Secular vs. Christian Mindsets
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle and Pani-matka Susan · October 2, 2009
Fr. Gabriel explains that missions is not just about getting people into church; rather, it's likewise about enabling people to think like Christians.
This is Fr. Gabriel Rochelle coming to you again from the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico with another Musing on Mission. I want to pick up some threads that were dropped a number of weeks ago.
I had a podcast that was called False Issues that was posted on the 22nd of July of this year. I got some feedback about this from people who were concerned that what I discussed in that podcast are not really false issues—perhaps it was improperly labeled. What I meant, and I think it was clear in the podcast itself, was that these are issues which deflect you from talking about the central aspects of the Christian faith and the central appeal of Christianity to the mind and to the heart.
In this day, people set up these issues as a way of deflecting you from talking about what really are the core and central issues. But we didn’t spend a lot of time in that podcast talking about the central issues. And since that time one of the sub themes in my life has been the ongoing conversation with a number of people about Christianity vs. the secular mindset and how, it seems to me, all of us are in a certain sense recovering secularists.
All of us are on a line somewhere struggling, trying whether desperately or not, to find a way out of being secularists into a Christian mindset and recognizing somewhere along the line that there’s really a great difference between the two. That to have the mind of Christ, as it says in Scripture, is to have a way of seeing in the world that rules out or by passes or overcomes that mindset which is developed particularly in the Western world in the last several hundred years since the time of the Enlightenment.
Now, we’ve been struggling with this issue for a while in this sort of gray period of thinking that has been called by many people post-modernity. The idea being that, in the Modern mindset, science really could solve all of the issues that the human observer could absent him or herself from that which she or he observed in such ways to be completely objective over against it.
All kinds of things like this are part of the secular mindset that has been in place since the time of the Enlightenment and people have rebelled against this. People who said, “No, there’s gotta be more to life than this,” and yet at the same time have not quite known how to fill in, so to speak, the blank, the absence, this vague sense that there is something missing in life that I’m not quite getting here—when I reduce life simply to reason or to a viewpoint that rules out any kind of transcendence.
So I think we are all struggling with this issue of how to move out of that particular space into some other space. And what has happened quite simply in this period, this great period that has been called Postmodernism, is that all the chips have been thrown up into the air. And people are now free to examine once again a whole set of options for thinking, for the dedication of their lives, for the commitments that they make.
A whole sequence of ideas that have been closed or barred off with the scientific or the scientistic mindset. And so now, we as Christians find ourselves at a point of being heard once again, but being heard perhaps with a kind of tentative way in which we were not heard in the past. So, we have to present our case to the public in such a way that people can hear us as asking ultimately for commitment, but at the beginning what we are really asking for is just to peel open the closures on thinking that have taken place during this whole period since the time of the Enlightenment that we call, I guess, the secular mindset.
What do all of these things which sound very abstract have to do with mission? Frankly, it has everything to do with mission in this age because people really are struggling to find a way to think their way through life as well as simply to feel their way through life, or to sense their way through life. And so often they find a kind of closure to their way of thinking that rules out the possibility that anything, for want of a better word, is transcendent.
Since the time of the Enlightenment, faith has been sort of kicked upstairs into a room that is optional, whereas reason has become the main way to interpret the Word, and people are in rebellion against this and are seeking alternative ways that make sense to them and that still are intellectually respectable while still opening up the realm of the transcendent for them. GK Chesterton many years ago said: “Christianity is not believing in impossible things before breakfast.”
I think he was right. I think he was aiming toward the idea that Christianity (in his book on Orthodoxy, which is about Christian Orthodoxy, not Eastern Orthodoxy) is a perception. It’s a way to see the world. And that way to see the world is, I submit, what people are looking for even if they don’t yet know it.
All of us who have come into Christianity or as adults, all of us who are among the once-born who have simply spent our lives trying to understand and deepen and become more Christian over the course of those lives, understand the idea of conversion as turning away from standard ways of thinking in the old sense of repentance as re-thinking. We are all in the process of re-thinking how we live our lives, where we live our lives, with whom we live our lives and under what guidance we live our lives. That’s what conversion is about. It’s actually a lifelong process because we are constantly being drawn back into that mindset which I have termed as secular.
