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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Power of Secular Doubters

Written by: on January 24, 2018

My mother’s words still ring in my ears when describing the rowdy Spring breakers in my hometown of Palm Springs California, who were less than model citizens with their lawlessness and drunken street orgies: “They are very secular.” Even though the word lacked meaning to my young ears, I understood the inference from her derogatory tone. It was synonymous with evil, and the word has subconsciously held that kind of severity. After reading these past three books on secularism, I am understanding that some of the most secular individuals were also Christian revolutionists that provoked a transformative movement within Christianity. “…Luther inched his way toward a revolutionary theology of freedom. His theory that faith, and faith alone, opens the gates of divine mercy was that rare thing in history: an idea that creates an era.”[1]

Through this paradigm shift, the social scientist in me is categorizing people into groups. There are the hedonistic, agnostic individuals living their lives with no moral or ethical constraints, and there are the “secular purists”, influenced exclusively by societies standards, disinterested or dismissive of religion. Next, there is those who do not value organized religion but subscribe to spiritual concepts. In stark contrast, the highly religious, who have no tolerance and influence for the secular. Not to be left out, the religious and spiritual individuals who attempt to navigate secular society and their religious beliefs. Each group holds their own spectrum of extremes. But it is this final group that has captured my attention and enlightened me to revisit my former beliefs on secularism and the power of doubt. The brazen individuals history has often branded as heretics yet have shockingly become instrumental in forming fundamental doctrine and behavior standards in modern Christianity. “Luther is thus the prophet of conscience and the architect of an emerging era of “confessionalization,” in which orthodoxy becomes the measure of the Christian. He sets in motion a conflict between conscience and creed that will run, in various forms, into the late modern era.”[2]

Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

Everyone from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King who doubted the traditional Christianity of their day started a revolution that transformed our world and Christianity, intrigues me. When and why did their souls begin to doubt the “Christian truths” so rigidly enforced? How did they find the courage and confidence to combat any and all they knew to promote a new set of beliefs so utterly foreign to its’ day? Erdozain provides an answer: “When all has been said about “social imaginaries,” “buffered selves,” and “immanent frame[s],” the more prosaic truth may be that people are repelled by a religion that threatens to diminish them.”[3]  When we fear being extinguished by the very religion we subscribe to, it gives one the boldness and reckless abandonment to advocate for a different belief system, risking rejection, persecution, and even death to pursue a life-giving community.

How similar this sounds to the work of Jesus as he challenged the rigid religious system of his day. He broke many religious rules, while never breaking God’s laws as he challenged the views of the local religious leaders. Since he was fully God and fully man, when did he start to doubt the religious dogma and how did it grow to give him the strength to defy the powerful religious rule that reigned with such a terrifying fierceness? “The ‘religious roots’ that I consider fundamental to modern cultures of unbelief are twofold: the positive content of dissent, including conscience, Bible, and Christian ethics, and the negative stimulus of dogma, persecution, and theologically induced fear.”[4]  We know he experienced the “negative stimulus” of religion as he endured persecution, and advocated for and healed many operating in the throes of shame and fear.

History builds on the backs of one another, as the sacred and secular intermingle, yet surprisingly, a transformation is often ushered through the gates of religion. “Here was the seed of the Marxist concept of religion as ideology, emerging not as social science but as a theological critique of Feuerbach’s own, Lutheran tradition.”[5] Theologians influencing the societal leaders and belief systems is a dramatic reminder of how interdependent we are with one another. Separation of church and state operates more in theory than in reality, as people promote personal religious beliefs, and influence the societal context in which they reside. As humans, we are interconnected and our need for acceptance, love, and power can still be overridden when some of the sternest religious systems threaten our existence or our communities. This sets the stage for a “doubter” to be the hero who inspires transformation.

