Christian Ethics 2022

Christian Witness in a Secular Age

Apr 24, 2023 2:22:00 PM / by Al Mohler

This General Session was recorded live at the Shepherds 360 Church Leaders Conference in Cary, NC on October 17, 2022. For information about the next conference, please visit




Amen. God bless you all, what an honor to be back here at shepherds 360. And back with you back with Dr. Davey and the entire team here.

I'm so thankful for the work of the Lord right here and the work of the Lord represented by so many pastors who are here in churches who are represented. This is one of those very important hinge moments in history, we feel it, we understand it. This is one of those moments in which the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is being tested, and so very clearly, and so I'm glad to be here with friends new and old. And to talk about things we really need to talk about. And my assignment is Christian witness in a secular age. So that's a limited number of words, just in terms of the title, but just consider all that is all that is included there, first of all, Christian witness. Now for the economy of time, I'm going to have to assume that you know what that is. Now, I spent a good deal of time last week with a film crew for the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC. And it was one of those moments I call a National Geographic moment. My grandmother, my paternal grandmother, gave me every year for my birthday, as long as I could remember, a subscription to National Geographic magazine. And National Geographic Magazine, you may know was based upon a British model, and the American Geographic Society was based upon the British Geographical Society. And it was it was tied to all kinds of things include the age of empire, and the discovery of so many different cultures in the world, and engagement of Western societies with those cultures. And so this was like a research report back on having found some new groups, some new tribes, some some new ethnicity, some new, you know, ancient ruins. Now, that was not what interested me, I wanted sharks and snakes. And thankfully, National Geographic was rich with sharks and snakes, too. Now, I actually don't know much about what was in National Geographic during those eras, that I never got to see, because my grandmother gave it to me for my birthday every year, but my mother edited every issue. And you know, exactly what I mean, I found out later, there were entire, like sections of the magazine, I mean, I could click just barely held together, but nonetheless, you left the sharks and the snakes and the rocks, and took out all the naked natives and other things that I didn't need to say. But the point is that it was the idea that there's this engagement with this discovery of this exotic tribe. And we're gonna go back and write to to civilize people about what they're like. Well, brothers and sisters, we are now that tribe. We are now that tribe in such a way that it actually it takes a it takes a film crew from, you know, a foreign major news organization to come and interview one of the exotic natives. And just try to say, you know, we have heard of you and your people. And now we have come to tell the civilized people of Britain, about you. I didn't have time to say everything I wanted to say, primarily answered questions. And, and frankly, it was respectful. And I appreciate that he's no telling what the final product looked like. But nonetheless, they were respectful and very professional. But they're very secular. I mean, the worldview at which they operate is very secular. My assignment is Christian witness in a secular age. And so we're in a time now because one of my favorite places on earth is Westminster Abbey. And, of course, the world was watching Westminster Abbey, or the funeral services of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second year next year, Lord willing, Lord granting. If the Lord does not return, England intends to coronate King Charles the third and the very same place sitting on the throne of scone, eventually wearing the crown of St. Edward, your why is this such a humbling place to be? Well, first of all, history. But to me as a Christian, it's a very humbling place to be because I don't necessarily trust what's being said from the pulpit. But I do know that every day for 1000 years, the word of God has been read in those stones. As a Christian, that's a very humbling realization for a millennium. The Word of God has been read every single day aloud millstones. So here's the thing that you need to just keep in mind about a secular world. Secular is not neutrality, and the secularism has never been the default. And so even the people who come here to find out why we are so unsexy ruler, have to drive in London around all the reminders that you can't explain Britain in secular terms. You can't explain Western civilization in secular terms you can't explain anywhere on planet Earth in purely secular terms. There are those, especially in the United States, and even some within say, institutional Christianity to speak of secular as some kind of neutrality, it isn't secular is not neutrality is we're going to see scripturally there is no neutrality, there never has been neutrality. Choose ye this day, whom you will serve, there is no third neutral, secular alternative. Furthermore, not only is secular, not neutrality, secular, like every other world belief system, is in opposition to the Christian gospel to biblical Christianity. I happened last night to be looking at a book on just released on American religious life. And it points out that if you're going to talk about American religious life, you can talk about religious diversity all you want. But still, the vast majority of Americans are not only those who at least identify as Christian and whose at least background is Christian, but overwhelmingly it's Protestant, Christian. And then you add the Roman Catholicism, and then you know, it's, you know, the modern secular world wants to act like it is secular and neutral and default, but actually, by their own reports, it's not default at all. But the reason I bring this up is because as you look at this, you recognize that if you're going to talk about secular, you got to talk about what kind of secular you have. In other words, is China secular was officially atheistic, under the leadership of the Communist Party having its five year meeting right now. But it's not neutral. Just ask Christians who are being persecuted to the point of harassment and ask the Uighur people rather unusual and minority Muslim people. In other words, it's a communist atheism is not neutrality. It's not actually secularism either, if you understand that to be a vacuum. Now, I want to talk about the fact that when you meet an atheist one of the most infuriating things you can say, well what kind of atheist are you? Tell me about the God in whom you don't believe that's going to be interesting. I call this the atheist predicament. It drives them crazy. Because they want to say we're not responding to something well, you know the Greek language this the Alpha primitive it means a means not and what are you not theist? Okay, so you have to talk about God in order to describe it is. But I am interested what God in particular is it that you don't believe in? It's infuriating to them. They want to say all gods and I want to say well, it's kind of impossible to be atheistic towards everything because they're not all the same. I look at all the paganism. Look at the Old Testament. It's it's quite easy, quite easy to be an atheist if you're talking about a ball, because but all continually fails and falls. Okay, it's a lot harder to be an atheist towards the Lord God of Israel. So that's why most atheists today aren't like Hindu atheists. They're not Shinto atheists. They're not Muslim, atheist. They don't live long.

