Notes on “the Secular” (3): Is the New Testament Totalizingly Dualistic?

Last time I too-briefly walked through the question of whether the Old Testament underwrites a totalizingly dualistic approach to the matter of “the secular.” My argument is thatwWhat all those “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” type verses show is the basic, uncontroversial truth of the Christian religion that we believers are to strive to avoid adopting the idolatrous norms of those outside the covenant lest those idolatrous norms drag us also away from God.

Now at first glance I would agree that totalizing dualism seems to be uhpeld by the Old Testament’s model of God’s covenant people being sociologically distinct from those outside the covenant. Israel’s kings were forbidden to marry outsiders, religious ideas and practices from other nations were abominated, and parents were instructed to ensure their children learned the laws and ways of God. What could be clearer than that the secular, that which lay outside the covenant people, should be thought of as intrinsically anti-God?

Despite the critiques I’m marshalling in this series, I am somewhat sympathetic to the above line of reasoning. I grant that if the word “secular” is allowed to be simply stipulated as a synonym for “evil / ungodly,” the entire totalizing dualism paradigm I’m criticizing really does seem to follow by logical reasoning from premises supplied by the Bible.

But that great big if is exactly what I’m resting my arguments on because I don’t believe it’s linguistically correct or, in the end, theologically and sociologically helpful to construe “secular” in that manner. To read “secular” in the way that totalizing dualism urges us to is to declare ordinary life itself the mere realm of the Devil, and to in principle cut off as intrinsically sinful the entire package of the Liberal Arts as disciplines following norms built into God’s creation.

On the contrary, what we really ought to be saying as classical educators is that the line that must be drawn between good and evil does not run through sociocultural generalizations like “the secular world” and “the church,” but through the hearts of each and every individual sinner – even those currently in the process of being redeemed. It is not a thing’s being “secular” that makes it evil or godless, but rather that thing’s being oriented toward an evil or godless end. Evil is not a thing, so nothing that is “secular” can be evil because it is “secular.” I contend that what we classical educators are trying to say something different than that, so we really ought to use words more carefully.

I’ll look more at the key idea that nothing is evil in itself in the next two posts. This time I want to briefly engage with the New Testament, to see if it offers support for totalizing dualism. First up, the Apostle Paul:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership can righteousness have with wickedness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement can exist between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will dwell with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-18

Additionally, we read this:

For though we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world. Instead, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We tear down arguments and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 

2 Corinthians 10:3-5

In these passages, at least, it looks like we have something that might underwrite a totalizing dualistic approach: flesh vs. spirit, divine weapons vs. worldy weapons, tearing down every presumption and taking captive every thought.

Yet notice that this passage is written to Christians and is dealing specifically with problems within the Christian church at Corinth, among which were frequent attacks on Paul’s own apostleship and teachings. Corinth was a hotbed of incipient heresies, some of which were being promoted, interestingly, by thinkers of the Second Sophistic movement using the tools of classical rhetoric.1 The primary focus of these passages is manifestly not a harsh polemic against some generic cultural boogeman, say, “the secular worldview.” The primary focus of these passages is, rather, disciplining wayward Christians in terms of the spiritual weapons Christ furnishes.

It is of course quite true that the passages can and sometimes must be applied to other domains of thought and action than just the original Corinthian circumstances. No doubt one reason these made it into Scripture was because they encapsulate ideas which all Christians in all ages must grapple with. But such applications, especially if they are of a broadbrush and scattershot nature, using popular scare words in a merely connotative sense rather than a well-thought out sense will have to argued, not merely asserted within a larger begged question about the supposed fundamental evils and godlessness of “the secular world.”

Let’s next look at a fairly alarming imperative from the Lord’s brother:

You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world renders himself an enemy of God. Or do you think the Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to dwell in us yearns with envy?

