For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
Secular thinkers hearing the words of Isaiah scoff at the idea of anything higher than themselves. They examine the wonder of humankind, and they believe there is nothing higher than that. They emphatically assert that this world we can see and touch is all there is. However, if we simply exchanged the word higher for the word different, secular thinkers would absolutely agree with this text. The thought of God is vastly different from secular thought. Secular thinking dominates twenty-first century culture in the USA, and Christians need to be alert to all the ways that secular thinking differs from Christian thinking. To understand secular thinking will help Christians to have appropriate expectations of conversation with secular thinkers, and it will help prevent Christians from failing to understand the secular interpretation of words Christians use quite differently.
For most of the history of the USA, Christianity was the dominant religion in the culture. More than that, the culture was so richly permeated by Christian thought that even non-believers thought they ought to believe. There was a time when someone with no intention of attending worship on any Sunday would apologize to a Christian for not attending. No more. In today’s world, there is little expectation that even Christians will attend worship on Sunday. Those who do, find themselves in conflict with a variety of demands on their time. For America’s first two hundred years of history, Sunday was a quiet day in most communities, and little was happening that would conflict with any person’s desire to attend worship. Today, Christians with children in athletic programs, for example, will be compelled to juggle worship and ball practice and may not be able to find any way to fit worship into the schedule.
Many people who would not classify themselves as secular thinkers adopt secular thinking for their public life. Even Christians will say that they consider religion to be a private matter, something they won’t intrude into their social lives, their work or their politics. Christians use the terms sacred and secular as if they, too, can separate the two concepts in their lives. There is a real groundswell of momentum toward religious neutrality in the public square. Secular philosophy almost universally regards religion as an antiquated, perhaps quaint, idea, although some secular humanists make room for religion, as long as it is isolated from public view. Secular thinkers do not think that God’s ways are higher than their ways, but they would agree that God-think is dramatically different from secular-think.
Secular thinking does not necessarily have to be dismissive of God, because there was an era in the US when secular simply meant not church. Over time, however, church people have cooperated in allowing a barrier to be created between sacred and secular behavior, sacred and secular spaces. Contemporary secular thinking is quite dismissive of God all the time and actively aggressive against God some of the time. Secular thinking is adamant that religion has no place in public life.
The dominance of secular thinking is changing the definitions of words. We are accustomed to think of the First Amendment as our protection to express our faith at any and all times. We call that right ‘freedom of religion.’ Secular thinkers more often express it as ‘freedom of worship’ and that tiny semantic difference expresses a vastly different mindset. The federal government has put into words what many secular thinkers would not be able to say so succinctly: religious activity takes place in a house of worship and consists of faith formation, worship and evangelism. This is the perspective applied as the government is gradually revising regulations and the interpretation of laws. When secular thinkers see us wearing cross pendants or see us reading the Bible at a bus stop or hear us offer to pray for someone at work, they think we have intruded our religion into the public realm where it does not belong. The vague suspicions of the general population are validated when the federal government says in a court of law that nothing happens in a for-profit business that has anything to do with religion, and that a petition for accommodation for a for-profit employer to express his religion in his business activities is, therefore, completely groundless.
It is a mistake for people whose call from Christ expects us to live as his followers in all places at all times to pretend that there is any difference in the way we live inside a church building or outside of it. Jesus taught us to live our faith in every word and deed. The Sermon on the Mount was not preached inside a house of worship, and it was not about liturgy. This sermon talks about the way we live our faith every day, out on the street. Of course, Jesus also told us that we could expect to be scorned and abused for doing so. When that happens, he taught us to love our opponents and pray blessing on them. The book of Revelation, however, gives us an image of a completely secular world in which people would rather have boulders fall on them than respond to God’s love. I meet people like that online now and then.
Psalm 23 is widely regarded as a comforting psalm, a place for retreat in times of trouble, a prayer for strength when the world feels threatening. It includes, however, a powerful metaphor for the daily life of a Christian in all situations. In the final statement of the psalm, David says, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6) He says there, what Christians believe to be true – that our relationship with God permeates our daily lives. No matter where we go, no matter what our situation, we are always participating in that relationship. The presence of God is real to us not only inside a building during worship, but also outside that building as we work for our employers or visit with friends.
