“Theological Baggage” Said the Secular Humanist at Harvard

John C. Rankin  (2013)

In 1991 I was invited to address a group known as the Democratic and Secular Humanists (DASH) of Boston, meeting at the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard. It was advertised that I was “an evangelical minister who likes to be raked over the coals by skeptics.” So they had their best turnout for the season – about 50 people, mostly men.

When I walked into the room, the leader looked at me with a wry expression, and said, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den.” So I asked him if he knew where that metaphor came from. He had a blank expression.

(Now, what did Daniel say to the lions as he was lowered into their den? According to the RSSV [and do not quote this as authoritative – the Rankin Sub-Standard Version, located only in my imagination], he said “Shalom. Peace be to you my lion friends, Yahweh knows that you are carnivores, and you are hungry, but I am not your meal. That comes tomorrow. But for the evening, lend me your manes and let us sleep well.”)

As part of my presentation I argued that any expression of order in the universe must come from a greater Order, and there is no evidence in all human knowledge for a lesser order producing a greater order – of nothing being able to produce something.

So I asked what came before the beginning of the universe. One man said “Eternal matter.” I responded, “What then, in intellectual terms alone, is the difference between believing in eternal matter on the one hand, and an eternal God on the other? In both cases, we are accepting something greater than space, time and number, something beyond our finite capacity to grasp.”

He paused, and said, “Theological baggage.”

As we unpacked these two words, it was clear he did not want to admit the possibility of a personal God. He fears that “believers” would then take the license to “shove religion down his throat.” In other words, his resistance to the Gospel is at the ethical level – “do not violate my person” – not at the intellectual level. The true definitions of terms concerning heaven and hell need to be known; and as well, concerning the biblical power of human freedom versus the pagan and secular ethos that equals slavery.

After the evening, a dozen or so of the secular humanists enjoyed themselves so much, that they invited out to a pub afterward for a further conversation. I was able to do so for a short while before catching the last train on the MBTA home.