The Secularization of the West and the Rise of a New Morality

Al Mohler | President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Secularization of the West and the Rise of a New Morality

(This post is the second in a four part series on Secularization and the Sexual Revolution.)


The new sexual morality did not emerge from a vacuum. Massive intellectual changes at the worldview level over the last 200 years set the stage for the revolution in which we currently find ourselves. We are living in times rightly, if rather awkwardly, described as the Late Modern Age. Just a decade ago, we spoke of the Postmodern Age, as if modernity had given way to something fundamentally new. Like every new and self-declared epoch, the Postmodern Age was declared to be a form of liberation. Whereas the Modern Age announced itself as a secular liberation from a Christian authority that operated on claims of divine revelation, the Postmodern Age was proposed as a liberation from the great secular authorities of reason and rationality. The Postmodern Age, it was claimed, would liberate humanity by operating with an official “incredulity toward all metanarratives.” In other words, postmodernity denied all of the big narratives that had previously shaped the culture and specifically put an end to the Christian narrative.


And yet, postmodern thought eventuated, as all intellectual movements must, in its own metanarrative. Then it just passed away. We still speak of postmodern thinking, even as we speak rightly of postmodern architecture and postmodern art, but we are speaking, for the most part, of a movement that has given way and given up. In retrospect, the Postmodern Age was not a new age at all; it was only the alarm that announced the end of Modernity and the beginning of the Late Modern Age. Modernity has not disappeared. It has only grown stronger, if also more complex.


The claim that humanity can only come into its own and overcome various invidious forms of discrimination by secular liberation is not new, but it is now mainstream. It is now so common to the cultures of Western societies that it need not be announced, and often is not noticed. Those born into the cultures of late modernity simply breathe these assumptions as they breathe the atmosphere, and their worldviews are radically realigned, even if their language retains elements of the old worldview.


The background to this great intellectual shift is the secularization of Western societies. Modernity has brought many cultural goods, but it has also, as predicted, brought a radical change in the way citizens of Western societies think, feel, relate, and reason. The Enlightenment’s liberation of reason at the expense of revelation was followed by a radical anti-supernaturalism that can scarcely be exaggerated. Looking at Europe and Great Britain, it is clear that the Modern Age has alienated an entire civilization from its Christian roots, along with Christian moral and intellectual commitments. This did not happen all at once, of course, though the change came very quickly in nations such as France and Germany. Scandinavian nations now register almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief. Increasingly, the same is also true of Great Britain. Sociologists now speak openly of the death of Christian Britain—and the evidence of Christian decline is abundant.


Some prophetic voices recognized the scale and scope of the intellectual changes taking place in the West. Just over thirty years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote of a shift in worldview away from one that was at least vaguely Christian in the memory of society towards a completely different way of looking at the world. This new worldview was based on the idea that final reality was impersonal matter or energy shaped into its present form by impersonal chance. Significantly, Schaeffer observed that Christians in his time did not see this new worldview as taking the place of the Christian worldview that had previously dominated northern European and American cultures, either by personal conviction or cultural impression. These two worldviews, one generally Christian and the other barely deistic stood in complete antithesis to each other in content and also in moral results. These contrary ways of seeing the world would lead to very different sociological and governmental results, including the conception and implementation of law.


In 1983, writing just a few years after Francis Schaeffer made that contribution, Carl F. H. Henry described the situation and future possibilities in terms of a strict dichotomy:


“If modern culture is to escape the oblivion that has engulfed the earlier civilizations of man, the recovery of the will of the self-revealed God in the realm of justice and law is crucially imperative. Return to pagan misconceptions of divinized rulers, or a divinized cosmos, or a quasi-Christian conception of natural law or natural justice will bring inevitable disillusionment. Not all pleas for transcendent authority will truly serve God or man. By aggrandizing law and human rights and welfare to their sovereignty, all manner of earthly leaders eagerly preempt the role of the divine and obscure the living God of Scriptural revelation. The alternatives are clear: we return to the God of the Bible or we perish in the pit of lawlessness.”[1]


Writing even earlier, Carl Henry had already identified the single greatest intellectual obstacle to a cultural return to the God of the Bible. Released in 1976, Henry’s first volume of his six-volume magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, began with this first line: “No fact of contemporary Western life is more evident than the growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word.”[2] This obstacle to the return to the authority of a Christian worldview is really part of a vicious circle that begins with the departure from at least a cultural impression of God’s revealed authority. Leaving a Christian worldview leads to a distrust of final truth and a rejection of universal authority, which then blockades the way back to the God of the Bible.






[1] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 6, God Who Stands and Says Part 2 (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 454.


[2] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1, God Who Speaks and Shows, Preliminary Considerations (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 1.



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Publication date: February 23, 2016