Secular Bible Study
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of FOCUS.
I practice surgery in a regional hospital in the British Columbia interior and several years ago was asked to be a student mentor by the program director at the time. I agreed to give it a try, and that first year my wife and I hosted four medical students several times at our home with dinner and some informal discussions on life as a physician. My own experience of being mentored during medical school involved going to the home of two physicians in Vancouver every week for a meal, worship, and bible study through CMDA Canada. Although I was asked to do this for UBC’s mentorship program and not as a faith-based initiative, I wanted to offer our students the same care that I was given, but felt that our different world-views made this a challenge. At the end of the year I was left with the impression that we had not done enough to connect with the students and make an impact, yet felt called to give it another try. The second year we hosted three students once a month with dessert and discussion. As it turned out, two out of the three students were Christians, and the felt context of the evenings shifted as we felt more comfortable sharing our beliefs and values. This resulted in a better relationship with all three students, not just the two believers, making me wonder if the worldview issue was my own, and I began to re-think the mentoring role further.
Last year, we hosted two students and a resident that I had gotten to know throughout the previous year. At the time, I was studying the philosophy of knowledge and decided to go through a small book called A Little Manual of Knowing, by the Christian philosopher Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek. The book is a general discussion of knowing from an implicitly Christian perspective, and it provided a structure for our discussions, which allowed us to arrive at many of the issues important in a mentoring context such as resilience, burnout, and career discernment. It also allowed us to broach moral and even religious topics more easily. We discussed issues such as physician assisted suicide, despite having different views, and my impression is that it was a blessing to all of us. After this, I jokingly referred to these evenings as our “secular bible study” to my wife, as this is what it felt like – we were discussing issues of transcendence and meaningfulness, while not in an explicitly Christian context. Although I first intended this as a joke, the more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me as a paradigm for positively impacting medical culture. It is the purpose of this piece therefore to examine in more detail what a secular bible study is, why it is important in the context of mentoring medical students and residents in the 21st century, and suggest some practical steps for interested physicians and medical students to move forward in this direction.
For committed Christians, the phrase “secular bible study” seems to be a case study in incoherence. Outside of a detached scholarly sense, how can one study the scriptures in a secular context? Isn’t secular simply a word for non-religious? The first step in exploring the notion of a secular bible study is to find a meaning for secular that fits the context. A Google internet search for the definition of “secular” provides the following: “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” Not very helpful for our purposes! This definition of secular is supported by what is called the secularization thesis or subtraction story, which “refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.” However, it is not at all clear that this is the case. Tim Keller in The Reason for God describes how “the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist forms or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancement brings inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought. Even Europe may not face a secular future, with Christianity growing modestly and Islam growing exponentially.”
The philosopher Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age has a different view of secularization, as he focuses not on beliefs, but on believability: the conditions necessary for religious belief. It is his contention that secularity is “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” What is believed has not necessarily changed as much as how one believes. Religious participation may be on the rise, and yet we may still live in a secular age in the sense that belief in God no longer goes unchallenged, it is not easy at all to embrace, and it is merely one option among many competing views. This how of belief is a background lived understanding, which normally goes unnoticed and unquestioned, taken for granted as much as the air we breathe.
It is not hard to see the multitude of forms that a positive engagement with religion can take in our secular age. The religious person can exist anywhere in the spectrum from devotion to God as the most important part of their life, all the way to seeing religion as merely a useful myth providing comfort and a form of morality. A US study from 2004 documented that a large percentage of Christian teenagers viewed their faith as “moralistic therapeutic deism”, which included the beliefs that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, that God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to solve a problem, and good people go to heaven when they die. Then there are people who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious,” a large proportion of the population who cheerily accept an eclectic mix of philosophies and theologies.
