What does “secular” mean anyways?

There is a lot of hand-wringing in the church today because the United States is becoming more “secular” and “post-Christian.” When we, as the church, analyze the culture, we often equate secularism with atheism. We believe, erroneously in my view, that America is becoming more atheistic and hostile to Christianity. While America may be getting more hostile to Christianity, it is probably not becoming more atheistic. In fact, some projections have religions increasing in the next 50 years with atheism declining. But anecdotally: out of all the non-Christians in your life, how many real atheists do you know? I mean atheists of the Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens-type? Probably not many, if any, at all. Most people who are not Christians believe in some kind of cosmic power, “god,” or quasi-spirituality.  

Therefore, I believe the equation of “secular = atheist” is wrong. So if “secular” does not mean atheistic, what does it mean? I think one of the simplest definitions of secular is this: secular = choice. That’s really what our culture has become, a culture of choice. We (meaning human beings in general) have almost unlimited choice in how to live our lives now. 

We are no longer born “Christians”; we choose which religion we want to affiliate with. We no longer do the work our father did; we choose what we want to do with our lives. We no longer live in the same village as our parents and extended family; we choose where we want to live. We no longer have pre-arranged marriages; we choose whoever we want to marry, whether of the opposite sex or same sex (and probably multiple partners in a few years). We no longer have to consign ourselves to the inevitable connection between sex and procreation; we can choose when to have kids.  We no longer have to stay in a marriage, but due to no-fault divorce, we can choose to end the marriage somewhat easily and move on with our lives. We no longer have to fit into the predefined religion box and follow all of its teachings and regulation, we can choose to pick what elements we want to follow and mix them together with other belief systems. We no longer have to ride out the good and bad times in an ordinary church, we can choose some place which exactly fits our spiritual preferences. We are no longer limited to live according to the “gender norms” of yesteryear; we can choose to change our gender if that’s what we want to do. 

The number of options (and decisions we need to make) for everything has exploded. Which music streaming are you going to use? Apple Music? Spotify? YouTube Music? Amazon Music Unlimited? Tidal? Sirius XM? Pandora? iHeart Radio?  What about TV? Cable? Netflix? Hulu? Disney+? HBO Max? Starz Streaming? Amazon Prime Video? ESPN+? Discovery+? Sling? Peacock? Fubo TV? YouTube TV? 

Just walk into ShopRite, enough said. 

So in my view, non-secular culture provided a very strict structure to human life. Non-secular cultures were built around predefined role relationships in family, geography, religion, and vocation. Secular culture, on the other hand, erodes these structures and attempts to provide human beings with endless choice. 

So what are we as the church to make of all of this?

First of all, this rambling mess of a thought is me working some things out in front of you. So, I don’t know exactly what we are to make of all of this. I am thinking out loud as to how we can most faithfully follow the Lord in a time of unprecedented choice.  

I think it also needs to be said that choice is not all bad! Choice often does bring some measure of freedom. It’s nice to have a choice of who to marry after all (according to God’s design, of course). Furthermore, all of us reading this email are products of secular culture. It’s inescapable. We are all flooded with more choices than we care to admit. Which is also why anxiety and depression and just plain ol’ paralysis are on the rise. The human brain may not be created to handle so much choice. 

So my first stab at a partial solution is this: embrace the limits that God has placed on your life. If our culture is flooded with choice, which is an attempt to throw off the limits of human existence and create a life of our choosing, then a radical countercultural step would be to embrace limits, particularly the ones that God has placed on us in his word. I’m thinking first to embrace the limits of our bodies. Embracing the limits of our bodies would speak to such profound existential questions of “Who am I” which naturally touches on the fact that God has made us “male and female” (Gen 1:27). So there’s a certain sense of accepting our biological sex as a good gift and a limit. But beyond questions of identity, there are issues of day-to-day practicality of living in a body. 

We cannot do everything! We have to say “no” to some choices that are presented to us. Embracing God’s limits, I think, would mean embracing the Sabbath. We should not celebrate the Sabbath in a legalistic way as if one day is more holy than any other day (Rom 14:5). But we should set aside time to rest: to mindfully enjoy God and his creation. God laid down the pattern of rest in the creation account: work six days and rest one. If we choose (there’s that word again) to work too much and not take a Sabbath, the Sabbath will take us. Is it any wonder why people “burn out” so much? They have not embraced God’s limits. When you take a Sabbath, you’re really saying “no” to making choices. Am I going to do this, or that? Am I going to work on this or that? Instead, you have made one choice and it has the set the course of your week: Am I going to set aside a day to worship the Lord and be refreshed in him. 

I have a lot more to say on this. But that awaits another week. 

2 thoughts on “What does “secular” mean anyways?

  1. Pingback: What Does “Post-Christian” Mean Anyways? – Raising Lazarus

  2. Pingback: Cyborg Nation – Raising Lazarus

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