Tag Archives: secularism

The Squeeze versus the Smash

 

English: The Bill of Rights, the first ten ame...
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 22:35-40 When Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, he set his followers on a path that has intersected violently with cultures and governments over the past two thousand years. These two commandments define a life of self-denial in complete submission to God and a life of complete love of people that is as limitless and demanding as legitimate self-esteem. These laws are not about when and where to worship, what hymns to sing, what prayers to pray. These “laws” are about life itself. Christians clash with surrounding cultures and governments, because they do not put allegiance to country or to self first.

Open Doors USA annually documents the consequences of following Christ and his commandments around the world in the World Watch List, a list of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. It truly is dangerous to be a Christian, even though it may not seem so to a Christian in the USA. Some of the dangers Christians face are quite subtle. It is easy for Christians to be deluded. The dangers Christians face today are not really different from the dangers Christ faced in the wilderness when Satan came to tempt him. The temptation to do magic instead of miracles, the temptation to be impressive rather than truthful, and most of all, the temptation to be a marketer rather than a missionary. Open Doors divides the challenges to Christians into two categories: the squeeze and the smash.

The squeeze is cultural pressure. Scorn. Family expectations. Denial of job opportunities. The Christian who lives by faith every day, putting God first and loving people selflessly, can be subjected to almost unbearable social pressures. In countries where Islam is dominant, a Christian faces immense pressure to renounce Christ, because family and friends express their very real fear that the new Christian will be eternally punished for apostasy. If the government is Islamic as well, the government may consider a new Christian to be a threat to the nation, which exponentially increases the pressure and may lead to the smash.

The smash is real violence. Arrest, imprisonment, torture, even execution. Sometimes the government stands by and does nothing while private groups burn church buildings and private homes belonging to Christians. At other times, government officials may participate in the violence.

American citizens have not seen real violence perpetrated against Christians. The colonial forebears of the colonists who founded the country were mostly Christian, the actual founders were mostly Christian, and the culture had a Christian flavor because of the dominance of Christians in the population. Many of the original colonists had fled religious persecution in one form or another, and the founding documents embody an unwillingness to perpetuate that sort of persecution in the new country. The US government has never included a state religion, although its common language and practices gave evidence of the Christian connections of the founders. In fact, the First Amendment made it clear that while the USA would renounce the establishment of any religion, it would protect the freedom of every individual to express his faith, whether he served in the Senate or plowed a field. In theory, the First Amendment should prevent the smash from developing, but no legal framework can prevent the squeeze.

Today, the culture of the USA is less and less dominated by people who self-identify as Christians. Furthermore, among people who self-identify as Christians, fewer and fewer consider Christian faith to be important enough for their expression of it to include regular worship or an exclusive commitment to its teachings. The culture in general is becoming increasingly secular, and churches increasingly include secular concepts in their teachings. The squeeze of contemporary culture is working to suppress the free expression of Christian faith or any other religious expression. Increasingly the culture promotes the idea that being “spiritual” but not “religious” is a more mature way to live than making a commitment to the hierarchy and rules of a “religion.” Christians would not describe their commitment that way, but that is the way the culture describes it.

Cultural squeeze is harder to document than the smash. Smirking scorn at the mention of the Bible in a conversation about ethics can hardly be equated with an exploding bomb in a church building. The sometimes not too subtle cultural squeeze in the US is pervasive enough that some Christians feel uncomfortable to tell anyone the root of their views about right and wrong. Any person who confesses publicly to faith in God is subject to the same withering derision that was directed at Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum during the 2012 presidential primaries. Anyone who comments or who reads comments on the internet will quickly discover that the expression of Christian teachings will evoke mockery and disdain from other commenters. They can’t draw blood, but they could make someone cry.

It is very important that Christians in the USA be aware of the squeeze and the smash wherever it is occurring. It is equally important that Christians in the USA learn from observing what happens in other countries. There are daily assaults on the US Constitution, and the entire document is often dismissed as out-of-date and irrelevant to the contemporary world. The protections embodied in that document are meaningless if the document is meaningless. In Nigeria, after twenty years of ignoring cultural changes, “Christians suddenly realized they were second class citizens in a culture that was once hospitable to them, and is now hostile to them.” The same thing could happen to Christians in the USA.

Be aware. Be attentive. What have you noticed so far?

