Todd Aiken and the challenge of secularism

I haven’t followed the implosion of Covenant Seminary alumnus and Republican representative Todd Aiken’s political flame out. About the only thing I can say about it is that Aiken said something stupid. Of course, he’s a politician. Most politicians are better at the art of getting elected than they are at the art of thinking. They pay other people to think on their behalf and other people pay them to vote on their behalf. Okay, that was snarky–forgive me.

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It is interesting to read the responses to Aiken’s gaffe because they expose the real religion of American society–a secular, liberal faith in the autonomy of the individual and the bracketing of religious claims to knowledge outside of the public square. When I say religious, theological is closer to the point. Secular society has effectively come to understand religious or theological knowledge as something other than what it is–that is, knowledge. It is opinion or, worse, some manifestation of a Nietzschean will to power.

L. Z. Granderson writes,

Some social conservatives talk of protecting religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a theocracy that places limits on freedom based on a version of Judeo-Christianity that fits their liking. That language is also being considered for the GOP’s national platform. Some speak of fighting abortion because of their religious convictions and then belittle the trauma caused by rape.

Granderson here describes in a via negativa the fundamental tenets of the secular society–which is an alternate gospel, an a-gospel as it were.

So what does Granderson’s society look like:

It is free of religious or theological knowledge. Such knowledge can only produce a “theocracy.”

It places no limits on the autonomy of the individual. The limitation of the rights of the individual to pursue what pleases him is oppression–any form of restriction to self-definition or self-actualization is a form of violence fit to done away with.

This is a profound challenge to Christian people. Why? Because the view that Granderson is espousing is a rival gospel and a rival religion. As Christians we’re told that we are to have no other God than God. And yet, the dominant social theory of today and our dominant self-understanding in the political sphere enthrones each of us as god–a profound idolatry.

There is no knowledge that is not first theological knowledge–grounded in an embrace of or a rejection of the God in whom all that is consists. The issue for Christians is how to live faithfully in a post-Christian world where each of us is seen as the sum of our appetites rather than a being made in the image and likeness of God.

2 Comments on “Todd Aiken and the challenge of secularism”

  1. In his book “The Real American Dream,” Andrew Delbanco notes that at the heart of every culture is its main “Hope,” what it tells its members life is all about. He notes that our country has traveled through 3 distinct periods when it comes to our fundamental hope – God, Nation, Self. In the first hope was expressed mainly through the Christian story. In the second the Enlightenment removed the personal God in favor of a god-like, deified Nation which would act as our Redeemer and the hope of the world. This phase began to pass in the 60’s, he says, in favor of the the third era – self-actualization as the way to transcendence and meaning. In this age, then, our ultimate hope is to be found in creating an optimized version of self “through the maximization of individual freedom from the constraints of community.”

    As you note – this is in direct contradiction to the Biblical emphasis on community and accountability. This then becomes – again, as you note – a rival religion/gospel. Or as our forefathers would have said – an idol. I think that one of the most important things the early church – and certainly Paul in the Scriptures – did was to name idols where they saw them. Of course, as Tim Keller points out in his book, “Counterfeit Gods,” to do this today would necessarily mean that we would need to critique the culture in which we find ourselves. As Keller puts it, “When we are completely immersed in a society of people who consider a particular idolatrous attachment normal, it becomes almost impossible to discern it for what it is.” So we must look at the culture with a different lens – as Paul points out in Romans – so that we may name the idols we see.

    This, of course, will make us incredibly unpopular and our attendance and giving may drop, because so many “Christians” in America today have plenty of other gods that they are unwilling or unencouraged to name. There is a reason the 1st commandment is the 1st commandment, however. So I am glad to see you name this dichotomy as idolatry. I would only add that perhaps your assumption that Christians seem to understand this idolatry may overreach a bit. While it is clear to you and I and many we are in conversation with, I would submit that the average person in the pew sees no conflict between the Gospel of Jesus and the Gospel of the Culture. In fact, in my experience they have achieved a nice equilibrium in the cognitive dissonance required to accept both. I think this is what folks like Granderson see, but cannot name. So they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So I believe a large part of our job – for those of us who see and understand the true counter-cultural nature of the Gospel – is to create awareness and understanding among those who say they have accepted this Gospel – and all that goes with it – of this idolatry. Then we can work on how to live faithfully in the world in which we find oursleves.

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