by Michael S. Horton
©1993, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
In his classic, The Odyssey,Homer's hero, Odysseus, must make his journey home past the isle of the Sirens. Hypnotizing sailors with their irresistible melodies, the Sirens drew the unsuspecting into destruction. Those sailors who thought they were up to the challenge soon realized that they did not possess the powers of resistance required. Knowing this, Odysseus had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship and seal their own ears with wax. In so doing, the ship passed the isle safely and resisted the Sirens' song, to advance to the next stage in the odyssey.
For us today, the song of the Sirens is secularism,a condition of contemporary life that has resulted from the process of secularization. While there is neither the space nor the scope here for a detailed definition, suffice it to say that secularism is largely the product of two movements: The first, modernity, is rooted in the Enlightenment, which repudiated the supernatural (miracles, salvation, revelation, etc.), leaving room only for naturalism (laws of nature, moral improvement, reason, etc.). The second is postmodernity, in many ways a reaction against the arid triumphalism of modernity and rationalism by emphasizing experience over reason and the inner realities of the soul over the external realities of the objective world. Whether drawing us onto the rocks of trusting in our own reason or seducing us into the reef of our own experience, this contemporary cultural condition keeps us from "raising our eyes to heaven"for sanity.
Confident in their powers of resistance to worldliness, many conservative Christians today, like the mainline denominations earlier this century, naively assume that because they are so involved in church and the evangelical subculture, with its own music, art, events, conferences, books and broadcasting, that they are sailing safely past the isle of the Sirens. In fact, the more involved individual Christians are with the evangelical subculture, including the churches themselves, the greater the likelihood that they have already succombed to the hypnotic powers of secularization.
Raising Our Eyes Toward Heaven
In Daniel 4, the story is recorded of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar, to which I briefly referred above. Humiliated by God, "At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored." He went on to praise the one true God who "does as he pleases,"without getting human permission. "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble"(Dan.4:28-37).
While his eyes were on his own glory and splendor, Nebuchadnezzar had no sense of transcendence. It was only when this transcendence (raising his eyes toward heaven) was realized through divine humiliation that reality finally fell into place. He realized he was not God or a god, that he was neither the center of God's universe nor indeed even his own. To the extent that modern evangelicals have resisted humiliation, to that extent they are incapable of understanding Nebuchadnezzar's joy and sense of release at discovering the majesty, holiness, and sovereignty of God. They have lost transcendence in their pursuit of thier own power and splendor and a god within their heart who can be managed with the proper proven formulae.
Repeatedly, the children of Israel are called to raise their eyes. On their pilgrimmages to Jerusalem, as the made that assent to the City of God, the Israelites would sin the 121st Psalm: "I lift up my eyes to the hills--where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth." God promises Isaiah a restored vision: "In that day men will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel. They will not look to the altars, the work of their hands, and they will have no regard for the Asherah poles and the incense altars their fingers have made"(Is.17:7). One wonders how much we, like the children of Israel, insist on worshiping a god who meets us on our terms, the god of modern church growth, who is there to please us, to show us how to find ourselves, enjoy ourselves, and glorify ourselves. And this god is very "practical,"very "relevant." He is not holy or separate from his creation, but "He walks with me and talks with me"in the garden "while the dew is still on the roses." How long will we train our eyes on the altars our hands have made--the clever, sure-fire, proven techniques, the programs, the worship styles? When will we raise our eyes to heaven, to the hills, from which come our only hope and salvation? Are our services God-centered or man-centered? Do they train us to raise our eyes to heaven, or do they perpetuate our tendency to focus on earthly things like success, pleasure, and self-fulfillment? Do they remind us to look to the hills and place our trust in God instead of in our own flesh? Is there a sense of awe, reverence, and transcendence as the holy and majestically enthroned Lord of heaven and earth is celebrated?
