Guest: Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. McLaughlin about her book, The Secular Creed.
Topics of conversation include:
- The meaning of the word “secular”
- The use of creeds to articulate a set of core beliefs
- Ways in which the church has used Scripture wrongly
- The current issue of transgenderism
- The importance of fighting for the culture with Christian love
Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University, as well as a degree in Theology and Pastoral Studies from Oak Hill College in London. She is the author of several books, including Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019), 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity (Crossway, 2021), and The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims (The Gospel Coalition, 2021).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:18):
Culture is shifting beneath our feet with surprising speed, and many Christians are feeling the earthquake. Perhaps what’s most unsettling is not the change, it is the attitude of the world that we must accept and celebrate the cultural and moral revolution. You might recognize some of these changes from the slogans that are used—”Black Lives Matter,” “love is love,” “gay rights are civil rights,” “women’s rights are human rights,” and “transgender women are women.” These have become a sort of creed for the burgeoning secular world. But how should Christians understand and respond to these claims, wanting simultaneously to reject the bad, but embrace the good? Today, to help us answer this question, we have with us Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin. Dr. McLaughlin holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University, and a degree in Theological and Pastoral Studies from Oak Hill Theological College in London. She’s the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, which was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2020, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity, and most relevant for today’s conversation, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims. Dr. McLaughlin, welcome to the podcast.
Rebecca McLaughlin (01:28):
Thanks for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:29):
So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is—what is the secular creed? And I wonder if you can just begin by defining some of these words. What does secular mean?
Rebecca McLaughlin (01:41):
Gosh, there are so many ways to answer that question, actually. I think today, secular means non-religious. But actually the concept of secular and that word originates from a Christian view, actually, where folks were trying to separate out the spheres of life that were sort of directly overseen by the church, from the spheres of life that weren’t directly overseen by the church, but no less part of God’s plan. I mean, I think most relevantly for today, secular is, as I say, something that’s non-religious. And I think many of my friends—I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts—many of my friends and folks that I might meet through my kids’ schools would identify as secular.
Brian Arnold (02:22):
That’s right. And I know Charles Taylor has done great work for us in defining some of these ideas in his work A Secular Age. Which has…it always takes a really great philosopher to kind of define the age for us. And he gives those, I think, three different definitions of secular. And those are several of them, of—it used to be kind of the clergy/laity, you know, government of the world versus the church kind of divide. But it really is becoming this idea of non-religious in many ways, which is what we’re seeing happen across Europe, and it’s kind of spreading towards North America as well. Do you see, though, that the impulse of secularism today as its own kind of religious belief or system of faith?
Rebecca McLaughlin (03:05):
Yeah, ironically, I think one of the core beliefs of secular faith today is that secularism is the way of the future. You know, religious belief is naturally declining, that as people become more educated, more modern, more scientific, that they’re going to less and less be compelled by any kind of, you know, idea of God. And that’s actually something which has been, you know, pretty much discredited in the last couple of decades. And as sociologists look ahead…when you mentioned the fact that in Western Europe, where I’m from, and now in America, where I now live, there is this sense of a kind of increasing secularization—fewer and fewer people identifying as religious, fewer people attending church or other religious services. But it turns out that this is a very Western-centric view.
Rebecca McLaughlin (03:56):
If we take a global perspective, we find that the world is actually becoming increasingly religious, that Christianity continues to be the largest—and by far the most diverse—belief system in the world. About 31% of the world right now identify as Christian. Sociologists think that’ll grow to about 32% by 2060, as far out as their projections are going. Islam, being the sort of major competitor to Christianity in the world, expected to grow from about 25% to about 31% by 2060. Buddhism and Hinduism, the other two kind of largest religions in terms of the global numbers, decreasing slightly in that time period. And the big shock being actually the portion of people around the world to identify as non-religious, whether they would say they were atheist, agnostic, or just kind of not identified with any particular religion—that proportion is set to decrease from 16% to 13% by 2060.
