Notes on “the Secular” (2): Is the Old Testament Totalizingly Dualistic?

In the first post of this series, I laid out what I call the problem of totalizing dualism as a common way of viewing “the secular” in classical education circles. In this and the followinng post I want to review some of what Scripture itself says that might be used to support for a stark, inflexibly pugilistic attitude that inflects itself in totalizing dualism.

One of the most important argument structures I have seen used consists of using the correct hermeneutical principle that God’s people over human history have a covenantal continuity. This just means that the Christian church is in some respects a redemptive continuation of the Old Testament people of God. And if there is any very clear lesson in the Old Testament, it is that God’s people were continually told to avoid cultural assimilation with those outside the covenant, for they worship other gods and so create entirely different and ungodly societies.

It’s a biblically indisputable principle. The passages are too numerous to produce and talk through in an intentionally short series of short-ish blog posts, but here are at least a few to show the overall theme:

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

Joshua 24:15

Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods.They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.

Exodus 23:32-33

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.  

Exodus 34:12-16

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 

Numbers 25:1-3

Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. 

Ezra 9:1-2

Seems cut-and-dried, right? Myself, I believe there is a crucial distinction that needs to be made about these seemingly “totalizing” passages from the Old Testament:

In these types of statements what is in view is not some generic cultural entity that can be summed up in a single convenient word like “secularism” unless that word is already, via a begged question, assumed to be a synonym for “evil” and “ungodly.”

In subsequent posts, I will outline why this use of the secular word family is wholly inappropriate within a classical education context, being as it is a mere scare word deployed connotatively and at the detriment of some of the most important parts of our own Western tradition. Connotations are certainly important since they show in the very act of communicating what a given community thinks of itself and others. Connotations are a normal part of communication, but at the same time they can lead to confused ideas and practices rather than greater clarity and fidelity to truth. As I said, this demonstration will be forthcoming, so for now I am just noting that thinking of “secular” as a mere synonym for “evil” and “ungodly” is not at all an obviously correct usage, but needs to be interrogated thoroughly.

So what do these types of passages I cited above show? Undeniably they show that God’s people are not to seek after, love, or adopt the fundamentally idolatrous ways of unbelievers, lest they themselves be drawn away from God. At the very minimum, there has to be a hard and fast ethical dichotomy drawn between people whose lives are oriented toward love God and people whose lives aren’t. As Augustine extensively taught us, it matters a very great deal what we love, and also with what kind of love we love it.

No two ways about it, any really thoroughgoing and self-honest Bible believer must be actively on the lookout for idolatrous thoughts and ways of living that can pull our hearts away from the Living God. As one of our greatest forebears, John Calvin put it, “The human heart is an idol factory.”

Nevertheless, it isn’t obvious that the term “fundamentally idolatrous ways of unbelievers” just is simply equivalent to the broad social and cultural matrix that exists outside of the church and its various activities – that is, the “secular” world.

In fact, that notion of equivalence is incoherent, since no one involved in the church and its various activities can fully remove himself from structures of the world outside. It’s easy to rail about the great evils of “secular government” and “secular education” from the comfort of one’s armchair – but when we engage in such railery, do we realize that the reason we even have a comfortable life with a comfortable armchair is because we already are part of a larger, ironically “secular” social structure that falsifies superficial protests about the “spiritual” setting of our activities?

Here I should briefly mention a connected ideological trap into which many classical educators these days have fallen. Contrary to a somewhat influential thread of theology, there is no such timeless entity as “the Church” which constitutes an “alternative polis” or “counter-polis” to that of “the world.” Such a theology is false on its face when one understands the embodied meaning of the word “polis” and realizes that no institutional church and its associated activities can embrace all the aspects of a polis.

With only one exception seen in Scripture (Israel), visible bodies of God’s people (the church) are always surrounded by and embedded in a polis not of their own making – and those poleis are secular – i.e., this-worldly. As I noted above, the principle of covenantal continuity between ourselves and the Old Testament is essentially true. But on New Testament terms, it’s just flat incoherent and fallacious to portray either some idealistic abstraction called “the Church” or specific visible bodies of believers as what amounts to a complete, self-contained, self-governing, self-providing social reality standing in every embodied way apart from “the secular.”1

In sum regarding the sorts of seemingly “totalizing” Old Testament passages I reproduced above, I think it is fallacious (and actually unworkable in the real world outside of blogs and podcasts and training seminars and sermons) to string these together into a justification for an ideology of “constant, total war” against a generic cultural entity that can be summed up in a single convenient begged-question term like “the secular world.” We are not Israel of old; we are part of a new and better covenant that embraces the outside world in order to transform it, not pulls away from it in order to perfectionistically abominate it.

Again, all Christians must always be on the lookout for the siren songs of worldly idolatries, and where we find them in ourselves we must, with the power of the indwelling, sanctifying Spirit, ruthlessly work to root them out. We must carry out the Great Commission by going out into the field of our societies and laboring to bring the lost to Christ. But those tasks are not at all the same as identifying everything outside our (often very tiny-minded) circles of thought and action as malum in se and creating for ourselves self-contained ideological and daily living circumstances in which we pride ourselves on how we’ve so marvellously escaped the sad circumstances with which so many others – including other Christians who don’t follow our ideas! – remain beset.

I’m particularly concerned that we as classical educators especially not minimize or forget that if it really is true that we have at our fingertips a fantastic wealth of intellectual and spiritual and practical resources spanning more than 3,000 years of history, if we really are engaging in a pedagogical task having the power to illuminate the darkness and ennoble souls and their societies, and if we really are in touch with the most fundamental aspect of our Faith, there is no room for boasting, since everything we have is of grace. Snarky condescension to other Christians who don’t see things our way, let alone rapacious mockery of those who have yet to be graciously called by God, is just plain ungracious and unbecoming of those whose own tradition continually exhorts humility and wisdom-seeking, not prideful display of a self-written great Book of All Answers to All Problems.

Obviously I have not covered all possible bases in this short post. I am neither representing myself herein as an expert Bible scholar or as an unquestionable expositor of the classical Christian tradition. All I have attempted to do here is raise some important questions about the totalizing and perfectionistic nature of certain claims often made about the outside world and about the quality of biblical reasoning that often appears to justify those claims.

So, if the Old Testament doesn’t actually underwrite the sort of commonplace generic polemic often used in our circles against “secularism,” what about the New? I will turn to that topic in the next post.

  1. All this is, unfortunately, too large a set of issues to further explore here. In the near future, I hope to explain the unclassical nature of the alternate- / counter-polis notion in more detail. []

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