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How to Thrive in a Polytheistic American Culture, Part 3

culture public theology May 03, 2023

How are we as Christians supposed to respond when the government refuses to acknowledge our faith? How do we fight back when we are ridiculed, marginalized, and largely excluded from the national conversation? What is an effective Christian response to the secularization of America?


American Polytheism

To answer those questions, I need to spend some time addressing why I call the American culture "polytheistic with an aggressive agenda." And why the ancient Babylonian culture in general and the Hebrew exile's experience in that culture, in particular, are a great study for where we, who are practicing Christians, find ourselves in our 21st-century American culture.

To start, I want to take a deeper dive into the idea of America as a polytheistic culture and try to identify the crux of the Christian struggle with that. What is really happening?

It may not be what you think it is.

What do I mean by polytheistic? To put it simply: Americans are worshippers of many gods.

I don’t mean primarily that there are a lot of different religions moving in — like Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. That is certainly happening, but that’s not our biggest problem nor is it the biggest source of polytheism.

If it were just a matter of a leveling of the playing field with other religions claiming that their god is the true god, it would be a rather simple matter. That’s not our biggest problem. Other religions are not the driving force behind the polytheistic nature of America. Not even close.

Daniel understood this in the Babylonian culture. Daniel knew exactly what his biggest problem was, and it wasn’t the gods of Babylon. He didn’t see himself in a fight against Marduk or Ishtar - the two primary gods of Babylon.

So what is it then?


The Secular Age

It is actually what many call the “secularization of America” that is our biggest challenge as Christians. Let me try to explain what I mean by that, why it’s our biggest problem, and how it is driving polytheism.

The latest Pew Research shows that within the next decade, the number of those who self-identify as Christian will dip below 50% of the population. At that point, there will no longer be a majority religion in America.

In addition, by the year 2070, the self-identified "nones" (those who claim no religious affiliation) will have reached the majority. This will mark the secularization of America. However, it is already happening. 

Christian philosopher, Charles Taylor, in his important work, A Secular Age, identifies three ways in which we view the secularization of America. I want to use his framework for our understanding of both Babylon and modern-day America. 


The Secularization of Public Spaces

The first way in which we view the secularization of America is in terms of public spaces.

Secularization is defined in terms of public spaces being emptied of God or any reference to the transcendent or to the idea of ultimate reality. We just don’t talk about those things in most public spaces.

In other words, some would argue, we are secular because we have emptied all of our public spaces of any god-talk.

Taylor does describe this phenomenon pretty accurately, so to quote him:

“As we function within various spheres of activity — economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational — the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the ‘rationality’ of each sphere — maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political area, and so on” (Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 2).

The point is that this is in striking contrast to an early age when the Christian faith had an authoritative voice in all these spaces, even if it was an informal voice. The professional clergy and others were allowed to speak authoritatively into these kinds of deliberations and the spiritual was acknowledged as an important and even vital consideration.

That’s no longer true. Wherever you find it — you have found a unicorn.

This is the area where most conservative Christians are choosing to confront and fight — perhaps because it’s the most obvious or the easiest to attack. So, we want to get God back into the public schools or back into the halls of government (as if God could really be banished from space by legislative measures.

This reaction actually diminishes faith in an all-powerful God — like God really needs me to get permission from the government for HIM to show up. Give me a break.

It is not at all surprising then that Christianity has actually proven to flourish when separated from the powers of the government. Poland, China, Russia, and other places have shown that Christianity is at its best when speaking prophetically to the power of the state from a position outside of the corridors of power. And it is actually corrupted and its true spiritual power is gutted when it is married to the power of the state.

Do you want to see a really ugly place to live? Marry the hierarchy of the Church with the power of the State — and you will see misery and suffering everywhere you look. The power of having entre privileges in these public spaces is actually been proven to weaken Christianity, not strengthen it.

It’s deceptive because it seems to strengthen Christianity when the Christian faith is given exclusive entrance to public spaces, but my contention (and I think the data proves it) is that what it strengthens is Cultural Christianity, which is a pale and puny and pathetic substitute for true Christianity.

