Notes on “the Secular” (4): Extremes are Not Virtuous

In the first post, second post, and third post of this series, I defined and briefly examined the problem of what I call totalizing dualism in Christian thinking today about the word “secular” and its derivatives. If you are arriving at reading this series in this post, please read the first three first, as they lay crucial groundwork for the larger argument I am explicating in this series.

Although as I’ve said a number of times now, it is quite common for conservative Christians engaged in the task of classical education to connotatively use the “secular” word family as shorthand for “evil” and “godless,” this is conceptually and practically improper. For etymologically, these words refer to “age, generation, span of time” and also to “not distinctively religious” in the old sense of the word “religious” as a community perfectionistically separated from outsiders. To use “secular” and its derivatives as synonyms for other concepts that rely upon begged questions is linguistically misleading.

Moreover, when a connotation, a definition relative to a particular sub-group (here, Evangelical Christians), is allowed to alter denotations and also allowed to become unquestionable foundational premises for ways of living involving totalistic denunication of outsiders and totalistic aggrandizement of insiders, other serious issues appear: the theological problem of self-righteousness and the practical problem of uncorrectable intellectual sectarianism.

As heirs of the Solomonic and Socratic search for wisdom, we really ought to be asking why the ordinary sorts of embodied contexts in which we all find ourselves all the time, the this-worldly “secular” things, should be thought evil in themselves, since we know that God created all things “very good.” Going beyond the surface appearances of verbal connotations that serve as boundary markers for sectarian consciousness, how can it be that any thing is inherently evil because it originates from and exists within a domain called “secular’?1

Definitionally alone this equation is questionable, but more importantly it is incoherent because not even its advocates can live consistent with it. For to speak simply, because we have physical bodies and experience continual temporal change, each and every one of us Christians already and inextricably lives within a secular context, that is, a set of this-worldly, wide and deep social realities that surround us and in which we participate in a hundred or more ways every day without ever giving any of them much thought. So if secular is evil in itself, all of us Christians are already evil in ways we rarely bother to think much about!2

Since many classical educators hail from Protestant traditions, this point should be all the more powerful: the Reformers were of one mind regarding the idea that “secular” things, things outside of specially-demarcated spiritual ones, are not evil or godless things in and of themselves. For contemporary Protestants to speak and act as if they are equivalent is to betray at least a weak doctrine of creation (for God declared all things that He made “very good”) and likely also a weak doctrine of general revelation and common grace.3

What it comes down to, it seems to me, is that the totalizingly dualistic position is an extreme distortion of classical education, not a design feature. Specifically, the totalizing position has failed to internalize one of the most important lessons of the classical Christian tradition, found stamped all over most of the books we read: namely, that virtue is a mean between extremes, and to find that mean requires very careful parsing of the actual situations at hand.

That is, the position a person concerned with being good (and also godly) ought to seek is one that doesn’t skew off to the far right or the far left by adopting simplistic overmagnifications of ideas that on their own might be fine but which, disconnected from others, seriously distort all that follows from them.4

As our tradition amply shows us, it is fantastically easy for anyone to fall into an extreme, and fantastically difficult for anyone to attain the mean between extremes. “Christian culture” sounds like an awesome, godly goal for classical educators to pursue, but what does the term mean? To what extent do we consult the historical models of that thing (history being the teacher of virtue and vice, as our tradition proclaims), not merely to pat ourselves on the back for supposedly being “more biblical” than they, but also to help soften the unrealistic romanticisms with which we are inclined to imbue our own projected goals?5

The sad truth is that classical educators aren’t automatically going to be better at walking virtuously than anyone else – we too have to strive really hard every moment of every day.6 And this is precisely why critiquing the popular, and very sloppy use of the “secular” word family is a necessary activity. Even were it to be shown that I am incorrect on nearly every point I make herein, the very action of extensively walking through arguments that aren’t typically voiced in our circles is an exercise encouraging us in the hard work of virtue, not the easy path of vice.

