Contemporary conservatism — religious, political, cultural — is defined at least in part by opposition to secularism. Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer scored early and often when throwing around the phrase secular humanism, for instance. Meanwhile, one of the complaints (or worse) about 2K is that it tolerates — even welcomes — a secular world. (For some reason, folks don’t seem to notice that the secular is actually a Christian notion that designates a specific time in salvation history.)
Because of the associations between opposition to secularism and conservatism, I was surprised to read that Pete Enns is glad to see a reduction in secularity even if he is not exactly a conservative. In a post that lauded Oprah’s discovery of Rob Bell, Enns appealed to N.T. Wright for help in making the case that spirituality is the natural human response to the unsatisfying demands of a secular world:
The official guardians of the old water system (many of whom work in the media and in politics, and some of whom, naturally enough, work in churches) are of course horrified to see the volcano of “spirituality” that has erupted in recent years. All this “New Age” myticism, the Tarot cards, crystals, horoscopes, and so on; all this fundamentalism, with militant Christians, militant Sikhs, militant muslims, and many others bombing each otherwith God in their side. Surely, say the guardians of the official water system, all this is terribly unhealthy? Surely it will lead us back to superstition, to the old chaotic, polluted, and irrational water supply? They have a point. But they must face a question in response: Does the fault not lie with those who wanted to pave over the springs with concrete in the first place.
“The hidden spring” of spirituality is the second feature of human life which, I suggest, functions as an echo of a voice; as a signpost pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that we humans are made for more than this.
Along then comes Rob Bell (and others) to the rescue, according to Enns:
I think what Bell is doing is helping unstop the springs, and I’m glad he’s doing it. Those who lose sleep over the damage he’s causing may, even in the name of Christ, be more in league with the dictator than they may realize. As many have noted: American fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism have more in common with modernity than many may be able, or willing, to see.
But why Bell? Why not someone with “better theology” (some might ask) for such a time as this? Because the tools of evangelical theological fine-tuning are not suited for excavating concrete. Plus, Bell is a truly gifted communicator who doesn’t use in-house lingo. He knows how to market his ideas, i.e., to get people to listen.
This suggests that Enns, Wright, and Bell have more in common with many conservatives than they might imagine. If you’re going to frame the question as one between the secular and the religious, then the nature of Christianity is going to look different from the way that confessional Protestants understand it. Why Enns is willing to welcome Bell’s aids to spirituality but keeps fundamentalist or evangelical helps to devotion at arm’s length is anyone’s guess (though Bell is hipper than John Piper). It would seem to me that if you’re in the business of pulling down the secular order, you take help from inerrantists as much as from militant Sikhs. (It is precisely that kind of expansiveness in opposition to secularism that produces the Manhattan Declaration.)
But if you believe the church is called, in the words of the Confession of Faith, to minister the “ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world,” (25.3), then you may not care if your tool box has tools to excavate concrete. The spiritual weapons you’re carrying are a lot more powerful and responsive than that.