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Spring 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 1 · pp. 38–49 

Secularity, Psychology, and the Mennonite University

Alvin Dueck, Kevin Reimer, and Lisa Finlay

In the tradition of new émigrés, Mennonite Brethren leaders established institutions of higher education to inculcate their religious values and perpetuate their immigrant culture in a strange land. Matters of ethnic heritage were handled through grandmothers teaching their grandchildren to bake and Saturday German classes. Bible schools reinforced the religious side of life, preparing youth to enter North American society with a commitment to win the lost. Psychology was either unheard of or suspect.

How does one sing the songs of Yahweh in a strange land? 1 Is it possible to preserve the integrity of our religious heritage in the context of higher educational systems which must capitulate to secular accreditation, scholarship standards, and alumni expectations? How does the Mennonite student in a secular university engage in a conversation with the secularized disciplines? Survival in a secular context requires that we construct meaningful dialogue with the prevailing culture.

The critical question for us is whether Christian higher education can address the issue of secularity and still hold onto its calling, or whether “Christian” is mere gloss on a systemically secular education.

We observe that the university is not a value-neutral institution. Our experiences in places like Stanford and the University of California tell the story. In these environments we learned to speak a new language—seculareze. We argue that, as with any other language, seculareze has a lexicon, syntax, implicit meanings, and biases. When the language of secularity is spoken as one teaches or counsels, the next generation learns to construct reality through the lens of that language. Fluency in seculareze means that one is able to effectively negotiate North American culture. However, lacking fluency in the language of secularity, one may feel marginalized, misunderstood, or inferior. A society that speaks seculareze unconsciously socializes its members into a reality consistent with its assumptions. It is the lingua franca, the trade language, of Western culture. Seculareze is the language that dominates the university. What does this mean for Christian higher education in the Mennonite tradition? In this essay we challenge Mennonite colleges and universities to more clearly recognize secularity as a competing tradition.

In particular, we maintain that the shift to secularity in the modern world represents a kind of revolution. 2 Diversity is touted in secular universities, but all too often these institutions enshrine Enlightenment modernity as the privileged tradition even as they explore postmodernity. At issue is whether Mennonite educational institutions implicitly mimic this tradition where religion is an addendum, or whether Christianity is and will be systemically and integrally incorporated into the academic curriculum. 3 From within our discipline of psychology, we argue that secular psychotherapy is not simply psychology minus Christianity; rather, secularity is a tradition in itself. The critical question for us is whether Christian higher education can address the issue of secularity and still hold onto its calling, or whether “Christian” is mere gloss on a systemically secular education. We begin with a discussion of secularity as language and culture. We then trace the rise of secular tradition in terms of university education. Finally, we offer an example of dialogue between traditions as a primer for a Christian psychology.


Most commonly, secularism is defined as a set of beliefs and practices that exclude religious discourse. 4 When the government is secular it is run neither by the Pope nor by the Imam. Education, healthcare institutions, and the helping professions tend to reflect the pluralism of the culture and thus aspire to a position of neutrality toward any particular religious community. Public education cannot be sectarian if students come from Lutheran, Unitarian, Muslim, or nonreligious homes; prayer to the God of one tradition is not permitted. Prisons are run by the state to contain the violent perpetrator; they are not the places of penitence Quakers had once imagined. In secular societies, individuals engage in religious talk in the home or synagogue but less, or not at all, in public. Professions are accountable to state-run regulatory boards, not religious bodies. Textbooks for social workers and psychologists are written in the generic manner of seculareze to help the reader understand the “average” citizen in society who has no particular ethnic or religious background.

