The development of Western societies from religious through secular to post-secular societies is often presented as a process of secularization that is in conflict with the interests and objectives of the Christian faith. But this is a mistake. Just as God must not be confused with religion, so Christian faith must not be confused with the religious institution and authority of Christian churches in society. It is true that secularization is a process of transformation and social differentiation, which lessens society’s dependence on organized religion and establishes more or less autonomous sub-systems of society independent from the authority of the Christian churches. But this by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Rightly understood, the developments toward secular and post-secular society are due not only to the enlightenment criticism of religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They are also due to the internal criticism of the renewed understanding of Christian faith in the sixteenth century . . .

In the Protestant understanding of Christian faith, there is no theologically relevant distinction between sacred and profane, religious and non-religious, holy and secular, and clergy and laity. Rather, everything in the world is to be judged in the light of the decisive difference between God and world, creator and creation, the one who is and everything else that might not have been. No area of life and thought is intrinsically more “sacred” or “religious” than any other. In each of them, humans can live in appropriate or inappropriate ways with respect to the creative presence of God’s love, and how they live decides on the theological character of this area of their life.

This is not only true of the ordinary life of individual Christians but also of their common life in churches and denominations. In a theological sense, their structure and organization are “worldly matters.” Christians are free to organize them in ways that are best suited for the propagation of the gospel in the cultural matrix of the time. They are not free not to organize their common life as members of the body of Christ, but they are free to do it according to their own lights and on their own responsibility without being bound by a divinely instituted ecclesial pattern of bishops, clergy, and laity.

Thus, in a fundamental and revolutionary sense, Christian faith is a faith that sets humans free to use all their capacities to mold and change human life in the world in accordance with the gospel message of the saving and perfecting presence of God’s creative love. Christians are free to live a free life in responsibility to God and to their fellow creatures—not only their fellow Christians but all human beings who have become God’s freely chosen neighbors. Understood in this sense, Christian faith sets humans free to live on their own responsibility in a secular world, which they know to be God’s good creation, even though it has been distorted by the way humans live in it. They live as Christians in a secular world, but they do so not by denying or ignoring God (secularism) but rather by living an autonomous and self-determining human life in responsibility to God and their fellow-creatures (Christian secularity). They know that to be created is to be made to make oneself, but they also know that this freedom to be free becomes distorted, ruinous, and inhuman when it is not practiced as a created freedom, i.e., a freedom that is grounded in a prior passivity that is not of its own making [italics added].

The ongoing shift from secular to post-secular society is the cultural matrix in which Western Christianity lives today and in which Christian theology is to be practiced in the foreseeable future. Its major challenges today are not the criticisms of a fanatic scientism and a belated atheism that still fights the bygone battles of yesteryear (cf. Schröder 2008) but rather the widespread apatheism and indifference toward faith and God that characterizes many strands of contemporary society. To counter this, Christians must find ways to show and communicate to their contemporaries that faith, hope, and love in God are inexhaustible gifts that enrich, orient, and humanize human life rather than misconceived reactions to human dependency, misery, lack, and deficiency, and that these gifts do not add a religious dimension to human life that one may or may not practice but rather transform all areas of human life by changing the mode in which humans live their lives. Christian faith does not add a dispensable religious dimension to human life but rather transforms its existential mode from a self-centered to a God-open life that puts its ultimate trust not in any human institution, whether religious or non-religious, but in the creative presence of God’s love.

Seen from this perspective, Christian theology has no interest in defending or returning to a pre-modern society that is dependent on religion and religious institutions. On the contrary, it is interested in an autonomous secular life lived responsibly in the presence of God rather than ignorant or forgetful about God (cf. Thiemann 1996; Eberle 2002). It opposes all forms of religiously dominated society that confuse the liberating dependency on God with the heteronomy of being subject to the norms and rules of particular religious traditions. It also opposes all forms of secularist societies that contest or ignore the prior actuality of God. Instead it argues for a secularity that is mindful of the empowering and liberating dependency of human autonomy on the creative presence of God and hence does not ignore the prior passivity in which all human activities are grounded. If theology’s agenda today is understood in this way, it will no longer disorient Christian life in a radical orthodox way by looking back to times long since past, but creatively help to re-orient it in a liberating Christian way toward the future.

Ingolf U. Dalferth, Claremont Graduate University, School of Religion
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2010, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 317–345