Daniel and his friends showed no inclination to try and replace Marduk with Yahweh in the Babylonian public spaces. On the contrary — they studied the nature of the Babylonian gods and when they took the Babylonian LSAT they passed with flying colors — they came to know more about the Babylonian religious system than most Babylonians did!

Don’t get me wrong, the influence of Yahweh (through them) on the Babylonian culture was powerful and at times even evoked an acknowledgment from the powers that be — but it never replaced those powers.

Daniel did not try to use the power of the sword — the power of the Empire — to elevate Yahweh above all other gods and to force the Babylonians to worship Yahweh. Daniel had an internal assurance — a true faith — that Yahweh didn’t need his help in order to accomplish that.

Many Christians today don’t seem to have that much faith in God.


The Secularization of Private Faith

The second sense of secularization that Taylor identifies is:

“Secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 2).

So, this too is one that the Christian world in America seems to lament, and the data seems to confirm it. People are leaving the Church in droves, and even those who are staying are participating less and less frequently.

This does not signal a complete rejection of the spiritual or the transcendent — although there are some who are turning to atheism, the majority are not. People are simply seeking other ways to express their spirituality other than traditional religion or church.

As I will argue later — we are all worshippers of something.

This has little to do with what happens in public spaces (although some would make a good argument for drawing some connection — they are related to some degree). This one is more is actually more closely related to the third sense in which America is secularized in Taylor’s framework.


The Secularization of the "Conditions for Belief"

The third and most important sense in which America is in a “Secular Age” is in what Taylor calls “the conditions for belief.”

And what he means by that is a shift (that can actually be traced historically) from a society where belief in God was unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which belief in God is understood to be one option among many others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.

For Taylor, this is the most important aspect of the Secular Age and he devotes the bulk of his almost 900-page book to tracing this phenomenon.

To quote Taylor again:

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 3).

My Christian testimony confirms this. I was brought up in a cultural milieu that would have made it difficult for me not to have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.  That milieu is dissipating and is all but disappeared in the public square.

Many Christians want to go back in time. They want to recapture the past with the strategies that worked in a culture that embraced their particular brand of Christianity.

However, physics proves that the arrow of time points only in one direction - To the future 

Daniel would kneel on his mat three times a day and pray, facing Jerusalem. But he didn’t stay there. He didn’t live in the past. He didn’t live in Jerusalem and he knew that he would never again live in Jerusalem.

The arrow of time only pointed in one direction and Daniel knew it. So, he would rise from his prayers, turn away from Jerusalem, and face Babylon.

He never forgot Jerusalem, but he didn’t live there. He lived and worked and thrived in Babylon. And he did that in direct obedience to the Word of God.


The Great Paradox of the Secular Age

So, why then do I call our culture polytheistic a not secularized?

This is where what is happening in the culture crashes with the Eternal. This is the governing paradox of the age we live in.

The paradox is this — while the secularized age supremely prizes what can be rationalized or deduced, and is skeptical of anything beyond that — there is, at the same time — an eternal spark in the human soul.

There is a persistent and universal longing in human beings for the transcendent. It cannot be denied. It cannot be squelched, and it cannot be satisfied with anything that the "secularized age" has to offer.

We were built to worship. And when the creation sequesters itself from the creator — no matter how noble the cause — no matter how important the goal — when the created empties itself from the language of religion which is the language of transcendence — when the creature refuses to entertain the language of the eternal — then the creatures start to worship created things. They have no choice. They have to worship something.

Take God out of the equation and you start to worship the stuff of creation. And the stuff of creation is fleeting and finite and temporal and fixed to the material world. Therefore, it will never satisfy the hunger for transcendence. It has no way of knowing transcendence.

The Bible calls this idolatry — when the creatures attach their affection to the temporal - the material.

There is, however, a danger when I start talking about idolatry because it conjures up all kinds of false images.

First, it comes across as judgmental, but more importantly, it’s deceiving. We think of idolaters as those who practice some other type of faith or those who deny God, or those who show no evidence of practicing faith in God. 

That is not what idolatry looks like in the Secular Age. In the Secular Age idolatry is the air we breathe — it’s the water we swim in. We cannot get away from it. Idolatry - placing our ultimate affection on created things - is a constant, daily temptation. 

Daniel and his friends understood this.

In the next lesson, we will begin to unpack how they dealt with it.


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