We do not assume that the rise and progress of secularity in the United States and Canada is identical, though we imagine that the manifestation is similar. Through the past century, church attendance has consistently hovered around 40 percent in the United States and 20 percent in Canada. 5 The religious populace in the United States is changing, however. When people are asked how their church attendance has changed, the percent saying “less frequently” is greater than those who say “more frequently.” 6 A similar picture emerges for academic professionals in the United States. In a 2006 study conducted by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons and reported in Inside Higher Education, professors at elite doctoral programs are most likely to be atheist or agnostic (37 percent) and in general, psychology and biology professors are least likely to believe in God (61 percent). They also found that 26 percent of the college educated population believed that the Bible was “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts” compared with 52 percent of college professors who agreed with this statement. 7


Secularism is a tradition and by many accounts an evangelistic social project. It is an invention that emerged from the nation state in conjunction with the rise of science, industrialism, urbanism, capitalism, and pluralism. Like any tradition it can embrace other traditions or displace them. We believe the latter is more common. Secularism as an ideology is not simply the loss of religiosity; it is the substitution of an alternative ideology with its own history, tradition, and discourse. It embraces a particular ontology and epistemology. Contrary to its own self-perception, secularism did not emerge out of nowhere. It is a result of decisions made in history that resulted in a set of practices and beliefs that constitute a tradition. 8 Human goods become preferences that are publicly defended in secular ways. 9 Secular tradition seeks universal knowledge; it is uncomfortable with the use of local religious dialects in public. Secular tradition and discourse is what the university promotes as an alternative culture.

Secularity and Christianity are competing social projects with different cultural aims and practices. While the former is a product of modernity, Christianity emerges from the ancient world. However, as a cultural movement, secularism is not as neutral as it presumes to be. As a culture it possesses a socially constructed narrative, unique rituals, and powerful symbols. As such it is a tradition, like Christianity, with its own set of beliefs, practices, and rituals.

Constantine assumed that an entire culture could be Christianized and that its character should be legislated by the power of the state. Like the Anabaptists who rejected the Constantinian marriage of religion, culture, and power, we acknowledge the relativization of Christian Constantinianism by the secular tradition. But secularity can also be “Constantinian.” Given its tendencies toward relativism, modernity lacks cohesion. The secular project represents an all-out effort to make modernity ethically coherent against religious usurpers. Secularism and religion are both, then, social projects. The secular therapist is not more neutral than the religious therapist. Both are capable of imposing values, a worldview, and a set of practices onto others.


In the university the language of seculareze is spoken, taught, and assumed while religious perspectives are largely ignored, disparaged, or suppressed. Academics implicitly assume that secularism will triumph. Peter Berger, 10 however, maintains that academic culture is the exception from a world where religion is alive and well. This contrasts sharply with the picture usually drawn of the nineteenth century where university education was a function of the church. The sixteenth century reformation came as the result of the insight of a scholar and for the next three centuries the religiously oriented university trained leaders for the church and society, that is, Christendom. In the United States, until the beginning of the twentieth century, college presidents were usually clergy, religion tended to be Protestant Christianity, and the curriculum included Protestant scriptures. Academics were expected to be practicing church members and chapel attendance was mandatory for students. At Duke University a massive Gothic chapel stands at the center of the campus and in 1924 the bylaws stated: “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 11 The dominant language was the language of the Christian community, and society was there to be Christianized.

Changes in the ethos of university education from religious to secular are striking. Religious service was translated into public service. Theology became moral philosophy or moral psychology. Scientific research findings replaced dogma. Academic freedom for faculty became more important than adherence to confessions or creeds. Competence in the profession superseded Christian character. When the society that sponsors the educational institution values knowledge that is scientific, courses are taught from that perspective rather than that of classical philosophers or theologians. As the professions set standards for the education of their members, universities followed suit and provided more specially trained professionals. In the end, religion became irrelevant in secular public university education. Marsden comments:

Despite the presence of many religion departments and a few university divinity schools, religion has moved from near the center a century or so ago to the incidental periphery. Apart from voluntary student religious groups, religion in most universities is about as important as the baseball team. 12

Smith argues that the secularization of American public life and the university can be thought of as a revolution because an established Protestant regime sought to homogenize, i.e., to protestantize, Catholics, Jews, and others. 13 The institutional privilege of this regime provoked increasing grievances among excluded groups. The aggrieved groups sought to depose the established group and insurgent activists overthrew the established regime. In the shift from the old to the new regime, a profound cultural revolution occurred which transformed religious cultural structures of thought and practices to secularism.