The apostle Paul warned a church in an upscale city that even many in the church "live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven"(Phil.3:18-19). Paul was calling the early believers to resist the Sirens' song of pagan society and raise their eyes toward heaven. Obsession with self-fulfillment is hardly a modern phenomenon, it is just that the strides in technology have made "you shall be as gods"sound a bit more realistic. This is why Paul warned Timothy, "In the last days men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud..., lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2 Tim.3:1-5). What Paul probably did not bank on was the possibility that the evangelicals at the end of the twentieth century would actually capitalize on this sinful "self-fulfillment"orientation and turn it into a gospel. The same apostle tells the Colossians, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Col.3:1-4).If there is one thing that the postmodern version of secularism preaches in the matter of religion it is divine immanence. That is, in its reaction against a deistic rationalism that removed God and the spiritual realm from the interest of everyday thoughts, many secularists today are turning to a very aggressive spirituality, usually in the form of pantheism (everything is a part of god) and the god within. Superstition is most common, according to surveys, among the college-educated, so this growing paganism ought not to be considered a passing fad inspired by tabloid journalism.
But what Paul tells us here is that we must not place our faith in the idol of reason (modernity), nor the god of experience (postmodernity); not in the god known only through reason, nor in the god within, but in the God outside of us and yet made known to us in the written and living Word.
St. Augustine spoke of the essence of original sin as being "curved in"on ourselves, much as an older person might be bent over, unable to see more than a few feet ahead. Such a person's world is often tragically limited and joyless, as he or she is unable to take in the beauty of the world beyond his or her own two feet.
It cannot be denied that in our worship, we may as well pray, "Our Audience, which art on earth"; in our religion, "...hallowed (or at least greatly esteemed) be our name"; in our lifestyles, "...our kingdom come, our will be done in heaven as it is on earth. Give us today our daily indulgences and help us to love and forgive ourselves just as we love and forgive others. Lead us not into difficulty, suffering, or unhappiness, but deliver us from unmet needs. For ours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, at least here and now, which is what really counts anyway." We suffer from the disease Augustine described as incurvitas, we are "curved in"on ourselves. Or, to reverse Nebuchadnezzar's confession, we have not raised our eyes to heaven and have thus caved in to the culture's Siren song of insanity.
Changing Views of God and Self: "Man Is The Measure"
Ironically, many of the same folks today who decry "secular humanism"for "making man the measure"in fact make man the measure in evangelism, in worship, in faith and in practice. In fact, according to University of California sociologist Wade Clark Roof, the self-centered, self-deifying impulse in American history is now a part of evangelical as well as New Age spirituality. God has become another source of self-fulfillment. In fact, among "born again"Christians, "This God is thought of in very human terms: God, as it were, is created in one's own image." (A Generation of Seekers,p.75)
Even the formulas evangelicals create for serving the Lord, Roof points out, are "geared toward self-fulfillment: By keeping one's priorities properly ordered, one will have a better life. Materialism, competition, achievement, and success--to cite the dominant secular, individualistic values of America--create the context in which evangelicals, like all others, form their beliefs, attitudes, and definitions of reality." Even though one of the evangelicals Roof interviewed said we need to realize America has a covenant with God to which it must return, "she does not use this biblical language in talking about church." Instead, she says, "You don't have to go to church. I think the reason I do is because it helps me to grow. It's especially good for my family, to teach them the good and moral things."
As Roof points out so well, this is the very epitome of self-centered individualism and secular autonomy evangelicals decry in the wider culture. Eight in ten conservative evangelicals "accept a version of 'possibility thinking,' or the belief that one can do just about anything if one believes in oneself." "Obviously,"Roof notes, "many of the older, more rigid religious notions about the self have been set aside to make room for more adaptable psychological conceptions."[p.109] Of course, the biblical interpretation of human nature must go, but that does not seem to bother most Christians these days. University of Virginia sociologist, James Davison Hunter, notes, "There are, in fact, strong indications that a total reversal has taken place in the Evangelical conception of the nature and value of the self...For example, nearly nine out of every ten Evangelical students (roughly paralleling the number of public university students) agreed that Œself-improvement is important to me and I work hard at it.'" When asked how many agreed with the statement, "For the Christian, realizing your full potential as a human being is just as important as putting others before you,"sixty-two percent of the evangelical college students agreed, while forty-four percent of the public university students took this new psychological approach of self-fulfillment. In a Barna poll, over half of the evangelicals surveyed agreed with the statement, "The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment." (What Americans Believe,p.92) Is it possible: Are we more secularized in our view of the self than the world?
