This article is part of the The 5 Major “Isms” of the Modern World series.
The Worldview of Our Time
If there is any word that describes today’s way of thinking more than others, it is secularism. Secularism is an umbrella term that covers a number of other “isms,” such as humanism, relativism, materialism, and pragmatism. But secularism, more than any other single word, aptly describes the mental framework and value structure of the people of our time.
The word secular also comes closest to what Paul actually says when he refers to “the pattern of this world” in Romans 12. Secular is derived from the Latin word saeculum, which means “age,” and the word Paul uses in verse 2 is the exact Greek equivalent. The New International Version uses the word “world,” but the Greek actually says, “Do not be conformed to this age.” In other words, “Do not be ‘secular’ in your worldview.”
There is a right way to be secular, of course. Christians live in the world and are therefore rightly concerned about this world’s affairs. We vote in elections and have other legitimate secular interests. But secularism (note the “ism”) is more than this. It is a philosophy that does not see beyond the world but operates as if this age is all there is.
[Secularism] is a philosophy that does not see beyond the world but operates as if this age is all there is.
"All That Is Or Ever Was Or Ever Will Be"
The best single statement of secularism I know is something Carl Sagan said in the television series Cosmos. He was pictured standing before a spectacular view of the heavens with its many swirling galaxies, saying in a hushed, almost reverential tone, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
That is “secularism in your face.” It is a worldview bound up entirely by the limits of the material universe, by what we can see and touch and weigh and measure. If we think in terms of our existence here, it means operating within the limits of life on earth. If we are thinking of time, it means disregarding the eternal and thinking only of the “now.”
Secularism is expressed in popular advertising slogans such as “You only go around once” and the “Now Generation.” These slogans dominate our culture and express an outlook that has become increasingly harmful. If “now” is the only time that matters, why should we worry about the national debt, for example? Let our children worry about it. Or why should we study hard preparing to do meaningful work later on in life, as long as we can enjoy ourselves now? Most important, why should I worry about God or righteousness or sin or judgment or salvation, if there is no beyond and now is all that matters? R. C. Sproul says:
For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time. . . . What matters is now and only now. All access to the above and the beyond is blocked. There is no exit from the confines of this present world. The secular is all that we have. We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time—the here and now. (1)
A Familiar Outlook
Each of us should understand this viewpoint instantly, because it is the viewpoint we are surrounded with every day of our lives and in every conceivable place and circumstance. Sadly, it is also an outlook we see reflected in our churches whenever we find ourselves aiming for immediate, visible success rather than trusting God while we do things in his way and await his invisible, spiritual blessings.
This is an outlook to which we must not be conformed. Instead of being conformed to this world, as if this world is all there is, we are to see all things as relating to God and eternity. Here is the contrast as expressed by Harry Blamires:
To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth; it is to keep one’s calculations rooted in this-worldly criteria. To think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God. (2)
If we are to have a modern reformation, we must learn to think Christianly.
This article was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.
(1) R. C. Sproul, Lifeviews: Understanding the Ideas that Shape Society Today (Old Tappan, N. J.: Revell, 1986), 35, emphasis his.
(2) Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1963), 44.
Popular Articles in This Series
James Montgomery Boice explains the dangers of secular humanism.
The fifth “ism” that has formed contemporary culture as we know it is pragmatism, a philosophy that measures truth by its utilitarian value.
A fourth “ism” which is part of the “pattern of this world” is materialism.
James Montgomery Boice writes about the difficulty of relativism.