Any discipline, whether American literature or social science, cannot evade the influence of the cultural ethos. The metaphysical assumptions, epistemological commitments, research methods, and subjects studied are all affected by a culture that is primarily religious or secular. A contemporary textbook of psychology does not pristinely spring from the mind of its author; it is a product of the historical developments of the past half millennium. Likewise, Western psychology is a product of secularizing historical developments: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. As a secular discipline, psychology is tailor-made for a secular society.

Seculareze is the language through which modern psychology is communicated, and the language spoken most often in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is not a neutral enterprise; it serves a secular culture. This means that integrating one’s faith with a secular university education or psychotherapy is not simply a matter of inserting religion wherever possible. One cannot just superimpose Christianity on to a presumably “neutral” secularity. Secularity is a social arrangement, a cultural vision in its own right.

It is perhaps better to ask questions about the systemic relationship of secularity and religion in psychotherapy. What if the language (vocabulary and syntax) of therapy reflects a culture that does not need the transcendent to explain the psychological? A discourse describing human behavior in terms of social forces, environmental reinforcement, archetypes, boundaries, systems, or hot cognitions seems to have no need for spiritual categories—much less a Creator God or a crucified Christ. The secular psyche stands on its own. A psychology that has no place for the concept of evil will focus on “dysfunctionality” or “pathology” in diagnosis and treatment. Because secularity has no room for transcendence, spiritual yearning is hardly recognized—much less legitimated. It may even be pathologized. Thus the integration of religion and psychology is much more complex than merely mixing religious vocabulary with secular discourse.

In the past century American psychology was nurtured in the secular university. In 1901, William James 14 could make a case in the Gifford lectures for the relevance of various religious experiences, but contemporary departments of psychology are not constructed on the vision of this early psychologist. 15 Reflecting the larger political context, secular psychology perceives the individual as possessing rights, knowledge as universal and derived from consensual validation, and the public square as religiously neutral. The discursive move in the nineteenth century from thinking of a fixed “human nature” to regarding humans as a constituted “normality” facilitated the secular idea of moral progress as defined and directed by autonomous human agency.

The rise of American psychology coincided with the emergence of the secular university. With the disestablishment of religion in the university, a religiously informed psychology was replaced by a secular psychology. We have argued above that a major shift occurs in the ethos of the educational institution when the population served changes. When secular society is the community that the university serves, the language and content of the curriculum shifts to meet the needs of this society. It should come as no surprise that secular psychology reflects the needs of a pluralist, capitalist, technological, and ideologically fragmented society. What process of thinking leads to the construction of an entirely new discourse in seculareze? The secular psyche, like the secular state and economy, is a product of imagination. In the modern world the inner self has become the locus of religion (i.e., privatized religion), 16 a citizen in a nation-state, a consumer in a secular economy, and a product of autonomous nature. The individual could only be constructed as self-contained once nature became viewed as autonomous. In the medieval world this was impossible: the individual was seen as participating in a world God created, rather than as an extension of autonomous nature. Autonomous nature has replaced a created universe. Nature has its own laws. Such knowledge, carefully collected and tested, is more certain than any biblical claim. The result is that natural psychological forces now shape individual personality formation and override any transcendental/spiritual sources of motivation.

The dominant view now seems to be that the individual is maker of his/her destiny. Our life course is a result of individual decisions made in the context of nature and society, both secular. Milbank comments: “. . . the artistic or poetic ‘Idea’ is no longer what ‘precedes’ the work in the artist’s mind as a reflection of the ideas of God, but instead becomes that which is conveyed as meaning to the receiver from the peculiar constitution of the work itself.” 17 What was once attributed to God is now assumed to be within the individual. Whereas God used to have dominion over the world, the will of the self now has dominion over the course of history.

It is no small irony that in the twentieth century a shift to the discourse of seculareze in psychology was closely associated with Protestantism. Keith Meador points to the influence of liberal Protestants such as Charles Clayton Morrison, whose 1908 purchase of The Christian Century served as a catalyst for a “therapeutic” gospel that resembled the psychological wisdom of the day. 18 Meador suggests that psychology came to “re-narratize” Protestant theology toward a functional study of human nature and behavior. This process at times included wholesale alignment with the works of Dewey, Freud, Hall, and James. In the case of the latter, religion was effectively fused with psychological inquiry. Matters of salvation became reordered in James to identify the self as the preeminent, autonomous basis for esteem and growth. This became the genesis of self-help literature that, in the name of applied psychology, came to replace theological vocabulary to a newly construed scientific psyche. Psychological religion became influential through publications such as The Christian Century, partly as a solution to problems of social injustice and disorder.

