Hope for the Secular West

26 April 2024

6.5 MINS

Even in the West, God is still at work.

Europe is still likely the most secular continent on earth – at least in terms of its Christian roots. Muslim immigration may have changed things a bit, but in terms of the Judeo-Christian worldview, it has been going down the tubes for quite some time now. And that has been true of so much of the West.

Sure, places like America still have lots of Christians, but one wonders why they seem to be making so little impact if there are so many of them. Some decades ago, the sociologist Peter Berger (1929-2017) said this about the religious scene there: “If India is the most religious nation on the planet, and Sweden the most secular, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.”

That still pretty much sums things up. It may seem like Christianity is nearly doomed in America and the West. It has had a very good run, but things seem to be heading south – literally. The global south is where we find the most church growth taking place: Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

So is there hope for the West? Well, as long as God is in the equation – and He always is – then there is still hope. It was Chesterton who once put it this way: “At least five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”

A few months ago, I wrote about the surprising decline of the new atheism. In it I mentioned several key volumes, including this one: The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God by Justin Brierley (Tyndale, 2023). See that piece here.

Here I want to look a bit further at this book, as well as a new article he has just written. With a number of public figures either becoming Christians recently or at least moving in that direction – Tom Holland, Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Naomi Wolf, to name a few – his ongoing work of engaging with others, including many non-believers, is a crucial ministry indeed.

Strengthened

In the Introduction to his book, the UK broadcaster said this:

As a Christian who believes in the supernatural claims of the Bible about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I find myself in the minority in the twenty-first-century Western world. Some believers have responded by circling the few remaining wagons and hoping things might change; others seem to have given up on church altogether.

However, in my personal and professional life, I have been keen to engage the secular culture around me rather than ignore or bemoan it. Hosting the long-standing radio discussion show and podcastUnbelievable?”, which has brought many Christians and non-Christians together for weekly dialogue, has allowed me to chair hundreds of debates between the most influential voices on both sides of the conversation on faith.

My ringside seat has had the unanticipated but welcome effect of fortifying rather than weakening my faith. I’ve come to see the intellectual strength of the Christian story as it has been tested by atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths who have appeared on the show (a journey you can read about in my first book, “Unbelievable?: Why, after Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian)“. My vantage point has also meant being able to follow how the most prominent questions and debates have evolved in the years I’ve been hosting these discussions.

Resurrection Hope

What he says in this important 250-page volume is nicely summarised in a brand-new piece he just penned for the UK Spectator titled, “A Christian revival is underway in Britain”. He looks at some of these figures in the UK who are having a change of heart and making an impact. While I might not call this a revival as such, it is indeed encouraging. He goes on to say this:

But Christianity is not just a useful lifeboat for stranded intellectuals. If it isn’t literally true, it isn’t valuable. Whether Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead matters. It mattered to St Paul. ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ And it should matter to us.

C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.’ The impact of Christianity on the West is intrinsically linked to the living faith of those who established its institutions and values. If people hadn’t actually believed in the Christian promise of redemption and if they hadn’t been able to hope in the face of death, they wouldn’t have had the courage to change the world in Jesus’s name.

If conservative-leaning intellectuals only ‘cosplay’ at Christianity (Tom Holland’s phrase) without really believing it, then this ‘New Theist’ movement will inevitably fade away. Co-opting Christianity in the cause of an anti-woke agenda or in order to fend off radical Islam turns it into a useful political tool, but drains it of any life-giving power. A Christian nationalism of the right will become as pallid and pointless as the Christianity of the progressive left that parrots the latest politically correct talking points.

However, they say God moves in mysterious ways. As a believing Christian, I see signs that He is moving in the minds and hearts of secular intellectuals. Many of them are recognising that secular humanism has failed and, against all their expectations, seem to be on the verge of embracing faith instead.

Some have actually become Christians. The author and poet Paul Kingsnorth surprised his readership when he announced his conversion in 2021. Russell Brand is now calling himself a Christian and says he plans to get baptised. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she has embraced Christianity after realising she was ‘spiritually bankrupt’. The tech pioneer Jordan Hall recently went public about his conversion to Christianity. Significantly, both Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jordan Hall have mentioned the influence of Tom Holland’s thesis that Christianity is the foundation on which the ethics of the West sits.

Then there’s Holland himself…

The truth is, many of these sorts of folks I have been adding to my daily prayer list. It could be Elon Musk or Peterson or Ali, but they certainly do need our regular prayer cover. Whether this IS the beginning of a turnaround in the UK and other parts of the West remains to be seen.

Revival

Of interest, just as I was writing this, a great friend and prayer warrior from Canberra called me and spoke of similar things: that God is not yet finished with Australia and the West. I do not take calls out of the blue like this lightly. I believe my friend is really on to something here. And we must pray to that end.

As Brierley says in concluding his article:

Where this movement is headed remains to be seen. The statistics show an overall picture of continued decline of religiosity. Churchgoing in some denominations has been in free fall for decades. Yet one recent piece of research has given me pause for thought.

In Finland, church attendance among 18- to 29-year-old men more than doubled between 2011 and 2019. The same uptick applies to their prayer habits and belief in God. The stats might just be a weird anomaly (this hasn’t been recorded in other Nordic countries), or it may be a canary in the coal mine.

As a Christian, I believe things that are dead can come back to life. That’s the point of the story, after all. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.’

It is easy to get discouraged here in the West. Too often it seems like the West is committing moral and spiritual suicide. And in many ways, it is. The question is, is God able to turn things around? I believe that He most certainly is able.

God is sovereign and He is quite capable of bringing revival to the West. But as is so often the case, He does choose to work through His people as well. The very familiar words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 do come to mind here:

“If My people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

In the previous piece I wrote on Brierley, I quoted the closing paragraphs from his book. They are good enough to do the same here:

Christianity has been remarkably successful until now. It flourished in the East and then swept the Western world. It has dominated art, literature, and culture and left majestic cathedrals in its wake. The revivals of Luther, Wesley, and Whitefield transformed Europe and America before Christianity swept into Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the rest of the world.

From a secular perspective, it’s possible to compare these high watermarks of the past with the current picture in the West and assume that Christianity, if not quite dead, is well on its way to being another relic of history. What the critics often fail to realize is that the crest of each new wave of Christianity had a trough that preceded it. History moves in cycles. Tides go out and come back in. I believe we are simply living at low tide in the Western world. Rebirth has happened before, and it can happen again.

Two thousand years ago, a wandering rabbi stood on a beach and called a bunch of fishermen to put down their nets, follow him, and fish for people instead. Together they changed the world. Like them, I believe we are standing on the shores of human history, waiting for a tide that is about to rush back in. Perhaps now is the time to answer his call again.

___

Republished with thanks to CultureWatch. Image courtesy of Tara Winstead.

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3 Comments

  1. Pauline Tondl 26 April 2024 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Delightfully encouraging and very realistic, thank you Bill.
    Our God created all things by His Word, He sustains His creation by His Word, He redeems and transforms sinners by the acceptance and application of His Word, He will judge all people by His Word, and He will ultimately have the final Word.
    Since His Word is living and eternal, we can have hope founded on concrete truth.
    All praise to Christ our God and King …

  2. Bill Muehlenberg 26 April 2024 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Thanks Pauline.

  3. Gail Petherick 27 April 2024 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the rays of hope and report, Bill . May God’s faithfulness shine through all the darkness in our nation and through us. No one else has any answer – it’s very apparent we have lost our moral compass but some are seeking their Creator (just as we once did) and the rest of the lost sheep must come in.

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