Notes on “the Secular” (1): The Problem of Totalizing Dualism

Initial disclosure: I was raised in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s, and so, like pretty much any other conservative Christian of this stripe, my mind and heart got packed full of militant rhetorical posturing about the great evils of “Secular Humanism” and the grand necessity for Christians to always be on the lookout for the crafty denizens of that nefarious anti-God tribe trying to pull the wool over all our eyes.

In the more than two decades that I’ve been deeply involved in classical Christian education circles, I’ve seen how this not entirely wrong, but certainly quite blinkered, ideological framework, a lamentably long-running feature of American Protestantism around since at least the 1850s,1 was basically built right into the cause of classical education by some of its most influential thought leaders. As far as I can tell, a great many classical teachers seem to think this whole complex of Fear-the-Godless-Secularists is just simply a design feature of classical education rather than a really severe flaw.

In this series, I’ll begin exploring some of the most important aspects of this ideology, which – fair warning! – I myself as a classical educator no longer accept but instead have come to believe represents a fairly radically distortion on many fronts of “classical” activities by enslaving them to a continuously revolutionary, reactionary, and retrenchment-based mentality. Now that I’ve sufficiently offended a lot of people, let me really get started.

It is a commonly used trope in classical education circles that “secular” is a bad thing, the thing against which classical education pits itself and is seeking to supplant. The trope possesses a wide range: it’s not just a noun, referring to a thing which is held to be very bad, but also an adjective, describing any human idea or action that the classical educator using the term believes to be unbiblical, ungodly, and intolerable.

And so we are wont to generate much black-and-white criticism of such boogeymen as secularists (a broad class of people), secular education, secular government, secular culture, the secular worldview, and so on. Some, indeed, among us like to proclaim just about every time they get a chance that there must always be constant, total war between Christians and everything that is “secular.”

The dichotomy so starkly and uncompromisingly expressed is curious when considered in the light of our common history as Western Christians, especially given some of the most foundational texts written by our brethren from the past.

Viewed in this larger light, I have two contentions in this series. First, I contend that the commonplace way of using the word secular and its derivatives fails to adequately express the real points we want to make in defense of classical education. And second, I contend that the common way we use these words conveys a totalizing dualism that confuses destroying enemies with building a culture and in the process substitutes theological and philosophical factionalism for a true classical catholicity.

To get started, with respect to the secular and its derivatives, what do I mean by the description totalizing dualism as a criticism of the common way of speaking in classical circles? Simply put, totalizing dualism consists of:

construing the nature and practice of classical education as part of a larger theological and sociopolitical framework of absolutist, top-to-bottom, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, war-to-the-knife pugilism.

While each of the elements of that definition could be dwelt upon by way of exposition, this series is not meant to be merely pedantic, so I will forgo that sort of definitional subtlety here. Yet I will add this to the description: totalizing dualism as I am dealing with it here sees classical education as being about the task of culture-warring in the particular mode of pressing for and expecting, over multiple generations, Christian dominance of institutions and other social structures.

Dominance is the key word here. For the ideology I will be engaging in these posts doesn’t only acknowledge what is Scripturally undeniable – the great conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Rather, it seeks to maximize our perception of and expectation of open, uncompromising conflict by seeing stark antithetical divisions as occurring everywhere and at all times and in all places, and, most crucially, it identifies all these antitheses as “the secular.”

Moreover, because war and enemies are quite literally everywhere that the Christian looks, prosecuting war against enemies is quite literally the Christian’s most critical duty – a duty most importantly carried out by training the young in the boot camp of classical education to make every aspect of their Christian lives orbit the vocation of soldier. (Now of course by writing this way I am not denying the Bible’s own military metaphors for the Christian life. I am concerned rather about a particular and highly distortive understanding of those military metaphors.)

Everyone has heard the prooftexts, of course, most especially that one from the Dutch Reformed leader Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Very true, this! To the extent that classical educators today grasp and operate in accord with the New Testament’s teaching that Christ’s Gospel entails Christ’s kingship over all, it biblically follows that the King’s kingdom has to be defended (and extended), and that He has left us here with the Spirit as our guide to carry out this task.

With all this I firmly agree. Whatever criticisms of common classical education-world tropes you read in this series, none of them will be based on denying Christ’s kingship over the world or denying that He is historically engaged in a process of putting all enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25) or that, with the sword of His mouth, in the end, He will strike the rebellious nations and rule them with an iron rod (Rev. 19:15).

Nothing I say herein aims to deny or minimize the reality of the great culture war that has been tearing the Western world to shreds for many decades now. Nothing I say herein is meant to deny that there are some fronts of this culture conflict (say, abortion and gender issues) on which defending Christian truths really does require pursuing visible and embodied reform of institutions and social realities.

But the divergence between a proper sort of cultural work aimed at these ends and the type I’m warning against as totalizing dualism makes itself known when its embodied targets, particularly summed up in the word secular and its derivative terms, are treated as malum in se – that is, as evil in themselves.

Throughout this series I will unapologetically contend that this common way of treating the secular in classical education circles, is sub-Christian because it treats the secular as malum in se whereas by contrast the classical Christian theological tradition denies that anything in God’s created world ever can be malum in se.

Although there is a many decades-long tradition of using the word secular as a synonym-codeword for “Godless,” I will try to prove over the course of this series that this is an improper usage which, ironically, obscures some of the most important ways that Christ mediates His kingship to us in the space-and-time world.

I will also argue throughout this series that the common way of treating the secular stands in stark contrast to the best and most culturally-redemptive parts of the classical Christian tradition. I will argue that by way of this error, the common parlance unintentionally defeats its own goal of redeeming culture and instead traps its adherents in tiny, self-validating intellectual sects that will almost surely fail to have any significant impact on anyone outside of their own hyper-committed people.

All these sorts of remarks demand, of course, exposition and defense. To that task most of the remainder of this series will be dedicated. But before moving on to the arguments, I think it is worth taking some time to review some of what Scripture itself says that might be used as support for a stark, inflexibly pugilistic attitude that inflects itself in totalizing dualism.

  1. This is a quasi-arbitrary date; I chose it because at the end of the 1850s Darwin’s theory arrived, and really serious, non-threatened Protestant cultural thought basically went downhill thereafter. []

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