Monday, June 24, 2013

Secular Vs. Secularism

Recently, and by recently I mean to say in the last several decades, there has been much talk amongst the religious types of the world regarding the idea of our increasingly "secular" world.  Typically, this sort of talk is a variation on the theme "Barbarians at the gates", only with the secular powers of the world being the barbarians, and the religious types of the world as those barricading the gates.  This zeitgeist  has dominated much of the efforts of religious groups and person worldwide, and it could be argued that both Vatican II and September 11 are responses to this pervasive theme.

Now, I'd argue that, for the most part, this "Secular vs. Religion" idea is fairly accurate:  we are seeing a decrease in the social prominence of religion and an increasing prominence of secularized institutions and organizations.  However, it is important for us of the religious bent to understand this phenomenon fully, to avoid a monochromatic understanding of this trend and really explore the relationship of the religious and the secular, and understand fully the implications of these things.

The common tendency amongst religious peoples is to see the issue quite simply, with "Secular" as bad and "Traditional" or "Religious" or "Godly" as good.  Clear cut, simple, this sort of understanding makes it clear who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and where to draw the battle lines, leaving the situation looking like the beginning of a Civil War battlefield: Straight lines, pressed uniforms, clear motives, and regimented clarity over the situation.  Also like a Civil War battle, this understanding usually leaves virtually everyone sick, wounded, and really really pissed off, albeit minus the gangrene and horrendous surgical practices.   It is this simplified, mono-faceted understanding of the trend of secularization that ends in court battles with the ACLU, arms stockpiling in the basements of the disgruntled denizens of the Bible Belt, and, in extreme cases, sheer, senseless, gratuitous violence and counter-violence on the streets of London.  Decreeing the secular to be evil and the Godly to be irreproachable, while simple and concise, does not really seem to work.  Why not?  Well, simply put, because, like all things humans do, both the sacred and the secular can be done well and can be done poorly.

Technically, this is partly true...
For example, look at religion.  It takes a relatively brief glance at nearly any period in history to discover a very simple truth:  People have done great things and terrible things have been done in the name of God.  Within our own lifetime, the phrase "Allahu Akbar", an Arabic phrase which translates "God is Greatest" has become widely associated with acts of terrorism.  Innocent people are murdered by people who, at least in his own eyes, is operating on the will of God.  Its easy for us to say "The guy is crazy, he's clearly not a good example of a religious person" and it is frighteningly simple for us to dismiss the entire Islamic faith as an evil or fundamentally flawed religion, but we must face the simple, rather terrifying truth:  The people who blow themselves up on street corners, set bombs up at marathons, and hack a British soldier to pieces in broad daylight honestly believe that they're actions are condoned, even applauded, by God.   They act in the name of God, as do the Westboro Baptist Church (If you've read much of my previous work on here, you will know that I really really don't like the WBC), as do so many Christians each and every day.  However, if we are to learn one thing from the suicide bomber, it is this: merely claiming a religious justification does not make you, nor your actions, commendable.  Simply saying "God told me so", that is, being religious, is not beyond error.

The word "Secular" itself is not antithetical to religion, simply meaning "worldly or temporal".  We're all, in some ways, secular.  We live (whether we like it or not) in this world with our 7 billion neighbors.  We eat food, drink water, sleep, work, shit, and get up the next day and do it all again.  We cannot escape the world we live in...nor should we.  Jesus Christ lived on this world, he worked by the sweat of his brow and lived most of his life caked in dust and dirt and dealing with everyday problems such as politics and gossip and social norms.  Jesus Christ did not shy away from the worldly or the temporal, but entered into it.  The purpose of Christ is not to dispose of the temporal and worldly, but to enter into it and redeem it.  The secular isn't bad per se, just like being religious isn't "good" per se.  Each are subject to more prudential judgement, each need to be better understood.

The great problem with the secularization trend is not the secular or the religious, but the harmony between the two.  The things of the world and the things of God are not dichotomous, but harmonious.  All things are meant to be harmonious, for God did not create a disharmonious world, nor did he sow discord into it, but gave the choice to do so to humanity, so that we might choose better of it.

Instead of avoiding the secular, we should seek to avoid secularism, the supremacy of the secular over the spiritual.  Secularism seeks to eliminate or marginalize religion and spirituality from the public life of society and promote a society with absolute privatization of God and other such things.  And, honestly at face value, this doesn't seem so terrible.  By privatizing God, we eliminate a bevy of nuisances, ranging from Mormons at the door in the early morning to our aforementioned suicide bomber.  Religiously-minded people cause a massive amount of discord in the world, so why wouldn't we put a muzzle on them for the sake of peace and harmony?

Because peace and harmony are neither peaceful nor harmonious when they are built on lies, and the idea that faith is a private matter is a very bold lie.  Faith is not a personal indulgence, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human.  Faith is the search for meaning beyond ourselves, it is longing to belong to things infinitely greater than oneself.  Faith is part of human nature, and as a part of human nature, cannot be suppressed.  No social trend, authority, or regime can eradicate human nature, no matter how well-intentioned they may seem.  Secularism is false because it seeks harmony, not by a proper understanding of the relationship between secular and sacred, but by eliminating the sacred altogether.

This picture doesn't directly correlate
to the subject at hand.  It just like Pope Francis.
The same can be said for unhealthy disdain for the secular, for puritanism, unhealthy asceticism, anti-materialism.  Religious efforts to negate or suppress the worldly, or forced imposition of religion upon cultures and societies can be as harmful and unnatural as secularism.  The material world, while fallen, is good, is always being redeemed by Christ, always being sanctified.  Christ does not intend to destroy the world, but to perfect it, and grossly neglecting or demeaning the secular is gross neglect and disdain for Christ, who enters into and redeems the secular.

The Catholic Church, and indeed, any religion, ought to be wary of the so-called "Secular trend".  Rather than simply rejecting any mention of secular and embracing any push for religious traditionalism, we must be wise judges, prudentially understanding who we are as religious and secular people, seeking and elevating acts of goodness in our world, regardless of their origin.  It is not enough for us to self-assure ourselves because of our faith.  Our faith must compel us, must inspire great love and compassion and unconditional charity to well up within us.  We must be the bridges of God and the World, the harmonious of Sacred and Secular.  We are the New Heaven and the New Earth, Creation in harmony, growing in perfection, echoing God's love throughout the heavens and the Earth.