Notes on “the Secular” (6): What About Secular*ism*??

In the previous five posts of this series, I’ve made a case for why classical educators ought not to treat the secular domain as malum in se, and so ought not to use the “secular” word family as either connative nouns or adjectives conveying intrinsic opprobrium.

Now, at the end, it’s time to take serious note of some of the most important features of the secular domain that many classical educators use as prime evidence supporting their denunciations. These features also come with a convenient connotation word created by the addition of the suffix “ism” – thus, the very great evil of secularism which must be the target of constant, total war by all those faithful to Christ, most especially those who advocate for classical education.

What to say about this topic given all that I’ve said before by way of qualification? Here we see the trouble that frequently gets caused by heavy reliance on connotation words: at some point crucial distinctions such as the ones I’ve outlined previously become blurred, polemics and apologetics take over, and the result is a confused understanding of the original topic and its applications to present circumstances. All things secular come to be sloppily wrapped up in the slur word secularism, the whole mass of which is held to be instrinsically hostile to all things good and godly.

It makes perfect sense how easy it is for us to gather up all these evil things into one totalizing, systematic package and label them with the convenient ideological header secularism. Yet the classical tradition teaches us that virtue is precisely not the easy path, but one which continually challenges us to examine our own assumptions and our own hearts first and foremost rather than placing blame on external factors. This is no pedantic distinction, but one that fundamentally affects our conception as classical educators of our disciplines and our goals. What then are we to make of secularism?

First let me say that nothing I’ve written in this series denies that there is in fact a culture war, and that speaking very broadly faithful Christians are in fact ranged against a pervasive and many faceted assault of forces of corruption.1

Second, let me say that although I want more clarity in our terminology, I quite see the point that is being aimed at by gathering up all the negative cultural things into a definable and examinable package of problems that are particular to our own time and place. Indeed, providing Christians with a meaningful (and so opposable) description of the evils of our own temporal and cultural setting is exactly the point of using the term secularism.

As I consider the nature and meaning of secularism, I am ever mindful of such passages as Galatians 1:3-4, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” and Ephesians 2:1-2, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” I am mindful, as well, of this one:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:12-14

We stand on firm biblical ground when we think of the age we live in – the age between the two advents of Christ – as consistently displaying a manifold variety of ungodliness, worldly passions, and ways of living prompted by spiritual forces in high places whom we are to cast down. The age between Christ’s two advents manifests an “already, not yet” character: Christ has already triumphed over the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15), but his victory has not yet completely worked itself out in the space and time societies that his people inhabit as foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb. 13:13).

Consequently, there is a real war between the saints and the dragon and his forces. My argument throughout this series has not been that there is no war, but that we as classical educators must take care to construe the nature of that war properly. Although we are indeed ranged at every point of culture against great and wicked darknesses, and although, consistent with the original denotation of secular as “an age, a time,” these evils peculiar to our age, our time, my argument is still that the secular is not malum in se. The war is real: what I am arguing is that many classical educators seriously misconstrue the battlefields and so wind up, through elevating sectarian distinctives2 to controlling hermeneutical status, depriving the classical tradition of much of its reforming power.

As I’ve labored to show, because evil is not a thing but rather a privation of thing-ness, it is not proper to identify things as evil because they come from the secular. Thus, although it is completely contrary to the prevailing wisdom of large swaths of the classical school movement, secular schools are not evil because they are secular. Further, the totalizingly dualistic notion that it is necessary for Christian parents to remove their kids from such schools en masse and put them into Christian (non-secular) schools because such removal is constitutive of the only real cultural solution to the problems we see is also fallacious.3

There is a major philosophical, theological, and practical difference between saying with Scripture that the age we live in (between Christ’s two advents) is an evil one and saying, quite contrary to Scripture, that the things that come from the time period in which we live are evil in themselves. The former is an ethical statement ; the latter is metaphysical. Ethical corruption in the things that come to us from the secular realm is most properly dealt with by rigorously deploying the categories of our tradition in terms of ordered vs. disordered loves, ordered vs. disordered end goals, and prudential vs. imprudential use of good things. By stark contrast, positing metaphysical corruption in the sense of certain domains of created reality being malum in se, and then setting against them some specially metaphysically-hallowed realm (“the Church”, “Christendom,” etc.) is not even a Christian doctrine, and so does not belong in any way to a genuinely Christian pursuit of classical education.4

So, again, what about secularism? If you’ve worried throughout this series that I’m somehow weirdly denying the reality of systematic cultural attacks on Christianity, rest assured that I dont hold he referent of the term secularism to be simply a phantasm of overactive Christian culture-warrior imaginations. In fact, in researching material for this series, I ran across this fascinating explanation of where the term “secularism” originated. According to this explanation, the originator of the term described “secularism” like this:

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.

Clearly, this approach is unChristian and calls us forth to combat it as one of those “hig things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.” Moreover, numerous non-Christians accept the term with some such definition as the above as a meaningful descriptor for their irreligious views. And all of us who grew up in the late 70s to early 90s can well remember being riled up by hearing constantly about “secular humanists” and their awful Humanist Manifesto I (1933) and Humanist Manifesto II (1973).5 Yes, clearly, secularism is a real problem, and it is one that we classical educators, if we are actually faithful to the books of our great millennia-old tradition rather than neutering them with the rationalistic tools of more recent biblicist thought forms, could have much of lasting wisdom to say.6

To wind down this post and the series itself, I will offer these few summary thoughts:

As argued in the previous posts, secular denotes “a time, an age,” and so is not a simple synonym for godlessness and evil. Neither the Old nor New Testaments support a totalizingly dualistic denunication of things that come to us from the secular realm, and unless we wish to reject the Augustinian basis of most of our own theology, we can’t permit ourselves to classify the secular as malum in se. The secular is just the intellectual, material, and social conditions in which God’s providence has placed us so that we might seek Him (Acts 17:26-27). To assert that these conditions per se are evil and to thus seek escape from them in some realm we designate “spiritual” (and into which we illegitimately fold classical education as a mere instrument to obtain “spiritual” ends) is, in effect, to war against God’s providence itself.

