Three Sources Of The Secular Mind -- By: A. J. Conyers

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 41:2 (Jun 1998)
Article: Three Sources Of The Secular Mind
Author: A. J. Conyers


Three Sources Of The Secular Mind

A. J. Conyers*

* A. J. Conyers is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, P.O. Box 97126, Waco, TX 76798–7126.

Everything that lives
Lives not alone, nor for itself.

—William Blake

Allen Tate defined secularism as the state of a culture in which means have replaced ends.1 Such a definition is worth exploring, I think, at length. In every area of life, not least of all in academia, one hears the complaint that time is wasted in speculation and the theoretical contemplation of the world when, as Marx said, “the point is to change it.” Even in seminaries, where ministers are trained for the more or less specific purpose of helping people to think about life in view of the end—the purpose or goal of life—there is heard the cry that studies should become ever more “practical.” I even witnessed an impassioned plea from a trustee that ministers should take a course on reading a balance sheet.

That the practical task should not be abandoned or neglected is clear. What is less clear, however, is that our world—perhaps especially in North America—suffers from a loss of pragmatism and a surfeit of pastors trained in theology, lawyers trained in the philosophy of law, teachers well equipped to think of the ethics of their tasks, and church members whose minds soar in contemplation of the eternal mysteries of the God they profess to believe in. I am afraid that just the reverse is true. We have gradually lost the vocabulary and syntax necessary for speaking meaningfully, even to our own children, about nonmaterial values, nonpragmatic affections, and aims in life that exceed life itself. We speak instead of means, not ends. Why?

A brief review of three trends that have enjoyed a long pilgrimage in the west reveals a common core of sentiment, one that illuminates the habit that Tate refers to: the growing resistance to talk about ends and the replacement of that talk with discussion of means. The first trend is philosophical, the second is moral, and the third is theological. Laying these side by side, we find that it becomes a simple matter at the end to disclose what is the common core and the common motivation among them all.

I. Three Movements Against Transcendence

How should we speak of these trends, which in many ways will appear abstract and therefore irrelevant to the opinion makers of our day? One might begin with three well-known, and often commented upon, results of the trends. As they stand, they will sound familiar and even self-evident to almost everyone. But ...

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