So, mission is not only getting people into church. It is not only filling up pews with warm bodies, but rather enabling people to think like Christians. It is about enabling people to move beyond rationalism into a view and a way of thinking, a way of living that is more complete, more fulfilling and closer to the Scriptural understanding of what Christianity is all about.
Remember Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho says to Trypho, his antagonist in the dialogue, that he went through all the philosophies of the time and when he came to Christianity it was as if it were a flame in his mind. It burned up all the other things as if they were dross, and Christianity remained supreme. Interesting, isn’t it, that he would have thought of Christianity as a philosophy?
So often in our country what has happened is that Christianity has been marginalized into a religion. And, you know, Albert North Whitehead was the one who many years ago said, “Religion is what we do with our leisure time, and has become kind of a model for what it’s all about.” What we do with our leisure is we go skiing where we go to church. There’s a sense in which it’s an addition, a non-necessary addition to our lives.
Justin Martyr knew that he was dealing with the very basics of who he was as a human being when he went through the philosophies of his time back in the second century, and came to the point of recognizing that Christianity was something deep and lasting, and which overcame the shortcomings of the philosophy of his time. And I would like to hope that that’s what we are aiming at in our preaching, in our teaching, in what we do in all the aspects of life—whether we are in a mission parish, or whether we are in a long-established parish, as is the case with many people who might be listening to this podcast. So that’s where I am thinking these days.
About that line that we cross over when we pass the threshold of being captivated by the secular mindset of our age—by that mindset which says “all things that are of importance are human and that there is nothing beyond the human that’s important”—this is what it seems to me that we are principally combating in the Church. We are opening up the possibility of other ways of thinking about life than those which are captivated by science, by biology, by views of life which have no place for transcendence.
That’s what is seems to me were all about in ministry these days. We are fighting a battle of the mind as well as a battle of the heart. And so often, it seems to me that churches don’t get this. They, we have become captivated, it seems to me, by the emotional forms of Christianity that dominate in America—not that I have anything particularly against emotion other than it’s evanescence, you know, that one emotion leads to another as quickly as you can count. But rather that we are, that we should move more into trying to enable people to think through their lives and to come to some understanding that we do not live in a random universe, that we are not simply machines, that we are not simply biological processes, that we are not simply those who live in what I’ve called the “community of the upraised moist finger”—that is to say those who put their fingers up in the air and see which way the wind is blowing and then vote based upon that. We are called. We are blessed. We are anointed by the Spirit to be in a different place than that random universe in which we are just machines.
It has always seemed to me that the task of a church is to open up the possibilities for alternative ways of thinking about life, as well as alternative ways of living life. This is why four episodes ago, I said that “I thought these things were false issues.” And maybe that’s not the right word.
They are real issues, but the way they are presented is to deflect you from considering what’s really important and central in the Christian message. This is the presence—to put it bluntly and to put it simply—the presence of God at the center of the universe. And beyond that, the understanding that God did truly enter into the human realm in order that everything that we are as human beings might be taken back up into the divine. This is a viewpoint, friends, which is foreign to most of the people in our culture including to many people who occupy the pews of churches.
And so we are called upon in this day and age to find a way to do more than combat the secular mindset. I’m going to have to say more about this in a subsequent podcast—this is what I perceive as an introduction to a two-part series on the “overcoming the secular mindset as part of being in mission.”
We’re also going to have to find a way to enable people to move from the secular mindset into a Christian mind. And perhaps the very beginning of this is simply to identify the fact that this is actually an issue, that there is another way of thinking than that which we grew up with, than that which is taught to us in public schools, and which systematically rules out the idea of any divine realm.
Let’s face it. We grow up in this system that is Flatland. There is no transcendent in this system that we function with in our culture today. And the task of the church is to open up that realm, that zone, in which God is present and we are present together with God in his universe.
So maybe that’s enough to think about for this week—I want to continue with this in another podcast in the future. Thank you so much for listening, and for your feedback that I have received on a number of podcasts.