By contrast, secularism doesn’t refer to a time period (a thing), but to an ethical corruption of the complex interwoven package of conditions and circumstances particular to us in this our time. In this our particular iteration of the inter-advental age, which is evil in that it remains subject to spiritual forces in heavenly places (who have been “already-not yet” defeated), we Christians live in two kingdoms, the City of God and the City of Man.

But it is crucial that we grasp that these Cities are not the same things as “the Church” and “the secular world.” For as Augustine, the originator of the scheme, takes great pains to outline, these two Cities intertwine throughout history in ways that are impossible for our puny minds to fully entangle. In other words, the two Cities do not map onto the totalizingly dualistic sacred / secular dichotomy I have identified as erroneous, but are a different type of heuristic altogether. And so a scheme of classical education that seeks to make that good thing a merely instrumental component of achieving and maintaining a totalizing dualism has entirely missed Augustine’s point, and in so doing, also departed very far from classical education’s actual purpose, the cultivation of wisdom-seeking.7

Once more, the things that originate in and come to us from the secular are not malum in se, but a great many of them certainly have been taken up by non-Christians, twisted away from their proper end, love of God, and pointed instead toward a self-referential, corrupted sort of love that is privative of the intrinsic good of the things themselves. To the extent that a whole bunch of these things twisted-up-away-from-God can be gathered together under one banner of false love, we may legitimately speak of “secularism” – an ideology that wraps its adherents up in the sorts of fantastically self-deceptive justifications that we see, say, in Dante’s Inferno.

That thing – secularism so defined – absolutely must be fought in a thoroughgoing way, most especially by classical educators. But as a final reiteration of a theme explained earlier in the series, the way to fight this false-love package of secularism is not to self-righteously place the whole of the secular outside of the true, outside of the good, outside of the beautiful, and posit as an alternate-reality that real true, real good, and real beauty only ever can exist in some specially hallowed realm of our own self-selected identification (again, “the Church,” “Christendom,” etc.).

Moreover, we must come to see that a consciously classical education oriented toward love of God just isn’t anywhere near the same thing as bending the books and all contemplation of them into the mechanical-instrumental service of an artificial system (“worldview”) laid out with precision for the express purpose of maintaining the totalizing dualism that in reality characterizes many of the worst heresies the Gospel has faced, not the Gospel itself.

Secularism is most certainly a privation of the good, and in this sense, is evil and must be fought. But we must take care in fighting it that we do not overcorrect and merely wind up justifying sectarian pride of place and grace-less mockery of the very realm – in our terms, the secular – from which Augustine himself reminds us that all converts, ourselves included, to the City of God come.8

I here end this series, very much aware that it is at best an inadequate initial stab at covering some extremely complex ideas and their extremely complex practical outworkings. Much more can and should be said, and no doubt much more clearly. But as the aforementioned Augustine was often wont to say in The City of God, no author can say everything in a single treatise, and no one else should expect him to!

  1. As one of many examples, this long form essay by Alistair Roberts shows how much of the culture warring which we Christians have in fact already lost has been fought on the battleground of popular entertainment – our own complicity in which we ought to spend much time pondering so as to see how corrupting forces that we might like to call secularism do not always appear in such outlandishly obvious garb as, say, abortion activism and transgender story hours at public libraries. []
  2. Such as the types of subculture-based standards and wisdom-impoverished dualisms outlined here. []
  3. The issue of secular schools, a.k.a. government schools is far too large to say any more about here. But the fact that much of the classical school movement is ideologically fixated on a totalizingly dualistic concept of education in which non-Christian / secular is a simple, convertible synonym for godlessness is theologically dangerous and needlessly polarizing given the fantastic riches of our multivalent 2,000 year old pedagogical tradition in terms of dealing with secular realities. []
  4. It’s darkly ironic that when staunch advocates of Christian worldview thinking posit the totalizingly dualistic concept of the secular as malum in se, they are much closer to old paganisms like Neoplatonism and Gnosticism than authentically Christian categories. What value is not being “secular” if instead your view of the relations of spiritual and material things is just a baptized cousin of Mani or Plotinus? []
  5. Short descriptions of these and a more recent one, Humanist Manifesto III, from 2003 may be found here. []
  6. By “more recent biblicist thought forms, I have in mind the widespread misconstrual by Protestants of sola Scriptura, such that Scripture is held to be not just the only infallible rule of faith of practice, but the only reliable rule of faith and practice. The best short treatment of this problem I know is G. Shane Morris’ “Scripture Alone Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.” This rather basic error deeply distorts many classical educators’ grasp of the classical texts, and causes them frequently to confuse superficial reactions of their own with serious, wisdom-producing engagement. []
  7. See this page on my main site for some brief thoughts on wisdom-seeking. []
  8. See this essay on how a certain sort of dualistic war-obsessed classical educator has childishly treated the actually profound Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous other examples could be produced, all showing a severe lack of intellectual and imaginative depth of engagement with the texts. []

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