How Not To Engage The Secular World

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Recently, a friend recommended an extraordinarily insightful transcript to me from a talk given by New York Times columnist David Brooks on how the ‘Christian world’ can engage the ‘secular world’ (the full transcript can be accessed here). This week and next, I am going to feature two excerpts from Brooks’ magnificent speech. Today, the focus will be on what Brooks calls ‘walls’ that Christians can unnecessarily erect between themselves and secular culture. Next week, the focus will shift to what Brooks calls ‘ramps’ or access points that Christians can, and should be, creating to foster relationship and meaningful dialog with friends, neighbors, and colleagues who are from a more secular point of view.

So, without further adieu, here is the first excerpt from David Brooks.

Excerpt from David Brooks on ‘walls’ Christians must dismantle:

And so when I turn to the topic of what, how do you be religious in the public sector…in the public world, the question then turns into, “How does the Christian world engage the secular world?”

Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres. On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is. Are you building ramps on the way to Chartres or are you building walls?

Now I spend a lot of time in the Christian world, and I am going to try to describe things I have observed, both walls and ramps. The first part, I‘m going to try and describe some walls that I think the Christian culture has erected for the secular culture. This part is going to be a little harsh. I’m trying to live up to Susan’s words this morning in trying to be a “holy friend,’ which involves some criticism.

I want you to know I am for you and I love you.

Withdrawal

So the first wall is the wall of withdrawal. Many of my Christian friends perceive a growing difference between the secular world and the Christian world, the difference between Jay-Z and Hillsong and the Jesus culture. The difference between Quentin Tarantino and Eugene Peterson, Richard Dawkins and Henri Nouwen, Columbia College and Calvin College. Many of my friends fear they are being written out of polite society because they believe in the Gospel. With that comes a psychology of an embattled minority. With that comes a defensiveness and a withdrawal, a fear, and a withdrawal into sub-culture. I certainly have friends how live in a sub-culture, work in a sub-culture, Christian in the sub-culture, socialize in the sub-culture, and if you live in a broader society, that is governed by the spiritual longing that doesn’t know how to express itself, is withdrawing into your own separate sub-culture really the right thing to do.

I think that’s being governed by fear and not love.

Condescension

The second wall is the wall of condescension.  In a lot of the walls come from a unique psychology which I have observed. Which is a weird mixture of – this is going to sound a little rude – in the Christian culture a mixture of wanton intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex.

And the second wall is the wall of condescension. There is sometimes a belief among some people that those who have been with Christ a long time can adopt a paternal attitude toward those who have not been with Christ, or who have come to Christ recently. And this is a caring condescension. It’s people wanting to help. But it’s also a form of pride to know the route God has chosen for each of us. It’s a form of closed-mindedness. It’s off-putting. People who have come to Christ recently may not at all, may not have lived in the church for very long. But they have lived, and read and thought and they haven’t come back from these experiences with empty hands and they have as much to teach as to learn.

Bad Listening

The third wall is the wall of bad listening. In my experience, I have had amazing diversity of quality of listening among my friends who are in the Christian community. Some are amazing. Ask great questions. Allow each individual experience to express itself and be known.

But I have certainly known others who have come to each conversation armed with a set of maxims, teaching and truths and may apply off-the-shelf truths and maxims without learning the uniqueness of each situation. Emerson said that souls are not saved in bundles and yet sometimes there is great haste to apply these ready-made  maxims regardless of circumstances.

Invasive Care

The fourth wall is the wall of invasive care. The heart is a mysterious garden filled with delicate growths, privacy is always to be respected because trampling on that garden without permission destroys the growth. And again, out of care, I feel that sometimes no privacy, no boundaries can be respected.

Intellectual Insecurity

And the final wall is this wall of intellectual insecurity.  I teach at Yale. We are not nice to each other. We brutally attack each other. We are not good Christians.

But out of that comes a hardened appreciation of truth. And sometimes we are brutal to each other because we are brutal in pursuit of the truth and we don’t take…we take our ideas very seriously and we’re sometimes willing to hurt each other because the ideas are so serious. Sometimes we veer on the side of just nastiness. Sometimes in my experience in Bible Study, the desire to be nice, the desire to be affirming, softens all discussion. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and ethereal words are tolerated because nobody wants to be too offensive.

And so these are some of the walls. Now let me turn to the happier ramps that I have found…(tune in next week for the ‘happier ramps’).


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2 responses to “How Not To Engage The Secular World”

  1. […] last week’s post, instead of sharing my own reflections on this or that, I shared a few thoughts from a talk given […]

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