The University Today: Secularization

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Statue of William Oxley Thompson, President of The Ohio State University 1899-1925, in front of Thompson Library. Photo (c)2015, Robert C. Trube.

That fount of all human knowledge, Wikipedia defines secularization as follows:

“Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, and religious organizations have little social power.”

Universities, which arose out of church cathedral schools in Europe, and in the U.S. as institutions to train ministers, and other professionals, for the service of God have become places where religion is confined to the personal and private and extra-curricular aspects of student and faculty life.

Yet the effort to create a “neutral” public square both denies that secularism itself is an ideology and fails to prevent the rise of other militant political and religious ideologies. The following material, Part Four of an address given first at the World Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in 2015 explores these ideas at more length and explores what hope there might be for collegiate ministries facing this apparently bleak secular landscape.

Secularization:

At Ohio State, we have a statue of William Oxley Thompson, the longest sitting president of Ohio State from 1899 to 1925. What few acknowledge is that Thompson was a Presbyterian minister who on one occasion during his tenure commented, “I am essentially and always a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Incidentally I am president of the university….”[1] Many of the institutions, even state institutions where we work, have Christian origins and influences, and yet the prevailing ideology is a secularist one that confines matters of faith to personal and private spheres of life. Often, our ministries are tolerated to the extent that they conform to this prevailing ideology.

Issues around human sexuality reflect the emphasis on personal expressiveness that arises from secularization. And here I must apologize for the cultural imperialism of significant portions of the Western church, which have moved from teaching a redeemed sexuality that has been the consensus of the church across cultures and through history, to affirm pretty much whatever our culture affirms. This has been done without consultation with the church in the Majority World. Those in the West have not considered the consequences of affirming what would be considered decadent by some of the enemies of Christianity.

At the same time, we have often said and done that which is hurtful to those Jesus might have considered as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A friend who is a university leader in my country and deeply committed Christians says, “These are young people, trying to figure out their lives.” We may remember our own awakening awareness of our sexuality and our struggles to live with this. Imagine that awakening with the awareness that one’s physical anatomy and mental perceptions of attraction or gender are in conflict with each other. I wonder  what might have happened in my own country if we had devoted ourselves to caring for those facing these struggles, loving them, and as God gave opportunities, helping them follow Christ rather than trying to win a “culture war.”

We also see the rise of militant, clashing narratives:  political, sexual, and religious. Secularism in part serves to mitigate the clash of narratives in our settings and sometimes affords the opportunity for those of different views to engage each other with civility. And yet both we and others realize this secularism is not a neutral meeting ground but an ideology in its own right. Secularism values certain narratives above others, such as vague gnostic spirituality or outright atheism, and certain value systems such as materialism.

The truth is that secularism lacks substance and the result is the assertion of vigorous competing ideologies from an evangelistic atheism to militant Islam. On U.S. campuses, this takes the form of competing demonstrations. In places like Garissa and northern Nigeria, it means the death of brothers and sisters. Might it be that our opportunity is to witness to a third way between the hollowness of secularism and the militancy of clashing ideologies, one that holds together and extends the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus to an alternately truthless and graceless world?

Questions:

  1. How are we equipping our students to understand and engage with courage and grace the reigning paradigm of secularism?
  2. How might we function as a “third way” people providing an alternative to pervasive and empty secularism and militant ideologies?

[1] James E. Pollard, William Oxley Thompson: Evangel of Education (Columbus: The Ohio State University, 1955), p. 226.

The previous three parts of this address may be accessed by following these links:

Internationalization

Technology

Economics

 

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