CHAPTER IX


ETHICS AND A SECULAR CHRISTIANITY

 

PAUL M. VAN BUREN




THE POSSIBILITY OF A SECULAR CHRISTIANITY

A secular Christianity does not in fact exist at present; it may exist sometime in the future. I do not wish to indulge in crystal-ball gazing on so important a topic as the future of Christianity, but there are moments in which I am inclined to think that unless a secular christianity does emerge, the future of Christianity's possibilities for being of help to a secular world appears dim. I mention this in order to indicate for the reader the point of view from which this essay is written. It is that of one who is exploring the possibility of a secular Christianity, not simply as a game or as a hypothetical tour de force, but as an act of profound concern for the future of the human enterprise. This enterprise is in dire straits and desperately needs what I believe a secular Christianity might conceivably have to offer. The concern, then, is not for the survival of Christianity (Parkinson's Law will surely preserve the church), but for the survival of men and of our sick, secular world. With that concern, I ask about the possibility of a secular Christianity.

At the present time, a number of theologians and thinkers, both lay and professional, and of almost every branch of the Christian tradition, have been exploring the possibilities of a secular Christianity. Thus far, not all of these have been of one mind on the character or the features of secularity. Since I am particularly concerned with problems of thought and understanding which present themselves as problems of language, I should like to begin by indicating what I take to be some of the fundamental features of secular thought. This is the way in which men so think of, see, and shape their experienced world at the present time as to lead us to use the word "secular".

I would add that I find singularly artificial the distinction between secularization as a supposed process in history, and secularism as a supposed attitude of mind. That dichotomy assumes a separation of how we think from how we live that, in the light of present knowledge, seems quite indefensible. I take it that these ways of thinking (secularism?) are inseparably connected with how we experience, act in, and give shape to our world (secularization?), and that thinking of and seeing our world in this way, we shape it as we do. With our words or thoughts we carve up our experienced world, and our ability to do this carving in any particular way provides the occasion for that use of words which we come to acquire. Without drawing sharp lines, then, between the political, economic, and social processes of our life, and our thought or language, let me indicate what I take to be the distinguishing features of a time which some have come to call secular.

The character of secular thought appears more clearly when we contrast it with that other way of thought which we seem to be leaving behind.1 It goes without saying that broad cultural changes such as the one that we are here trying to understand do not happen all at once or in an even manner. Secularity effects all to some degree and some to a high degree, but all remain in part also creatures of past culture. I wish, then, to indicate a tendency, which, although not clear-cut, is nonetheless of profound importance. Five features of this tendency come to mind, though not necessarily in order of their importance. Together they constitute a shift of emphasis or of relative valuation from permanence toward change, from the universal to the particular, from unity to plurality, from the absolute to the relative, and from passivity to activity.

Through most of recorded history men have feared change and longed for permanence. This is so evident in the pages of political, economic, philosophical and religious history that it needs no exposition here. Once we reflect upon our own contemporary experience, it becomes equally evident, however, that change has begun to displace both stability and permanence as the higher good. In every area of life, we are coming more and more to admire that which can change, develop, and be improved, that which is flexible and open to the future, rather than settled for all time or fixed by the past. Again, I do not say that any of us have made this transposition of values without reservation, but the fact that we have made it to the degree we have sets us off from men in most of recorded history.

Not unrelated to this is an increasing concern with the particular and a certain lack of concern, if not outright distrust, for the universal. We seem to feel that generalizations must be tested against the concrete. In our own way we have become nominalists. The scientific method itself, the operations of modern industry, the standards of sound scholarship in almost any field, all these and much more reveal our priority of values to be different from most men in our past. In politics and economics, in historical and social studies, the answers that count as answers for us are answers to particular questions. The proof of the pudding, we are inclined to think, is in the eating.

No wonder, then, that we have found ourselves becoming pluralists to one degree or another. Our experienced world is a world for us in many different ways. Any unities we find in things are always unities for some particular purpose; they leave room for other unities or ways in which the world can be a world for us. Religious pluralism, so called, is but one of the minor manifestations of the extent to which we have come to recognize the plurality of our experience and thus the plurality of all our thinking and living. For us, an Archimedean point would remain the point for accomplishing Archimedes' objective, although, having other goals in mind, other points would have to be found.