Just as there are a variety of ways to live out religious belief today, unbelief is also lived out in various forms. The felt aversion to belief held by many people today is balanced by a sense of unease that something important has nonetheless been left behind. Belief in God is seen as a dangerous temptation: the secular is haunted by transcendence, in Taylor’s phrase. Yet the unbeliever could also deny this reality, and instead write off belief in God as obviously unwarranted – wish fulfillment, the opium of the masses, or what have you. This perceived irrationality is underdetermined by the evidence, however, and unbelief is radically open to a decision based on felt value considerations, determined by a social imaginary that often propels people towards unbelief. A social imaginary is like a behind-the-scenes world-view that is carried not in explicit beliefs but in images, stories and legends, evoking affective responses to values. There is a social imaginary to unbelief, which can be seen for example in the perception of the maturity and courage of the scientist standing in opposition to the easy comforts of religion. James K.A. Smith in How Not to be Secular, puts it this way: “There is a force to the ethical story behind the scientific just-so-story: who doesn’t want to be a grown-up?”
The felt tensions between belief and unbelief today are described by Taylor as strong winds in a vast open space, blowing us first one way, then another. Often believers choose not to feel the force of those winds. For example, take note of overconfident Christian apologists, who try and paint the skeptic as refusing to believe the obvious out of a willed blindness fueled by an immoral lifestyle. Although this may or may not in fact be true, this assertion is at least a minimization of the cross pressures on belief today. If we are to host a secular bible study, we must acknowledge that the secular is not merely the absence of religion, but it is the way that both believers and unbelievers inhabit the modern context of our secular age. We should try and feel the winds of late modernity that push and pull both ourselves and our students and residents towards and away from belief in God. This presents us with the lived context for our secular bible study, and we can then create space for the transcendent within our dialogue. When we deny the contestability of belief, the result is that dialogue is stifled as both sides simply talk past one another within their own silos of thought:
“I think what we badly need is a conversation between a host of different positions….in which we eschew mutual caricature and try to understand what “fullness” means for the other. What makes me impatient are the positions that are put forth as conversation stoppers: I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral. Of course, I have my own, theologically defined reasons for wanting this, but I also know that we can have a widely based “overlapping consensus” on the value of this conversation.”
Now that we have dealt with the secular aspect, it is time to turn to the use of the words “bible study”. For a medical student who has not grown up within the Christian tradition, studying the bible will likely seem irrelevant, antiquated, and perhaps downright strange. In what sense should this be a bible study? In his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigin examines how we are to approach the bible in relation to the modern world view. He writes:
“The question of biblical authority is at the very heart of our task as bearers of the gospel in our contemporary western culture. During the long centuries in which the bible was the main controlling element in the ‘plausibility structure’ of Western society, the question hardly arose.…Now the biblical interpretation has to justify itself before the bar of reason as it is understood within the reigning plausibility structure… What we are required to attempt is the much more difficult enterprise of trying to understand modern thought in the light of the biblical story.”
Plausibility structures are the foundational beliefs and practices accepted within a culture which determine what other beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not. Newbigin is getting at the fact that in the modern west, our world-view is shaped by the enlightenment notion of reason, rather than by the biblical story. What this means for those of us engaging in a secular bible study, is that rather than focusing on the biblical story through the lens of modern culture and its interpretive grid, we can challenge the reigning world views and social imaginaries of our students and residents only when we ourselves have been formed by the biblical story, and then use that story as the lens through which we interpret the concerns and controversies that will arise in the lives of our students. When we treat the bible as only a repository of Christian beliefs and values, as “religion within the bounds of pure reason,” (Immanuel Kant’s famous work) and focus on these as objects of our thought to be analysed by Enlightenment reason, the natural reaction is to stay in our Christian ghettos and not engage the world of medical culture except in opposition when our beliefs and values conflict. Additionally, when our reigning interpretive framework is the story of the modern west rather than the biblical story, the tendency is to amalgamate into the culture of medicine with no clear distinction as believers. Are we instead called to active engagement from the perspective of the biblical story? When we actively engage the culture as people formed in the biblical story, whose lives embody the life, death and resurrection of Christ, our lives will become the place where mission happens by the power of the Spirit at work in the world as he is at work in us:
“It is impossible to stress too strongly that the beginning of mission is not an action of ours, but the presence of a new reality, the presence of the Spirit of God in power. The whole New Testament bears witness to this, and so does the missionary experience of the Church through the ages….In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the questions to which the gospel is the answer.”
