Is Reality Secular? An Interview With Mary Poplin (Part 3)

Mary Poplin
Wednesday, February 20th 2019

In parts one and two of her interview with Modern Reformation’s editor-in-chief, Michael Horton, Dr. Mary Poplin talked about the consequences of ideas, and how the uneasy blend of secularism and spirituality that characterizes popular western religion stands at odds with historic, biblical Christianity. In this third and final section of their discussion, Dr. Horton and Dr. Poplin discuss the best way to talk about the differences between popular secular religion and historical Christianity, the necessity of listening to personal experience before introducing biblical truth, and the wonderful breadth of our identities as Christians.


MP: I think one of the things I realized as a new Christian is that the only safe place for self knowledge is Christianity.

MSH: What do you mean by that?

MP: If you don’t have a way out, you’ve either got to say “Yeah, I was bad, but everybody else was bad, too,” so there’s no way to really confront the bad things you’ve done. “OK, I did lie about this,” or “I did voluntarily do this to hurt this person, and I knew it was going to hurt this person.” What do you do with that if you’re a secular humanist? If you’re a pantheist, you just have to wait to the next life to work it off, or work it off in this life so you’re not an ant or something.

MSH: You either have to deny it or deflect it onto others because it’s just too overwhelming. There’s no redemption. Help our listeners put this into practice when they’re having conversations—identifying the resurrection is key, but doesn’t it also help to be armed with some of the arguments that you’re talking about here, and some of the explanations of the worldviews that we’re encountering? To ask people who have different worldviews where they got this idea or that idea, how they ground this belief or that belief and show them that it’s planted in midair apart from supernatural revelation?

MP: Randy Newman wrote a book called Questioning Evangelism, and he says that one of the biggest things we can do is to question people. Ask them questions so that they begin to see the contradictions that they live and believe. I do believe that students, especially Christians, need to come to college more intellectually prepared, in terms of what they’re going to face, what are the worldviews, and what are the problems behind them. They’re presented as what Paul calls plausible arguments—we hear plausible arguments all the time, so as a Christian you’ve got to pull back from that plausible argument and ask yourself, “Where does this go? Where does this come from? Why is it plausible? Where does it take me?”

MSH: Do you think we don’t start back far enough as conservative Christians? Very often, we don’t start with the recognition that there are plausible arguments that are set up against Christ and his truth. We often come into it saying, “Well, that’s stupid.” But it can’t just be dismissed as stupid if it has plausibility to it. It may not true, but why do people find it plausible?

MP: Right—why do people fall for this argument? We’re not totally aware of the contradictions we hole and we brush them aside. But when you kindly ask people, “Why is it that you don’t believe it?” they usually have a personal story.

MSH: And people actually start talking at that point more rather than if we go to page 2 of our apologetics outline. Instead of opening with arguments, we ask them, “Tell me your story—why do you believe that?”

MP: And how do you define ‘spirit’? That’s hard to define if you’re a New Ager. And how do you actually become better? These things are mostly abstractions.

MSH: It’s so bewildering though. Unlike the previous generation, we’re not talking to nominal Christians or non-Christians who still kind of know the Bible because it was in our culture. We’re really talking to Buddhists and Hindus and atheists and secular humanists and people who are a little bit of all of those in one bundle. It’s a different challenge, isn’t it?

MP: It’s very different. One of the things I try to do is always be aware of a Christian principle I could bring up in a class. For example, this summer I had a young student who expressed a concern that maybe she was invited into the program because of her ethnicity. That’s a big thing. She’s brilliant, and I think she probably knows something about Christianity. I said to her, “You know, you have an identity and to me, your identity is a future college president, and that entails a lot of things. It tells me about the knowledge that you’re going to have to have, the virtues you’re going to have to display—you have a very big identity, and it’s not just your race.” I was in the feminist movement, but my identity is not just that I’m a woman. We’ve so focused people on little things, and what we see in Christianity is that your identity is so much bigger. Your identity is in God. You have a purpose on this planet, and you have help! These other worldviews encourage such a narrow picture of people’s identities and their lives.

MSH: You end by saying that if Christianity is true, it’s not just a theory, but it’s a love affair with life and its author. What a great way to end. Mary Poplin, thanks so much for being with us on the White Horse Inn.

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.

Wednesday, February 20th 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