The other side of the pluralist coin is a growing sense of the relativity of things. What is true is true always and only relative to some specific frame of reference. Absolutes come to be distrusted as only disguised relativities and it becomes increasingly difficult to disassociate the term `dogmatic' from pejorative overtones. It may be necessary to point out that we are learning to live with relativity, that we are discovering that profound commitments can be held without absolute claims being made about that to which one finds oneself to be committed. There are many shades of grey and a world can be won or lost over the difference between these shades, but a change of no small importance has come about if we find we are willing to live or die for something we do not take to be absolute. This also is a change so pervasive as to need no documentation, but I could mention only the development of historiography in the last century or two as one obvious manifestation of the shift.2

Finally, and perhaps the most explosive and controversial of all the shifts is the change which is taking place slowly in human consciousness from ourselves as passive to active beings.3 Where we are going and what is to become of us is beginning to seem not a matter of fate, Providence, or luck, but of what we ourselves do. It is easy to overstate this shift and so make a parody of it. Never before have men been more sensitive to the ways in which they are shaped by their economic, social, psychological, and political environment. Yet it is interesting to notice the extent to which we seem to think that these are factors which we ought to change and at least theoretically can change. Whether we shall be as successful as we hope or as powerless as we fear, we seem to think that it is up to us, that we are responsible. If we pollute our world beyond the point of human survival, if we over-populate the world beyond the point of nourishing life, if we blow it up into atomic dust, we seem to think that it will be we who did it and that it will be our own fault. That is to say that we think we could have done otherwise. I am not discussing whether we can in fact do all that we want to do; the point is that we think of ourselves as the makers of our own future, for better or for worse. In that sense, this age differs importantly from the way in which men have seen themselves from the beginnings of time until quite recently times in that we see ourselves the active makers of our lives and world. With fear and trembling we walk toward a future which we are becoming increasingly conscious of forming by our very way of walking.

These shifts in value and new tendencies in priorities, these new directions of the human consciousness so intimately associated with the scientific, technological, and educational explosions of our time are what I have in mind when I speak of secularity. If it should come to pass that a majority of those who called themselves Christians, or even an important minority of them, should find themselves sharing wholeheartedly in this new consciousness, then we would have a secular Christianity.

As things stand now, however, only a few individuals and small groups here and there, living as it were on the fringes of one or another of the Christian churches--and most of these to only a certain degree--share in the secular spirit that is taking shape in our age. The fact that Christians on the whole are lagging behind in this cultural shift is hardly surprising. Quite apart from the generally conservative attitude of the churches, it is clear that the shift that is taking place is not an easy one for Christians to make. No matter how one conceives it, a secular Christianity is going to be a different Christianity from that which has gone before, and thoughtful Christians are sure to wonder whether it will still properly be a form of Christianity at all.

The question is painful because of the fact that Christianity, throughout almost its entire history and all the changes and transformations it has undergone, has nonetheless lived within, accepted, and helped shape that older priority of values with which we contrasted the consciousness of secularity. In that older world, Christianity along with the rest of ancient and classical culture, valued the eternal over the temporal, permanence above change, unity over plurality, the universal above the particular, and the absolute above the relative. No wonder then that Christianity in its own way shared a view of man's proper role as passive, as adapting oneself to that which was immutably decreed from eternity, as coming to terms with that which was thought never to change. Of course, Christianity gave its own twist, coloration, and emphases to the picture, but, if the shift which I have described is at all accurately depicted, it leaves the balance of the history of Christianity on the same side as the balance of the long history of human consciousness. If indeed a change of the sort which I have indicated is going on, would it be possible for Christianity to change too, or must it remain forever wedded to a classic consciousness and set of priorities, and doomed to battle against the tendency that is at work among us all?

