The 2015 Mere Anglicanism Conference in Charleston, South Carolina -- a sold-out event -- centered on the theme "Salt and Light: the Christian Response to Secularism." The speakers were left to choose their own individual topics; the organizers merely designated the theme. For that reason, it was truly remarkable to observe how the presentations complemented and sustained each other.
The Rt. Rev. Prof. N. T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham and now the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews School of Divinity, gave the opening night talk on January 22. Entitled "How Scripture Outflanks Secularism: the Biblical Challenge to the World and to the Church", it served as a terrific inspiration for the Conference as a whole, which aims to equip Anglicans of all walks for the challenges of leadership, and "to take theology home with them." Delivered with an enthusiasm and conviction that was infectious, his talk was nonetheless so densely packed with ideas and new ways of looking at old things that it is well-nigh impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs. Still, I must try.
In a nutshell, Dr. Wright tackled head-on how the Church best handles the secular age: not by confronting it head-on, but rather, by being true to the full arc of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, it outflanks it.
He singled out two major characteristics of secularism that open it to this strategy:
First, it has revived the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism by treating God, or the gods, as very distant and indifferent to man or what happens on Earth, thus conveniently leaving man to run things on his own. The result (in secularism, as in Epicureanism before it) is to shunt God upstairs: and thereby to divide heaven from earth, religion from man -- and Jesus from His Church.
(The latter happens when the Church all too often allows it, for example, by thinking and preaching that treats heaven as a place to which we go when we die, to live the afterlife apart from this Earth. To the contrary: Revelation teaches that heaven -- the new Jerusalem -- will come down to Earth, and the faithful will partake in Jesus' rule here on Earth. Thus, properly read and understood, the arc of Scripture begins and ends with heaven here on Earth, with God at one with His creation, and Jesus at one with His Church.)
Second, the secularist philosophy embraces the notion of progress, by which this latest age is seen as the best of all that came before it. Moreover, it is all man’s doing, with no need for any God or gods along the way. But progress on man's yardstick is illusory: what it really measures is our increasing alienation from God.
The Church’s strategy in response to secularism has three aspects.
First, in spatial terms, it refuses to separate heaven from earth, or man from God: it celebrates, and models, Christ’s union of the two through His incarnation, death and resurrection. It fills in the spatial gap that the Enlightenment philosophers deliberately created, and that secularists have striven to maintain ever since.
Second, the Church unites past and future time, by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven symbolized in the resurrection. That kingdom, as Jesus told us, is here on earth now, and while the future may expand and fulfill it, nothing can detract from its reality and significance for today, by showing forth God’s glory in His kingdom (akin to God's shekinah in His tabernacle, or temple). Thus in a fully temporal sense, the Church completes the arc of the Bible by placing God in His temple again, just as he was in Eden at the beginning of creation. God's glory in His temple is the parallel to Christ's marriage with His Church (just as marriage between a man and a woman signifies that same mystical union).
Third, the Church does not allow the secularists to pick up and exploit the bits and pieces it has left lying about through the years, such as the concepts of justice and equality for all of God’s creation. The secularists co-opt these concepts into their victims’ rights movements, one after the other (from blacks to women to gays to the trans-gendered to -- who, or what, will be next?). By teaching the union of space (heaven and earth) and time (past, present and future now) which itself embodies the full justice of God on earth, Scripture completely outflanks secularism, and thereby leaves it nowhere to call its own.
On Friday morning, it was the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali's turn. Speaking extemporaneously (as is his wont), he gave the Conference first, a retrospective talk that answered the questions: "What was it that we had?" and "How did we lose it?" Beginning with Magna Carta -- or even earlier, with the laws of King Alfred the Great -- and continuing with the universal authority of the Ten Commandments, royal power showed respect for the law. On an individual level, the human who is made in God's image, lends legitimacy to the law by consenting to it, and achieves thereby the transition from (royal) subject to free citizen. As Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas insisted, all who are made in God's image are worthy of the law's respect and protection -- and this concept, translated to Europe, became what Locke called "natural rights."
