Is Reality Secular? An Interview With Mary Poplin (Part 1)

Mary Poplin
Monday, February 18th 2019

One of the greatest weapons in the secular arsenal is its claim to objectivity—unlike the religious adherents or political activists of the day, the secular humanist is epistemologically pure, untainted by the psychological manipulations of one ideology or another. In part one of this three-part interview with Modern Reformation’s editor-in-chief Michael Horton, Dr. Mary Poplin of Claremont Graduate University discusses her own journey from Athens to Jerusalem, the power and consequences of ideas, and the prevalence of secularism in both the university and the western church.


MSH: Tell us a little bit about your story that led to this book.

MP: Well, I grew up in a Methodist church, but I think we didn’t know the difference between Jesus and Martin Luther King. It wasn’t exactly an orthodox church, and I walked away immediately after I went to college and just kept going left, and eventually I was sort of a materialist by day and a pantheist by night.

MSH: Sort of C.S. Lewis’s scientist-magician?

MP: Yeah, a little bit of those two things. Of course, worldviews have consequences, so I ended up being in a pretty crazy life. Eventually I was tenured here at Claremont, and then I began to notice some of my students who were Christian—they lived their lives differently. And then I had a dream in which Jesus appeared, and I sort of saw a picture of my soul, and it shocked and frightened me in a way, and I called one of those students and said, “What do I do?” I was thinking that this guy was going to send me to another New Age thing, but he said, “Do you have a Bible?,” which is pretty funny, because I was sort of insulted. He suggested that I start reading the Psalms and the Proverbs, and then he said casually, “Since Jesus was in your dream, you might want to start reading the New Testament.” Once I started reading the Bible, I was just stuck on it; I couldn’t stop reading it for about three years. Within three months, I basically asked God to come and get me, so it’s been quite a journey for about 21 years.

MSH: As you were reading Scripture, what was it that grabbed you particularly?

MP: I began to see truths in Scripture, especially relative to my life. One that was sort of the clincher for me was in 1 John 1:9, where John says, “If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive you AND to cleanse you from your unrighteousness.” And what I began to see is that as I would see things in myself and confess them, and ask him to also cleanse me, those things that had drawn me and held me so strongly began to lose their strength. And I just began to see that over and over that these things looked true. God draws you and people in different ways, but for me it was largely through the Bible, and through seeing people’s lives who were different.

MSH: When you write about ideas having consequences, and convictions driving our lives, you really experienced that yourself and you saw it in other people.

MP: Right. One of the things I try to do in the book is to not just be abstract about worldviews, but to show what their consequences are and were in my life.

MSH: You mentioned that you had a secularized message in your church, and that your mind and soul were essentially formed by the more pervasive culture of TV, movies, magazines, schools and universities during the 60s and 70s. That hasn’t changed much for people, has it? It’s pop culture that sort of molds us in so many ways.

MP: It’s really kind of the air we breathe. You go to the grocery store and hear secular songs – “If you leave me, I’m gonna die.” But secularism is very elusive because it presents itself as very objective—‘This is the way reality truly is’—and that’s why I used Is Reality Secular? as the title of the book, because most of us haven’t even thought about that.

MSH: The common assumption is that viewing things from a secular vantage point is to view them from a neutral vantage point, right? That’s what we’ve all been taught.

MP: Exactly, but of course it’s not neutral. Melanie Phillips in England points out that really, secularism is as radical as radical Islam. Neither one allows for any other explanation.

MSH: Sometime while you were in the process of figuring things out, you moved to India and began working with Mother Theresa. How did that play a role in all of this?

MP: Well, my work at the university in educational research is on the education of the poor, and I saw a video of Mother Theresa where she said, “Our work is not social work; it’s religious work.” I was about two years old in Christ, and I was just beginning to think, ‘If this is true, it’s got to have something to do with my work. if I go there, maybe I’ll understand what that means.’ That created in me the urgency to figure out worldviews, because when I came back, I realized Mother Theresa was not comprehensible from any of the worldviews that were being taught at the university. She could not be explained.

MSH: You tell a story about teaching a seminar in which you’re interacting with some of the ideas of New Atheists along with responses from various Christian apologists, and a student exclaimed, “You’re not going to suggest that Christianity is true, are you? What about Hinduism?” How did you answer that question?

MP: People don’t think about things being true or false anymore, and I just said to him, “If Hinduism is true, we should all become Hindu. What we’re looking for here is the truth.” That was the origin of the university. The origin of the university was to seek truth, goodness and beauty, and now the university has kind of lost that idea. I think it’s still in the sciences, and I think that’s why people are attracted to science.

MSH: But there is no Truth, Goodness, Beauty to hold the whole thing together, right? Nothing above us but only sky.

MP: No, because we’re doing it as human beings, and we’re evolving ourselves, so our ideas of what’s good or bad change, and we just have to change our morals; our ways of being.

MSH: You are obviously, even with the title, taking issue with this kind of cockiness of secularism pretending to be a space that is religion-free. How would you go about trying to convince people that regardless of their worldview, they have one, that it is religious, and they’re acting it out every day?

MP: I try to address the principles of each of the worldviews. For example, I actually teach a specifically Judeo-Christian class, and show there that even inside secularism, they don’t all agree. You have postmodernists in secularism, and you have people who are secular humanists who are not postmodern, or you have romanticists. Just to begin to show students that what the university has become is very narrow. You never really get to see the big picture. What I try to do is to back everybody up and say, “OK, let’s look at this big picture, and what are the principles of these worldviews, where do they overlap, and where are they distinct?” And this is a really important thing, I think. Sometimes in Christian apologetics, we try to act like secular humanism and Christianity don’t overlap, but of course they do. Students see that, and they say, “I don’t see how that’s any better than this,” because they don’t see the rest of Christianity and they don’t see the ultimate problem of human beings just trying to determine what their own truth of the moment is going to be.

MSH: So they don’t see how some of the benefits that secular humanism claims for itself was actually born in a Christian environment?

MP: Right, it came straight out of Christianity.

Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

Mary Poplin is the professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of Finding Calcutta: What Mother Theresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service and Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.

Read part II and part III

Monday, February 18th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology