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Whatever is meant by secularization, few will dispute that in this century the public culture has become less religious. This is not, as some suggest, simply the result of the separation of church and state that first happened some two centuries earlier. Such separation did not then entail the alienation of culture from its religious roots. In America, for instance, the end of state-established religion did not mean the end of the predominantly Christian and Protestant character of American culture. In other Western societies, the linkage between the state and one or another Christian church continued to be effective well into this century. Yet in these societies, too, we see evidence of secularization, typically much further advanced than in the United States. Secularization is not caused by the separation of church and state. The roots of the process of secularization, resulting in the present alienation of public culture from religion, and especially from Christianity, are planted in the seventeenth century.

A public climate of secularism undermines the confidence of Christians in the truth of what they believe. In A Rumor of Angels (1969), Peter L. Berger describes believers as a “cognitive minority” whose standards of knowledge deviate from what is publicly taken for granted. Berger wrote about “plausibility structures.” People need social support in holding that a given account of reality is plausible. When such support is weakened, people need to muster a strong personal determination in order to maintain beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of others around them. Berger’s is a social and psychological analysis of the situation in which people find themselves, quite apart from the truth of what they may believe. “It is, of course, possible to go against the social consensus that surrounds us,” Berger notes, “but there are powerful pressures (which manifest themselves as psychological pressures within our own consciousness) to conform to the views and beliefs of our fellow men.” This is precisely the experience of Christians living in a dominantly secular culture.

In a secular milieu, even an elementary knowledge of Christianity”its history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures”dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity. Thus people who do not know the difference between Saul of Tarsus and John Calvin are quite certain that Christianity has been tried and convicted as a religion of oppression. When such people do get interested in religion or “spirituality””their interest being a natural reaction to the shallowness of a secularist culture”they frequently turn not to Christianity but to “alternative religions.”

In this cultural circumstance, it is not easy to communicate the Christian message. The difficulty is exacerbated by the cultural relativizing of the very idea of truth. This is a very significant change from the secularism of the Enlightenment. The secularist thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged Christians to justify their truth claims by rational argument rather than by simple appeal to religious authority. But both Christians and their opponents assumed that there was a truth about the matters in dispute. That cannot be assumed today. In the view of many, including many Christians, Christian doctrines are merely opinions that may or may not be affirmed according to individual preference, or depending on whether they speak to personally felt needs.

The dissolution of the idea of truth”of truth that does not need my approval in order to be true”severely undercuts the Christian understanding of evangelization or mission. Missionary proclamation was once understood as bringing the truth to others, and was therefore both legitimate and extremely important. For many today, the missionary enterprise is a matter of imposing our personal preferences and culturally conditioned prejudices upon others, and is therefore not only illegitimate but morally offensive. Beyond the question of missions, we might ask ourselves why people should embrace the Christian faith unless they think that the apostolic teaching is true. More precisely, today the question is whether it is even meaningful to claim that Christian teaching is true. The idea of truth is absolutely vital for the Christian faith. The destruction of that idea is key to legitimating a secularist culture, since the idea of truth touches on secularism’s greatest vulnerability.