Not only is man the center of his own universe now; it is actually fashionable in Christian circles to speak of Christianity as an answer to low self-esteem rather than as an answer to total depravity. Eighty-three percent (more than 4 in 5) of the American adult population believe that people are basically good. But those are just those "secular humanists"out there, right? No, seventy-seven percent of the "born-again,"evangelical constituency affirms this secular view of human nature. [Barna, p.89] In fact, when it comes to salvation, "God helps those who help themselves,"according to four out of five "born again,"evangelical Christians. Evangelicals are more likely than non-Christians to agree with this "pull yourself up by the bootstraps,"self-help program. [p.80] One-third of the evangelicals agree that "all good people will go to heaven, whether they have embraced Jesus Christ or not"[The Barna Report,p.51], so that redemption seems to depend on one's own goodness rather than on faith in Christ. Indeed, in this scheme, Jesus is not even necessary, except as a moral guide. But, of course, we recognize this as theological liberalism and as secularism when it is in the world, but I think Barna is quite entitled to demand of us as evangelicals, "What is being taught in our churches about the nature of salvation"? Good question.
Sermons used to focus on sin and grace, but now they are often more concerned with addictions, recovery, felt needs, and other psychological categories. Why? Because we have recently discovered that the Bible is interested in themes like self-esteem, codependency, dysfunction, and unmet needs? No, it is because this is the Siren's song of the culture, luring us to dote on ourselves through psychology as the Romantics doted on themselves through poetry last century. Theology focuses on God (the word means "the study of God"); psychology focuses on ourselves and our own inner needs and experiences. This is why theology is put down as impractical and irrelevant, while pastors and church workers often gobble up every self-help book that comes off the press. It is not contextualization, but secularization. We are fixed on ourselves, curved in. Only when we raise our eyes toward heaven will the spell of the Sirens be broken and our sanity be recovered.
Where Are We Looking For Authority?
Another example of the similarities between modern evangelicals and secularists is the matter of authority. Now here, at least, one might suspect that the widest cleavage would exist. After all, don't evangelicals stand for moral absolutes over the relativism that pervades our culture? Take a second look. Hunter, like a growing number of sociologists, historians, theologians and church leaders, points out that evangelicals today are not only ignorant of their theology, but suspicious of theology altogether. While touting a high view of Scripture on paper, conservative Christians are as likely as the unchurched to say that church is not vital so long as one has an active, if private, "personal relationship with Jesus."
Conservative evangelicals are about as likely to defend their faith on the basis that "it works"or "it feels right,"or on some personal experience that validates the truth. As Roof notes, modern people, including Christians, are united in the presupposition that "Direct experience is always more trustworthy, if for no other reason than because of its Œinwardness' and Œwithin-ness'--two qualities that have come to be much appreciated in a highly expressive, narcissistic culture."[p.67] The "testimony"("what Jesus did for me") and personal experiences are often the most authoritative tests of truth in evangelical circles today. If one experienced something, it must be true. This, too, is a capitulation to secular spirit of locating the seat of authority somewhere in oneself. Whereas traditional evangelicals have stood by the Reformation slogan, sola Scriptura (only Scripture), the pressures of postmodernism (often cloaked in pious phrases, like "personal relationship"over "dead doctrine") have not only replaced God with self as the object, but have replaced God with self as the authority for interpreting reality. The very popular New Age mystic Matthew Fox declares that "heart-knowledge"is the basis for all true knowledge, and that is not far off from the disdain I heard for "head-knowledge"over "heart-knowledge"growing up as an evangelical. Fox also repeated the warning of Carl Jung, a mystic who passed himself off as a scientist (successfully, one might might add): the greatest enemy of the soul is to "worship a God outside you."[Roof, p.75]
Although Jung and Maslow are criticized by evangelicals as fathers of "humanistic psychology,"the entire Christian publishing, preaching, and broadcasting industry seems to be bent on "the god within"and personal, subjective, inward experience. Long gone is the focus on Christ crucified for us outside the city center of Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago for our objective sin and guilt against a holy God. Now, if religion is to have any "practical"meaning, it must focus on making me happier, taking me inside myself, and providing spiritual experiences.