It has already been argued, of course, with that skill of adaptation so often making the history of theology, that the essential features of secularity can all be found in the origins of the Christian tradition. Surely a good deal of the appeal to Christians of Harvey Cox's The Secular City was the way in which he presented secularization as coming directly out of the biblical witness. Without having to swallow that tour de force, however, one can at least say that a modern historical study of the history of Christianity shows that Christianity has itself been changing all through its history. Indeed, as a historical religion it must perforce have been changing or it could hardly still be alive. When one thinks of the revolution set in motion by St. Paul to the horror of the Jerusalem establishment, or the NeoPlatonic transformation which we owe so largely to St. Augustine, or any of the later Aristotelian, Occamist, Renaissance, Kantian, Hegelian, or Existentialist transformations of Christian consciousness, it may be that a secular form of Christianity, though it may seem more radical, is at least not without some precedent when viewed in historical perspective. The shift is not an easy one to make, however, for none of these earlier shifts seems to have called for changes of so fundamental a sort as those involved in developing a secular Christianity.

The possibility of a partially or selectively secular Christianity, that is, of a compromise with the secular tendencies described is of course already being explored. However, such a compromise simply will not do, and that for two reasons. In the first place, it rests upon a superficial and inadequate understanding of the sort of shift that is taking place. It either fails to see the way in which these various tendencies which we have enumerated hang together, or else sees them but fails to take them seriously. It intends to make the most of a few aspects of a process of secularization under the illusion that we can live in a new sort of way without this having consequences for the way in which we speak or think.

Beyond its naivety or fallaciousness there is the further point that any such compromise places one in intolerable logical confusion. A "death of a thousand qualifications" stands there to greet both a significant theism which suffers from insufficient warrants and an unfalsifiable theism bought at the price of vacuity. Either classical Christianity believed in a God who really did make a difference and we now simply do not have sufficient warrant to think that he still makes that difference, or else God does not depend on any warrants because in fact in our sort of world he doesn't make a difference at all. Sophisticated efforts to turn away the thrust of the argument only succeed to the extent that Christianity is willing and able simply to turn its back on the whole secular shift that is taking place. That option can be respected, even if one does not agree with it. What is quite unacceptable, however, is the compromise that attempts to go part of the way with the secular spirit. The revolving door between the museum of antiquities and the secular world may be passed through, but it will not do as a place to stand.

SECULAR CHRISTIANITY AND ETHICS

Secularity, as I understand it and have presented it, does have a set of values, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It values particularity, change, plurality, relativity, and an active consciousness. These values or tendencies of thought, however, are so broad and open-ended that they will hardly do to set goals for us. Two men could well share a secular orientation and yet be at profound odds about what they ought to do in some particular case. As our society has become increasingly secular, there has been no detectable wane of injustice, racism, imperialism, self-interest, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. Each day the secular city seems to be coming closer to total collapse. Political corruption and wooden institutionalism seem to be as much a part of a secular establishment as they ever were in the past. An acceptance of change is no guarantee that a man will work for change to benefit his neighbor rather than himself. The classical world had no monopoly on evil.

It would seem, then, that a secular world stands in every bit as great a need as did any pre-secular world of guides for conduct and of a social vision that can challenge the status quo and stir men to work for a world better than that which is at hand. Christianity, understood in terms of devotion to an unchanging, eternal, universal, and absolute unity, succeeded in calling man to a passive role of cooperation with that absolute unity in building a better world in a cultural context in which an unchanging, eternal, and absolute unity were highly valued. Hence, there would seem to be no a priori reason why a secular Christianity might not serve as a source of ethical insight and motivation in a secular age by calling men to actively shape a world of change, plurality, and relativity. If classical Christianity provided ethical insights for classical Christians in a classical age, then it could be that a secular Christianity might be able to provide secular Christians with ethical insights in a secular age.

