The Christian Gospel in a secular world

(A simplified version of a talk given by Revd David Watkin on
Sunday 5th May 2019)

All people worship a god and the god of secularism is an ancient one, the god of self-glorification. Secularism mistakes the image of God in man for God himself. The harmless will to live is then transmuted into the sinful will to power. Pride is good, humility is despised, entitlement is self justifying and gift is dismissed as foolishly mystifying.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son the younger son demands his entitlements, so where is the recognition of dependence on the Father ? The son ended up in misery when famine struck and his own resources had run out. There are signs we humans are heading that way, being squanderers of Earth’s valuable and finite resources. As a result of self glorification we may be seeing the first signs of the great famine; polluted earth, air and water, great migrations of poor and starving peoples, self glorifying indifference by the rich and powerful.

Reinhold Niebuhr said human destiny can be viewed as tragedy—noble, impressive but doomed to meaninglessness. Religions that believe faith in any god is better than no faith at all do not argue that life is meaningless; life must have a meaning of some sort otherwise no one could live. But they discover that meaning to be an ultimate tragedy.
There is a religion of Secularism and often it is the expression of sinful self sufficiency; this has great attraction, as expressed by those who want a ‘Christian’ funeral but choose the only song to be Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”, surely a secularist anthem of self praise.

In response to this, can we say that the secular view misunderstands itself because in the last analysis the world is not thoroughly secular ? Thus many disavow any religious belief, yet admit there may be something other, something more. Many people have a fervent desire/passion for peace, justice, care and responsibility for the environment, relief of suffering, and defence of the immigrant. Some will work for these things at great personal sacrifice and risk. Here we find enacted the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.

The Christian Gospel says that the ultimate meaning is seen in the sacrifice for good on the cross which reveals both the love of God and the sinfulness of humankind. It was the worst and best that secularism could do. The religious power complex of the Judean authorities and the state/military complex of the Roman Empire were both desperate to retain the power they held, so they combined in an unholy alliance to crucify a poor itinerant preacher, known as Lord only by the peasantry and the common Roman soldiery. We recall that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Proud people find it difficult to know God because they are tempted to make themselves God. The cross reveals the love of God but only when we have first stood under its judgement, accepted our share of blame and responsibility and have come to ourselves. Whenever people trust their own righteousness, achievements and power and that unaided they alone can set down stepping stones to the Lord, the ground beneath them shifts and the abyss of loss and meaninglessness opens into which they plunge.

The ever present danger for the church when sharing the Gospel with the so called secular world is that of self-righteousness. Preaching is problematical for this secular world. For it has come to be seen not as the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but telling others what they should believe and how they should behave. All human institutions are prone to pride, hypocrisy and the obtaining of power and control of others. The church is no exception. The temptation is always for us to play the part of the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. It may have been the insufferable self righteousness of the elder brother which drove the prodigal son away in the first place.
The church has a responsibility to preach to the secular world but must not do so without recognizing its own historical and contemporary shortcomings. These include the role of women in the priesthood (exclusions really being misogyny and not biblical), using the authority of the church to present one atonement theory as the correct one, saying (as a Bishop of London once did) that you can convert slaves to be baptised without having to alter their conditions of slavery, that it was fine for women servants to be used in a life of drudgery (with one day off to visit family and go to church) and joining in the common impulse to meet cruelty and hatred with an answering cruelty and hatred. The Gospel is not about power over others, but that a meaningful life is found in the kind of sacrificial love that was supremely present in the death of Christ.

Secularism may well be the reaction to the church’s own profanity. Some atheists may actually have a higher implicit theism. We began by arguing that secularism is the sin of self glorification, and so it is. But paradoxically this may so often go along with a fervent passion for justice. If we are to preach the Gospel to the secular world we must accept and understand this. If we preach repentance, it is for those who accept the Lord as well as those who do not. Nothing is easier, cheaper or more futile than the preaching of a simple moralism which is based upon the assumption that the world only needs to be told that selfishness is a sin and that the great commandment to love God and our neighbour as ourselves is the one surefire antidote to this sin. Self righteousness is a sin and we Christians must strive to discern the difference between God’s will and what is actually our own will. Remember the stern words of John the Baptist. Bear fruit that befits repentance and do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham as our father, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

Nigel Jones (24 May 2019)


Group Bulletins