This synthesis, in turn, was gradually undermined by the forces of modernism -- by Feuerbach, who subjectivized God, by the materialism of Marx, and by Jung, who psychologized God. Aristotle's teleology was banished; man became a tragedy (Camus) or a comedy (Saroyan), while society's measure was taken by its material wealth, and empirical science focused only on the what and the how, while ignoring the why and the what for.
Alternatively, the "Sudden Death" thesis traces the triumph of secularism to the social (but not political) revolution of the 60s. Women's revolution -- feminism -- drove out the fathers, and the combined effect was to create a moral and spiritual vacuum that needed to be filled by something; hence we have secularism rampant. (And this is also the real danger of radical Islamism.) A human's "inalienable rights" mutate into autonomy, which leaves out the person-in-relationship of our previous tradition. But in reality, human beings are equal because they have a common origin, and not because their lifestyles are all equal. Without teleology we have "progress" without a purpose -- which is to say, random evolution.
Next, Bishop Nazir-Ali posed the question: "Are we going to turn our backs on what has brought us to where we are, or are we going to avail ourselves of our Biblical heritage?" What we need is for young people to take the faith into their professions, a strengthening of the family, a goal for the migration that is happening through our churches: we have to become more mission-minded.
"We have an answer for secularism," Bishop Nazir-Ali concluded. "Secularism does not have an answer for us."
Next up was the journalist Ross Douthat, a former editor of The Atlantic, and the youngest op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His main message for the Conference: "secularism is not as strong as it looks."
He began with a lively and captivating sketch of his childhood, where his religious experiences were largely mediated through his mother's healing-driven attempts to sample all the organized faiths, from Episcopalianism to Pentecostalism, before they both ended up in the Roman Catholic Church (where he remains today with his wife and family).
Then he took up his main theme: "The Return of the 1970s: the New Christian Civil War." Drawing on an account taken from his book Bad Religion, he traced the parallels to what led up to, and was going on in, the polarized 70s -- with four current trends he identified from his perspective as a journalist:
(1) Political polarization - the divisions between political parties threaten to swamp Christianity. It is essential to its nature that Christianity stand above politics and parties. The Gospel is more encompassing than the platforms of Republicans or Democrats.
(2) the sexual revolution - has opened a gap between the middle class's former moral common sense, and Biblical ethics. At least there used to be an acknowledgment in society that the Bible's moral prescriptions made sense; now we lack even that.
(3) the impact of money and wealth - the gradual accumulation of wealth beyond one's wildest dreams has tended to blur moral boundaries. This drift into prosperity has given rise to a theology of prosperity, whereas what we need (but don't want to hear) is a theology of renunciation.
(4) Decolonization, globalization and the huge expansion of information technology - these all work together to make it more difficult to believe that religion has the one Truth. The pluralists and multiculturalists all maintain that "the world is just too big and complicated for Christianity to contain the complete truth." Their growth in numbers has opened the door for heresy to creep in.
That was how Douthat saw things five years ago when he wrote his book. But now he sees things a bit differently, as conservative religion is thought to have run its course, and we are back to the 70s' habit of questioning everything. This development threatens to reopen the civil wars between liberal and conservative Christianity, involving a religious push-back to the increasingly secular judiciary; a "liberal Christianity" whose all-inclusiveness is actually one-sided and polarizing; and "therapeutic faith" - a search for the version of religion that makes you feel better about yourself (e.g., as in the book Eat, Pray, Love), without regard for Biblical truth.
On the positive side, there has been a return to orthodox theology from within, and the fresh outlook stemming from the election of Pope Francis. The flashpoint is same-sex marriage, with its related attack on religious beliefs as embodied in Obamacare.
Douthat offered three ways to look at the current situation:
(1) As a challenge: how to respond to "friendly pressure", such as from those who view the Bible's sexual mores today the way that Christians a century ago viewed Mormon polygamy -- as an embarrassment that needs to change.
(2) As an opportunity: secularism is not as strong as it looks; there are cracks in it everywhere. The culture is fundamentally religious.
(3) As a necessity that we prove wrong the views of our friendly underminers.
And that sums up the evening and the morning of the first day of Mere Anglicanism. To keep the talks in perspective, and your curiosity whetted, I shall divide this report into two parts, with my summaries of the last three talks in the next installment.