Secularism Isn’t That Secular: On the Scudder Lectures with Bruce Ashford

Justice may not be the dealt-out sentence of an Almighty God, but make no mistake, justice is the ruling principle of the cosmos.

We commonly hear that our culture has secularized. The world has gone gray; we all live in an iron fortress now, and humanity has submitted to a robotic new order.

But here’s the truth: we need to study, and ultimately unmask, secularism. Here’s a start: secularism isn’t really that secular. It’s actually pretty religious. What do I mean? I mean our culture and public order shows regular and obvious zeal to advance its worldview (of sorts), to police its borders, and to punish heretics. Secularism has an overimposing guardian, a sub-deity, the state. True, your average secularist is an atheist or—more commonly—an agnostic. But they believe in essentially an electrified ethic. Justice may not be the dealt-out sentence of an Almighty God, but make no mistake, justice is the ruling principle of the cosmos. Hence our age’s consuming passion in “social justice.” But for all our culture’s faith in this movement, who exactly is guiding justice? Where is it going?

Why do we believe in justice at all? This is perhaps the show-stopper question for our time. Despite the modern university campus’s obsession with justice, precious few folks are asking this question. It’s unfortunate, because the humanities—the liberal arts—built off of the Christian tradition in raising this matter, and seeking an answer to it. (The Christian answer, by the way, is much better than that provided by Plato or any other philosopher, but I’ll take Plato over a vacuum.)

The faith of secularism is never more apparent than when we consider modern sexuality. The rise of secularism is directly linked to the sexual revolution. Here’s what Mary Eberstadt recently wrote in the august pages of First Things:

As this profusion of literary and historical analyses goes to show, to be Christian today is to be a sailor in search of an astrolabe. And no wonder: We are in open, roiling, uncharted waters, so looking up to fixed points would help. One other way to orient ourselves is to peer down beneath the currents and focus on what’s done most to shape the “post-Christian” or “ex-Christian” world: the sexual revolution. That the revolution is what’s catapulted us to this place is a fact that more and more analysts now affirm. What may be less obvious, though just as important, is what the widespread Western embrace of the revolution has wrought not only in individual lives, but macrocosmically: It has given rise to an increasingly systematic, zealous, secularist faith.

Years ago, Hunter Baker called for the study of secularism in his piercing book The End of Secularism. (Hunter was ahead of the curve, and that little book deserves closer reading.) We at Midwestern Seminary are committed to doing just what Hunter called for—namely, preparing the next generation of pastors and ministry workers for the big bad world in which they will minister Christ to needy sinners. Part of this involves doing what we call “public theology”—that is, addressing the concerns and issues raised in the city of men with the biblical-theological wisdom of the city of God. Toward that end, MBTS hosts the annual C. W. Scudder Lectures in Public Theology.

Last year, we brought in theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, and he delivered two marvelous messages (watch them here post-haste). This year, in just two weeks, we will welcome philosopher-theologian Dr. Bruce Ashford to campus. Ashford, the provost of our sister school Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a key voice in the Baptist and evangelical world, and in the discipline of what I have called public theology. He regularly engages our secular order, and does with charity and conviction. Dr. Ashford has written several well-received books, he writes regularly for FOX News and The Gospel Coalition, and he wrote his dissertation on Wittgenstein. (If you write your dissertation on Wittgenstein, you are a deep cat.) Beyond this, and much more importantly, Bruce is a kind man, a husband to one wife and father to two children, and a churchman who loves Christ above all.

On January 30 and 31 (Tuesday and Wednesday), Dr. Ashford will grace us with two lectures in the MBTS chapel hour (10am). These lectures are free and open to all, and no registration is necessary. They are titled as follows:

Tuesday | Public Witness from a Position of Political Weakness: A Theological Vision for Christianity and Politics

Wednesday | What Hath Nature to do with Grace? A Theological Vision for Higher Education

The Scudder Lectures are high-level explorations of an important theme. But in keeping with the animating vision of Midwestern, they are not intended to shoot over the head of students, leaving only four or five faculty members in conversation with the lecturer. No, we are training students for the church. We want our students to be challenged, yes, but also to take what they learn and apply it.

Please do join us for Dr. Ashford’s lectures, which will equip present and future workers in Christ’s vineyards for stout engagement with our secular order. Remember: secularism is not nearly as secular as it looks.