This is where another irony comes in, when the question of truth and authority is raised. Tim LaHaye criticizes "secular humanism"for its relativism and its belief that "contradictory assertions are equally true."[p.28] And yet, how many times, in a doctrinal dispute (especially between Calvinists and Arminians), does one hear statements like, "There are good people on both sides"(as if one's character had anything to do with determining truth), or "We can't know,"or, better yet, "They're both true." In fact, evangelical Christians, according to Barna, are almost equally divided between those who strongly agree and strongly disagree with the statement, "There is no such thing as absolute truth."[p.84] Remarkably, "...adults associated with mainline Protestant churches are more likely than all other adults to agree that there is no such thing as absolute truth (73% compared to 65%)."[p.83]
In his controversial treatment, No Place for Truth,evangelical theologian David Wells noted with great sorrow, "In the intervening years I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy."[p.4]
Not only have evangelicals been shaped by secularism in their theology; they have adopted the patterns of thinking that have opened them up to participate in the idolatry of their contemporaries. Belief in the essential goodness of humanity and its moral perfectability through ethical education, legislation, self-help, and political pressure, evangelicals have also accepted the idea of secular progress: things are getting better and America is a special agent in this global improvement. Remarkably, this is going on at a time when most evangelicals still officially hold to the dispensational premillenial scheme that has dominated the movement for most of this century, a scheme that argues for a pessimistic view of history, worsening until Jesus returns. While attacking Russian Orthodoxy for not standing up to the state and status quo Marxism, American Christians can't seem to desparate biblical truth from the "American Way of Life." The Christian Left thinks it is prophetic when it does little more than approve, in strident and self-confident tones, what the culture-shapers have already canonized, while the Christian Right follows the same course with a different agenda.
Furthermore, the triumph of secularism (whether modern or postmodern) has not only redefined the Gospel and the wider Christian message; it has redefined the nature of the Christian mission and the identity of the Church. John Leith, though himself very active in speaking out on political and social issues, addresses his concerns:
Many sermons are moral exhortations, which can be heard delivered with greater skill at the Rotary or Kiwanis Club. Many sermons are political and economic judgments on society, which have been presented with greater wisdom and passion at political conventions. Many sermons offer personal therapies, which can be better provided by well-trained psychiatrists. The only skill the preacher has--or the church, for that matter--which is not found with greater excellence somewhere else, is theology, in particular the skill to interpret and apply the Word of God in sermon, teaching, and pastoral care. This is the great service which the minister and the church can render the world. Why should anyone come to church for what can be better found somewhere else?"
Ironicaly, Professor Leith was aiming his criticisms at the mainline churches, although today it could just as appropriately describe evangelicalism. And the critique is to the point: Instead of confronting secularism with transcendence and the merely horizontal (myself and others) with the vertical dimension (God), we are actually trying to play the game. But we are not as good or clever at it, so in our rush toward "relevance"we have actually become irrelevant. That is why, according to poll after poll, so many of the "boomers"have decided to stay away. "Religion seemed so captive to the status quo,"Roof explains, "...more comforting than challenging,"simply baptizing "a set of commonly held cultural values such as progress, security, conformity, and confident living--all wrapped up and called Œthe American Way of Life.'"[p.65] Many left because they thought the churches were "spiritually and theologically impoverished"and they left, "...not out of any strong doctrinal or moral objection, but because church or synagogue seemed irrelevant to them."[p.55] The church is only relevant if it stops chasing after the competing voices of this passing age and hears the golden strains from another place more real than our own. That does not mean the church resists changes in style in principle or that it never updates the language of its liturgy, but that its message is relevant precisely because it takes people who are inundated with a this-worldly and self-ward, consumeristic, therapeutic orientation and raises their eyes toward heaven, as Nebuchadnezzar had experienced. "Then my sanity was restored,"the king confessed (Dan.4:36).
The church today has lost its sanity. It has been seduced by the Sirens' song and part of the process of seduction involves not knowing you're being seduced. Think about how much of our society is ruled by commercialism, consumerism, marketing, creating "felt needs"so that some company can make a fortune on the latest thing that suddenly everyone thinks he absolutely has to have. And then think about how much the evangelical church is ruled by the marketplace. The August 9, 1993 issue of Newsweekfeatured the church growth movement, quoting a church growth pastor as saying, "People today aren't interested in traditional doctrines like justification, sanctification and redemption." Of course, that begs the question, "Why not? Have you ever tried preaching it?" It also begs the question as to whether the message the church preaches depends on a popular vote. According to Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward,
The difference is that, old-line Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans saw themselves as heirs to coherent traditions they thought worth passing on. Even when competing for converts, they put doctrinal and devotional integrity before success.
