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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Appealing to the Secular Religion

A few months ago I was sitting in the "multipurpose room" of a moderately swanky suburban private day school. Various brightly colored, encouragingly instructive messages and iconography adorned the walls (like stickers about "the wilderness" and composting). Among them were five signs that I took to be the official values of the school:
  • critical thinking
  • diversity
  • integrity
  • community
  • empathy
It occurred to me that these values are among the basic tenets of contemporary secular religion. I use the term "religion" a bit boldly, because the accoutrements of traditional religion—including priesthood, liturgy, pantheon/saints, festivals, doctrine, purity codes, etc.—manifest themselves subtly in secular religion and can be difficult to pick out, though one could brainstorm examples of all of them. But because it is an integrated, though at times self-dissonant, worldview and lifestyle that orients a person and community to Ultimate Matters, I think that "religion" is the best word for it. It also casts in a somewhat amusing light another word on the gym wall:

I thought about how all five of those values are positive things that I agree with and believe in but about how if the Christian school that I graduated from were to articulate its top five values, they would be entirely different. Some people have pointed out that what makes values valuable is not the values themselves but their comparative ranks. This is because almost everyone affirms almost everything put forth by anybody as a value. What makes an institution or individual unique, however, is which values take precedence over other values if a crisis forces us to choose among them.

So even though I affirm all these values to one degree or another, at first I smirked cynically (and self-righteously) at this display of secular religion, thinking, "I'd never send my kids here (as if I could afford it)."

But then I opened my Bible to pick up my daily reading in the Book of Acts, and I realized that Paul the Apostle would not look at these tenets of secular religion as I just did. He would view them as a bridge, a means to connect with people of a different religion in order to introduce them to the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul would affirm critical thinking. He would make common ground with the honing of the mind to look at the roots of ideas and where ideas lead, cutting through thoughtless foolishness along the way. He would then point out that this is exactly what God does when he looks at humanity's best thinking: "Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish?" (1 Cor. 1:20). He would note with Isaiah that God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). Nevertheless, "God has revealed these to us by the Spirit," and therefore "the one who is spiritual discerns all things" because "we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:10, 15-16). Therefore, supreme critical thinking is possessed by those who have been enlightened by the Spirit of God.

Paul would affirm diversity. He would celebrate the joining together of a vast array of cultures, nations, languages, sexes, classes, educational attainments, vocations, and gifts. He would then argue that the only way to achieve this diversity authentically without it blowing apart is if the bond among diverse persons is Christ himself. In him "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all" (Col. 3:11). But this is not a melting-pot eradication of diversity, because through him are (not "were") all things (Rom. 11:36). Christ is the only one high and worthy enough and also accessible enough to connect all peoples, and he is also the only one broad and deep enough that each unique person or people is a precious, irreducible manifestation of his beauty.

Paul would affirm integrity. He would wholeheartedly insist on it in all one's being, thinking, speaking, and acting. But he would set a far loftier standard for integrity than people usually settle for. Then he would give the good news that integrity can be secured by justification—the reception of God's undeserved gift of a "not guilty" verdict by nothing more than faith that Christ is our comprehensive, sacrificial substitute by his death on the cross. He would then announce the further good news that "now we have been released from the law . . . so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom. 7:6), who transforms us inwardly into the sort of people who do live with integrity as Christ himself lives through us (Gal. 2:20).

Paul would affirm community. He would maintain strongly that human beings are more than individuals—they are part of a whole, and always will be. He would claim that the question is not whether one is in community but which community one is in. He would contrast the community into which we all are born—the community "in Adam," a community doomed to die, in which natural ("of the flesh") warring subcommunities of race, tribe, and faction prevail—with the community into which we may be born again by faith—the community "in Christ," which is "one body" that shares one bread and drinks of one cup (1 Cor. 10:16-17). This community of peace lives forever and tastes that eternal life as its members live together even now.

Finally, Paul would affirm empathy. He would sketch numerous examples of empathy in action, as for example to "rejoice with those who rejoice [and] weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). He would describe empathy as "be[ing] of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose . . . be[ing] moved to treat one another as more important than yourself" (Phil. 2:2-3). As Paul hints here, empathy is not a strong virtue on its own but only as an assistant of love, "which is the perfect bond" of all the virtues (Col. 3:14). Love goes beyond empathy, beyond merely understanding or even feeling for one's neighbor to sacrificing oneself to help them, deserving or not, just as God did for us in Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:8). Only those who have received this love in fullness have the resource within to pour it out on others.

We don't live in an irreligious world. Even in its most irreligious places, there is often a covert religion humming in the background. It is not a religion that saves. But like the rest, it is a religion that contains signs that point to salvation in the name of Jesus. We who have the mind of Christ are to help people to see the signs and walk with them on the way.

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