Mary Poplin poses a challenging question for our public discourse. Is reality secular? That seems to be the prevailing assumption that governs public discourse in politics and public policy, public media, much of the world of business and the world of higher education. It is often argued that secularism provides the only neutral ground where a pluralistic world can meet. Poplin would argue that this is not the case. Secularism is not neutral but rather a worldview that is arguing that its “take” on reality is true.
Poplin should know. She chronicles her own journey through materialistic naturalism, secular humanism and pantheism before her spiritual search led her back to a vibrant Christian faith. She writes as one who is persuaded that these other accounts of reality are inadequate and that, while others have valid insights, only Christianity provides a comprehensive view of reality that is intellectually, existentially, and spiritually true and satisfying. She outlines her purpose for this book as follows:
My position from study, observation and life experience is that the Judeo-Christian worldview encourages more freedom, supports more diversity, and is safer and healthier than secular or other religious worldviews. Indeed I will propose that the Judeo-Christian worldview includes all the true and productive principles found in the other worldviews, fills the gaps between them and offers much more. I believe it can be demonstrated that it is a more accurate description of reality (p.42).
The major part of this book then is a survey of four worldviews that she believes offer contesting views of reality: materialistic naturalism, secular humanism, pantheism, and Judeo-Christianity (really Christianity). Given her basic position, it follows that her assessments of the three rivals to Christianity are critical: Regarding naturalistic materialism, she criticizes its reductionism, its scientism, its lack of inherent purpose, its exclusion of miracle and its ungrounded ethic. Secular humanism is critiqued for its exaltation of human reason, its radical freedom, and its view that somehow morality can arise out of human dialogue with neither divine commands nor a sense of sin. Pantheism is problematic for its inadequate response to suffering, its denial of good and evil, and the pantheon of gods and spirits to which one opens oneself with potentially deleterious effects.
By contrast, she argues for the embrace of Christianity as providing a wider rationality that opens up our minds to reality, a Triune Creator God who offers a narrative of the world that all peoples can embrance, a redeemer Christ who addresses the deepest needs of the human condition. She argues that all aspects of reality from the physical world, to human culture, to the arts are signposts of this greater reality.
What is surprising in all this is that Mary Poplin is an accomplished academic who neither nuances her argument nor hides it behind academic jargon. She makes no attempt at “neutrality”, believing this impossible, and speaks with candor about her own life before Christianity and bluntness in her assessment of its inadequacies. As a result, some may be put off by her honesty. But this is someone who believes both thoughtfully and passionately in truth and the law of non-contradiction. There are only two possibilities for her: only one, or none, of these mutually contradictory worldviews can be true. Life, purpose, human flourishing and eternity hang in the balance. If that is indeed the case, then nuance and ambiguity are out of place, and her candor warranted. I think her assumption is that the genuine truth-seeker, no matter where they are beginning from, will welcome that candor.