Psalm 80 The Prayer of the Persecuted Church

   Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
                  you who lead Joseph like a flock!
                  You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
                  Stir up your might,
                  and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
                  let your face shine, that we may be saved.  

    O LORD God of hosts,
                  how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
    You have fed them with the bread of tears,
                  and given them tears to drink in full measure.
    You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
                  our enemies laugh among themselves.  

    Restore us, O God of hosts;
                  let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80:1-7 

Psalm 80 is my cry for help in my warfare with Satan’s slaves who serve him in the brigades of secularism and Islam.

I cry out, “Stir up your strength!” God comforts me. I am weak, but he is strong. I am strengthened by his presence.

I cry out, “Restore me O God!” when I recognize that I have not been Christlike. I need to see his face, and I need him to rush in and prop me up. I can’t fight this battle by myself.

I cry out, “How long?” because I deserve his anger when I let fly words that hurt rather than heal. I wonder how long I will feel the separation that arises when my words serve Satan rather than Christ.

I eat the bread of tears, and I drink bowls of tears as I watch my country and my culture disintegrate under the onslaught of secularism and Islam. Secularists scorn me. Muslims hate me and everything I stand for. It is hard not to hate back.

I cry out, “Restore me, Lord of Hosts!” I need to see the face of Christ in the people I meet. I need to remember that I belong to Christ, and neither secularism nor Islam can do me eternal harm. I need to remember that Christ died for every person enslaved by the worldview of secularism and every person enslaved by the worldview of Islam. Their assaults on me are like the lashing of the tail of the great Dragon Satan as he swept stars out of the sky in his rage at his defeat by Christ on the cross.

My only righteousness is the righteousness imputed to me by God through Christ. When I fail to be Christ to other people, I have one recourse – to cry to God.

Who is Forcing Views on Whom?

In any discussion there are at least two opposing views. Else there would be no discussion. Life would move on. The foundation for decisions and plans and aspirations would not need to be named or assumed, because everybody would be in agreement.

 

Yet in the US today, a vicious allegation permeates public discussion of controversial issues, and its purpose is to shut down the conversations. People who hold some viewpoints are accused of trying to “force” their view of morality on other people. People who hold other views are held up as heroes for fighting entrenched oppression and denial of civil rights. Instead of discussion of the various viewpoints and explanations of the foundation for those viewpoints, “discussion” consists of assigning labels and agendas to people who hold opposing views.

 

A common allegation against certain viewpoints is that the person who holds those views is trying to “force” his own religion on everyone else. The implication of that accusation is that viewpoints rooted in religious teachings and experience are unjustified and therefore they have no validity among human beings at large. Vice President Biden stated in a debate that he would not “force” his church’s views about abortion on other people. The message of the statement was that his own moral convictions should not be the basis for his action as a public servant. This concept flies in the face of the teachings of all religions. Religion is always about the way people live, and it does not make sense for someone to claim that a religion rules his life but not his morals in public service.

 

The discussions of marriage, family and abortion are discussions permeated with contentious attitudes that pointedly reject the inclusion of certain viewpoints in the discussions. It is common for people who hold historic views on these issues to be accused of attempting to force religion on everyone else. Secular thinkers in the conversations say that views based in science and reason are legitimate while views based in religious teachings are not legitimate for the public to consider.

 

Secular thinkers believe that all ethical decisions must be based on analysis of human experience. Science collects the information, and reason does the analysis. However, when secular thinkers use science to collect information about marriage, family and abortion, the teachings, experience, and cultural wisdom derived in the context of religion are rejected from the mix of information to be analyzed. Secular thinkers reject the context of religious faith as a legitimate element in the construction of personal or public morality.

 

It is fine for secular thinkers to have their opinions, but Christians, Hindus, Muslims and adherents of religions around the world bring to the public discussion concerns that are the legitimate concerns of society at large. The First Amendment to the Constitution grew out of the recognition that human beings are naturally religious. The numbers of US citizens who claim to be exclusively secular in their views may be growing, but it is actually a very small portion of the population. This minority status does not justify the rest of society being rude to secular thinkers, but it does suggest that Christian views and other views growing out of religious traditions legitimately concern the culture as a whole.

