Is Reality Secular?
by Mary Poplin
My father faithfully took us to church each Sunday. With its towering stone structure, dark wooden beams, and intricate stained glass windows, the church felt holy. I remember weeping at Good Friday services, as if at the funeral of a dear friend whom I did not really know, yet experiencing great joy when we sang the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter morning. Beyond this, I didn’t really understand the gospel; church was something we did on Sundays.
After teaching elementary school for several years, I left my hometown for graduate school, where I became intellectually awakened. The world opened up to me, and I enjoyed walking through doors where the enticements were not only intellectually engaging but also sometimes personally dangerous. There I shed the last vestiges of Christianity. The intellectuals in my circle considered Christianity irrelevant to serious scholarship at best and oppressive at worst. The world and our work had to be secular because secularism was considered more objective, neutral, pluralistic, and safe.
By the late 1980s I was teaching radical feminism, social constructivism, critical theory, and postmodernism; I tried much of what the New Age movement had to offer. I thought of myself as smart, open-minded, and happy, regardless of the fact that I was taking antidepressants, was serially monogamous, and was instructing students that they could use any book except the Bible in their written work. I called myself “spiritual but not religious,” meaning I did not need a religion to be “good.” I had excluded Christianity altogether from any real consideration, and no rational apologetic could have convinced me otherwise.
A few weeks later I found myself at a communion rail, murmuring, “If you are real, please come and get me.”
But in 1992 I had a profound dream unlike any I had had before; I remembered every detail—thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and color (a first for me). Christ figured prominently in the dream, and I was able to see clearly the deplorable condition of my soul. When I woke, I realized the dream’s gravity and shared it with a colleague from a different university whom I believed was spiritually attuned, although I did not know of what order. My colleague suggested I begin to read the Psalms, Proverbs, and New Testament, a suggestion I found shocking even though Jesus himself had appeared in the dream. A few weeks later I found myself at a communion rail, murmuring, “If you are real, please come and get me.” At that very moment I felt the same indescribable peace I had experienced at the end of the dream, and I tentatively began seeking to follow Christ. Only three months had passed since the dream.
A year later, I saw Ann and Jeanette Petrie’s documentary on Mother Teresa, in which she said that her work was not social work but religious work. I found the film strangely moving and sensed that if I was going to understand how my newfound faith related to my work—research on the best ways to educate the poor—I would need to go to Calcutta and immerse myself in the work of her Missionaries of Charity.
After two months of working primarily with sick and handicapped babies in the spring of 1996, I returned from sabbatical. Groups began to ask me to share about my experience. Aware that many of these were primarily secular groups, I found myself explaining Mother Teresa without describing her relationship with Jesus. I was lying to make her more acceptable to intellectuals who had long ago given up the idea that Christianity has any unique knowledge. We see the same secularization of the religious motivations of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, César Chávez, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, and Lech Walesa. From the worldviews I was teaching and had been taught, the real Mother Teresa was completely incomprehensible.
Right before I left India, Mother Teresa told me that God does not call everyone to work with the poor or to live like the poor, as she and the Missionaries of Charity had been called. Then she exclaimed emphatically, shaking her finger at me, “But God does call everyone to a Calcutta; you have to find yours!”
I discovered my Calcutta in a profound intellectual crisis that forced me to define and reexamine the worldviews dominant in the elite intellectual culture: material-naturalism, secular humanism, and pantheism. The dominance of secularism, especially in the last century, has convinced many in the world, including many Christians, that reality is secular and religion just a feel-good option.
What is your Calcutta? What is it that drives you to allow, as Dallas Willard puts it, “the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life”?
Mary Poplin is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the new book Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (2014) and Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me (2008); both are published by InterVarsity Press.