The magnitude of this shift was considerable. Introductory psychology textbooks represent a good vantage from which to weigh the impact of seculareze as a narrative reflecting the secular ideology required by a liberal state. Lehr and Spilka 19 examined forty-eight introductory psychology textbooks published in the 1980s for religious content and compared them with two hundred texts from the 1950s and 1970s. There was a major increase in religious-related material observed for 1980s texts compared with 1970s texts. However, the number of citations and citation lengths were reduced in 1980s texts. Later citations were primarily of a non-research, discussion nature. Although evaluation of the religious material by text authors was unbiased, the main examples chosen often presented religion in a negative light. Research on the psychology of religion was rarely present.

The argument we wish to make is not simply that religion is ignored in contemporary psychologies but that the shift in discourse carries with it an implicit alteration of meaning. As a case in point, pain has been secularized. Asad comments that more than metaphorical substitution, a grammatical change in the concept of pain took place. 20 The discourse of sin and punishment was set aside in favor of a new discourse where pain was objectified and set within a framework of a mechanistic view of nature. This change lay precisely in the fact that (for the physician) the problematic question of pain could be placed outside the problem of sin, evil, and punishment. What occurred is not only the abandonment of transcendental language but the shift to a new language of external stimulus and the experience of pain.

Given the secular influence described above, there are a number consequences for Western psychology: a) religion as an object of study for psychologists tends to focus on individual private beliefs and experiences; b) the psychology that emerges must be understandable to any reasonable inquirer regardless of religious or ethnic tradition; and c) clients learn to speak seculareze in therapy at the behest of therapists trained in a medical model of treatment. In contrast, we argue that the therapist who responds to the religiosity of his or her clients is not engaging in an act of imposition but one of respect. It is possible for both religious and non-religious therapists to impose their values on the client—whether the issue is hearing the voice of God, religious commandments, or spiritual language on the one hand; or abortion, divorce, or homosexuality on the other. A peaceable Christian psychology is one that begins with the client’s tradition and determines collaboratively how it is problematic and also a resource.

We believe that the tension over languages in public settings has profound implications for a Christian psychology. We think that clients hesitate to use their native tongue in therapy because it is not welcome in the public square. We argue that ethnicity and religion should be welcome dialogue partners in public, and clients should be empowered to speak their religious language in the context of therapy. This position is foremost to our thinking as we enter the debate about the role of “private” languages in public. More difficult is the empowering of clients to speak their mother tongue, their faith-language when they are surrounded by the ideological force of the psychological trade language. The language of Western psychotherapy tends to silence local religious dialects. We hope for a public square in which many languages are spoken and a for therapeutic context where the language of faith is centrally honored rather than passively tolerated as yet one more item to be included in a thin clinical curriculum for diversity education.


We have argued that secularism, far from a value neutral enterprise, is a bona fide tradition with its own language, history, and empire-building tendencies. We offer several concluding thoughts regarding the implications of this discussion for Mennonite higher education and the Mennonite university student studying in a secular educational institution.

First, a secular or Constantinian education assumes universal relevance and eschews localism and particularity. Through the first author’s experiences in cross-cultural education, it is apparent that Western psychology has been exported abroad with the result that indigenous psychologies have been displaced. Similarly, in American psychotherapy the mother tongue of clients may be slighted, especially when it is religious. A Christian psychology begins with the particular Jewish and Christian heritage of Christian clients and honors the religiosity of clients who are not Judeo-Christian. While Enlightenment psychology tends to begin with the self, we propose beginning with the other for an understanding of identity, both in epistemology and in ethics. Such an approach focuses on the ethical responsibility for the other, on the ways personal identity is constituted in one’s relationship with the other.