Predominantly in our part of the world, they are Christian, even Protestant atheists. So what in the world does secularism have to add to this work or what is secularization? So let's just define some terms about a secular age. What would a secular age look like? Well, number one, we just have to talk about the fact that the word secular will go back into the Greek and the Latin will simply say it has to do with the city because it is really interesting that the city was set up as if and Augustine deals with this in the city of God you got the city of man and the City of God and ears are increasingly the city of man the city and by the way, it's not an accident that unbelief and political liberalism and progressivism and the range of ideologies is far more common in highly populated cities than in the countryside. By the way, there's a really good reason for this, you'll find this in the Old Testament if you till the ground and you tend the herd, guess what, you're not a big proponent of transgenderism. It's it's really hard to be a patriarch and build a bigger flock if you don't know how this works. Okay. It's not just that it's that all the way through human history, cities have been not only secular, in that sense, more secular than the countryside, but they have been more more cosmopolitan, both unconsciously and self consciously because, you know, you take the coastal cities, it's not a it's not a wonder that you look at the United States politically, you don't have red and blue evenly distributed, you've got blue, Deep Blue, incredibly blue on the coasts, but not even all the coasts, you get down to Florida. I'm a native Floridian. So I'll just say in the Free State of Florida. There is still not any kind of uniform blue, you get up to northeast blue, blue, blue blue, Northwest. By the way, one of the interesting facts of American religious history Christians ought to take this into consideration is that we have two different missiological patterns in the United States, when it comes to secularism and social liberalism. You have the pattern in the Northeast and the pattern in the northwest. So let me tell you how they're different. The Northeast was founded by Well, pilgrims. And, you know, even long after the US Constitution was adopted, you still had at least a handful of states that had established churches, when you go to New England at the center of the community, or is going to be a church. And in other words, it was these were not secular societies in any sense. And in one sense, they were close to being attempts to theocracies. You got to the Pacific Northwest is very different. Much of the Pacific Northwest was never evangelize. So if you look at those two, you realize in the United States there is you're looking at a general kind of reality we're gonna refer to as secular, the secular in the Northeast and the secular in the Northwest have different historical patterns. And in one sense, the Northeast is like Europe, which was once clearly dominated by Christianity. And it's not a stretch of the imagination to understand by the way that the challenge of re evangelizing a region is larger than the challenge of evangelizing a region, that you look at those two coasts and see cosmopolitan secular makes sense, in that context. And again, it the closer you are to the production of food, the more conservative you are, in general, not by accident. And just look at the parables of Jesus, or even even look at the entire pattern and the flow of biblical history. But the larger meaning of secular in the modern age is a project of liberation. And this comes down to two different trajectories we just need to watch. One of them is the argument that as societies modernize, inevitably they secularize. And in this sense, secularization means that you no longer have to have a theological answer to the biggest questions of life. So in other words, you could say that people would make the argument that you know, a society that can split, the atom doesn't need Genesis, just understand the pretentiousness of that, but understand that that's a logic and that's the logic that prevails in higher education. And so the idea is that with modernity comes liberation. And this liberation is necessarily secular in that it means the recession of Christianity is the authority system, and the system of truth, and the replacement of Christianity was something that is declared to be secular. And then, but the declaration would be that there's no way to stop that that's simply a function of modernity, secularization theorists will simply say, This is what happens when societies modernize, if you can dam dams, and you can split atoms and and you can, by means of knowledge and expertise, claim a mastery over the world, then you don't need God to explain in other words, if you have Carl Sagan you don't need in the beginning God created the heavens in the earth. That's the logic of secularization. Peter Berger, who died just a few years ago, one of the most influential observers of religion anywhere, and I must say someone who I admire in terms of his intellectual honesty, he during the 50s and 60s was one of the original theorists of secularization. And he was absolutely certain that is going to happen everywhere. modernity is just going to come human autonomy is going to become absolutely key technology and information society is going to press aside in the need for a claim of revelation and all the rest, Berger was not championing that, by the way, he was quite concerned about that he and his wife actually wrote an amazingly conservative book about the dangers that this would pose to the integrity of the American family. But nonetheless, he thought it was absolutely inexorable, it couldn't be stopped, this is just going to happen. Deal with it, it's gonna happen faster in Europe than in the United States. But nonetheless, it's going to happen happen faster in Canada than it does in the United States for all kinds of historical reasons. But Peter Berger lived long enough to be writing books in his 10th decade of life, that's one of my aspirations. So let me just warn you in advance. I hope that the Lord gives me power, I'm still writing in my 90s. But Peter Berger lived long enough and was honest enough to come back and revise his theory of secularization not once, but twice. Okay, and you're gonna love this, he came back, and he said, I still am absolutely confident that it's happening. But it's not happening as predictably as evenly and continuously as we had thought. So he's a man of research. So he commissioned a major study is called a longitudinal study of relative secularization you live this week, who wouldn't want to stay up late at night reading that a longitudinal study of the relative advance of secularization, and so he came up with a way of measuring how secular societies are, and and he came back and with initials longitudinals. I mean, it's all across the nations of the earth, all kinds of belief systems. And he came back and he had graduate students working on this and other sociologists working on this, it came back to the end. And the result was he said, that the most religious nation on earth is India. Anyone say the most theological, just the most religious. You know, one of the researchers said, You knock over, you know, one deity just trying to move into a shop. There's so many, there's so many deities, I can't count them said the least secularized or the least religious excuse me, nation on earth, the most secularized is Sweden. So in a press conference, Peter Berger was asked to explain the United States of America. And he said, Well, that's easy. It's a nation of Indians ruled over by an elite of Swedes. And that's it. That's where we are with but but we understand, we understand that even as there's an historical pattern that's revealed there, there's a there's a danger, that we will take comfort. And this is an indictment of conservative evangelical Christianity, we've claimed to be many when we knew we weren't as many as we claimed. Because in a context of secular and secularized conditions, you find out who actually is a believer who actually isn't adherent, who actually is a church member. Under that context of pressure, you discover that when there is social capital to be paid for being a Christian, rather than paid to you for being a Christian, when it's taken from you, when it costs you rather than adding to your resume when it makes it less likely you'll get the partnership and the law firm, then more likely, you get the partnership and the law firm, then you find it where the believers are. But that's secularization. It's a sociological process. And and I define it in my own academic work as the decline of the binding authority of theism.