Brian Arnold (04:53):
It really is a parochial view, to think our own unique circumstance here—like let’s say North America, with the rise of the nones—that that somehow is indicative of what’s happening. But I always remind them of Philip Jenkins’ work, where he talked, I think by 2050, the majority of Christians will be living in the Southern and Eastern hemispheres for the first time in the history of Christianity. And I just want to tell people—that’s exciting. Like, let’s get on board with what God is doing throughout the world. Yes, we pray for revival here, and we want to see God work again in our churches, and we want to see our country in the Western world reignited with the faith—that’s a good thing. But it’s not that God is not working right now. There’s a lot of exciting things happening globally. You mentioned, obviously, inside of the book even, that it’s a secular creed. So why use the word creed for secularism, which kind of almost seems ill-defined?
Rebecca McLaughlin (05:47):
Yeah. I mean, I grew up in Anglican churches where we would say the creed every week, you know—we believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, et cetera, et cetera. That we make this statement of belief on a regular basis. And in the last several years, where I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from what I understand talking with other folks, this is true, you know, across America. People have been putting up yard signs, where they say something like this—in this house we believe that…and then typically, it’s your—Black Lives Matter, Love is love, women’s rights are human rights, and then a kind of collection of other statements, which seems to depend on which sign. You know, the one I’ve got in my hands right now says—no human is illegal, science is real, and kindness is everything.
Rebecca McLaughlin (06:31):
So there’s an extent to which those around us are seeking to articulate a set of core beliefs, to sort of lay their claim to. This is what we in our house believe, just as, as a Christian, I would want to say, you know—this is what I believe. So I think there is a sense in which this is credal. What fascinates me about these signs is that they actually blend together some things that we as Christians should absolutely affirm. In fact, many things that have sprung out of Christianity historically, and have been been grounded on Christianity, those form the soil, as it were, in which these signs have kind of been planted. You know, all these assumptions, or these statements, in the secular creed are assuming things like human beings were fundamentally created equal, therefore, you know, women’s rights are human rights.
Rebecca McLaughlin (07:26):
Therefore, people of different racial backgrounds should be seen as equal. They assume that the strong and the rich and the powerful shouldn’t kind of trample on the weak and the marginalized, and that minorities should be protected, for instance. These are actually profoundly Christian beliefs. And what’s happened in recent years is that a grouping of ideas sort of coalesced, which is to say, combines things that Christians absolutely should believe with things that Christians can’t affirm. And in particular, if we look at those first two claims on the yard sign, I’ve got it in my hands now, you know, the first claim is that black lives matter, and the second claim is that love is love. So from a Christian perspective, it is absolutely straight out of the Scriptures that the lives of our black brothers and sisters matter. And it’s actually, you know, profoundly sinful, the ways in which too many of our white Christian forebearers have acted like the lives of our black brothers and sisters don’t matter.
Rebecca McLaughlin (08:24):
So to my mind, regardless of the fact that, you know, a particular organization has claimed those particular three words, Black Lives Matter, as a slogan, that claim is actually a profoundly Christian claim. And the second claim, that love is love, which, you know, is code for the claim that same-sex marriage is just as valid as heterosexual marriage—that’s something which, as a Christian—and even as a Christian who has always experienced same-sex attraction—actually can’t affirm. If you look at the Scriptures, just as firmly and clearly as they point us towards equality between people with different racial backgrounds and love across racial difference, so they actually equally clearly point us away from same-sex sexuality and having gay relationships. So we kind of have to ask ourselves, like—how have these two ideas gotten tangled up in people’s minds?
Rebecca McLaughlin (09:17):
And I think it’s easy for us to point to the ways in which sin in the world out there has tangled these two ideas up. I think it’s much harder for us to recognize the ways in which our own history of sin has led to this bungling together. Because, you know, many folks today would say—just like you white Christians, you know, maybe somebody who looks like me—just like you, white Christians used your Bibles back in the sixties to oppose desegregation of schools, and to continue your opposition to mixed race marriages, so now you’re using your Bibles to oppose same sex marriage, or even transgender identities. I mean, the tragic reality is, actually, the first part of that is true. Like, far too many of our Christian forebearers in white church were using their Bibles to try to fight against racial justice and integration in our history.