The place and logic of ethics in a secular Christianity are not difficult to find, for ethics has been central in most efforts to explore the character of a secular Christianity. This could be shown with any number of examples, but I should like to take as a case Professor R.B. Braithwaite's Eddington Memorial Lecture of 1955, "An Empiricist's View of Religious Belief", since I think it can be argued that this essay brings into focus the primary issues and the central direction of most of the important efforts to define a secular Christianity. I shall assume that any one who is the least interested in our topic would by now be thoroughly familiar with this essay and with the discussions to which it has given rise.4 To sum up his conclusion in barest fashion, Braithwaite argued that Christianity may be understood by a contemporary empiricist as a way of life. In this view, faith is seen as the serious intention of pursuing the moral policy of agapé, which intention is supported by association with the Christian and biblical story. The conclusion and, of course, its supporting argument are much more complex than that, but such a short summary as I have given will do for our purposes, since I do not intend to criticize the argument after the manner of most who have objected to it. Most have argued, in one way or another, that Braithwaite has reduced Christianity to morals, making the whole business of theology into an ethics which involves no claims whatsoever about the existence and activity of a personal creator God. Braithwaite, most objectors have said, has gone too far.

It has been objected that any "moral interpretation" of Christianity which analyzes the language of Christians as a sort of moral language neglects an important and evident characteristic of what believers are doing when they confess their faith. It is objected that in important ways Christian faith may be much like a moral commitment, but that it is something else as well. It is also an affirmation about what is so, about the state of affairs in this world and this universe; this is not brought out by simply comparing this language to the language of morals.5

In response to this objection, it must be granted that when Christians speak of God and his kingdom, at least indirectly they are expressing a belief as to what is so, as to what is the state of affairs in the world. It must be added at once, however, that this objection has not made much headway, even with this concession, and that for two reasons. In the first place, saying what is so is a complex matter which those presenting the objection have not cleared up. Saying what is so is complex, not because we do not know how to do it, but because we do it in so many different ways. For example, if a man says that he has acted in faithfulness to God, or that he is calling upon the name of God, or that the whole world has been laid claim to by Christ, one surely would not argue that such a man is saying or implying what is so in the same way as a natural scientist does. He is not saying what is so in a way that has the logic of any number of descriptive ways in which he says what is the case. In what sense, then, are Christian affirmations of what is so?

The objection also overlooks a second point which suggests a possible answer to our first question. It overlooks the fact that a man who takes a moral stand is almost inevitably committed thereby to certain beliefs about the world, about what is so. He is committed to some form of belief in regularity or order in the world and in language, such that it makes sense to speak of doing something for a reason. He is also committed to the belief that the world is so constituted that moral action is not an utterly vain pursuit. These beliefs may be of a very general sort, but that does not make them any less important. Morality as well as religion seems to commit men to beliefs about what is so. When we see this, it becomes apparent that the objection to what I have called a moral analysis of theological language no longer makes its point. If it makes any point, it is that such an analysis calls for an exceedingly careful and subtle treatment of morality, or perhaps a broader view of the language of morals than that which Braithwaite seems to have had in mind.

I want to argue, therefore, that Braithwaite has not gone far enough. He has moved in what I take to be a most productive and constructive direction by focusing on the moral character of Christianity. I would conclude from his argument that if there is to be a secular Christianity that can be of any service to the world, it will be understood as a moral enterprise, a matter of how men shape their lives and their world, or it will be of no significant service at all. But I find his proposal for what I am calling a secular Christianity deficient on two counts: his views of both ethics and agapé are too narrow. By calling to mind both ethical and theological resources that can be used to correct Braithwaite's essay, I can make clear what I take to be the place and function of ethics in a secular Christianity.

The model of a moral issue which Braithwaite seems primarily to have had in mind in his essay was that sort of case in which I ask, within a specific set of circumstances, what it is that I ought to do. A moral principle in such a case is that to which I refer, along with all the relevant factual information, in order to arrive at the conclusion that in this case I should do thus and so. That this is an important type of moral situation is not to be denied, but I think that for the purpose of characterizing the moral character of Christianity, it is not broad enough. It has been pointed out that there are other sorts of moral judgments which ethics must attend to besides those which have to do with specific moral acts.6 There are also judgments which we make, not about this or that particular act, but about the shape of a man's life, about his life as a whole. There are judgments which we make about the character, or state, or style of a society. These too are moral judgments, and the achievement of clarity about such judgments is also the business of ethics. The judgment, for example, that our present American society is profoundly sick, that its priorities are in the wrong order, that we have as a society sold our birthright for a mess of porridge, is surely a moral judgment, whether one agrees with it or not. Surely, it is the business of ethics to help us to see such a matter more clearly and to help us to decide whether we ought to make such a judgment.

