication that its sole driving force for existence would be the ‘pursuit of happiness’. The last decades have witnessed ‘a dramatic upsurge in scientific studies aimed at discovering … what makes happy people happy’(26). The technological progress and the factors mentioned above inescapably led to surplus in production in Western countries. This in turn led to an economic growth and bigger opportunities for individuals to achieve a better standard of living. Mass media and ads brought about the belief that materialism and hedonism are something to be desired and strived for.

e. Nominalism.
As pointed in the introduction above, instead of leading to the disappearance of belief, secularism itself has become a worldview and even a religion in many secular cultures of the West(27). As Robinson points out, put in this context of religious pressure, the Church has tried to come to terms with it, often at the expense of sacrificing its loyalty to Christ. Many churches have ‘accommodated secular thought to such an extent that the dominant problem of the Church in the West has become that of nominalism(28). This has rendered them unable to ‘resist the advance of other faith commitments’, let alone to ‘become a missionary or converting force itself’(29).

f. Religious pluralism and relativism.
Another characteristic of a culture influenced by a secular worldview is religious pluralism and relativism. Religious pluralism is ‘the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth’(30). Similarly, relativism states that ‘all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual(31). If there is only matter and no god, then all values are relative. This loss of confidence in truth can be directly related to the collapse of the modernity’s metanarrative of optimism and belief in progress after the two world wars and other traumatic events in the twentieth century. So, religious pluralism and relativism are a natural outcome of the ‘disintegration of the traditional western concept of truth’(32) in the pluralist secular cultures. Since there is no ultimate reality as a criteria of truth and falsehood it follows that everything is subjective. In religion this statement translates in the famous phrase ‘all religions are equally valid roads to the truth’(33).

g. Tolerance.
Finally, tolerance is a boundary drawn by the architects of the secular society, ‘in order to insure tolerance for a wide variety of private life-styles(34). Since belief in a culture influenced by a secular worldview is a matter of private opinion, it is easy to see why any ‘claims to truth are to be censured as imperialist and divisive’(35). So, Christians are often accused of being arrogant and intolerant as they claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Ironically, the commitment to religious pluralism of a culture influenced by the secular worldview, leads to it being intolerant to some of the members of its society. As Newbigin points out, ‘in regard to what are called “facts” the secular society is not pluralist’(36).

4. Questions posed by a secular culture and their relevance for mission.

As a result, all these features of a secular culture, namely, individualism, the dualism between the public sphere and the private beliefs, religious pluralism and the collapse of confidence in reason, have brought about much fragmentation, alienation and hopelessness. Many have experienced disillusionment with the gods of a culture influenced by a secular worldview and wonder how they can overcome their loneliness and brokenness, and find happiness. Others, like for example those personally affected by terrorist attacks, ask how a loving God could allow so much suffering in this world. Still others, having found no satisfying answers in atheism or other religions, are wondering whether there is any meaning in this life.

Living in a secular culture has urged many to give up their quest for meaning in the eastern religions or secularism and become more open to traditional monotheistic metanarratives, including Christianity. The in-built awareness and need of the absolute truth, in spite of the relativistic agenda of the secular culture, also opens new possibilities before the mission of the Church. What then would be those approaches in mission that would be relevant for the people in a secular culture? How could the Church best respond to these questions?

a. Doing incarnational evangelism.
As we have seen, a common aspect in a secular worldview is the belief that we exist in order to be happy. It is often stated that the main ingredient to personal happiness are healthy relationships. In a world of individualism and alienation, a caring attitude would make a huge difference for non-Christians. In this we need to turn to Jesus’ example. He associated with all, especially with the outcasts of society. So, before we know how to tell them about God’s love, we need to know how to show it to them. This incarnational witness is counter-cultural as it demands many sacrifices on part of the Church but in the long run it can turn out to be the most effective evangelistic tool(37).

b. Speaking the truth relevantly.
Yet, acts of love on themselves are not enough for an effective mission of the church. We need to also learn to speak out the truth of the gospel in the vernacular language of people. We need to present Jesus as an attractive person rather than as a system of beliefs and make His metanarrative meaningful and convincing. This may involve becoming ‘technologically savvy’ and start using a lot of multimedia, art and music in our evangelistic preaching and missions. It involves also knowing both our text (the Bible) and context (culture and its prevailing worldview).

