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Angela Tilby: What secular theologies get wrong  

04 August 2023

Bishop John Robinson in 1963

Bishop John Robinson in 1963

THE cloud and intense light of the transfiguration are signs of the shekinah, the glory of God’s divine presence on the holy mountain, radiating through the body of Jesus Christ. The story expresses the relationship between Jesus and the Father, which is at the heart of the Creed. It also manifests the hiddenness of God, veiled behind and within creation. Creation is ex nihilo, and all forms of being are from God. God the Son is God from God.

It is 60 years since a spate of theological writings explored the possibility of a wholly secular Christianity — the only kind of Christianity, the writers insisted, believable in a godless, secular age. John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) was part of this movement, although a more rigorous example was the American Paul van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which attempted to spell out what Christianity might look like in a godless world.

At the time, there were those who parodied such attempts as “There is no God and Jesus Christ is his Son.” I remember being mightily troubled by all this at the time; but what strikes me now is how blind secular theology was to its own presuppositions.

First, it simply assumed that secular thinking was universal, forgetting that most of the globe is religious. Second, it offered no criticism of secular society, as though the growth of secularism in the West were not only inevitable, but desirable and liberating for everyone. And, last, while claiming to be theology for the scientific age, it never truly engaged with the paradoxes and uncertainties of contemporary science. Van Buren later disavowed his earlier book — “We have better things to say to this world than merely to echo back what it is saying without us. . .” — and insisted that the Christian way depended for its intelligibility on being “not of this world”.

While the Death of God movement is past, secular thinking has continued to penetrate society, and has influenced the Church in ways that van Buren and others might not have foreseen. The constant talk of “Jesus” without reference to God is a small but telling example. The theologies of liberation are another, when they focus on this-worldly salvation. And then there is the therapeutic me-centredness of much contemporary worship. We have become obsessed with ourselves, our potential, our vulnerabilities, our victimhood, and our precious unique identities.

So, Christian secularism ends up in the global supermarket, where we shop to discover who we are, and dream of what we might become. What we are not doing very well is living in the mystery of God’s otherness, making the case for a creation and incarnation that is “of” God. Secularity imprisons us, while the truth of God sets us free. Being is not our possession, but God’s gift.

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