James 4:4-5

I have to ask again, what does the principle articulated here have to do with a generic and totalizing abomination of “the secular”? It matters quite a bit that the term “friendship” is preceded by the term “adulteresses,” for adultery is elsewhere described in Scripture as a kind of slavery to one’s passions – that is, to disordered desire. We are frequently shown by scandals in the news that Christians are just as prone to having disordered desires as any unbeliever – no special protection can or ever will come to us because we perfectionistically imagine that we’re not secular people. Sin is not outside of the human being, but inside him – a reality from which Christians are certainly not immune.2

James’ imperative has to do with ethical corruption in and of itself, not merely the time-bound particularities of “the secular” with which none of us can actually help having something to do as we go about our daily lives. In short, there’s no totalizing dualism to see here. Rather, I would suggest that demonizing “the secular” in a totalizing fashion might become an awful distraction from our own sanctification – after all, if the Great Evils of the Age are out there, not right among us in our own private, self-aggrandizing little hearts, shouldn’t we just sit back on our laurels and thank God we aren’t like those “sinners”? Oh wait…

But what of John? Surely John gives us reason to totalizingly rail against “secular” things:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away, along with its desires; but whoever does the will of God remains forever.

I John 2:15-17

Here we are admonished not to love the world or the things in it, so given how we commonly use the word “secular,” as as synonym for “the world,” isn’t totalizing dualism obviously true? No, not really. It seems plain from John’s own terms that “love” here is equivalent to “lust” – and lust classically considered means a disordered desire for an object that is bonum in se – good in itself.

In view here is the character of our desires, whether they are in harmony with God or only aggrandizing of ourselves. And once more, no pretension to be living in a “Christian culture” that is hermetically sealed off from “the secular world” can protect Christians from having and giving in to disordered desires.3 In ways difficult to enumerate and engage well, we are all of us capable of being just as secular as any “humanist” we want to abominate. Where is the room for boasting, then?

Now clearly the Christian life may be properly described as involving a great and serious war with forces of darkness in this present age. As we know, Paul graphically describes the lost like this:

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Cor. 2:14


But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

2 Cor. 4:3-4

Since all Christians accept these teachings, the issue at hand is not what the Bible says. The issue at hand is what the Bible means by these teachings. This is an easy distinction to make, but not at all an easy distinction to explicate.

Most serious Bible students know of the need to examine the Greek uses of kosmos, typically translated “the world” and aion, typically translated “age,” so I need not reproduce any of that here. It will have to suffice merely to invoke a persistent feature of New Testament religion, namely, the great tension that Christians will always feel because of the “already, not yet” eschatological aspect of Christ’s victory. By faith, like Abraham, we are looking forward to a city whose builder and maker is God (cf. Heb. 11:10). But so long as we are in the flesh we are members of this-worldly societies to which we have important social and civic duties.4

On the other hand, some of the passages I’ve cited (and others like them) entail a necessary resistance to organized unbelief, which surely does at times manifest itself in “systems” of ideas and practices. That sort of thing is, again, what the common polemic against “secular” things is trying to convey, and that’s why, as I said above, I do have some sympathy for it. I get what the intention is, and with the intention I agree. But my contention here is not that the thought itself is wrong, but that words chosen to express it are wrong.

For one thing that the Bible cannot mean by such “separationist” teachings is that Christians are to treat everything outside of their own being-redeemed circles as the mere realm of the Devil and thus radically abominate it and even radically avoid it. Not only would we be unable to carry out the Great Commission were we thus radically separatist, but we would come into conflict with the principle of Paul’s words that:

I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.

I Cor. 5:9-10

In other words, there’s a certain type of radicalized Christian polemic about “the secular” that, if consistently maintained, would have to lead Christians to “go out of the world” rather than actually work in it for its redemption. On the contrary, we have to be part of and go out into the “secular” world because that’s just the overarching, large-scale space-and-time embodied world in which we live. Moreover, we can, in fact, associate significantly with those we might wish to simplistically dismiss as “secularists” on the grounds that it is God who will judge them, not we ourselves (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

Moreover, as we’ll see later, the denotation of the “secular” word family does not support a radicalized polemic of warfare, since in the most fundamental meaning of those terms, each and every last one of us inhabits and partakes of secular things every minute of every day – and cannot help but doing so. To speak in a totalizingly dualistic way about “the secular” is to speak falsely, for it simply isn’t possible for any Christian who interacts with wide ranges of people and wide domains of culture to literally “be separate” from secular realities.