Rebecca McLaughlin (10:15):
The reason we know that is actually not primarily <inaudible>…it’s actually primarily the Scriptures that call out that sin. So I think…I guess what I’d want to say, you know, to brothers and sisters today who are feeling like the ground is shaking under their feet, you know, you used a metaphor along those lines earlier in this conversation. I guess I want to say, like, we don’t need to romanticize the past. We don’t need to pretend that there was once upon a time when, you know, the United States was living according to Christian ethics across the board, and that’s just, you know, all gone horribly wrong. And now we want to kind of get back to once upon a time. I actually think we need to instead build toward a more hopeful future, where we as Christians could be upholding Christian ethics across the board—when it comes to race, when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to men and women, all of the above.
Brian Arnold (11:03):
And I think that’s helpful how you have framed it in your book, because you kind of are offering this third way. And what I see, and what I think a lot of people are feeling, is the radical polarization of people into various camps on the far sides. And those kind of who are wanting to say there’s some really valid points being made, and yet we can’t fully embrace and celebrate and support some of these ideas, either—find themselves homeless right now. And really seeing what’s happened in the past couple centuries of when Scripture is a dominant theme in society, but it’s used wrongly. Definitely in the case of something like slavery, or just unhelpfully in other issues in the last century, right? It is now seen as the enemy. Like, so we tried Scripture, we tried, you know, that was Christianity. When we would say, well, that wasn’t. Right? Like, that is not a very accurate portrayal of Christ’s love for the nations, of the fact that the cross is purchasing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Brian Arnold (12:10):
That it breaks down boundaries between people, as all of us have access by Christ to God, and forgiveness of sins, and heaven. And it’s the gospel, right? And so we would say, no, that wasn’t an accurate picture of Christianity. But when you say that today, a lot of people would say, well, then, show us your Christian-like love by supporting and adopting, let’s say—transgenderism. And I find Christians kind of on two poles of this. Of, you know, kind of a liberal Christianity emerging again, or, you know, progressives kind of moving that direction of accommodation, and saying, absolutely, and we want to be supportive there. And others who are so hostile against people that it’s not giving a great face of Christianity. So how have you navigated that through this book? What has been some of the response you’ve gotten from this book, as you’ve sought to carve out that middle way?
Rebecca McLaughlin (13:07):
Yeah. In some ways I’m not even sure that it’s a middle way. I think it’s a—
Brian Arnold (13:13):
Or third way, sorry. Can I say it like that?
Rebecca McLaughlin (13:16):
Yeah. Or just, I mean, just a Scriptural way. You know, the problem with the sixties’ segregationists was not that they were too Christian. It was that they were not half Christian enough. Like it wasn’t they were reading their Bibles too carefully. They were utterly failing to read their Bibles. And the irony is—you have to do the same amount of kind of exegetical gymnastics, or like, you know, very, like creative, shall we say, interpretation of the text to affirm like racial segregation, as you do to affirm same-sex marriages. Like, you know, actually the Bible’s been pretty clear. Whereas the ways in which authentic, biblical Christianity is out of kilter with society today is different from the ways in which it was out of kilter back in the sixties, for instance.
Brian Arnold (14:09):
All right, flesh that out a little bit. So how do you see…so every generation is going to struggle with its own sins, and in ways that in 20 to 30 years, people look back and say, I can’t believe they missed this. Right? So if you could put on some prophetic goggles or something right now, and just say—where do you see, especially the church in the West, let’s say, missing it?
Rebecca McLaughlin (14:31):
Gosh, there are so many ways, aren’t there? I mean, I think of, sort of retrospectively, I think of my kids today going into Cambridge public schools as they do. And the fire is fiercest, like the opposition is hardest, when it comes to sexuality and gender. You know, my 12-year-old has had really hard situations with friends—like close friends—ditching her, because they find her Christian beliefs profoundly offensive. Even though my daughter holds them with like deep kindness and love. But if, you know, if we went back to the sixties, I’d be having to say to my kids—hey, to stand as a Christian today at school, you need to walk across segregation lines. You know? Like, we’d be having a different kind of conversation. Now if I look forward 20 or 30 years, what exactly will those boundaries be?