The power of this relationship is the indwelling Holy Spirit. In fact, when we live by the Spirit in places other people call secular, we live as if we were in houses of worship all the time. The apostle Paul once asked his Corinthian church, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1 Corinthians 6:19) Paul’s words about the indwelling Holy Spirit suggest that God’s dwelling place, in the temple of our bodies, is in, with and under all our realities. To a secular thinker, there are sacred spaces and secular spaces, but to Christ’s people, every space is sacred, because God is there. It may be a concept that secular courts would ponder with skepticism, but it is the standard we live by. For us, there is no such thing as separating the sacred and the secular.
As Christians living in a secular world, we believe Christ calls us to live by the Spirit all the time. We don’t think we are expected to shut out the guidance of the Spirit when we go shopping at Wal-Mart. A Christian nurse expects to pray for her patients and for her fellow-workers as a natural expression of her faith in her daily life. A Christian teacher expects to be able to express her faith that the universe was created as a natural expression of her own faith in her life, even as she teaches the known science and the cosmological speculation about the processes God used in creation. A Christian social worker expects to be able to select families for adoptive children based on a Christian standard for families as a natural expression of his own faith. Secular thinkers believe and will say with real outrage that these people are pushing their religion on other people in forums where religion does not belong. This is not an academic hypothesis. All these things are being discussed right now in conversations all over the country.
It is interesting to note that the meaning of religious freedom as expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights sounds more like a Christian understanding of the place of religion in human life than like a secular view. Article 18 of the declaration says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The phrase “either alone or in community with others and in public or private” makes it clear that the UN upholds an individual’s freedom to express and share his religion in all places, whether the secular definition is either sacred or secular. The UN declaration says with greater clarity in contemporary language what the Constitution’s writers intended in the language of the First Amendment in 1791. Everything written about religious freedom in those days was understood at the time to mean the freedom for a citizen to be public in exercising his faith. The colonists who shaped the nation never intended the words “free exercise [of religion]” to mean free only in houses of worship.
This is the reason that Christians must be alert to the language used in political discourse in our country. When we hear the words, freedom of worship we must not equate them with the First Amendment protection, because freedom of worship is only part of the freedom that amendment guarantees. When we hear the words freedom of religion we must not equate them with the full freedom to live our faith in all places at all times, because many people who use the term freedom of religion only mean the right to choose any religion you wish. The amendment uses the words free exercise purposely to protect the right of all citizens to live according to their faith principles in all places at all times. It protects citizens from acts of government which either prevent them from doing things in keeping with their religious principles or require them to do things contradictory to their religious principles. The government is not authorized by this amendment to declare that any human activity or any location is exempted from the protection granted to citizens by the amendment.
The rising momentum of the secular definitions puts us in conflict with our culture. We cannot set our Christian behavioral standards aside just because we are not in church. We are not able to adopt secular standards or enable secular standards because of personal principles shaped by our faith. We find ourselves in the same conflict as Christians in many countries around the world where the culture and/or the government reject Christian teaching with scorn and restriction. Our situation increasingly corresponds to that of early Christians who were asked to worship the emperor as an act of political citizenship. Their unwillingness to bow as expected was interpreted as treason. Our unwillingness to comply with legislation or regulations that limit our freedom to exercise our faith is being seen in much the same light.
It is not too late for Christians to assert the First Amendment privilege to live our faith, not simply worship in buildings, but the cultural shift to secular definitions is moving at a startling pace. We have thought for two centuries that the First Amendment was our protection, and we did not need to engage in political discussions about it. Today, the definition of the free expression of religion is being reinterpreted to shut religion out of public sight. We cannot stop living our faith, but if we do not succeed in asserting that free expression means all places at all times, in both public and private, we can expect that our lives will change dramatically.