An important aspect of learning to speak the language of a culture influenced by a secular worldview is to learn to use humor in our preaching, evangelism and friendships. In Robinson’s words, it connects non-Christians with the transcendent, as it ‘speaks of love’, and ‘of the triumph of good over evil’, and ‘brings a sense of wonder rather than despair’ as to the mystery of life(38).

5. Conclusion

Finally, we need to recognise and relate to the features of a culture that is influenced by a secular worldview in our mission. We have seen that these characteristics are either modern, or postmodern, or shared by both modernity and postmodernity, in their nature. Modernistic separation of public facts from private beliefs, confidence in reason, science and progress, and the essential goodness of man have led to individualism and materialism. Further, they have bred religious pluralism, relativism and the myth of tolerance. Ironically, a culture influenced by a secular worldview has erected and worships its own god, the autonomous self.

The result of this worldview is that many have experienced personal fragmentation and alienation both from God and the others in their culture. They ask important questions which the Church needs to hear and respond to: these are questions of meaning, of the relevance of absolute truth to life, why there is suffering and how one can find personal happiness. The implication of these questions is that people in a culture impacted by secular worldview long for wholeness and satisfaction, and these can be offered only when the Church incorporates in her mission not only an oral proclamation but also presence, not only words but also works. In a sea of religious commitments, and in a culture invaded by the secular worldview, this can be the best way for the church to respond meaningfully and adequately to the seekers.