Erdozain respectfully reminds us of the unsung heroes and their emboldened and defiant actions that fostered healthy doubt in others subscribing to bigotry. “Religion is more than theology, and the past is more than a rolling sequence of controversy. The judgments of history would be sterner were it not for the quiet, invisible acts of those who elude its drama.”[6]  One such woman could have easily been one of the original members of DMin 7 women: “Katharina Schutz, wife of the German reformer Matthias Zell, who had a “kindly attitude towards radical spirits and a brusque contempt for male intolerance.”[7] She defied the arrogant, pious men (clearly she was not referencing Dmin7 men) who refused to conduct a funeral for two sisters labeled as heretics. Despite her age and illness, she was provoked by the indignation of the bigotry and insisted on being carried to the graveside to perform the service for the sisters. Truly, an inspirational woman to emulate, and heartily coincides with Wilfred Owen’s statement: “I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom.” [8]

God give us the wisdom to know what to doubt when to align with the spiritual, and how to advocate for a healthy merger of the secular and spiritual. Regardless of our diversity, may we remember we are all humans desiring to lovingly belong to one another and to a relational God.

 

[1] Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx Oxford University Press, 2015, 320-321, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 265-267, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., 224-226, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., 261-262, Kindle.

[5] Ibid., 233.

[6] Ibid., 264.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 263.

About the Author

mm

Jennifer Dean-Hill

8 responses to “The Power of Secular Doubters”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Jenn, what an interesting post! You bring a unique perspective to the discussion about doubt in general. The terms that Erdozain uses — the negative stimulus of dogma, persecution, and theologically induced fear—has been part of the power structure of “religion,” but as you point out not the relationship structure that Jesus exemplified. Thanks Jenn, for the excellent analysis.

  2. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    I, too, was fascinated by the heroic story of Katharina.

    And this:
    “As humans, we are interconnected and our need for acceptance, love, and power can still be overridden when some of the sternest religious systems threaten our existence or our communities. This sets the stage for a “doubter” to be the hero who inspires transformation.”
    Yes, indeed.

  3. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Yes Katherina would fit in nicely with us 7 women!!! What a heroic historical narrative about her impact. Yes doubt is apart of our faith walk. I affirm this with you “God give us the wisdom to know what to doubt when to align with the spiritual, and how to advocate for a healthy merger of the secular and spiritual.” !!!

  4. Mary says:

    Yes, the doubters do have power. I really liked your analysis of the various groups, Jen. And I also enter into the spirit of your prayer that we would have a healthy merger of secular and spiritual.
    I loved the way Dominic brought in so many women. Madame Jeanne Guyon (“inner light” “Quietism”) is one of my favorites. She was imprisoned for 8 or 9 years for praying in public, (1668 or thereabouts) something women were not supposed to do.
    That didn’t shut her up because she went on to publish a 20 volume commentary on the Bible! I’m not sure how much she spent her time on it in prison but it just goes to show if the Holy Spirit wants it, the institutional church can’t stop it. Let’s hear it for the dissenters!!

    • mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

      Go, go dissenters!! That’s us you know. 🙂
      Yes, Dominic shows value for the woman’s voice in his writing. I have appreciated this about him as my advisor too.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Jennifer

    Thanks for reminding us that Jesus challenged many of the religious rules, etc by his actions. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious yet powerful.

    “How similar this sounds to the work of Jesus as he challenged the rigid religious system of his day. He broke many religious rules, while never breaking God’s laws as he challenged the views of the local religious leaders.” This is what my dissertation is addressing, challenging the rigid religious system.
    Lord help!

    • mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

      Yes, Lynda, I thought of you as a powerful, educated dissenter who asserts herself wisely, as I’m quite familiar with your dissertation topic. 🙂 You are challenging the traditions of the church that would create more inclusion for the body, and in my opinion, a more healthy, vibrant body.

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I loved the story about Katharina as well, Jen! I kept reading that little section with a smile, thinking about how irritating she must have been to the gatekeepers of religiosity. It made me think of Hildegaard of Bingen who did things no woman should have been able to do, including act as counselor to a pope! The deep abiding faith of these women let them do amazing things.
    I had to laugh at the story about your conversation with your mother. I had a similar one with my mom when I told her that “secular” wasn’t a bad thing. I was basing that on the things that went on in my oh so pious Christian high school. Not secular, but definitely hedonistic!

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