And then Woodward offers this pause for thought:
The mainline denominations may be dying because they lost their theological integrity. The only thing worse, perhaps, would be the rise of a new Protestant establishment that succeeds because it never had any.
We are looking to ourselves as the source of our authority, as the center of our existence, and as the goal of our energies and thoughts and the church is helping fascilitate this seduction all the while decrying the moral dividends of the very secularism whose intellectual lies it has adopted hook, line, and sinker. We have followed the world into an insane obsession with the banal, the trivial, the here-and-now immediacy of "felt needs,"and hardly ever stop to raise our eyes to heaven--that is, regain our theological and theocentric composure. As it is possible to be "so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good,"it is also possible to be so earthly minded that we are no earthly good.
Conclusion: Finding The Balance
Traditionally, church history records the swing from an over-emphasis on transcendence to immanence and vice versa. Transcendence refers to God's being "wholly other,"completely distinct from his creation and therefore the things that are related to him are from another place, another world. The Scriptures show us the balance we must have in holding to both the transcendence (the heavenly) and immanence (the personal and earthly) poles. True enough, we must be heavenly minded. We must "raise our eyes toward heaven." But we must also be concerned about the application of eternal verities to contemporary, earthly contexts. That is where the rub comes. When Israel wanted to worship God in the form of a golden calf, they were simply seeking a more immanent way of worshiping the true God. They wanted a practical, personal, tangible deity and it was hard to have a personal relationship with an unseen God who will not allow himself to be seen, discovered, or understood on man's terms. They were, one might say, merely "contextualizing,"since their neighbors had visible representations of their deity to experience for themselves.
The balance is found not in toning down either God's transcendence or immanence or by taking a middle path between this world (the here and now) and heaven (the eternal), but by understanding what our Lord is teaching us as we address God in prayer: "Our Father[immanence] who art in Heaven[transcendence]." Even in this brief prayer our Lord gave us, we have the proper balance between transcendence and immanence. God is completely above and beyond us (transcendent), but we are instructed to call him "our Father." Isn't this a contradiction? Not at all. For in Christ, the Father reconciles us to himself and adopts us as his own children, co-heirs with Christ. We connect with eternity not by our own speculations, experience, or mystical ladder-climbing for peeks at the Deus nudus (the "naked God,"an experience Luther and Calvin referred to the monks), but by his own self-revelation in Scripture and in the incarnation of our Savior. The reason the children of Israel were forbidden to shape idols of their own reason, imagination, or experience as means even of worshipping the true God was that there is only one true icon (the Greek word is "eikon") of God. Speaking not of an experience, a visible representation, or a speculative concept, but of a person--namely, Christ, Paul said: "He is the image of the invisible God...For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him..."(Col.1:15, 19).
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus gives us a picture of the Father's love for us. Having deserted his family and blown his entire inheritance on wine, women and song, the son finally is brought to his senses and returns home, prepared to be nothing more than a servant. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him"(Lk.15:20). The son knew that he merited his father's rejection and acceptance merely as a servant would have been merciful, but the father "was filled with compassion." "ŒQuick! Bring the best robe and put it on him,'"the father commanded the servants. "ŒPut a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate"(vv.22-24).
Similarly, we were "dead in trespasses and sins." And, "Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love he made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realsm in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus"(Eph.2:1-8). We were not always children, but were "like the rest, children of wrath." And yet, God chose to reconcile us and become our Father. He did this even while we were sinners, by sending his Son to atone for our sins and to satisfy divine justice and holiness on our behalf. And then he even gave us the faith to believe before we ourselves chose it: "Because of his great love he made us alive with Christ even when were were dead in transgressions."
Like the father in the parable, our heavenly Father places the robe of Christ's righteousness, "the best robe,"Jesus called it, on the sinner who trusts in him and "comes home." The smell of the pig pen does not keep us from our Father's embrace, because all he smells is the sweetness of Christ; all he sees is the purity of Christ; all he touches is the holiness of Christ. In this way, the holy can adopt the unholy and enter into a personal relationship with those who are in themselves unworthy of anything but God's wrath. It is not because we were worth it, but "because of his great love." And the focus is not on meeting our felt needs here and now, but on God's glory in the justification of the ungodly.
Dr. Michael Horton is the Chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, In the Face of God, and most recently, A Confessing Theology for Postmdern Times.