 

When the discussions move from conversation to voting, the numbers who hold specific views matter. The view with the largest number of adherents will win the vote. This is not “forcing” a view on someone. It is the concept of majority rule. Majority rule keeps the peace, even though it may not be perceived as “fair.” (The word fair seems to mean what each person who uses it wants it to mean. It has no value in discussion of the legitimacy of an opinion.)

 

There will always be tension in a culture which is, to use politically correct speech, inclusive and diverse. The tension is best resolved by respect, not by pejorative labels and insulting accusations.   The Constitution of the USA is an example for the whole world of a good way to deal with a culture that is truly a melting pot of religions, ideas, values and social practices. The Constitution provides that the majority wins the day, and the First Amendment to the Constitution provides that opposing ideas, whether secular or religious, may continue to be spoken without fear. The First Amendment assures that the rule of law is enforced in a way that flexes with reasonable accommodations for religious practices that conflict with the law.

 

There is a way to end all the conflict. It is called totalitarianism. One person’s ideas and preferences and values rule everyone. It has been tried over and over, but human beings do not thrive in such an environment. God created human beings to love freedom. Secular thinkers may not agree that God is the origin of the love of freedom, but they cannot argue that it is unnatural. Freedom for all requires respect for all. To differ, to discuss, to vote, and to live by the outcome of the vote is not “forcing” anybody’s views on anyone. It is the best way to live free.

When Secularist Meets Christian

When I was seventeen, I met an avowed atheist. He had more luck talking to me than I had with him. He challenged me to read Atlas Shrugged and I did. I challenged him to read the New Testament, and he didn’t. I learned something about the way atheists think about life in time and space. He chose not to learn about life with an eternal frame of reference.

The problem is that I live in both the time/space universe where the atheist lives and the eternity/infinity universe where God lives and reigns. I acknowledge the existence of the atheist’s universe, but he does not acknowledge the existence of the eternal/infinite realm. He interacts with the spirit world he denies just as often as I do, but he denies all the evidence of that interaction.

We who live at the intersection of time and eternity in relationship with Christ are flummoxed by people who reject the whole idea of a spirit world. We feel shut down, because we are not sure how to start talking with someone who simply rejects everything that shapes our daily lives. It isn’t an imaginary problem, but even though we must face and deal with the problem, we need to remember that God is not hindered by the same issues that stop us in our tracks. Whether or not atheists allow us to talk with them we always must remember that God is not daunted by anyone’s unbelief. Who knows how many times Nicodemus scoffed at the whole idea that God could have come to earth in the flesh before he sneaked out one evening to talk with Jesus?

The culture of the USA is growing increasingly secular, which means that more and more people in our world consider any form of religion to be useless twaddle. Secular thinkers consider that at best religion is the same kind of comfort we might derive if someone drew a smiley face on a post-it and stuck it on our computer display at work. At worst, they look at September 11 and at the escalating violence that seems to be overwhelming the Arab spring and conclude that it would be better for the whole idea of religion disappear.

If we take our Christian faith seriously, we are disturbed by these developments. We feel some fear that government policies shaped by secular thinking might attempt to shut religion out of our culture altogether. We worry that the protections we assume were intended by our Founders in the First Amendment may be redefined to restrict our freedom to exercise our faith. If we truly believe that Jesus has commanded us to make disciples by teaching other people what Jesus taught us as we go about our daily lives, then we worry that our freedom to engage in that task will be diminished in a secular culture. Further we worry that even though we may be free to speak about our faith, people will generally dismiss us as slightly batty rather than consider what we have to say. If we are honest, we would prefer an acerbic engaged conversation to a condescending or indifferent shrug.

The biblical guidance for living faithful lives in a secular culture is not so different from that for living faithful lives in a culture dominated by a religion. The nature of our stresses is different if our testimony is challenged by somebody else’s god than if it is challenged by the denial of all gods. No matter the challenge, our response is always the same. Christ told us exactly what to do.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [1]

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.[2]


[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:43–44). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 2:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Living Christian in a Secular World

Category:Monuments_and_memorials Category:Monu...
Category:Monuments_and_memorials Category:Monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. (Original text : This bronze figure, entitled “Justice,” is one of the three parts of the Oscar Straus Memorial. Between this and its companion figure, “Reason” is a fountain. Inscription reads: “Our liberty of worship is not a concession nor a privilege, but an inherent right.”) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.