If we ask in what way Christianity is more adequately conceived of as a moral enterprise, or of what sort of moral judgment is the judgment of faith, then I should think that primary attention should be given this broader conception of moral judgments. Christianity has certainly given attention to the problem of answering specific questions about specific acts, but there is more to Christian ethics than casuistry. The primary judgment of which it has spoken, after all, is presented in the image of a total reckoning of all the nations, and of a judgment made on Good Friday and on Easter about the whole of the human situation. The moral judgment with which Christianity has been concerned has been painted with a big brush on a big canvas, and it is in the light of this that finer judgments are made about the details. It would seem, then, that both ethics and the Christian tradition encourage us to consider the moral character of Christianity more broadly than has Braithwaite in his essay. This is not to depart from what he has done, but only to push further in the direction which he has already indicated.

A second way in which Braithwaite's understanding of what a secular Christianity might be (which was not, at least in those terms, what he set out to show, but which expresses what we are concerned with here) may be developed and improved by the insights of modern theological scholarship, especially in the field of Old Testament studies.7 Though, at least in those terms, this is not what he set out to show, it expresses what we are concerned with here. Had Braithwaite been more versed in modern biblical scholarship, or even in aspects of modern theology, he might have seen "God is love" to be too narrow a center to pick for the Christian story. Or perhaps we could say that agapé has more of the character of an active, historical event than Braithwaite seemed to realize. In any case, it is at this point that I should want to substitute some form or other of the New or Old Testament proclamation of the Kingdom of Jahweh as the central imagery for a secular Christianity. The imagery of the Kingdom could serve as a source for a social vision of what human life could be like and what the world could become. This would serve the desperate social and political needs of our secular society in a way parallel to that in which agapé serves in Braithwaite's essay as a moral principle for individual actions of individual Christians. The danger of a purely individualistic conception of the moral thrust of Christianity could be met by a center which would politicize and socialize the single theme of agapé. To put this in other words, unless agapé is understood in relationship to the Kingdom, it is less than Christianity can mean by this word.

THE IMAGE OF THE KINGDOM OF YAHWEH

AS A SOCIAL VISION

We have now to ask about the place and function of ethics in a secular Christianity in the light of the foregoing considerations. It has been a custom of moral philosophy to use `moral' as a word for certain sorts of questions and judgments about human action and life, and `ethics' as the name for systematic reflection on and study of these moral questions and judgments: ethics being, in short, reflection upon moral issues. According to this usage, we may say that ethics would appear to displace theology as the central and indispensable reflective activity of secular Christianity. The central image for a secular Christianity would be that of the Kingdom, as an image of the unrealized and hoped for dream of what human life might yet be. In this light, the Christian life would consist in so living as to long for the realization of that social vision. The secular world would be measured by that vision and the challenge of that vision would be accepted as both a spur to action and a norm by which to measure alternative courses to be pursued in working to change society. Thus, a secular Christianity living with an image of the Kingdom as its social vision would be a frankly revolutionary movement. Social ethics would be its primary reflective activity, analyzing the existing state of society and the quality of human life against the vision in which it hopes, and studying possible strategies of action that would make for some degree of greater conformity of the world to the vision it seeks to realize. The character of that vision being what it is, each new state of affairs realized would itself become subject to new criticism in the light of that vision. As a result, the revolution in which a secular Christianity would be engaged would be permanent, constant, or ever-renewed. With its eye on the vision, the word of a secular Christianity about, for, and to the world would be semper reformanda, and it would rest at peace with nothing less.