It’s worth noting in this connection that the Reformation, with its holistic doctrine of vocation, freed Christian laymen from the tyrannical hyper-spiritualism of what is called the Secular / Sacred divide. Throughout the Middle Ages, wide-ranging cultural work by ordinary people was often inhibited by the idea that all activities not intrinisically “spiritual” were thereby intrinsically “secular,” and so to be avoided by “godly” people.

Ironically, although the Reformers overthrew this harmful dichotomy, it has made a great comeback among some of their contemporary heirs who have returned to speaking of “the secular” as a realm of intrinsic evil and ungodliness, against which Christians must form alternative and parallel subcultures of true spirituality, true friendship, true culture, and true justice – an idea that Luther would have abominated as the most un-Gospel like “monkishness.”

Moreover, the Bible cannot mean by the sorts of antithesis-like passages noted above a radical assault upon all that is not “churchy” and “spiritual” (i.e., “secular”), for numerous passages in the Epistles provide us with detailed instruction regarding how to actually live in the surrounding ungodly culture, not radically abandon it.

Consider, for instance, as is often pointed out, that Jesus does not require Roman soldiers who want to follow Him to desert their posts in the pagan army, but to live righteously within that context (Luke 3:14). Christians can serve in a “secular” military without feeling any great cognitive dissonance merely about that.

Consider that Paul endorses believers maintaining their “worldly” occupations while praying for the unbelievers in charge and aspiring to live quietly and peaceably among them (1 Cor. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:1-3). Why don’t classical educators who conceive of their pedagogical task as constant, total warfare against “secularism” spend any great amount of time urging their fellows and their students to aim, via studying the Liberal Arts, for quiet and peaceable lives?

Consider again that almost immediately after calling Christians “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,” Peter charges us to

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.

1 Peter 2:13-16

Given such specific injunctions to embody our political life in terms of submission to the ordinances of the governments that God places over us, one thing, therefore, that the earlier cited “antithesis” type passages cannot mean is that Christians are to be totalizing dualists, operating as if there are two hermetically sealed off and absolutely opposed modes of thinking and living, and that one of these – just for grins let’s call it “the secular realm” – is simply evil in and of itself.

Such a stark dualism, which does not merely assert an ethical distinction between two conflicting things but rather a metaphysical separation between them does not comport with the witness of Scripture taken as a whole.

In the next few posts, I will demonstrate – at least to those who take major classical Christian authors as in some definable way normative for our own theological musings – that speaking of “the secular” and its derivative words as being merely the realm of evil, demonic forces such that against “the secular” we must always prosecute a constant, total war, is actually an anti-Christian and un-classical thing to do.

  1. This is where classical educators might really shine in how they engage things “secular” – by using the actual things found in the classical texts to illuminate Scripture, thereby better ensuring that students read Scripture more thoughtfully. []
  2. This is another line of argument why the quasi-popular “The Church is an alternative polis” theology often found in classical education circles is false: it draws the line between sin and righteousness in the wrong place, in the externals rather than the internals. []
  3. After this fact has been repeated a few times, surely it becomes apparent that the notion of totalizing dualism too easily functions as a blinder on Christian eyes rather than an illuminator of them. We’re not actually better than “the world.” That’s the whole point of constantly reminding ourselves of grace. []
  4. And lo and behold, the texts of our classical tradition are packed full of materials exhaustively exploring social and civic duties. It’s a mark of shallowness to read such texts having decided in advance that it’s all pagan poppycock and the Bible Alone shows us a totalizing blueprint for every question or issue human society could ever run up against. []

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