Secularism and, more comprehensively, modernity itself have sometimes been depicted as the consequence of apostasy from the Christian faith. That was the view of, for instance, the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth. According to Barth, modern culture has been a revolt against the Christian faith aimed at putting the human being in the place of God. There is much to be said for that interpretation, for the human reality has indeed become basic in modern culture in a manner comparable to the religious foundation of earlier cultures. The concern for human rights is but one aspect, although the politically most important aspect, of modernity’s preoccupation with man. Thus it came about that the human individual was seen as the highest value and criterion of good. It is doubtful, however, that this development should be dismissed in its entirety as an instance of apostasy. It may well be argued that the strong emphasis on the human person has a distinctly Christian origin. In this respect, Christianity has a great deal in common with the modern spirit. One may even suggest that the modern spirit contributed to liberating Christian consciousness from the distortion of intolerance. In other words, the relationship between the Christian faith and modernity is ambivalent, and does not permit Christians to reject modernity in an unqualified manner. Although modern culture in its secularist turn no doubt contributed to alienating many people from the Christian faith, it is necessary for Christians to learn and remember the lesson taught by the rise of modernity, and to incorporate that lesson in the Christian consciousness. The distinction between the secular realm and the realm called religious or spiritual is nothing new in Christian history. In earlier centuries, however, that distinction did not amount to a separation of the secular”politics, economics, law, education, arts”from the spiritual influence of the Church. To the contrary, the very distinction between the secular and religious had a Christian basis. That Christian basis was the awareness that the existing social order was imperfect and provisional; it was not yet the kingdom of God. With respect to any existing social order, Christianity provided an eschatological modesty. This set Christian societies apart from other religiously imbued cultures such as Islam. It distinguished the Byzantine Empire from the empire of pre-Christian Rome. In the post-Constantinian period there was a balance between the authority of the bishops and that of the emperor, while in ancient Rome the emperor himself was the highest priest, pontifex maximus . The distinction between the religious and the secular changed again as a result of the sixteenth-century Reformation or, more precisely, as a result of the religious wars that followed the breakup of the medieval Church. When in a number of countries no religious party could successfully impose its faith upon the entire society, the unity of the social order had to be based on a foundation other than religion. Moreover, religious conflict had proved to be destructive of the social order. In the second half of the seventeenth century, therefore, thoughtful people decided that, if social peace was to be restored, religion and the controversies associated with religion would have to be bracketed. In that decision was the birth of modern secular culture. It would in time lead to secular ism and a culture that is properly described as secularist. In earlier centuries, the bracketing of religion would have been unimaginable. Even in the sixteenth century, Reformers and Catholics alike assumed that religious unity was indispensable to the unity of society. Although they emphasized the decisive importance of the individual conscience in matters of faith, neither Luther nor Calvin conceived of the possibility of religious toleration. The step toward religious freedom and toleration was first taken in the Netherlands, near the end of the sixteenth century, in order to restore peace between Catholic and Protestant sectors of the population. When William of Orange proclaimed the principle of religious toleration, he thought he was acting in line with Luther’s teaching about the appeal to conscience and the liberty of the Christian. In fact, William had taken a decisive step toward a thorough reconstruction of the social order and of culture itself. The older assumption that the unity of society requires the unity of religion was not unsupported by good reasons. If citizens are to obey the law and respect the authority of civil government, they must believe that it is morally right to do so, that they are not simply submitting to the caprice of those in power. If power is to be deemed legitimate, it must be exercised in the name of some authority that is beyond human arbitrariness and manipulation. Religion obliged and constrained those in power as well as those over whom power is exercised. In such an order, the subject and the ruler sense that they are united in their responsibility to an authority that is above both. Today such a view of moral legitimacy and the social order seems antique. That older view, however, was not rejected because it had been refuted by argument. Rather, it was abandoned for pragmatic reasons: the urgent need to restore social peace in the face of bloody religious conflicts overrode other considerations. In the absence of religious ways of legitimating government, alternative theories were developed. Most important among these is the idea of representative government. Still today, however, the plausibility of these theories of legitimation rests more upon pragmatic considerations than upon convincing argument.


After the wars of religion, the religious foundation of society, law, and culture was replaced by another, and that new foundation was called human nature. Thus there arose systems of natural law, natural morality, and even natural religion. And, of course, there was a natural theory of government, presented in the form of social contract theories. Such theories demonstrated the need for civil government in order to secure individual survival at the price of the natural freedom of individuals (e.g., Hobbes), or in order to secure individual freedom within the limits of reason and law (e.g., Locke). Theories using human nature as the foundation of the political, legal, and cultural order made it possible for European nations to put an end to the period of religious warfare. They also made possible, perhaps inevitable, the autonomy of a secular society and culture determinedly independent from the influence of church and religious tradition. The foregoing account of the rise of the secular social order is associated with Wilhelm Dilthey. There are other theories of course. Perhaps best known is Max Weber’s account of the origins of modern capitalism. According to Weber, modern capitalism was not produced by purely economic factors but arose from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and its influence on human conduct. Calvin taught that, although God’s eternal decree ordaining the election or repudiation of the individual remains mysterious, whether a particular person is elect can be surmised from his conduct. If he does the works of regeneration, it is likely such a person belongs to the chosen. For the Calvinist, then, there was a powerful motivation to live in a manner befitting the regenerate. In one’s worldly vocation, in conscientious observation of the duties to which one is called, one bore witness to regeneration. And so it was, Weber argued, that the rational asceticism of the early capitalists had its source in the otherworldly hope of Calvinist spirituality. That spirituality was secularized, however, when the dedication it engendered was put in the service of the multiplication of capital. Eventually, according to Weber, this produced a capitalist system that functions in a manner quite independent of the religious motivation that gave it birth. Other theories of secularization have claimed that the modern belief in progress is a secularization of Christian eschatological hope. The hope for a better world is no longer directed toward another world, but becomes the human project to improve this world. Karl Lowith argued that the modern philosophy of history is in fact a secularization of the Christian theology of history; it is a secularized version of the history of salvation. The providence of God guiding the historical process toward eschatological fulfillment is replaced by a philosophy of progress guided by the predictive power of science and technology and promising a future of worldly happiness. Science secularized the theological idea of law by turning it into the idea of the eternal laws of nature, and the idea of an infinite universe was the secularized version of an earlier belief in the infinity of God. In these and other theories, a religious content is transformed into something immanent and this-worldly. Hans Blumenberg is among those who have objected to such theories because they put modern culture under obligation to its Christian past; they suggest that the real substance of modern culture belongs originally and most truly to Christianity. Against that view, Blumenberg argued that modernity had emancipated itself from the oppressive claims of the Christian religion. Not Christian vestiges but human autonomy formed the core of the modern mind. In fact, however, this position is not so far removed from the theorists of secularization discussed above. They, too, believed that the religious legacy had been transformed into something radically new”as radically new as one might expect when humanity replaces God at the center. There is, however, a fateful flaw in both positions. The one side claims that processes of secularization are responsible for the transition from medieval to modern culture. The other explains that transition in terms of emancipation from a religiously dominated culture. Both view the rise of modern culture as a primarily ideological process. The reality, I am arguing, is that the transition in question was not, or at least not chiefly, ideologically driven. It was religious civil war and the destruction of social peace that made it necessary to abandon the older idea that public culture must be based upon religious unity. Every effort to settle the conflicts between religious parties had been in vain. Those who tried to cope with this circumstance did not think that they were turning away from the Christian faith in their effort to find a more stable basis for the social order. With relatively few exceptions, they understood themselves to be devout Christians, and would have been scandalized by the thought that they were depriving Christian truth claims and morality of public influence. Put differently, the modern emancipation from religion was not the intention but the long-term result of reconstituting society on a foundation other than religious faith. No break with Christianity was intended by those who based public culture on conceptions of human nature rather than religion. In fact, Christian ideas continued to be socially effective, although they were gradually transmogrified into secularized beliefs, and it is not surprising that, in time, many people forgot where the ideas came from in the first place. In thinking about the relationship between Christianity and modern culture, it is important to keep these factors in mind: first, modernity at the outset was not opposed to the Christian faith; second, the lack of tolerance among Christians in the post-Reformation period was directly responsible for the rise of a secularist culture. What Christians should learn from this is the urgency of overcoming their inherited controversies and of restoring some form of unity among themselves. In addition, the idea and practice of tolerance must be incorporated into the Christian understanding not only of freedom but of truth itself. Without these changes”changes that only Christians can bring about”it is quite unreasonable to expect modern culture to reconsider the exclusion of religion from the public square. The memory of the role of religion in the origins of modernity powerfully reinforces the contemporary prejudice that religion in the public square is divisive, intolerant, and destructive of civil society.