So take notes, final exams coming at the end of the week. It's the it's the recession or the decline of the binding authority of theism. And I need every one of those words because we're not just talking about like the denial of spirituality that's not secularization, that's that's Hallmark. That's Christmas decoration, not talking about that. So my theism the actual assertion, not only that there is a God, but that Christian theism biblical theism identifies him as the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the issue is authority. So in other words, people are not exercised by Christians who make no truth claims, and seek to have no influence on society that is not threatening to the culture, nor to the Swedes. What is threatening is when we dare to say this is true. It's not just true inside our church. It's not just true inside our hearts. It In the beginning, God created the heavens in the earth. There is one God. Jesus Christ said, I have in the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father, but by me, those are objective truth claims, not religious sentiments at that point, you get into dangerous territory. The second thing is when you try to influence public policy and and the other issue is not just authority is the loss or the decline, or the recession, of the binding authority of theism. So you look at our society, and I love this, I had a Washington Post reporter call me one morning very early, very early. I didn't mean to mention the paper, forget that. But there was a reporter called me. It's the first conversation I'd had the entire day. And the reporter called very early in the morning and said, Dr. Mohler and ask you a question asked me three questions. All three questions were about homosexuality. And then she dared to ask a fourth question. Dr. Mohler, why is it that every time we talk, we talk about homosexuality? I just want to rewind this, but I believe you called me and asked me three questions. And then you asked me why I'm talking about this. Well, the fact is that in a secularized condition, we find ourselves in the society we find ourselves talking about things we had to talk about before and defending these we have to defend before even explaining things we've never had to explain before, you know, so where is the historic, Christian cultural opposition to same sex marriage? Well, it's about 2010. Samuel Alito, Associate Justice at the United States Supreme Court during the hearings, the oral arguments for the Obergefell case that eventually, of course, dared to declare a constitutional liberty of same sex marriage to be to be constitutional. Samuel Alito bravely held up a an iPhone and said whatever same sex marriage is, it's newer than this. In all of human history, but the fact is, you can't have that until you have the loss of the binding authority of theism. It was theism in the society spoken, but even more generally unspoken, that so shaped the mind in the West, that the the moral impulses and the moral intuitions and that's really important Christian evangelicals don't give enough attention to the intuitions and the moral instincts and the emotion. And then because that's how people make most of their ethical decisions. They make most of them based upon intuitions have been built into them. That is why parents raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. That's why you want to fill their hearts with scripture, because it's not just that you want the little rational creatures always to be rightly rational. That's irrational. It's that you want them to be faithful. And apparent the other day, he was talking to me about a 14 year old and said, you know, he's been more obedient lately. And I wonder why.

