Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Religious Value of Secularism

The religious value of secularism is not merely a negative value, whereby secularism is a sociocultural field to which religion remains arrayed in opposition. In fact, I propose that secularism embodies a central virtue of religion—specifically, of modern Western religion that has differentiated into eschatology: Judaism and Christianity (we are not accepting pirated versions of same; e.g., Islam).

The central virtue to which I refer stems from the etymology of the word ‘secularism’. The word comes from the Latin word, saeculum, which literally means a “long period of time”, an “era” or an “epoch”. It came to be used, during the long period of time historians used to call ‘Christendom’ (spanning roughly from the 4th century C.E. to the 16th century C.E.), to refer to the counter-pole of the eschaton: ‘this world’ or ‘this life’. Augustine himself inaugurated this usage, in his famous phrase, the saeculum senescens, or “the Age growing old”. In Augustine’s formulation, this Age growing old is all of history, as it waits patiently for the Second Coming of the Lord to end history.

What Augustine (354-430 C.E.) did not foresee, however, was that, although the Age seemed to be winding down and deteriorating in his time, with the decay of the Roman Empire (even after its Christianization beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312 C.E.), the Christian West would slowly but surely over the centuries increase in health, vitality and dynamism. Christian theologians continued to use Augustine’s phrase of the saeculum senescens even as late as the 16th century (if not later), but the spectacular facts of Western progress all around them belied the essential assumption of that phrase, that all of history is just winding down as we wait patiently for the eschaton.

The astounding and marvelous ascendancy of Western Progress—which began in the High Middle Ages, but really picked up steam after Christendom began to dissolve institutionally in the late 16th century—has generated a new fact for the religious consciousness; i.e., for the eschatological consciousness: the Saeculum, this world, this life, all of history—are obviously not going away any time soon (though every age has its doomsayers and alarmists and conspiracy theorists, and the specter of an Islam Redivivus in our time is stimulating those crackpots yet again).

Not only is the Saeculum not going away any time soon, it is continuing to thrive and progress, notwithstanding our current threat, as mentioned parenthetically above (which, due mainly to Western blindness and naivety based in PC multiculturalism, may result in horrific casualties and dislocations in the near future, but will not be able to dismantle the overall structures of the West).

With the reigning fact of the Saeculum, the religious-eschatological consciousness has two options on how to digest it:

a) stubborn resistance, rejection of Western Progress and its values as ‘un-Christian’, and an obstinant and fantasizing obsession with ushering in the Last Days;


b) readjusting the religious mind in order to respect the Saeculum in its integrity as representing the context by which the process toward the eschaton (as well as its mysteriously paradoxical frustration) happens at all.

What we mean to say in (b) is that Christian eschatology from the very beginning was based on paradox and mystery: only the Father knows when the end of history will come, Jesus himself said. Many of the admonitions and prescriptions for life which Jesus pronounced imply a call to the Christian to acculturate himself to the way this world and this life continue to be, and while he is to pursue the values that become luminous in the light of the imminent eschaton, he is also to remain patient while waiting for that eschaton, and much of the new ethics of the Christian seem to be based upon abiding by the structures of the untransfigured world.

The existential situation as presented in the New Testament, however, is not that simple and copacetic: there is actually a great tension—sometimes apparently self-contradictory—between the urgency of an imminent eschaton, on the one hand, and the call to abide patiently while history wends its mysterious way toward that eschaton. This tension has oftentimes not been managed very well in the history of Christianity, and after the dissolution of Christendom, the West was wracked by sociopolitical cataclysms based on deformative, mostly Gnostic, responses to that tension (with the French Revolution, Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, as well as the more amorphous cultural diseases of the West in the last 200-odd years).

However, by and large, modern Christians have digested secularism maturely, and have learned to integrate the dominance and vitality of the Saeculum into the wider tension between this world and the next world, between this life and the next life, between History and the End of History. The very dominance and vitality of the Saeculum highlights and energizes the mystery of the eschatological tension which is at the heart of the Christian’s existential posture throughout his life. It is easier, and more facile, for the Christian to cultivate the goal of the eschaton when the world is “winding down” and deteriorating all around him. In that situation, the Christian can comfortably denigrate his surrounding world and its societies and institutions, and just hunker down to wait for the Apocalypse. But the real challenge arises when the surrounding world is not in fact winding down, but is growing and progressing by leaps and bounds. The Christian must then search more deeply within himself to get in touch with the mystery of the existential tension that is the heart of the spiritual Exodus from this world to the next, rather than rely on external, superficial and materially based markers.

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