Scare Quotes: Secular

Reading CS Lewis’s Prince Caspian as a child my imagination was set on fire by the suggestion that the magic in Narnia had been so sufficiently hidden the thought of the fantastic — dwarfs, giants, fauns — was as equally ridiculous in Narnia as it was in Illinois. Back then I was convinced magic had been real and could be brought back. But now I am grown.

This is the second post in our Scare Quotes series where I unpack the phrase: “Increasingly secular culture.”

Last week, I defined the word “culture”, borrowing from Andy Crouch, as simply what we humans make of the world. And this “making of the world” is increasingly secular.

Still not helpful.

So, let’s talk about that four-letter word “secular.”

To first describe what “secular” means we have to look at what it does not mean. The word “secular” should not first be associated with immorality or pure atheism. There are plenty secular theists and secular moralists… Heck, there are secular Christians. There is not, however, scheming secularists, twirling their mustaches trying to make Christians listen to rock’n’roll.

“Secular” is an adjective, not a noun.

To explain what I mean by calling human artifacts “secular” I’m going to use definitions from James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular: A Reading of Charles Taylor. Smith’s book is a primer on Charles Taylor’s 896 page tome A Secular Age.

This is a blog based on a digest version on a large book, certainly it will not plumb the depths of what it means to be secular but it may be a fine beginning.

1) The “Classical” Definition:

A more “classical” definition of the secular, as distinguished from the sacred [is] the earthly plane of domestic life. Priests tend the sacred; butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers carry out “secular” work.

Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

In the “Classical” Definition of “secular” there is a clear line between the sacred and common.

A tree is material, the church building built from it is sacred. When washing the dishes, changing diapers, or paying bills I am engaged in secular activities but when I’m praying, reading my Bible, or going to church I’m engaged in sacred and holy activities.

2) The “Modern” Definition

A more “modern” definition of the secular as areligious – neutral, unbiased, “objective” – as in a “secular” public square.

Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

An obvious working of the “modern” definition of the word “secular” is the phrase: The Separation of Church and State – insert “Life” for “State” though.

There is a time and place for religion: Sundays at 10am. Do not begin to let it influence how you work, parent, study, relax, have fun.

Think of it this way, if you make brownies with cow poop you’ll improve one and make the other much worse. Much, much worse. I’m not sure who first said that, I wish it were me, but we tend to treat everyday like religious practices are corrosives.

What I am not saying is that the Church should take over the State, as it stands I think the State is the cow poop and the two are better apart than together. Instead what I am saying is that in the this definition of “secular” a religious practice does not and should not have bearing outside the hour or so spent between the four walls of a church once a week. 

3) A Secular Age

 It’s possible to imagine not believing in God.

Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The world is no longer magical, it just exists. I came to realize this sitting in a coffee shop on a sunny day in California. I had come from a church staff meeting where we discussed inviting people. Sitting at the cafe sipping my coffee  I asked myself:

“Why would I invite anybody here to church? Everybody seems so happy. Everybody here seems content. No rampant immorality, we’re all able to interact kindly and with respect towards one another.”

I kept sipping my coffee and went back to whatever important thing I was working on.

Once upon a time one could not fathom a life without religion, a religious life was assumed. It would be impossible to function without some connection to religion. Regardless of actual belief in divinity, religion was a given. 

I use “religion” and not “spirituality” because religion is a framework for spirituality.

Religion offers clarity to those moments charged with a spiritual static electricity, like the overbearing goodness a loved one’s embrace, or the glory of a sunset on the beach, or the crushing fragility we sense when holding a newborn child, or the grief caused by the evening news, or when the sun hits a room just right and for a quick second we realize these are golden, halcyon days.

Plenty of people are spiritual but it has little value beyond adding some enjoyable texture to an otherwise humdrum life.

Religion once created a framework for understanding transcendence, but now we create our own meaning. Before we could not conceive of meaning without God, now we couldn’t imagine conceiving it with God.

In this secular age, spiritual moments are just that: moments. These are just pleasurable firings of synapses, particularly nice chemical reactions in our mushy brains. They have no greater value. They just are. We might as well enjoy them and move on. Fairy tales are just smoke and mirrors. Now we are grown.

When a person, place, or thing is “secular” it is separate from sacred and religious activities which are themselves material, devoid of spiritual value. “Secular” means without spirit or magic.

“Secular” means without God.

This is the Narnia of Prince Caspian until the prince’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius, reminds us otherwise:

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts.”

In the fall of 2017 we will be serving in the United Kingdom with the organization the Alliance for Transatlantic Theological Training. Please consider partnering with us today.

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PS: Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous rationalist in fiction, believed in fairies?

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