Monday, February 12, 2018

The Irony of Secularism

Last week I was away for work on the fringe of Sydney, without mobile reception or FM radio. That left me, on my occasional drives into town for supplies, with the glories of AM radio. Memories of my childhood come flooding back as I drove through scrubland with the static crackling from the stereo, and re-discovering that the signal noticebaly improved at night.

During one drive into town I was treated with an extended interview on atheism with a minister, a journalist, and a former politician. Whilst the segment was meant to cover the viability of atheism today in Australia, the former politican was pushing for a broader conversation about free thinking and secularism. It turned out that he was a spokeperson for a secular lobby group that seeks to dismantle the co-operative existence of the church and state in Australian society and impliment in its place a strict segregation between the two.

It was ultimatley an unfulfiled interview.  The philosophical and historical illiteracy of one of the participants frustrated things somewhat. In particular, any deed or action by the church in the public sphere was dismissed as the imposition of Christian belief in society. Instead what Australia needs is the negative liberty of freedom from religion.

What was clear from the conversation was the general assumption that secularism is a neutral position. Secularism is an objective position; secularism favours no religion above another, and honours those of no religious affiliation. This is a mistaken position on several fronts; for our purposes we shall limit ourselves to only one: secularism is the creation of Christianity. By and large secularism has existed and flourished in places where the church has, over centuries, significantly shaped the social imaginary. Secularism is part of the Christian understanding of the world.

The concept of secularism emerged in the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the early 400s. As refugees sailed across the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa fleeing barbaric violence in and around Rome, Augustine's musings on the decline of the 'eternal city' and the permanence of the true eternal and celestial city developed into a substantial theory of politics and jurisprudence. Drawing upon the writings of the Apostle Paul and other New Testament authors, Augustine recognized that the authority of the government has been limited to a penultimate role - namely the call to humbly provide justice. Government of any type are charged with responsibility of upholding the common good by commending what is right and condemning what is wrong. It is a penultimate role according to Paul and others, because our governments will one day have to give an account for their use of power, and governments are deprived of the legitimacy to claim our ultimate allegiance and affection.

This is the Christian concept of secular. The word “secular” has come to mean “non-religious”; but it was never meant to mean that. “Secular” comes from the Latin word saeculum, which means “age.” So “secular government” means “government in this age”. [Augustine was well aware that because something belonged to this age did not preclude it from God's care or will. The fact that marriage belongs to this age does not imply that God is either indifferent to marriage or has nothing to say on the subject]. The opposite of “secular” is not “sacred” but “eternal”. The distinction between sacred and secular, between the "heavenly city"and the "earthly city" is one of seemingly of time (thought ultimatley of love). The distinction between the Earthly City and the Heavenly City is the recognition that the secular authority and the church belong to different stages of salvation history. It is a difference primarily of eschatology, and secularism invovles the recognition that authority of government has been relegated.

Good government recognises that is limit, that is, secular. As British ethicist Oliver O'Donovan has describd it:
“The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as secular. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority… The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule.”
What we have witnessed in the modern age is a forgetfulness of what it means to be secular. In abandoning the eschatological vision which makes the secular possible, society has walked away from the very thing which made it possible im the first place. Isntead society has become obsesseded with mediation of meaning through advertising, publicity, and advertising rather than the enactment of justice.

Nonetheless, the modern malaise notwithstanding, secularism emerged out of Christian reflection that a. the rulers of this world will need one day to throw their crowns before Jesus in submission, and b. governments cannot regulate the inner workings of our heart and mind. Secularism is part of the Christian deduction of the way the world works.

The irony therefore, of contemorpary secularism is that by imposing secularism on society, you are imposing a Christian vision of society.

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