How "Secular" Should Adventist Theology Be?

SECULARISM comes in two varieties. The first kind is the more sophisticated, and we may call it intentional secularism. This is a deliberate, well-thought-out view of things that often takes the form of naturalistic humanism. In response to the question of the reality of God, it answers either "No" (atheism) or "You really can't tell for sure" (agnosticism). But this thoroughgoing, intentional secularism does not necessarily imply an obsessive pursuit of pleasure (hedonism) or possessions (materialism). . .

-dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

SECULARISM comes in two varieties. The first kind is the more sophisticated, and we may call it intentional secularism. This is a deliberate, well-thought-out view of things that often takes the form of naturalistic humanism. In response to the question of the reality of God, it answers either "No" (atheism) or "You really can't tell for sure" (agnosticism). But this thoroughgoing, intentional secularism does not necessarily imply an obsessive pursuit of pleasure (hedonism) or possessions (materialism).

Indeed, on the one hand secularism can be very humane and compassionate, and strive to reduce human pain and suffering of all sorts. And on the other hand it may well be artistically and intellectually sensitive, striving for the cultural enrichment of human life and the enlargement of human knowledge and understanding. Yet the defining characteristic of intentional secularism remains: it recognizes no transcendent reference point, no ultimate center of value; and therefore it has no supreme commitment. In short, it has no God to worship.

Practical Secularism

The other kind of secularism we may call practical secularism. This is the secularism of the man on the street. If you ask him whether there is a God, he answers, "Sure," and he may even wonder why you would ask such a question. If you ask whether religion is a good thing, he says, "Of course." And he may very well consider himself a Christian; he may take his children to Sunday school and even attend services himself. But when it comes to the way he lives day after day, God really doesn't matter very much. This is the secularism of the middle class, or suburbia. Here people are reasonably comfortable, satisfactorily entertained (although sometimes bored) by television, usually congenial with their neighbors, mildly concerned by the prospect of continuing inflation, sporadically interested in community affairs.

Theologians and philosophers may want to jump up and shout, "Stop! There isn't any meaning in this sort of existence!" But for the people whose existence it is for the practical secularists meaning, like God, doesn't seem to matter very much. So, although practical secularism verbally rejects the convictions of intentional secularism, it also actually, although unintentionally, lives without a God who is truly worshiped.

Secularism, especially the practical variety, is important to Adventist theology because it is typical of a great deal of contemporary America. It is the major and universal challenge to Adventist theology and evangelism in North America; and it is a challenge that we must meet energetically and creatively. Taking the everlasting gospel "to every nation and tribe and tongue and people" (Rev. 14:6, R.S.V.) surely includes its communication to the contemporary secular mind. And the gospel must be presented with sufficient clarity and force that it can be taken seriously.

The communicative task facing the Adventist Church involves at least three things: understanding the secular mind and mood, speaking its language, and making sure that the Adventist message is recognizable as truly good news.

One way to go about understanding contemporary secularism is to identify its main ingredients. Some of these are as follows:

Reality is regarded as what exists in space and time. That is, it consists of people and the natural universe, which in turn consist of matter and physical energy. These are felt to be, in the words of C. S. Lewis, "the whole show." * There is nothing else, period. Everything is reducible to electrons, atomic nuclei, electromagnetic forces, and so forth. In other words, what is "real" is what you get your hands on, what you can see and feel if not directly, then with the help of scientific instruments. "Real" problems are those that make a tangible, practical difference and can be solved with "real" means such as science and technology or political or economic power. War, poverty, over population, pollution, energy shortages these seem far more important than the fact that much contemporary religion doesn't know where it is going or what it is supposed to be doing. As for individuals, the "real" problems are financial, social, and psychological. For a person to lose his job is a disaster; to lose his faith is at worst a strange discomfort that will soon go away.

Knowledge is regarded as a matter of empirical fact. It is based on common sense and on careful, disciplined research. The paragon of knowledge is the "expert," the person who has more facts at his disposal than anyone else. And of course the facts must be current, up to date; everybody knows that our knowledge is greater and better now than ever before. Ancient religious documents that report some mystical revelation may be interesting and even vaguely instructive about universal moral feelings; but they hardly qualify as containing the knowledge that is crucial in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Human beings seem to have almost infinite capabilities. Because we wanted to do it, we were able to put several of our brothers on the moon; and we will get similar results in any area in which we have the will to invest similar effort and resources. Man individually and collectively is the master of his fate. If he cannot solve all of his problems, he can at least make them bearable. He has done a great deal to tame his environment to make night as bright as day, to harness the power of rampaging rivers, to keep the temperature comfortable at home and at work the year round, to determine how many children to have and when, to reduce the effects of harmful bacteria and viruses.

And what man cannot control, he can at least prepare for. He knows that in spite of the best that medical science can do for him, he will not live forever. And so he prepares for the inevitable. But here, too, his fundamental secularism comes through loud and clear; for as he anticipates his exit from this present world, his chief concerns remain within it. "Preparing for the inevitable" does not mean confession of one's sins, but arranging enough life insurance to take care of the family.

Value is relative; and it is centered in the immediate future. There is no effective reference to an eternal life. Even if there is somewhere in one's memory a picture of "heaven," it seems unreal and far away, and doesn't make any practical difference. What matters is the immediate present and the visible future one's own lifetime, and at most that of his children. And there is nothing that matters ultimately, supremely. Everything is negotiable. Nothing is really worth dying for. "Stand for the right though the heavens fall"? Don't be silly; there isn't anything that is that "right"!

This then is the picture of contemporary secularism in North America a combination of naturalism, humanism, and relativism.

Meeting Secularism

Because the secular man is reasonably comfortable in his present situation, he has no incentive to learn the language of Christianity in general, much less of Adventism in particular, in order to make sense out of the Adventist mes sage. It is up to Adventism, there fore, to meet secularism on its own ground and learn to use its language.

There are two sides to this process of translation/communication. Negatively, we must suspend our traditional (and entirely legitimate) Adventist presuppositions. In other words, we cannot take it for granted that there is a transcendent reality that corresponds to our term "God," or that this reality is intimately involved in human existence or that human being is lost in sin, or that the Biblical documents constitute a decisive revelation for modern man. For these are precisely the things that secularism does not grant. These facts cannot be casually assumed; they must be shown to be reasonable conclusions based on reasonable evidence.

Then positively, we must show how the Adventist understanding of human being and the world makes better sense, because it gives a better account of all the evidence and leads to a fuller, more creative human existence than does the secular view. And we must also show how this Adventist understanding illuminates and suggests appropriate responses to the very problems that are important to the secular mind such problems as war, poverty, overpopulation, and pollution.

But here I want to draw a careful distinction between what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am saying that we should meet secularism on its own ground, talk its language, and relate the Adventist message to its concerns. I am not saying that we should adopt or even appear to adopt secularist views of man and the world. If we did that, we would not only be abandoning our own convictions but we would also forfeit our message and have nothing to say to the secular mind. We would have no gospel at all. The Adventist message is to be translated into the language of secularism, but it must never be reduced to an echo.

Furthermore, when I say that we must show the relevance of the Adventist message to the major concerns of contemporary secularism, I am not saying that we ought to make them our major concerns. And I am not saying that we ought to become deeply involved in secular programs in response to these concerns. The Adventist message has some important implications for current social and political issues, and we should not be reticent to say what they are, for this is part of our responsibility as Christians and as citizens. But we must not forget our Adventist priorities, and we should beware of getting into secularism's own sociopolitical act.

(To be continued)


* C. S. Lewis, Miracles; A Preliminary Study (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948), p. 10.

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-dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

October 1974

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