Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Secularization and Christian Faith

This is my personal summary of the sharing by Randolph Kluver - Singapore Agora Meeting on 21 March 2006. To make it more readable, I have segregated all the themes according to my thinking framework. Please correct me if there is wrong spelling of authors or wrong content. May God bless our learning.
I. Secularization of Society vs. Religious Belief

19th Century, there is a prediction that secularization would replace religious belief.

This prediction is based on 3 assumptions:

1. Religious faith is irrelevant. That is, belief in God no longer motivates society.
2. Strong expectation in Science to answer all questions. That is, God is not really needed to answer our questions.
3. Religious authority is undermined through education.

In 1980s and 1990s, the secular theology is demolished. What happen is that religious belief becomes stronger rather than weaker in society.

II. Statistics

How did the people draw the prediction of secularization in the first place?

Generally, it is because of the trend of secularization is seen in many western European countries that used to be very strong its Christian heritage, like Germany, France, Britain, Netherland, etc. These some 20 nations underwent the same trend, with America as an exception. The United States is the most technologically advanced and richest nation and yet it remains very strong in religious belief. Some comes up with the term 'America exceptionalism' in explaining secularization removing religious belief. However, in number of nations, America might be an exception, but if seen from population number, it is comparable with all those nations' population combined. In that sense, we cannot really say this is an exception.

III. Modernization and Christian Faith

Modernization here refers to movements like technology advancement, educational reforms, economy progress and social infrastructure. Modernity, on the other hand, refers to a worldview, a philosophical attitude associated with secularization, where God is no longer relevant.

We see that not all modernization causes secularization. How do we explain these phenomena?

In many Western European countries, political order is grounded in religious belief. Hence, in order to overthrow a current political system, there is a need to overthrow its religious foundation. As Western European countries had strong Christian heritage, when the system became very dull and oppressive, people seek alternative, like atheism to overthrow the system. As atheism is against Christianity, it casts off the old religious beliefs and hence is seen as a liberating factor.

However, if we turn to South Korea, Latin America and many other developing Asian countries which have other religious beliefs which have grounded and constrained their social and political system, Christianity is seen as a liberating factor. Christianity aligns itself with modernization in most parts of the world and has quite a different role and effect on these countries.

Today, study shows that believers have more faith in Science and technology than unbelievers. This undermines the earlier assumption that Science and religion are always in conflict with each other, which is an assumption that has been used to predict the future of human history. Now every explanatory mechanism which attempt to do a trajectory of historical direction is called into question.

IV. Competition vs. Monopoly

Stark made an observation religions, that like economy, when we have monopoly, there is no competition and it will produce poor quality product and dies off. If religious bodies are allowed to compete in expressing their beliefs, there will be vibrancy and people will think much more deeply. The case in Western Europe is an exception rather than the norm, where religion is allowed to monopolize hence it dies off. So we have the paradoxical phenomena where secularization in political sense (separating religion and state, hence gives freedom to religious expression) prevents secularization in religious sense (that is, God is seen as non-relevant). Singapore, for example, is a country that gives freedom of religion (no religion monopolizes) hence there is vibrancy where people can learn and compare. Many people from mainland China are converted into Christianity here, although they have been trained as atheists in their homeland.

(Personal Note: I think it is a double-edged sword so we have to realize its danger too. Such secularization might popularize Christianity, but the tendency is that faith will only be allowed to confine itself in private sphere. As a result, faith is seen more as a commodity along with other human needs which we can pick and choose, rather than as a foundation to base our entire life on. On the other hand, if I were to choose, this is better than religious monopoly, where faith is imposed. Having said that, Christians live in a higher realm and have to learn to operate and articulate their faith in whatever state the world is in.)

Peter Berger talks about secularization by reversing the trend. He talks not of the survival of religious belief, but the survival of atheism is the historical anomaly. Phillip Jenkins talks about the rise of Christianity in developing nations. The trend in these nations is Christianity which is heavily supernatural, charismatic, aligned with the poor, aligned with progressive social causes and very vibrant.

Western Christendom is so rationalized to the point that it has more in common with atheism and denies much more vibrant form of Christianity.


V. Postmodernism

It is not a set of beliefs. Relativity is a method rather than a foundation. It is said as a suspicion towards meta-narrative. How did this suspicion come about?

If we go back to communism, Karl Marx initially said that religion is an opium to the masses. It means religion is a consequence of social pain. People turn to religious beliefs because they are not able to face the sufferings in life. Therefore if pain is removed, such phenomena will be removed as well. However, after the communist reforms, religious beliefs did not go away. They are soon seen not as effect of social pain, but as barriers to progress. Hence religion becomes the point of attack for many communist countries like Russia and China.

Communism then, is not without meta-narrative. It is a meta-narrative in itself and the true believers believe they are creating history. Christianity has a meta-narrative, the gospel, which is different from communism.

In 1989, we see the fall of communism.

Postmodernists becomes suspicious of meta-narrative because from history they infer that meta-narrative always has political interest in mind. They do not necessarily disbelieve that there is absolute Truth, but they are just doubtful if anyone can really tell what it is, if it is there. And if someone really claims to know, they are immediately suspicious that it is another political agenda.

1920s see the rise of liberalism. Christians have responded in two different ways. One camp wants to keep the message relevant within modernists worldview hence they give up faith for culture. The other camp finds the society so deeply entrenched that they decide not to play the game, so they become fundamentalists, and often times they give up culture for faith.


VII. Christian Response - Gospel & Culture Mandate

The fact is that modernity (rationalism) is under attack not only by Christianity, but by all other forces as well. This tells us that rationalism has actually crumbled.

Many rationalists are still relying on primitive standard argument which cannot even stand scrutity of logic (like the illogical question of "Can God create a rock He cannot carry?" is not a valid question to disprove God, but simply a problematic question in itself that is confused and meaningless). We are in an era where those rationalistic presuppositions have crumbled and it is a good time to re-engage with the world.

The problem is that while opportunities abound, Christians are very ill-prepared to seize them.

Although the charismatics have positioned themselves where progress and changes are taking place, up to this moment there is not yet even a group of people among them who are equipped to engage with the intellectuals. On the other hand, fundamentalists are locking themselves behind.

Domain theology says that there are different domains in life where Christians ought to establish biblical framework, but we have allowed all these domains to be dominated and determined by unbelievers with their unbiblical framework. Not only that, we take our most talented people and put them in the sideline by assuming that they all must go into fulltime ministry, but we have not thought much of developing Christian economists, philosophers, politicians, etc. And most Christians who are already at the position of influence in society are so ill-equipped that they never use all the chances they have to establish biblical framework in their sphere of influence. In arts, economy, IT and technology, etc. we need to equip Christians who are gifted in these areas to build a biblical framework for them. It is not enough just to win souls, we also need to win our culture.
Note (from Ben): Today's session is yet another reminder of the need for Christians to really examine our faith within the context of our social, cultural, political and economic life. While we see the influence of the institutional church being attacked and reduced and seemingly powerless, it is from there in which the paradoxical message of Christianity begins. The Gospel that was seen as foolish is made wise, the humiliated Word exalted, the Lamb of God that was slain to become worthy of all honour, glory and power.

2 comments:

Adi said...

"Modernity, on the other hand, refers to a worldview ..."

Don't you think it should be modernism, not modernity?

The Hedonese said...

Adi has a good point here, modernity is a social condition while modernism is more of an ideology or 'worldview', it would appear. Thanks for pointing that out, bro!