Second, seculareze is a language that shapes perception, thought, and action. At issue is whether a Christian psychologist has the courage and ability to learn to speak many languages in the public square. The languages of mental illness and spiritual weakness may at times overlap and at other times be very separate. In the case of anorexia nervosa, one might understand a woman’s refusal to eat as disobedience to an authoritarian father, or possibly a biological problem such as celiac disease, or a consequence of dynamics in a family. If the family is Christian all these languages can be used: spiritual, psychological, biological, and social. 21 Secularism is, in part, a decline in the use of religious language combined with an increasingly prominent place for secular discourse in culture generally and academic culture in particular. We would argue with Jeffrey Stout that traditions should flourish in democratic cultures rather than languish. 22 Therefore, rather than all speaking a supposedly neutral language in public, one would do better to learn the languages of specific traditions and encourage consistency with the best of their ethical charter. In therapy then it would not be uncommon to engage in religious talk if the client wished it. The therapist would then assist the client to live a life consistent with the ethical ideals of his/her native community.

Third, a Christian psychology is constructed on the confession of the early church and its evolving tradition, envisioning a Christian culture as its goal. 23 Secular culture, and by extension Western psychology, is constructed on the foundation of an Enlightenment vision of human potential. For which culture do we teach, research, and counsel in our Mennonite institutions? The secular university serves a pluralist society while psychology programs in Christian educational institutions seek first to help the church be the church and then to serve society. In their treatment of psychology Mennonite colleges and universities should reclaim their own linguistic traditions in order to converse with the secular tradition on an equal footing.

In the absence of a normative tradition, Enlightenment secularity turns to nature to discover norms. Psychologists since Aristotle have assumed there is an ontological structure that unfolds in the human psyche, from acorn to oak. Although we have updated our methods of empirical research, we still tend to assume that the structure of the psyche is essentially fixed. We suggest that rather than deriving our norms from ontology, we begin with ethics, with God’s call on our lives, and with dissident discipleship. 24 We seek a fruitful context for dialogue promoting conversation between Christian convictions and secular psychology. The conversation will be different when relating neuroscience, personality assessment, cross-cultural phenomenological study, or moral development to a Christian worldview.


  1. Ps. 137:1–4.
  2. Christian Smith, ed., The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).
  3. Douglas G. Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007).
  5. George Barna, Church Attendance: 2000, Barna Research Online:
  6. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 205.
  7. Scott Jaschik, “Not So Godless After All,”
  8. On liberalism as tradition, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
  9. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 5.
  10. Peter Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999).
  11. George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3.
  12. George Marsden and B. J. Longfield, The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 33.
  13. Smith, 3.
  14. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 2002).
  15. Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). Charles Taylor’s analysis of James’s view of religion suggests there may be more continuity between the implicit assumptions and the future role of religion in psychology. Taylor points out the fundamental individualism and privatism in James’s view of religion.
  16. See Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985); Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).
  17. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (Cambridge: B. Blackwell, 1991), 11, italics in original.
  18. Keith G. Meador, “My Own Salvation: The Christian Century and Psychology’s Secularizing of American Protestantism,” in The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, ed. Christian Smith (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 269–305.
  19. E. Lehr and B. Spilka, “Religion in the Introductory Psychology Textbook: A Comparison of Three Decades,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28 (1989): 366–71.
  20. Asad, 46–47.
  21. Al Dueck, “Speaking the Languages of Sin and Pathology,” Christian Counseling Today 10 (2002): 20–24.
  22. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  23. Ellen Charry, “Augustine the Father of Christian Psychology,” Integration Symposium lectures given at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology, February 2007.
  24. David W. Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006).
Alvin Dueck is professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology and a licensed Mennonite Brethren minister. He taught at Tabor College, Fresno Pacific University, and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. He is a graduate of Stanford University with postdoctoral studies at Notre Dame, Yale, and Cambridge. He is author of Between Jerusalem and Athens: Ethical Perspectives on Culture, Religion and Psychotherapy.
Kevin S. Reimer is professor of psychology at Azusa Pacific University and ordained clergy in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Reimer completed postdoctoral fellowships in moral psychology at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oxford. His grant-funded research program is focused on the science of moral development, peace, and spirituality. He is co-author of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective.
Lisa Finlay is in the doctoral program for clinical psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology. She received her BA in English from Rice University and is the author of many unpublished poems and short stories. She attends Pasadena Mennonite Church.

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