Very much at the heart of modern culture we find ambiguities that result from a sometimes curious admixture of Christian and non-Christian ideas. The most important example is the modern idea of freedom. There is a clearly Christian root in the belief that all human persons are born to be free and that such freedom should be respected. There is the biblical teaching that human beings are created in the image of God and created to enjoy communion with God. In fact, it is only communion with God that actually makes us free, according to Jesus (John 8:36) and Paul (2 Corinthians 3:17). While every human being is created to enjoy the freedom that comes from communion with God, it is only in Christ that such freedom is fully realized through redemption from sin and death. Such is the Christian idea of freedom. The modern idea of freedom, most effectively proposed by John Locke, differs from the Christian view in that it focuses only on the natural condition of man. It differs also in drawing upon ancient Stoic ideas of natural law. The Stoics taught that the original freedom and equality of human beings in the state of nature was lost because of the necessities of living in society. Locke thought that the Reformation doctrine of the freedom of the Christian made it possible to reclaim that original freedom as an actuality in this life. In contrast to later libertarian views of individual freedom, Locke believed that pure freedom is necessarily united with reason and therefore positively related to law. In Locke’s position there is an echo of the Christian understanding that freedom depends on being united with the good and, therefore, with God. The prevailing idea of freedom in our societies today, of course, is the idea that each person has the right to do as he pleases. Freedom is not connected to any notion of the good as constitutive of freedom itself. Because of the incompleteness of human existence in history, any idea of freedom involves the risk of abuse. But it does make a very big difference whether the distinction between the use and abuse of freedom is observed. When it is observed, it is possible to challenge the equation of freedom with license. The ambiguity built into the modern idea of freedom helps us understand secular culture’s ambivalence when it comes to values in general, and our cultural nervousness about affirming the contents and standards by which the culture itself is defined. With respect to values and cultural traditions, as with truth claims, a consumerist attitude prevails. Each chooses according to his preferences or perceived needs. The disengagement of the idea of freedom from an idea of the true and the good is the great weakness of secularist societies.


