Discovering Love in a Secular World

My public authorship was initiated after rereading the Bible from the perspective of the angels. This has led me into deep philosophical and theological waters – “ever deepening”, naturally.

Having made a conscious decision to attempt to ground myself in human experience, I found myself at a spirituality book store in Santa Monica. That day, I found two books calling to me: Sera Beak’s Red, Hot and Holy, the subject of several blog posts at the end of last month. While that itself became pretty cosmic, Sera’s honest celebration of sex has helped me to ground myself physically.

The second book was Spickard and Cragg’s A Global History of Christians. I must admit to feeling a little let down by the book. The subtitle reads “How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World.” From that, I was expecting something along the lines of Tolstoy’s experience. Having become disillusioned with sophisticated Russian society, Tolstoy retired to his country estate, where he awakened to faith not through the erudite ministry of the priests, but in seeing how the peasants drew upon Christian teaching to build relationships grounded in decency.

Two hundred pages in, however, it is pretty obvious that the book’s title should have been A Global History of Churches. The book focuses on the dissemination and transformation of institutions and dogmas. In the sense that Christianity was the foundation of Europe’s social contract from 500 to 1900 or so, the title may be forgiven. The way that people saw themselves in relation to their neighbors and government was largely determined by their Church. But the book does not actually delve into the details of their lives to reveal how Christians differed from non-Christians in their behaviors, nor how their behavior was influenced by the evolution of Church teaching.

The book does chart the role of theology in the formation of ideas of the self, mostly through the reflections of theologians concerned with the problem of sin. This leaves a huge psychological gap. I found myself, when considering the appeal of Christianity as an adult, to be profoundly moved by the idea of a God that did not demand sacrifice from worshippers, but rather remembrance for the sacrifice of a brother made in honor of a loving Father. How did this idea impact those living under the rule of Roman patriarchal impunity? I have this strong prejudice that Jesus’s example should have caused many to question and seek to improve unfulfilling relationships, and was hoping to discover answers to this and related questions in the historical survey.

The focus on redemption leads to a different set of questions, with a somewhat narcissistic tone. How do I achieve salvation? What causes me to sin? The common (anthropocentric) reading of the Garden of Eden is ultimately revealed as a caricature of human nature. We were not created in grace to fall into sin. We represent an evolutionary waypoint in a long and difficult process. Perhaps secularism – rejecting the baggage of institutional dogma – was required as a precondition for illumination of that process. Even if not necessary, we are yet today as Christians operating in a world that is preconditioned by the challenges of secularity – the idea that humanity can (or must at least try to) manage itself without recourse to God.

I must admit to being grateful for the historical background that makes apparent the extent of this dilemma. Stripping away the Biblical idea that we are defined by the necessity to achieve redemption from a fallen state, what does it mean to be human? The authors present four modern answers to this problem: Darwin, who held that we are the product of natural competitive forces experienced by all living creatures; Marx, who recognized that culture has created an entirely artificial competitive environment that is propagated not through genetics but social indoctrination; Freud, who identified the enormous challenge of raising our indoctrination from the depths of our subconscious into the light of rational analysis; and the existential philosophers led by Sartre, who championed the goal and practices of self-realization. In its full expression, then, secularism adopts the posture that to be human is to struggle for self-identity against the resistance of other wills.

The Christian response to these thinkers is characterized with reference to three theologians. Tillich elaborated an accommodation of secular thought, in heralding Jesus as the exemplar of self realization. Barth elaborates rejection in asserting that the secular project is doomed because we cannot overcome the bias of our imperfect and fallen perceptions – we require the aid of an eternal, all-loving God. Finally, Niebuhr saw secularism as a prism which could be used to refine our understanding of Biblical metaphors that reveal the strength found in a relationship with the Divine Presence.

All of these men were impressively learned Christian scholars, but as I considered their theology, a single image completely demolished their relevance: the image of a mother nursing a child. I can see where the difficulty arises: Jesus commands “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” with the prequel somehow elided: “As God seeks to love you…” Thus the image of the bond between the nursing mother and child. A bond of complete trust: unconditional donation of the mother’s self, and from the infant unguarded gratitude for the gift of sustenance.

And so it all seems terribly simple to me: the agency of love in our lives is to give us strength. Who in their right mind would ever choose to reject it? Jesus made it clear, not least in the parable of the prodigal son, that no sin is beyond redemption – all we have to do is turn to God for acceptance and receive gratefully the cloak of his authority.

Of course, the commandment continues “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As loving God allows us to receive God’s love, so we should share the love of God with others. In fact, to sin is to deny love to others. The only measure of the degree to which we have received God’s love, then, is the witness of those that we are given to love. When love has worked its way through us, its power flows through us without resistance to serve others. In love, we both facilitate and stand in guard of each other’s perfection.

As I see it, then, the proposition of Christianity in a secular world is: try to be yourself, and then see what happens when you chose instead the mutuality of love. The power that awaits you there is beyond mere human comprehension.