Secularism, Preaching, and the Challenges of Modernity

Al Mohler | President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Thursday, January 12, 2017

Secularism, Preaching, and the Challenges of Modernity

This post is the first of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.

I began my chapter on preaching and postmodernism in We Cannot Be Silent with these words, “A common concern seems to emerge now wherever Christians gather: The task of truth-telling is stranger than it used to be. In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the faint-hearted. The times are increasingly strange.” As preachers we recognize how strange the times have become. Almost anyone seeking to carry out a faithful pulpit ministry recognizes that preachers must now ask questions we have not had to consider in the past. We recognize that preaching has been displaced from its once prominent position in the culture. Many of us are wondering, why is preaching more challenging in our cultural moment than it has been in other times? The answer to this question ultimately rests in this fact: we now live, move, and have our being in a secular age. As preachers, and even as Christians, we must understand the trends of secularization and advance that the only authentic Christian response to the challenge of secularization is faithful, clear, and informed expository preaching.

Secularization, as representative of an ideological and cultural change, was not possible until very recent times. Secularization rests on the shoulders of a number of other ideological shifts that have preceded it. Without the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even without certain technological advances, secularization would have never been possible.

Once these intellectual and societal trends were charted, secularization theory began emerging as an academic discipline. Most of the contributors to this theory argued that secularization was the handmaiden to modernity. As these theorists explained, the modern age would necessarily and inevitably produce a secular society because modernity made God irrelevant. Modernism provided alternative answers to the most fundamental questions of life thereby rendering theism no longer necessary.

One of the most important theorists was professor Harvey Cox who, in 1965, published an enormously important book, The Secular City. The book was revolutionary for many Christians who had not yet recognized that society was fundamentally changing and growing more secular. Of course, many of the cultural signs pointing toward secularization were not as apparent then as they would be just a few decades later. Indeed, one need only consider that just ten years prior to the publication of Cox’s book, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized, making a public profession of faith in Christ while holding the office of President of the United States. This episode alone is enough to demonstrate just how significantly the culture and the political landscape has shifted between Eisenhower’s presidency and our own day. Despite this seeming evidence to the contrary, Cox revealed a tectonic cultural shift underway within Western society.With great foresight, Cox made the point that the future of the Western world, particularly its cities, was predominantly secular. As he made clear, this secularism was characterized by an eclipse of theism.

Additionally, another important theorist, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, argued that most people throughout human existence lived in an “enchanted” world. Weber meant that in the pre-modern era, humanity looked for the answers to all of the most basic questions of life by appealing to an “enchanted” or transcendent source. He was speaking, of course, about more than Western Christianity. Any religious answer, even one based in something as theologically undefined as totemism, appeals to “enchantment” or transcendence for the answers to life’s biggest questions. But, Weber argued, modernity brought about disenchantment—a jettisoning of transcendence for a purely naturalistic worldview.

Secularization theorists in the last decades of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century were confident that this “disenchantment” would spread to the entire Western world. They were also convinced that organized religion and its authority would disappear. They were absolutely confident that they would live to see it happen. So did these things happen? The answer is actually a bit complicated.

The renowned sociologist Peter Berger notes that secularization happened just as the theorists predicted with respect to Europe—a continent that now registers almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief. Similarly, secularization also successfully swept across the landscape of American universities—which are, in many respects, isolated islands of Europe on American soil. One need only consider, for instance, the University of Tennessee which recently ordered that gendered pronouns be replaced by gender neutral pronouns like “zie.” While this administrative mandate was later overturned, the point remains that even in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, major American universities are on the same trajectory of secularization as many of the most secularized parts of Europe.

But why has secularization not happened at the same rate in other communities in the United States as it has on American college campuses or in Europe? Berger demonstrates that secularization did happen to the same degree in the United States, but the outward appearance simply looked quite different than what we see in Europe or on university campuses.

As Berger explained, Christianity, in twentieth-century America, has transformed into a non-cognitive commitment. As a result, the binding authority of the Christian moral tradition has been lost. Many of our friends and neighbors continue to profess faith in God, but that profession is ultimately devoid of any moral authority or cognitive content. From the outside looking in, America did not appear to be secularizing at the same rate as the European continent. In reality, however, professions of faith in God had little real theological or spiritual meaning.

Berger predicted that as these religious adherents met cultural opposition, they would quickly give way to the secular agenda—which is exactly what happened. Just ten years ago most polls reflected the fact that a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Yet in our day the very same people polled one decade ago rendered an opposite moral judgement on the same issue. Just as Berger explained, when the cultural tide turned against our society’s empty religious commitments, people were happy to jettison their moral judgment on homosexuality to retain their social capital.

As preachers, Berger’s observations are tremendously important. We, above all others, need to realize that the culture no longer shares our worldview and as a result the very language we use may mean something entirely different in the ears of our listeners than what we intend. The meaning of words like morality, personhood, marriage, or virtually any other moral term has radically shifted for many postmodern Americans, making our job as preachers that much more difficult. These challenges are demanding but Scripture is sufficient for the task. Our job as preachers is not to make the message of the gospel palatable to the postmodern mind but to preach in a way that is compelling, clear, and authoritative. The times may have changed, but the task of preaching has not.


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Publication date: January 12, 2017