Cultural Pressures in the Christian Church: Secularization, Privatization, and Pluralization
Derived from the writings of Os Guinness
Written by: District President Dr. Tony Steinbronn
One of my favorite books is by Os Guinness, titled “The Gravedigger Files: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (1983) and is based upon this theme: “the more the church becomes one with the modern world, the more it becomes compromised, and the deeper grave it digs for itself (Guinness 15).”
There are many fine sections to the book, yet there is one section that I continue to return to which identifies three cultural pressures that have caused the Christian faith to experience a loss of comprehensiveness, certainty, and compelling power in the lives of many modern people – and these pressures are secularization, privatization, and pluralization.
Secularization is the process by which the social and cultural significance of religion in the central areas of modern society, such as the worlds of science, technology, bureaucracy, and so on, make religious ideas less meaningful and religious institutions more marginal (Guinness 51). Due to secularization, the impact of faith on moral, social, and political life is diminishing (Guinness 60) causing Os to make this indicting observation: “who can take seriously a faith which claims to speak to all of life but has tamely withdrawn from the areas which are central in modern society” (Guinness 147).
Privatization is the process that produces a cleavage between the public and private spheres of life and focuses the private sphere as the special arena for the expansion of individual freedom and fulfillment (Guinness 74). Privatization is the posture that the Christian faith is to be privately engaging, but socially irrelevant (Guinness 80).
Pluralization is the process by which the number of options in the private sphere of modern society rapidly multiplies at all levels, especially at the level of world views, belief systems, and ideologies (Guinness 93). The traditional role of Christianity has been described as “a sacred canopy” that overarched all of modern Western society and culture, defining the world and determining the ways of those who lived under its shelter (Guinness 94). Today, however, Christianity is no longer taken for granted and no longer supplies the “frame of reference” to which men and women spontaneously relate all of their thoughts and actions.
Thus, for many, many people in modern Western society, “secularization makes the Christian faith seem less real, privatization makes it seem merely a private preference, and pluralization makes it seem just one among many” (Guinness 161).
Yet if our existence is to have meaning, we must have absolutes and a solid epistemology since morals, values and the basis of knowledge are all derived from God and His revealed will. Martin Luther sought to understand what does this mean as derived from the authoritative and normative truth-claims of Scripture alone so that he could interpret, explain and communicate what does this mean for meaningful application within every area of human life.
For the Christian believer, God has spoken, in linguistic propositional form, truth concerning Himself and truth concerning humankind, history and the universe. Because this is so, there is unity over the whole field of knowledge. Therefore, “on the basis of the Scriptures, while we do not have exhaustive knowledge, we do have true and unified knowledge” (Schaeffer 1970:22).
In summary, as Carl Henry has positively affirmed, the primary ontological axiom for the Christian faith is the one, living triune God. The primary epistemological axiom is divine revelation. All core beliefs of biblical theism depend on these basic axioms. Therefore, the Christian believer knows assuredly that his or her truth-claims are not conjecturally grounded, but are anchored in the triune God’s self-existence and self-disclosure. God has revealed Himself in the world of space and time; however, this axiom cannot be demonstrated but can only be received by faith; therefore, plain and simple unbelief is the only reason for rejecting it and throwing it aside.