Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christendom is Not the Problem: Secularism Is

As a follow-up to my previous post, I want to point out that the eschatological tension that pervades Augustine's thought can be relaxed in two ways, not just one. Readers of my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, will note that I left the impression that Christendom itself is the problem and that Christendom equals Triumphalism. But Christendom is not the problem, secularism is.

By Secularism, I mean the attempt to disregard, deny or eradicate the future Kingdom of God including the Second Coming, the Day of Judgment and the triumph of Jesus Christ in such a way as to make it all just a symbol of something that actually happens in history. The problem is that this results in pulling the Kingdom back into the present plane of history and cuts the nerve of the eschatological tension between the present Lordship of Christ over the world which is not yet acknowledged by everyone and that future time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Secularism is not a belief in the validity of the secular. Augustine invented the concept of the secular - that which is neither the sacred or the profane - the sphere of life in which Christians rub shoulders with non-Christians in common endeavors. The secular is the space in which religion and morality is not excluded yet not dominant. The secular allows for dissent and difference of opinion and is inherently anti-totalitarian. But appreciating the secular is not the same as secularism.

Secularism is a term that only entered the English language in the 19th century. It is basically the denial of the transcendent, of God and of an objective moral order. To be secular is to be materialistic and human-centered. Secularism is the expansion of the concept of the secular to encompass the totality of life. Secularism is an attack on Christianity and all religion and morality that is grounded in reality rather than in the will of the individual.

Secularism is as bad as Triumphalism because it both relaxes the eschatological tension and also facilitates the unification of the Church and the State. The difference is that this time the State absorbs the function of the Church into itself. The State makes itself into a god which provides for the people, engineers society according to its own choices and values and makes itself into a source of meaning. The Church is first disestablished, then privatized and finally rendered invisible and impotent. All religious influence must be eradicated from society because such influence constitutes a threat to the power of the State.

The belief in a future Kingdom of God (and by future I mean after the Return of Christ and not continuous with the present age) serves as a check on all totalitarian aspirations, whether they emanate from organized religion or from politics. The direct implication of the maintenance of the belief in the Second Coming, Day of Judgment and Kingdom of God is the relativizing of all politics - both ecclesiastical and civil - and the doctrine of the Two. The doctrine of the Two is the Medieval idea that power should not be concentrated in one set of hands but should be divided between Church and State. The Medieval doctrine of the Two draws on the division of powers in the prophet, the priest and the king in ancient Israel and lays the foundation for the modern concept of the division of powers - the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government - and the the idea of a limited government that does not need to control every action and thought of the people because of the influence of Christianity in creating within the population that self-discipline which is the necessary condition for liberty.

What I am saying is that contemporary Secularism is just as dangerous - in fact, at present it is more dangerous to liberty - than is Triumphalism. Triumphalism is not a clear and present danger in the contemporary West, but Secularism is. There are two roads to totalitarianism: a clerical dominated theocracy like Iran and the "dictatorship of relativism" that arises when secularist ideologies like Marxism become dominant. The alternative to both kinds of totalitarianism is a free Church in a free State: Christendom.

1 comment:

Sze Zeng said...

Great post, Craig. I came across your blog while trying to look for the author of Rethinking Christ and Culture.

I fully agree and endorse what you have written here.

The current tension between those who are for secularism and those who are against it lies in the definition of "secularism" in term of political usage. Some secularists are rather friendly to religion but while other seek to throw it away for good.

I am inclined towards John Milbank's thesis that secularism and contemporary political discourse, especially in the West, is really a sub-topic of theology.

The secular space is rooted in theology (Augustine's saeculum, Rousseau's separation of church and state) and if we eliminate this root, the secular (or postsecular) society has no where to fall back.