Under the influence of thinkers such as Max Weber, the dominant assumption of modernity has been that secularization will continue to pervade all aspects of social and individual behavior, with religion increasingly pushed to the margins. In the last two or three decades, however, it has become evident that secularization (or, as some prefer, progressive modernization) faces severe problems. The thoroughly secularized social order gives rise to a feeling of meaninglessness: there is a vacuum in the public square of political and cultural life, and this invites violent outbreaks of dissatisfaction. As a consequence, it is hard to predict the future of the secularist society. It depends in part on how long most people will be willing to pay the price of meaninglessness in exchange for the license to do what they want. So long as people feel sure of the comforts of affluence, they may be willing to tolerate these tensions indefinitely. On the other hand, irrational reactions are unpredictable, especially when there is a sense that the institutions of society are not legitimate. The circumstance of modern secular society is more precarious than we may want to recognize. Those who recognize the danger call for a reaffirmation of the traditions by which the culture is defined, and most specifically for the reaffirmation of the religious roots of those traditions. Such a call is no doubt in the self-interest of the secularist society. Religion as such, however, has little stake in whether that call is heeded. Contrary to anxieties widely expressed a few decades ago by people of religious faith, it is now obvious that the future of religion is less precarious than the future of secularist society. Secularization is far from being an unstoppable juggernaut. The more secularization and what is called progressive modernization advance, the more they produce a need for something else that can bestow meaning upon human life. Such meaning, if it is to be effective, must be perceived as given; not given to our lives by ourselves but by some authority beyond our contrivance. The resurgence of religion and quasi-religious movements that started a few decades ago took secularist intellectuals by surprise, but it could have been predicted (and was predicted by some) as an inevitable result of secularism. This renewed interest in religion, however, has not always turned to Christianity. In some societies, and in sectors of all modern societies, the turn to Christianity seems to be the exception. One reason for this is the prejudice against Christianity as “conventional religion” in the public consciousness of the secularist culture. This helps explain the widespread enthusiasm for “alternative religions.” Another reason why many people are interested in any religion but Christianity is found in the way that the churches have responded to the challenge of secularism. And that brings me to my final point: How should churches respond to the secularist culture?


The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counterproductive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities. In this connection, it seems that mainline churches in America have yet to internalize the message of Dean Kelley in his book of a quarter century ago, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing . What people look for in religion is a plausible alternative, or at least a complement, to life in a secularist society. Religion that is “more of the same” is not likely to be very interesting. I hasten to add that this is not an argument for dead traditionalism. The old-fashioned ways of doing things in the churches may include elements that are insufferably boring and empty of meaning. Christianity proposed as an alternative or complement to life in a secularist society must be both vibrant and plausible. Above all, it must be substantively different and propose a difference in how people live. When message and ritual are accommodated, when the offending edges are removed, people are invited to suspect that the clergy do not really believe anything so very distinctive. The plausible and persuasive presentation of Christian distinctives is not a matter of marketing. It is a matter of what the churches owe to people in our secularist societies: the proclamation of the risen Christ, the joyful evidence of new life in Christ, of life that overcomes death. As this is not an argument for traditionalism (keeping in mind Jaroslav Pelikan’s useful observation that tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living), so it is not an argument for fundamentalism. Admittedly, the term fundamentalist is loosely used today to condemn any religion that seriously offends secular sensibilities. But by fundamentalism I mean religion that, in an unwarranted claim to certitude, refuses to engage the human capacity of reason. The opposition of Christian proclamation to the spirit of secularism must always seek an alliance with reason. This is in keeping with the classical Christian tradition that, since the time of the early Church, forged an alliance with reason and true philosophy in order to contend for the universal validity of the Christian teaching. Secularists are right to expose irrationality, fanaticism, and intolerance when they appear in the name of religion, even if the secularists sometimes do so in order to discredit religion as such. Authentic Christian teaching appropriates all that is valid in the secularist culture, while laying claim to, and focusing attention upon, the truth that the secularist spirit no longer deems worthy of attention. Christians can confidently do this because they know that, just as Christian doctrines were once challenged in the name of reason and a rational approach to truth, so today secularism itself has become irrational. In our contemporary circumstance, there is high promise in renewing the classical alliance between Christian faith and reason. Christians who lay claim to reason, however, must be ready to accept criticism, and to cultivate an ethos of self-criticism within their own communities. Traditional doctrines and forms of spirituality, along with the Bible itself, are not exempt from critical inquiry. Such inquiry is required by the alliance of faith and reason. Christian confidence in the truth of God and His revelation should be vigorous enough to assume that truth will not succumb to any findings of critical inquiry. Of course there are prejudiced and distorted forms of criticism that presuppose a secularist worldview that is inescapably hostile to Christian faith. For critical inquiry to flourish, such false criticisms must be firmly exposed and resisted. How to distinguish between critical inquiry and criticism that has been poisoned by the presuppositions of secularism is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that it can be done and it must be done. My argument is that, if we think it is necessary to protect divinely revealed truth from critical inquiry, we are in fact displaying our unbelief. Such inquiry, while it may at times pose difficulties, will finally enhance the splendor of the truth of God. Confidence in that truth”a confidence exhibited in proclamation and life”is the only adequate and worthy response to the challenge of secularism.

Wolfhart Pannenberg is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology.