Above all else, Mr. Roy is able to show us vividly how much has changed with the secularization that Weber predicted—how formerly Christian societies have lost a sense of their own religious foundation. As religion has floated free of culture, he notes, it has not only turned inward; it has also made desperate attempts to go to market, turning to everything from the Internet to popular music to sell itself to generations that have lost even an elementary religious literacy. By transforming itself into another instrument of "therapeutic" satisfaction, Mr. Roy observes, religion risks losing its soul.
"Holy Ignorance" ends with a profound set of questions: How can religion be passed along to children when it is no longer a reliable part of the culture they will inherit? What hold can religion have on the souls of human beings when it increasingly becomes a "consumer" choice—or, as Mr. Roy emphasizes, an intensely personal, inward experience—and when people dispose of the faith of their fathers as they might dispose of clothes that are no longer fashionable? The tendency of modern society to trivialize the most important decision a human being can make is arguably a far greater threat to the integrity of faith than secularization ever was.
The question Roy raised in his book and Mahoney addressed in his review is whether religion has a role to play in a secularized society in the twenty-first century. I believe it does, but for religion to play a role in modern society, it must return to its biblical roots and become once again that vibrant movement that transformed the Roman world in the first century.
According to Mahoney’s review of the book, Roy believes that one of the reasons for religion’s loss of influence in our secular society is that religion “has been relegated to the private sphere, becoming mostly an ‘interior’ search for spiritual well-being.”
But this internalization of the believer’s faith was never Jesus’ view of what his disciples should be and do in the world. Jesus said:
“You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16 NET).
Eugene Peterson, translating the same passage in The Message, puts it this way:
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you lightbearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand–shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
God is not a secret to be kept, but when Christians withdraw from the world by keeping their faith private and by refusing to share with others the good news of what God has done in Christ, God becomes the great unknown. People only know God by hearsay (Job 42:5 NJB) and most of the time, the information they receive about God is distorted and defamatory.
The questions Mr. Roy asked in the conclusion of his book need to be repeated so we may try to find answers that will honor God and revitalize Christianity in the secular society in which we live. Roy asked:
1. “How can religion be passed along to children when it is no longer a reliable part of the culture they will inherit?”
2. “What hold can religion have on the souls of human beings when it increasingly becomes . . . an intensely personal, inward experience?”
The answer to question number two is easy to formulate. Christians must remember the reason God called them to become part of God’s family. The Apostle Peter provides the best reason for our call to be God’s people. Peter wrote:
“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
We are called to proclaim the mighty acts of God. This prohibits Christians from withdrawing from society, from emphasizing the privacy of faith, and a religious commitment that is relegated to the four walls of the church.
Religious faith can take hold of the soul of human beings when they learn to live the vibrancy of faith in private as well as in public. Living in fellowship with God is an amazing experience that can permeate every aspect of life. However, as long as Christians keep their faith private and refuse to proclaim the mighty acts of God, people will never know the amazing love of God and the wonderful experience of living in relationship with him.
The first question is more difficult to answer because many times secular society becomes more influential than the Christian home. The secularized education children receive in schools has become a “movement from the authority of tradition to the authority of reason.” But the only way our faith can be passed on to our children is to follow God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 6:5-7:
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Again, such an injunction becomes a challenge for Christians to make their faith and their commitment to God relevant in a secular society. Christians must allow their faith to address the issues of the day, so that they may teach their children, not “holy ignorance,” but a faith that can deal with issues children face in school and in the world.
Although modern society tends to ridicule religious faith, faith in God has the power to transform the lives of individuals and in the process it can also change the ways people deal with the moral degeneracy that prevails in a secular society.
The problem is not religion; the problem is the trivialization of one’s commitment to God. As Mahoney wrote in the conclusion of his essay: “The tendency of modern society to trivialize the most important decision a human being can make is arguably a far greater threat to the integrity of faith than secularization ever was.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Tags: Holy Ignorance, Daniel J. Mahoney, Olivier Roy, Secularism, Modernity