“For preachers, Berger’s observations are tremendously important. We, above all others, need to realize the culture no longer shares our worldview and the very language we use may mean something entirely different in the ears of our listeners. The meaning of words like morality, personhood, marriage, or virtually any other moral term has radically shifted.”
Almost anyone seeking to carry out a faithful pulpit ministry recognizes that preachers must now ask questions and engage issues we have not had to consider in the past. I began my chapter on preaching and postmodernism in We Cannot Be Silent with these words, “A common concern seems to emerge now wherever Christians gather: The task of truth-telling is stranger than it used to be. In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the faint-hearted. The times are increasingly strange.” We now live, move, and have our being in a secular age. But the only authentic Christian response to the challenge of secularization is faithful, clear, and informed expository preaching.
The Impossibility of Belief
Without the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even without certain technological advances, secularization never would have been possible. Theorists explained the modern age would necessarily and inevitably produce a secular society because modernity provided alternative answers to the most fundamental questions of life and made God irrelevant.
With great foresight in his 1965 The Secular City, Harvey Cox wrote the future of the Western world, particularly its cities, was predominantly secular. Cox further argued this coming secular city would provide a larger range of worldviews as alternatives to what had been offered before. This multiplicity of worldviews would be one of the hallmarks of the secular city. As a result, Christianity — the once ubiquitous worldview of Western society — would be displaced, giving way to a seemingly infinite number of worldview options.
The renowned sociologist Peter Berger has considered why secularization achieved dominance in some parts of Western society, but has yet to do so in others. As he notes, secularization happened just as the theorists predicted with respect to Europe, a continent with almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief and no memory of a Christian heritage.
Secularization happened at the same rate and to the same degree in American universities — which are, in many respects, isolated islands of Europe on American soil. Consider for instance the University of Tennessee, which recently ordered that gendered pronouns be replaced by gender-neutral pronouns like “ze.” While this administrative mandate was later overturned, the point remains that even in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, major American universities are on the same trajectory of secularization as many of the most secularized parts of Europe.
While America is not characterized by the hardline secularism and open ridicule of religion in European nations, Berger argued the United States is still largely secularized. In 20th-century America, he explained, Christianity and religion in general were transformed to something non-cognitive and optional. Consequently, many of our friends and neighbors continued to profess faith in God, but that profession was ultimately devoid of any moral authority or cognitive content. From the outside looking in, America did not appear to be secularizing at the same rate as the European continent, but in reality professions of faith in God had little real theological or spiritual content.
Berger predicted that this collapse would result in adherents to religious principle quickly giving way to the secular agenda in the face of opposition, which is exactly what happened. When the cultural tide turned against our society’s empty religious commitments, people were happy to jettison their moral judgment on homosexuality to retain their social capital.
For preachers, Berger’s observations are tremendously important. We, above all others, need to realize the culture no longer shares our worldview and the very language we use may mean something entirely different in the ears of our listeners. The meaning of words like morality, personhood, marriage, or virtually any other moral term has radically shifted for many postmodern Americans, making our job as preachers that much more difficult.
Additionally, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains in The Secular Age, the way people hold to theological convictions and religious principles in the modern era is fundamentally different than how people believed in the past. Modernity has made religious belief provisional, optional, and far less urgent than it was in the premodern world.
Taylor notes belief is now a provisional choice, an exercise of personal autonomy. When people identify as believers in Jesus Christ they are making a far more individualistic statement than was possible in years past. Furthermore, they are doing so in the face of alternative worldview options that were simply unavailable until very recently.
Perhaps the central insight from Taylor’s book is his categorization of the premodern, modern, and postmodern time periods with respect to the worldview options available in a culture. As Taylor argues, Western history is categorized by three intellectual epochs: pre-Enlightenment impossibility of unbelief; post-Enlightenment possibility of unbelief; and late Modern impossibility of belief.
In the pre-Enlightenment era it was impossible not to believe. No other worldviews were available to members of society other than supernatural worldviews, particularly the Christian worldview in the West. While society had its heretics, there were no atheists among them. Everyone believed in some form of theism, even if it was polytheism. As Taylor simply states, it was impossible not to believe.