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Secular humanism: Christianity without Christ?

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 13 August 2015

The decline of the Christian Church in our society has left a deposit: the way most of us understand the mores of being human. Few would argue about the equalitarian attitude to all human beings but few would also know of Paul's statement that "There is no longer Jew or Greek,there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Gal 3:28.

Where else would we have gotten this attitude to all people that we find at the centre of our culture? It cannot be rationally derived, we do not owe it to the philosophers. But there it is, a deposit of faith. Paul's words "no longer" indicate a break with the past and a new reality that continues to be central to our much trumpeted equalitarianism. This has become a principle of our time but it has been shorn of its origin: Paul's understanding that being "in Christ" our lives become ordered towards a new humanity.

One of the few parables of Jesus we remember is that of the Good Samaritan that posed the question "who is my neighbour?" Subsequently, we all understand that we have a duty of care to the person next to us, the person we encounter in dire circumstances. This has been institutionalised in the social services that provide support for those of us who have fallen in hard times. This too has become a principle for us but a principle severed from its origin in the self-giving life of Jesus


Many of us understand that relationships based on law and duty are death-bound while also understanding that relationships that are based on love and forgiveness are life giving. Perhaps this is the most powerful deposit left after the sea of faith has retreated. We celebrate love as if love alone is the solution to everything and we forget that real love was demonstrated in the life of Jesus and that it was anything but romantic.

We talk of the sacrifice that soldiers make in war on our behalf. Where did we get the idea that it is noble for a person to lay down his life for his friends? Where indeed, but in the progress of Jesus into Jerusalem to a predictable end?

The examples can be multiplied. The fact is that we owe more to the Christian tradition than many of us are prepared to acknowledge. In our triumphal overthrow of religion, its superstition, its irrationality and general backwardness we have not understood that our society has been structured by this tradition to its overwhelming good.

But now that the nurturing tradition is fading, how will these things be preserved? Now that the foundations have melted away what will become of the building? They are already becoming dead principles without foundations and thus are liable to dissolution.

What is missing is the most enjoyable and transforming aspect of Christianity: worship. There is no such thing as Christian principles or Christian values that exist apart from the worshipping community. For it is in worship, with all its artistry, that it becomes possible for us to live as Christians. When we extract principles and values from the tradition we end up with the opposite of grace, we end up with law and Paul tells us that it is the law that puts us to death.

We have already seen conscious departures from our inherited ethos. Large companies now recognise responsibility only to the shareholder and decry any responsibility to the common good. That is how they rationalize their extraordinary tax rorts that starves the very services that they rely on to do business.


The responsibility to the neighbour has become selective. Those arriving in desperation to our shores are not recognised as such. Equalitarianism does not stretch to the unborn. Consequently our communities suffer from estrangement and ennui. Justice supported by the community has been replaced by individual human rights.

While Christianity was vigorously against the worship of idols, in its absence we see new idols arising everywhere. We place our trust in science and technology to give us a better and longer life. We trust in the market to distribute the work of our hands. We trust in the freedom to choose. We trust in the new thing. But above all, we trust in our intellect to make us fully human.

There is coming a time, and it is now partially here, in which the new technologies will not thrill and will not improve our life. Who wants the intelligent home or the Google watch or even bigger television screens? It is heresy to say that technology has its limits although I do look forward to the driverless electric car.

It is heresy to say that medical technology has its limits because it has become perhaps the greatest idol of all. The greatest medical breakthroughs have already been made: clean water, sewerage systems and antibiotics. As more of us reach our 90's we understand that breaking through that barrier opens us up to social dystopia.

The market has been found wanting because of the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Our freedom seems empty because we have not been tutored to desire the good and the lasting. The new things, like the sexual revolution, may have seemed good at the time but it has loosened the bonds of marriage and confused our young.

Being smart is not good enough anymore. For being smart does not necessarily lead to a full, balanced and purposeful life. Something is missing.

What is missing is the foundation. Secular humanists can laud the principles borrowed from Christianity but they cannot ensure the freedom that is inherent in Christianity and they turn principles into law and political correctness that suffocates us.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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