Is Reality Secular? Part 1

Is reality secular? Is adequate knowledge secular? And is that something that has been established as a fact by thorough and unbiased inquiry? Is this something that today’s secular universities thoroughly and freely discuss in a disciplined way? (11)

Mary Poplin wastes no time in establishing the centrality of Dallas Willard’s questions to Is Reality Secular? What is the nature of reality? (InterVarsity Press, 2014). Early in Chapter 1: Truth and Consequences, she relates the story of a seminar in which she asks, “Is reality secular? Is it true?”

Inspired by her first chapter: How would you respond as a student (or possibly as a peer when asked in another context)? Would you set “aside the idea of truth . . .”? Do you lean toward truth as “an idea rather than a description of reality”? Are these questions you feel comfortable raising with peers, as an instructor, in a presentation, among members of your community of faith? What do you consider the relationship of “seeking truth” and “the reason of the university”? (13 – 14)

With regard to secularism, do you agree with historian Charles Taylor “that secularism has been the hegemonic master narrative for the last several hundred years in the West”?[1] (14) How does David Bentley Hart’s articulation of “the original hope of our secular faith” serve as a lens of understanding the secular?

Part of the enthralling promise of an age of reason was, at least at first, the prospect of a genuinely rational ethics, not bound to the local or tribal customs of this people or that, not limited to the moral precepts of any particular creed, but available to all reasoning minds regardless of culture and — when recognized — immediately compelling to the rational will[2] (15)

What do you consider secularism/secular humanism’s[3] pluses and minuses as a worldview[4] in relationship to material naturalism[5], pantheism[6], and monotheism[7]?

As you’ll note from this and an earlier post, I’m finding Is Reality Secular? a lively resource bank for personal reflection and conversation. As time and resources permit, I encourage you to join me in reading the text over break and/or in early 2014.

Click here for Is Reality Secular? Part 2.


  1. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. ↩
  2. David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p.106. ↩
  3. Secular humanism is “liberalism, with regard in particular to the belief that religion should not be taught or practised within a publicly funded education system [or in any public domain].” Oxford Dictionaries, (270). ↩
  4. Worldviews are like operating systems on a computer except that they are in our minds, which are far more powerful and efficient than modern computers. Operating systems determine the particular functions on a computer that can be accomplished and the ones that cannot. Worldviews function in much the same way, determining the range of thoughts we will entertain. Computer operating systems are constantly being improved and their glitches fixed by downloading new updates. It is the same with worldviews; we are constantly acquiring new information and experiences that inform our beliefs and can cause us to adjust or change our worldviews (operating systems) altogether” . . . Jean Piaget described the realization of being in a state of disequilibrium prior to  new learning. Once in this state, we apply the cognitive tools of reflection, assimilation, accommodation and equilibration in order to construct new meanings (learn)” (26, 271). ↩
  5. “Material naturalism is a worldview that posits that everything that exists is ultimately reducible to its material form and processes that govern the material — such as atoms, electrons, biochemicals, and their natural processes such as electromagnetism. This includes consciousness, mind and religious beliefs, all of which are proposed simply to be the result of natural physical material. There can be no metaphysical explanations and no supernatural phenomena. This view is general called materialism in philosophy and naturalism in science” (269). ↩
  6. “Pantheists’ fundamental faith is that there is a spiritual reality that is one with observed natural and human reality. In pantheism, this immanent spirit is in all human and physical nature (pantheism), or we are one and the same with this eternal immanent spirit or force, making us also the expression of the divine itself (panentheism). This singular reality posits that there is only one substance — spirit — from which all else emerges and exists. The important point in defining the difference between these views and monotheism is that the divine spirit is not a personal but an impersonal animating force coexisting with all things whether it is one and the same with the universe or in but also outside the universe. Like all worldviews, these metaphysical presuppositions are also not subject to scientific verification; they constitute the faith of pantheism” (166). ↩
  7. Monotheism is “the doctrine or belief that there is only one God. Oxford Dictionaries, Mary Poplin’s focus is upon Judeo-Christianity.  ↩
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

More Posts - Website

One Comment

    Andy Walsh commented on January 1, 2014 Reply

    You ask:
    “With regard to secularism, do you agree with historian Charles Taylor ‘that secularism has been the hegemonic master narrative for the last several hundred years in the West’?”

    I would probably be inclined to say that it has been on that trajectory for the last several hundred years, rather than awarding it hegemony status for that entire period.

    For example, I would point to the decade between 1989 and 1999 as a milestone in the spread of secularism in the popular consciousness. As recently as 1989, Indiana Jones was an academic who acknowledged the existence of the supernatural, and indeed had experiences with the supernatural which required no further explanation. By 1999, the supernatural Force of the Star Wars universe needed to be explained scientifically in terms of midichlorians. And the next time we meet Indiana Jones, the religious artifact he seeks turns out to have an alien/scientific explanation. Somewhere in those 10 years, the supernatural was deemed irrelevant, either by George Lucas himself, or by his audience, or both.

    I cannot think of a fictional character since Indiana Jones who was either a scientist or an academic who was allowed to believe in the supernatural without qualification or comment. Most absurdly, the scientist characters of the Marvel Universe are all currently required to spout the dogma of material naturalism despite having personally visited Heaven and Hell; known peers who have died, been to the afterlife, and supernaturally resurrected; and known peers who invoke supernatural powers to practice magic. Their reality is clearly not secular, but because they are scientists they must adhere to secularism.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.