The extreme of totalizing dualism, focused on abominating “secular” things must be rejected because, as I’ve been arguing, it is a connotation scare word lacking coherence and livability, and is also a misreading of various biblical texts. Even if you didn’t buy my presentation on the Old Testament two posts ago, surely the persistent message of Christ regarding obsessing on externals rather than internals, regarding confusing external “cleanness” with internal righteousness, ought to resonate. Totalizing dualism’s most fundamental error consists precisely of drawing the line between good and evil in the wrong place – a place defined by immediate sensory perception of externals.

More than this, dualism should be rejected because it recklessly flirts with one of the most basic philosophical errors that the classical Christian tradition has long battled, namely, positing that evil is a thing, and that therefore, there are things in the world – here, “the secular” – that are malum in se – evil in themselves. Because of the perfectionistic concept of “spiritual” that tends to get deployed against its supposed polar opposite, “secular,” it turns out that all this malum in se necessarily exists outside of ourselves and our special little communities pursuing intrinsically “spiritual” tasks. 7

In the next post I’ll take a look at some important observations on the nature of evil by one of the most foundational and influential authors of the classical Christian tradition, St. Augustine of Hippo.8 As a bit of a preview, I’m going to interact with Augustine in order to posit that 1) evil is not a thing, 2) the secular is a thing, 3) therefore, the secular cannot be malum in se.

It is certainly true (as any decent acquaintance with the news will show us every minute of every day) that many evils – properly defined as privations of good – certainly do emanate from the secular domain. But these evils are not the substance of the secular: their origination from the secular domain rather than from special “spiritual” or churchy domain, is not what makes them evil. And since Christians are not inherently or necessarily immune to committing many of the same such evils, the stark dualistic denunciation of the “secular,” treating it as malum in se, is incompatible with classical education.

  1. If we are inclined to enthuse about the superior virtue of vaguely-defined entities like “the Church” and “Christian culture,” serious reflection on the history of the Middle Ages, in which Christian kingdoms often performed much great evil in the name of Christ, should be sufficient to dispel the romance. Because Christians, just like “secular” people, are sinners, there is no guarantee at all that a “Christian culture,” not even one created by classical education, will necessarily be superior to its surrounding secular context. []
  2. In this connection, I invite the reader to take a look at these thoughts focused on questions we rarely ask ourselves about our own desires. []
  3. Which raises a corollary issue that I can’t explore here – an unfortunately popular distortion of the Reformation maxim sola Scriptura. Rather than the correct idea that Scripture is the only infallible rule of doctrine and life, the distortion holds that Scripture is the only reliable rule of doctrine and life. This results in devaluing, or in some radical cases, eliminating appeals to, general revelation and common grace, ironically the very foundations of the Liberal Arts that classical education so ardently advocates. []
  4. Here economics and politics are area in which many classical teachers persistently confuse merely contemporary “conservative” takes on the size of government, its powers relative to commerce, its taxing powers, its ability to limit the rights of individuals, and so on, with biblical and classical truths. It’s not an accident that such classical educators also tend to confuse dogmatically-articulated mish-mashes of Republican and Libertarian politics against broad classes of people they label “Leftists” and “Socialists” and the like, with biblical and classical truths about political order. []
  5. Extremes readily grab our attention precisely because they are extremes: so bright! so colorful! so loud! so thrilling to our passions! so aggrandizing of what we already thought – and don’t care much to examine. []
  6. In case anyone is wondering, no, I don’t think that I myself have arrived at the mean. I’m very much a work in progress. []
  7. Thus does abominating “the secular” in a totalizingly dualistic way make us ripe for falling for the additional error of trying to distance ourselves from the evils in our own hearts by adopting legalistic rigorism about externals. And again, for those of us who hail from Reformation traditions, to even countenance this kind of dualism is already inherently self-contradictory. []
  8. If any author should be called “classically Christian, surely it is Augustine. []

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