Don't question whatever you're doing, keep doing that. Here's a little hint, you know, this is better than disobedience. So whatever you're doing, but also just understand that it's not, it's not that you're dealing with a neutral heart here. You're dealing with a center here. And that's the logical language, the binding authority, theism once it goes, you don't have sinners, are you ever citizens? And so Western liberalism is based upon the idea that you'll have citizens who will act in purely rational ways. Let's just unbiblical. Some true, but there's a second dimension I want to talk about, and that is the fact that when you're talking about the use of the term secular secularization, secularism, there is an ideological secularism. In other words, its secularization is presented as something that's just going to happen because it's a it's it's an inexorable product of just entering the modern age, you know, people, Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most famous, and certainly the most important of the theological liberals who attack the New Testament, in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, he said, you know, a German professorial condescension, people who turn on electronic lives do not believe in resurrection from the dead.

Why do you do? The church of the Lord Jesus Christ does and by the way, Professor boatman there were denials of the resurrection long before anyone could flip on an electric light. But you understand the logic of what he's saying, you know, people who turn on electric lights, they don't have needs for bodily resurrection from the dead. Okay. Now, what I want to show you is that it's not just that secularization is argued or something It's just going to happen because you have electricity. modernity. Secularism is the intentional effort to displace Christianity and to unbind, the binding authority of theism and is presented as liberation as a Human Project. And this is exactly what you see throughout so much of the nation right now so many people who are claiming that the intellectual, cultural, philosophical, theological defeat of Christianity is necessary for human autonomy to progress. Now, when you're talking about the difference in the Indians in the Swedes just understand that the Swedes who are in control of this nation are not merely it just as a pattern, you're not speaking about individuals, but as a generalization, they are not merely secular, they are increasingly secularists kind of like you know, back during the 1950s card carrying secularists. But the average person who is increasingly and more comprehensively secular in your society is not so much a secularist. But the secularized these are the people who increasingly have no religious preference. They're the nuns. You know, I've been working in this area for more than almost 40 years now. And you know, you always looking at the language and what's going on in the train. I'll never forget the first time I heard very important private research being released on the increasing number of nuns in the United States. The word was so new. I couldn't believe it was true. Because I did not see a growing number of Catholic nuns anywhere. The the increase of nuns within the civilization the fastest growing religious demographic, well, I don't see it. But it's in o n e. S. I was on The Larry King show one night you got it backwards. He said, You know these well, you're talking about nuns, not nuns. No, no, any s? Oh, sympathy. anyone's gonna think of a nun. Is it a habit? But anyway, this increasing number of nuns, the majority of them are not secularists. They don't think seriously enough to be secularists. But they are increasingly secularized. And in some ways that represents the greatest evangelistic challenge, by the way, to the Christian church, evangelical Christians, and here's the greatest danger time is fleeting, but here's the greatest danger in that is that there are increasing percentages of the people sitting in your pews, or if you don't abuse anymore, your seats who are more secularized than you or they recognize. And that is one of the great, great challenges. The intuitions and the emotions. The basic the Germans was a gestalt is the mind, the worldview of a secularized age, often doesn't know it secularized. Charles Taylor, one of the major theorists of what it means to live in a secular age, says that there have been three conditions of belief in Western society, the first was impossible not to believe. So the first set of conditions which lasted say 18 or 1900 years, 18 or 19 centuries, the basic condition of belief was that it was impossible not to believe, because it's really hard, you know, Richard Dawkins, still alive, you know, world's most famous atheist. Yeah, he actually said, it was very difficult before Darwin to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. I love that. I love that. Because it's really hard to be an atheist when you have to say, I don't believe in God, no God, believe in no God, where the world come from, well, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now, in other words, if, if all you got is Genesis, it's really hard to be an atheist. And that's why you have to understand Darwin didn't come out of nowhere. Evolution didn't come out