Rebecca McLaughlin (15:20):
It’s really hard to say. I do think that, you know, the transgender movement is clearly sort of front foot right now of how culture is moving. But…and I think this is especially true in the UK, and I think it’s becoming true in the US as well—an increasing number of secular voices, and especially secular feminist voices, who are are saying quite strongly to ways in which transgender thinking is going, and the kind of ways in which it’s basically making the word “woman” ultimately meaningless. So I don’t know. Even in…honestly, even in the next two to five years, I don’t know how these goal posts are going to shift. I don’t think it’s going to be the same, actually, as the movement <inaudible> culturally. I would believe that’s actually a much easier transition, in cultural terms, than the movement of saying—actually, regardless of whether your body is male or female, you can identify as a man or a woman.
Brian Arnold (16:21):
It does seem to be…yeah. The transgenderism is going to be what breaks a lot of the ideology. Right? We’re seeing that in the irony even of a century ago, dealing with women’s suffrage. And a lot of ground that was made in the 20th century almost erased immediately, if a man can identify as a woman. And it does seem like you have a lot of voices, even from folks outside the Christian camp, like a J.K. Rowling, who are pointing out some of these obvious challenges. And so I do wonder, does that have any rebound effect, if we can just say, on the LGBTQ, the other letters in there? I’m not sure that it will, but it does seem like transgenderism is a bridge too far for many people.
Rebecca McLaughlin (17:07):
Yeah, I think because it so profoundly disrupts some of the things that we take to be normative and basic kind of realities of life. And oddly, I mean, one of the things that fascinates me is that for transgender thinking to work—and I want to be careful here, because you know that it is absolutely true and real. There are people who experience profound gender dysphoria, you know, a profound sense that they…that their biological sex doesn’t fit with how they feel about who they are in a relation to other people. So I never want to speak in ways that kind of deny or diminish that, and the real pain and suffering with that experience. It’s not an experience I have had, so, you know, I want to be especially tender around that. At the same time, the transgender sort of ideology which says—your and my inner sense of our gender is actually more true, more real, more substantial, than our bodily reality.
Rebecca McLaughlin (18:08):
That’s almost oddly spiritual <laugh>. Like, it’s sort of like a secular version of the soul, a male and female soul that might be mismatched with a male or female body. And it sits very strangely with a generation of people who would likely say they didn’t believe in soul. You know, they’re not religious. They’re not one to say that there is this kind of spiritual reality beyond our physicality. But there’s a sort of separating out of the physical from the spiritual, which sometimes even as Christians, we actually, we fall into this trap. You know, we talk about “one day our souls will go to heaven.” And actually, the Bible teaches one day we will be…our bodies will be resurrected. We’ll be whole people again. We’re not sort of really ultimately separable between our bodies and our souls in any kind of long-term way.
Rebecca McLaughlin (18:57):
But it’s sort of fascinating how people are having this sense of—I have an identity that is non-physical, but that is more true and real than my physical body. And I think one of the ways in which we as Christians can kind of speak into this, is actually by the very tangible love that we extend to each other, and to those outside the church. Because, you know, you and I need to be loved. Not only sort of incorporeally, like aside from our body, we actually need to be loved sort of physically as well. We need to be hugged, we need to be fed, we need to be engaged with in these very kind of visceral, physical ways. And I think we can, as believers in Jesus, extend sort of tangible, physical welcome to those outside the church, that they might really struggle to find in other sort of communities. In fact, they might really struggle to find community. There’s an epidemic of loneliness.
Brian Arnold (20:02):
There is. The isolationism—not even just COVID, just in this modern world—there is…I live in Phoenix, and everybody has a block wall in their backyard. So you pull into your garage, you shut the garage door, and any life that’s lived is outside in your blocked-in backyard. Yeah. It’s a very isolationist kind of culture.
