Michael Jinkins: The secular is not the enemy

In the search for a new enemy, religious leaders may rally in opposition to "the secular." But that's a trap. Not to mention a theological mistake.

I’ve been a little discouraged lately. What’s discouraging me is the spirit of opposition rife in our society.

Talk radio thrives on it. So does cable news. Political parties can’t seem to get by without it. Even the church is infected with the disease of factionalism. Most recently this was brought home to me by comments a major religious figure made to the effect that the three Abrahamic faiths should stop fighting among themselves (a really, really good idea!) but should come together in opposition against those who represent the forces of secularity.

The lowest common denominator sensationalism, the exhibitionism that weds the vices of narcissism and voyeurism in pop culture, the vengeance, violence, rampant greed, sexual promiscuity, self-centered individualism and consumerism in our society, the cults of appearance over substance and celebrity over the common good – to name only a few aspects of contemporary secularity – undercut the vibrancy of human flourishing and often scoff at faith’s commitments. In the face of these threats to humanity we are obligated by grace and love to point toward a more excellent way.

Nevertheless, we should not set faith so starkly in opposition to the secular, the world, the public sphere. We should not do so because we worship, adore and serve the Incarnate God.

Karl Barth once wrote, “We do not have the Word of God otherwise than in the mystery of its secularity.” Whenever we draw the line too sharply between God and secularity, between the church and the world, or between faith and public life, we inadvertently reinforce the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. That is, by morally and spiritually separating God, the eternal and immortal, from the world of substance and stuff.

Christians believe that God created the world, and created it good. We believe that God loves the world God created, and loves it even though it is fallen. We believe that God redeems this world which in its sin is alienated from God, and restores the whole of creation in Jesus Christ.

Joseph Sittler’s admonition rings as true today as it did over twenty years ago when he said: “Sometimes we have taken the admonition in the Epistles of St. John, ‘Do not love the world’… to mean that we ought as Christian and pious people to walk through the world holding our noses … as if God’s creation somehow smelled bad and we ought not get too close to it. However, the verse certainly cannot have that meaning, because God made the whole world, and meant it – all of it – to be loved.”

We should never promote some form of unity by setting people of faith in opposition to those who do not (yet) have faith. George MacDonald, the gentle Scottish Christian mystic, writer of fairy tales and chief inspiration of C. S. Lewis, wrote: “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less.” When we write-off whole tracts of humanity as secular we may be missing the wisdom of the God who cannot be contained in any creed or ideology. It is fitting and prudent, humble and sane, to be ready to hear what God may wish to say to us from unexpected corners of the larger world.

Among the things I find most problematic among those who reject all religious faith (and I am thinking of the recent spate of atheistic books in the popular market) is the contempt some of them have toward persons who believe. I certainly don’t want us to imitate them, scoffing, ridiculing and pouring scorn on those we disagree with, or (worse) casting them as an evil and godless enemy to be opposed. They are, like us, sinners loved with an everlasting love by the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

The kind of factionalism that pits people of faith against those who represent secular viewpoints is, in some sense, the extension of the spirit of schism (what St. Augustine understood as a sin against love) from the church to society at large. Both factionalism and schism seem to forget that, according to the gospels at least, we are not recognized as children of God (literally as children of our heavenly Father) by the correctness of our views, but by the quality of our mercy.