It should be evident that a secular Christianity working for social change and seeking to transform the style of human life would be, as Christianity has always been, dependent upon the biblical story as the primary source of its social vision. Were it to forget that story with its constant reminder of the temptation to identify some modest accomplishment with the Kingdom itself, or were it to turn to some other story in order to find a vision more agreeable to the conditions of its society or the demands of its culture, then of course it would cease to be a form of Christianity at all. If there is to be a secular Christianity, then, we must assume that the telling and the retelling of that story, whether in more established forms of preaching and eucharist, or in newer forms of drama, guerrilla theater, or folk song, will be an indispensable activity which will go on whenever Christians meet together.

One can image, however, that the story will not always be told in just the ways in which it has been told in the past. A `gentle Jesus, meek and mild,' will hardly be expected to figure in a Christianity that has accepted the shift from passive to active man. The privatized translation of Luke 17:20 that places the Kingdom within us would no longer displace the translation that announces the Kingdom among us in the person who is faithful to its demands. The cross might become a symbol of political challenge and revolt against every establishment, and a call to political and social risk. The Kingdom itself will surely be a symbol or vision of a situation on earth, not a projection up in the clouds. A secular Christianity, no longer under the burden of trying to prove that its vision is true (what in the world would it mean to say that a vision was "true"?), could give up fighting for the existence of God and turn to the work of serving the Kingdom, as an ideal or vision, which if not necessarily the finest that men shall ever devise, is still the greatest that those who call themselves Christians have yet run across.

In contemplating the picture of a secular Christianity presented here, it would be well for us to consider the present situation of a society growing increasingly secular and to that extent unable to hear or understand the message of a pre-secular Christianity. Of course, a Christianity which understands man as passive and which, due to its loyalty to a supposed absolute, is unable to throw itself without reserve into the proximate struggles for relative gains in the particular issues which confront men, is hardly likely or even able to throw its weight on the side of change, much less revolution. Concern for the fundamental changes in our political, economic, and social life which would be needed to reverse the disastrous course of the arms race, racism, urban collapse, mass starvation, and pollution of our environment stands little chance in competition with its deeper concerns for personal salvation and other-worldly solutions.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the fatal course on which we are embarked in our secular society can be reversed. There is no guarantee that a renewal of social vision would be able to draw us into a new path. There is, further, no guarantee that a secular Christianity will win a better hearing from the secular world than does classic Christianity. But its message may at least be more comprehensible, and it would be easier for the secular hearer to understand what is at stake in being a Christian. The choice he would be asked to make, of throwing himself on the side of the revolution for the sake of a vision, however, would not be any easier to make just because of its comprehensibility.

On the other hand, a secular Christianity might offer to a secular society badly in need of direction the social vision of a world of righteousness, justice, and love, which depends on our active and imaginative efforts for its creation, and in which particulars in their full and unqualified relativity and diversity are esteemed--the vision of a world in which change and plurality are highly valued. The issues which confront us today are all of a moral sort: the style of contemporary life, the shape and functioning of our institutions, the direction of foreign affairs, and the priorities of our politics. A Christianity so changed as to understand itself essentially and fundamentally as a moral enterprise, the direction pointed to by Braithwaite fifteen years ago, might yet find that it had a saving service to perform in a sick world. "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The ethical issue of the decision concerning a secular Christianity is the choice for Christians between their own past and the people's future.

Temple University

Philadelphia Pennsylvania

NOTES

1. The contrast is developed at length in John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948).

2. The character of pluralism and relativity in our thought was extensively described by William James. See especially his Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907).

3. I wish to express my indebtedness on this point to an unpublished paper of my colleague John Baines, entitled "From Passive to Active Man."

4. Originally published by the Cambridge University Press, 1955, the essay has been reprinted in various places, most recently together with responses and a reply by Braithwaite in I.T. Ramsey, ed., Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy (London: S.C.M. Press, 1966).

5. Ronald Hepburn and Iris Murdoch, "Vision and Choice in Morality," in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 181-218.

6. Conversations with Professor James A. Wharton have been particularly helpful in this area. See his "The Occasion of the Word of God," Austin Seminary Bulletin, LXXXIV (1968), 3-54.

7. See especially John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), pp. 43-56.