The End
_________________________________________

Endnotes

(1) Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (London: SPCK, 1989), p. 211-2.
(2) ibid.
(3) Irving Kristol also witnessed against this view when he remarked that two major events in recent years represent turning points in the history of the twentieth century: ‘The first is the death of socialism... The second is the collapse of secular humanism . . . as an ideal’. Secular humanism with its optimism in progress and science has also led to immorality since it raised personal autonomy as the criteria for good and evil. When our moral choices depend on our own preferences than it is easy to see how in the long run secularism has led to relativism and postmodernism. Kristol goes on to say that ‘since 2001, the prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has also been announcing “the post-secular age”. Habermas is not about to give up atheism—or even secularism—but his main point can be summarized this way: Secularism has been pushed into a new position in world history; it now appears to be the persuasion of a fairly small minority in a sea of rising religious commitment.’ See Michael Novak, ‘Remembering the Secular Age’, in First Things, 2009, http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=5922, [March 12, 2009].
(4)Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.220.
(5)This is the abreviated version of the complete definition: There are many definitions of culture but for the present work we shall use the following one: culture is ‘an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), of values (about what is true, good, beautiful and normative), of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs (government, law courts, temples or churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity’. See The Willowbank Report, section 2, in Richard Tiplady, History of Christian Mission, (London: Oak Hill College, 1997).
(6)I.e., it refers to the language, ways of thinking, worldview, beliefs, customs and practices, institutions, religion, festivals, habits and morals of a particular people’. See Richard Tiplady, History of Christian Mission, (London: Oak Hill College, 1997), p. 317.
(7)According to Lesslie Newbigin, worldview is ‘what we think about the world when we are not really thinking’. In other words, it is ‘an in-built set of assumptions that we make about reality which for most practical purposes we just do not question’ - see Martin Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, (London: Monarch Books, 2001), p. 33. Worldviews constitute ‘the most fundamental level of culture’ and ask the question ‘what is real?’ - see Richard Tiplady, History of Christian Mission, (London: Oak Hill College, 1997), p. 321. So, we may conclude that worldview is just one segment of culture.
(8)Peter Cotterell, Mission and Meaningness: The Good News In a World of Suffering and Disorder, (London: SPCK, 1990), p.25.
(9)‘Secular’ is an adjective meaning ‘of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal’. See Dictionary.com, LLC, 2009, [accessed 15 March 2009].
(10)See Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 25.
(11)Jimmy Long, Generating Hope: A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern Generation, (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 61.
(12)Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide, (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 25.
(13)Long, Generating Hope, p. 61-62.
(14)ibid, p. 63.
(15)‘I believe, therefore I am’.
(16)Thus Descartes introduced, perhaps unwillingly, a dualism between mind and matter, religion and science. See Burnett, D., Clash of Worlds: What Christians Can Do In a World of Cultures In Conflict, (London: Monarch Books, 2002), p. 39.
(17)Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, p.47.
(18)As Burnett observes, all these changes were not appreciated by the majority of the population of the Western society. ‘The success of technology and science seemed to provide proof of the effectiveness of the ideas which were being propounded’ – see David Burnett, Clash of Worlds, (London: Monarch Books, 2002), p. 131.
(19)ibid., pp. 39,40.
(20)Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, pp. VIII, IX.
(21)Newbigin illustrates the impact on our culture of this dualism by pointing to the fact that evolution is taught as ‘fact’ whereas ‘God’s dealings with man through the history of Israel and then of the church’ is taught in terms of values - seeMartin Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, p.45. In Bulgaria media coverages of Eastern-Orthodox festivals refer to the Biblical stories behind those festivals as ‘myths’ or ‘legends’ whereas the claims of all sciences, including ‘social sciences’, are not questioned at all.
(22)Martin Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, p. 45.
(23)ibid, p.47.
(24)ibid.
(25)Interestingly, the attitude to one’s rights and duties within society differ markedly in different age groups in Bulgaria. Young people, who were born and have lived in a culture highly impacted by the European Union agenda of secular humanism, would more willingly stand up for their rights. Older people, who have lived in a totalitarian, though secular, state, would feel more comfortable when asked whether they know their duties rather than their rights.
(26)Science of Happiness: Introduction to the Science of Happiness, in ‘Pursuit-of-happiness.org’, 2008, [accessed 17 March, 2009]
(27)Some of secular culture’s main tenets of belief are, namely, that man is essentially good, that humanity can achieve happiness through faith in reason, science and progress, that faith is a matter of subjective opinion, and that the individual is more important than society – see above.
(28)Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, p.20.
(29)ibid, p.21.
(30)Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.14.
(31)Matthew Slick, ‘What is Relativism?’, in Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, 2008,
[accessed March 19, 2009].
(32)Peter Hicks, ‘Mission, Meaning and Truth’, in Mission and Meaning, ed. By A. Billington, et al. (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), pp.306-7.
(33)Чавдар Хаджиев, ‘Разрушаване на крепости’, in Сантасе: приятелско благовестие, (София: БХСС, 2002), p.3.7.
(34)Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.218.
(35)Alister MacGrath, Bridge-Building, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 148.
(36)Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.218.
(37)Consider the example of Christ in John 1.
(38)Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever, p.169-70.

_______________________________________________

Bibliography

Borgmann, Albert, Crossing the Postmodern Divide, (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Burnett, David, Clash of Worlds: What Christians Can Do In a World of Cultures In Conflict, (London: Monarch Books, 2002).
Cotterell, Peter, Mission and Meaningness: The good news in a world of suffering and disorder, (London: SPCK, 1990)
Dictionary.com, LLC, 2009, [accessed 15 March 2009]
Hicks, Peter, ‘Mission, Meaning and Truth’, in Mission and Meaning, ed. By A. Billington, et al. (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995)
Long, Generating Hope: A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern Generation, (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
MacGrath, Alister, Bridge-Building, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992)
Newbigin, Lesslie, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (London: SPCK, 1989)
Novak, Michael, ‘Remembering the Secular Age’, in First Things, 2009, [March 12, 2009]
Robinson, Martin, The Faith of the Unbeliever, (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2001)
Science of Happiness: Introduction to the Science of Happiness, in ‘Pursuit-of-happiness.org’, 2008, [accessed 17 March, 2009]
Slick, Matthew, ‘What is Relativism?’, in Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, 2008, [accessed 19 March, 2009]
Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, (London: Oak Hill College, 1997)
Хаджиев, Чавдар, ‘Разрушаване на крепости’, in Сантасе: приятелско благовестие, (София: БХСС, 2002)