Rebecca McLaughlin (20:22):
Yeah. And if we say to our kids—your job is to find your deepest personal identity all by yourself, in the inner resources of your heart, and that’s kind of who…like, that’s who you are. We’re actually kind of pushing them towards aloneness. Whereas, if we say to our children—in Christ, you are actually part of a family, part of a community, you’re part of a body that’s way beyond, you know, you individually. But you’re a vital part of that, but you’re sort of necessarily corporate—we’re actually calling people towards something that’s not isolated, that’s by nature done in community. And I think that’s where, you know, the local church is so profoundly important for all of us, but especially for our younger people.
Brian Arnold (21:08):
And I really do appreciate…I’m thankful you took the conversation here. That you didn’t just leave the book without the last part. You have a calling to loving arms as kind of like the last chapter. Because it’s one thing to kind of diagnose these things and say—yeah, this is what’s happening. This is why people are saying this. But it’s another to say—okay, what can we do about it? I get that question all the time from my position, from donors, or people in churches, or students, perspective students, who say—okay, how do we actually engage then? Because it does feel like we’re in a different moment right now. And to say, I mean, it’s the love of Christ. I mean, it doesn’t graduate beyond that, right? It is really engaging the people around us. I love how you even said, in the life in the body of the local church—that is kind of a microcosm of hopefully the way the world should be.
Brian Arnold (21:56):
And I think as people experience more loneliness and isolation, and they look to the church and they say—why do things look different there? Hopefully we’re seeing—and I pray this, I’m expectant that the Lord will continue to do this—better racial relations in the church than what’s happening outside in the world. And a place where men and women are serving in the local congregations, and giftings are used, and, you know, we can really see a view of heaven through the life of the local church and through the love that goes from that place out. It’s how the early church began to grow, right? Is something looked so different about that community than the secular, if we can use it that way, as in non-Christian world of the early church, and they saw a difference and impacted the world.
Rebecca McLaughlin (22:49):
Yeah. I think a lot of Christians today think that we need to fight against the culture. I think actually we need to fight for the culture. And I think we might need to fight for the culture with the weapons that Jesus has given us, which are the weapons of love. Then it’s not actually our job to shatter opposition down or to, you know, use the same dirty tactics against our enemies as they might use against us. But I mean, Jesus specifically, in word and deed, forbade us to do that. And our sense that—gosh, things are really hard right now, and we need to fight. I think that’s true. We need to be absolutely sure that the Bible is dictating how we fight and what we fight for. And we’re not fighting for our own self-righteousness, or for our own, you know, sense of pride, or even for our own kind of national identity—that those are not things for us to fight for.
Brian Arnold (23:42):
Rebecca McLaughlin (23:42):
We’re to fight, with love, for those around us. We are to love our enemies and to seek their good in the most profound sense, which means showing kind of practical love toward them, and sharing the message of Jesus with them.
Brian Arnold (24:00):
So the answer is not—your neighbor has a sign with the secular creed, and you have your own sign that you nail into the yard that has your creed on it. It is—love your neighbor with Christ-like love. And by doing that, will impact the world.
Rebecca McLaughlin (24:16):
Yeah. Ask your neighbor around for dinner. Ask them about what they believe. Offer to take care of their kids, and get them groceries when they’re sick. All these things. Invite them to church, introduce them to your Christian friends who they might have something in common with. Yeah. And be willing to be willing to listen, as well as to speak.
Brian Arnold (24:36):
Well, Rebecca, I’m grateful for this book. It’s hard to take something that’s so relevant to what’s happening right now, and take a step out of it, see it, diagnose it, and speak into it. So thank you for the work you’ve done on that. And thank you for joining me today on the podcast.
Rebecca McLaughlin (24:51):
Thanks, brother. Take care.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about an exciting event we’re hosting on the campus of Phoenix Seminary this spring, our first annual Sacred Truths Conference on February 24th and 25th. Our featured speakers will be Fred Sanders, Steve Duby, Bobby Jamieson, and myself. Our theme will focus on the core of Christianity—who is Christ, as one person with two natures, both human and divine. So I hope you’ll join us, and invite anyone you know who’s interested in learning more about Christian doctrine. Click the link in the show notes, or learn more and register at sacredtruths.events.