of nowhere, it came out of an intentional effort to try to construct an alternative authority for the origins of the cosmos, but we are living way downstream from Darwin now. But Charles Taylor's point is that throughout most of Western civilization, and beyond that going backward in time, it was virtually impossible not to believe you might not believe rightly, you might not even know worship, the one true and living God but what you are not a secular. He said there's a second phase and then the second phase it was possible not to believe and so much of the 20th century it was possible not to believe you had people and we knew this I mean, we met Buckley Jr. Oh God and man at Yale in the 1950s, about the replacement of historic Protestant Christianity. He was Roman Catholic, but he lamented the decline of the influence of Protestant Christianity in Yale, which was increasingly populated, especially on its faculty why people were antagonistic to Christianity. So in other words, that was new enough, in the 1950s, that, you know, William F. Buckley, Jr, became a household name largely because that was a best selling book, and it was news. But it did become possible not to believe and so, you know, it's amazing, you go back to the history of American higher education, you look at the rules that were in place in major American, say, state universities back in the 1960s. You know, were young men could not even visit young women in the lobby of the women's dorm. Now you got men in the women's dorm, claiming to be women. I mean, here's look at this. And you recognize, okay, this is a really recent development in terms of human history. But Charles Taylor says, it doesn't stop there. We're already in a third set of conditions. And this third condition is that it is now impossible to believe. Now, he doesn't mean you don't believe he wasn't saying I don't believe he was saying, in the society, the plausibility of theism in general and of Christian biblical theism, the plausibility is so low, that you are unlikely to find it anywhere among the cultural elites. And if you do find a Christian theist, among the, the cultured despisers of religion in the elites, it's going to be by accident. It's going to be because they didn't screen this one out. It's gonna be because this one got through or this is to the glory of God, it's gonna be because every once in a while, they actually come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Eugene Genovese, he taught for years, he was a Marxist, famous Marxist. And he became convinced of theism, I can't take it much further than that. I can't take it much further because I did not know him. He was a Jewish Marxist, who at least came to believe the God of the Bible is real. And by the way, his most useful work was against the logical liberals because he said, I understand atheism when I see it. And you guys, you either don't know or you want to admit you're atheist. But as a former atheist, let me say, I know exactly who you are. But nonetheless, so every once in a while, there's someone who kind of breaks with the PAC. But you'll notice what happens right now, by the way, the most dangerous job description right now is liberal progressive, critical theorists, Neo Marxist professor in an American university because you may think you're safe. You may think that the woke University loves you, but there's gonna be someone more woke than you tomorrow and you're gonna be unwell like in the morning. The left devours its own because today's progressivism is just the kindling for tomorrow's oppression. In Louisville, we had a group that was meeting no claiming oppression and trying to overthrow Christian morality and LGBTQ was driving all of this. So one of the meanings I said, Hey, we're going to deal with privilege. And so we're going to tell gay, white men, you can't speak at our meetings anymore. You've had privilege. You've had years to have your say. So if you are a gay white man speaking to a gay activist organization, you can't speak because you've had years to speak. So privilege Shut up. Okay, so who gets to speak lesbians? who overwhelmingly convention more wealthy than others that are the LGBTQ plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, but guess what? Pretty soon you may give him the floor today, you got 10 minutes and all of human history, and then some other groups going to have less privilege than you. And you're gonna have to be stripped of your privilege. You play that game and the point is the left the left plays a game that it can't win in terms of, of stability, because it sets loose by definition, acids, energies, rebellions that are unstoppable.

Transcribed by

Topics: Christian Ethics, The Christian & The Public Square

Al Mohler

Written by Al Mohler

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his presidential duties, he is a professor of Christian theology and hosts two programs: “The Briefing,” a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview; and “Thinking in Public,” a series of conversations with the day’s leading thinkers. Dr. Mohler has also authored numerous books. He brings his expertise on moral, cultural, and theological issues to this year's Shepherds 360 Conference.

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