It is my contention that a secular bible study could be a place for the work of the Spirit within the medical community, supported by Taylor’s definition of secular and Newbigin’s insight on mission. The Spirit will work in our medical culture to the extent that we live our lives in unity with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the true Word of God present in the biblical story. It is once people encounter this work of the Spirit in us, that the questions arise to which the gospel is the answer. We should then be prepared to give the reason for our hope.
Now that I have developed the foundations for the idea of a secular bible study, I would like to deal with the practice. What could a secular bible study look like, keeping in mind the general approach above?
Firstly, we need to remember that we do not engage in mission so much as our lives are the place where mission happens. How is God calling us into deeper fellowship with him? Are we motivated by fear or by love? What do we need to let go of, to embrace more of? Are we dwelling in the Word? Are we praying for our students? If we want to see lives impacted our lives need to be impacted. The Spirit will work through us to the extent that our lives are united with the life of the crucified, risen and ascended Christ manifested through the community of the Church.
Secondly, we need sanctification in our speech. We need to carefully listen more than we need to speak. Who are these students? What is important to them? What are their dreams and fears? We should not be afraid of quiet, because silence gives space for the Spirit to work both in our hearts and theirs. If students realize that we are truly listening to them and care about them we may be surprised at the meaningful questions that arise. When we do talk, we should not be too quick to offer our stamp of approval or disapproval, but instead try to ask thoughtful questions that deal with issues that are important to our conversation partners. Are we able to be comfortable in a secular world and let people share their opinions without feeling the need to be the sole arbiter of truth? We are often concerned about the answers which form our core beliefs, but perhaps we should be more concerned with the questions. Questions can arise out of a desire to know beauty, truth and goodness, or can arise out of a self-interested desire to flee from the real. A person is not a bucket of beliefs, but an arrow of intentionality: depending on the trajectory of that arrow, questions can stimulate someone to intellectual or spiritual development, or can create a dialectical tension which is resolved not by learning more information, but by a re-aligning transformation of the heart, which is only possible by an act of grace: the love of God poured out into our hearts by the Spirit of God (Romans 5:5). All this is to say that we should not be afraid of giving people the space they need to share their opinions, and in our actions and words show them the redeeming love of a God who is both truth and life.
We should unashamedly and honestly share who we are, including our own doubts, fears and failures, and not assume that the students won’t be interested in spiritual topics – remember to try and feel the contestability of their unbelief. Often the best way to do this is to tell stories about our own experiences, especially if they are good bridges between medicine and transcendence. Part of sharing who we are includes inviting the students into our homes, sharing our meals with them, introducing them to our kids, letting them see the books on our shelves, the photos on our fridges and hear the music in our stereos. I believe that our homes can give off a Spiritual fragrance that can clear the head and calm the hearts of students struggling with “the malaise of modernity”. Faith can give life incredible value and purpose, and we can tacitly communicate this value to others, creating space for the Spirit to work.
Thirdly, we should not be afraid to give a reason for our hope when we are asked the questions that living the good news will bring out. We should look on our shelves and see if the reading level of the books concerning our faith matches that of our medical texts or other interests. The goal of an intellectual defense of faith is not winning arguments or proving God’s existence, but rather making belief in God a genuine option for people by helping to remove intellectual barriers.
Fourthly, in terms of structure, I would recommend finding topics that could be a concern to both us and our students. Some possibilities include: burnout and resilience, discerning a career path, dealing with difficult people in the workplace, balancing work and family. This could involve going through a book chapter, reading an article or watching a video. I would also recommend being intentional about inviting the students over after realistically assessing how much time you have available.
I would like to leave us with a final picture. Let’s imagine ourselves in the open space of our secular age where we can feel the winds of conflicting beliefs and values blowing us this way and that. We should not imagine away these winds, yet we are not meant to stand out here on our own. We can join hands with each other and develop bonds of care and concern as we tell each other the stories that provide meaning and purpose to our lives. We should not imagine away these winds, but instead realize that they may be the very means which draw us out of our own limited view of the world, and cause us to reach out to those around us, so we can all walk together on the journey to truth, goodness and beauty:
“Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong call me back to you. In this way, we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward Him of whom it is said, ‘Seek His face always.’”
 R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – the New American Religion, Christian Post, 18 April 2005
 For a good summary of the rationality of belief, for example, see Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga.
 Cf. Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
 Augustine, The Trinity