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Secularly Spiritual? Spiritually Secular? (Gil Dueck)

Over the last few days, my commutes have been spent listening to the 7 part CBC Ideas series called “The Myth of the Secular.” I’m not finished the series yet, but it’s been very interesting thus far. Is “the secular” simply the absence of religion? Or does it require religion and lean heavily on versions of religious eschatology in its vision of the future? Is religion a private exercise in a kind of generic, value-free public square or is it public truth with private implications? Basically, what I’ve picked up from the series thus far as that “the secular” owes considerably more to religion than it often cares to acknowledge and religion is often fundamentally secular in its presuppositions and expectations. The lines are often very blurry indeed.

At any rate, this series has brought to mind a short piece written by my brother Gil Dueck a few years ago. I thought it would be worth reposting here because it highlights an important part of the issue, in my view. “Secular” and “religious” are relatively easy terms to throw around but are actually kind of tricky to define. Even more difficult is the task of identifying the ways in which both have shaped and are operative in our own worldviews. Undoubtedly “secularists” are often more religious than they think, but, in a similar way, “believers” can be among the most thoroughly secular folks around.


I’m starting to wonder about the possibility of a very counterintuitive truth. What if we twenty-first century Christians are among the more secular folk around? Even as a I write it, this is a question that seems odd. Evangelicals are known for their historical opposition to secularism. And evangelicalism is often defined—if it can, indeed, be defined—by individual piety and the priority placed on a vital personal relationship with God.

But the more I think about it the more I’m suspicious that many of key markers of this “relationship” could best be understood as accommodations to secularism. This could lead to the ironic conclusion that much of what is generally pointed toward as evidence of spiritual vitality could be deeply secular in nature.

The historical secularist concern was to uncouple the church from its long-held position of public privilege and influence. This separation of church and state is now so much a part of our understanding that it is taken as axiomatic that religion has no place beyond the subjective experience of individuals who find that sort of thing helpful.

It seems to me, looking at how a life with God is conceived of and practised within the circles I have spent much of my life, that we have largely accepted the secular assessment of the role of religion. I see this in a number of areas, primarily the persistent priority given to individual experience as the barometer for measuring spiritual health.

Phrases like “hearing God’s voice” and “discovering God’s will” are just two examples of ways of relating to God that, at first glance, seem external but are conceived of mainly as private exercises in which individuals “sense” what God might be saying or doing. This, coupled with the unspoken assumption that the church exists for the purpose of nurturing individual relationships with God and meeting the spiritual needs of its members are so much a part of the vocabulary and DNA of a good deal of current Christian expression that it can be very difficult to see life with God in any other terms.

In short, it can be very difficult to see that the categories and expectations that we operate with are largely secular in that they take as given the notion that God is to be sought, experienced and followed primarily (exclusively?) in the realm of the private, subjective experience of the individual.

While there is an irreducibly subjective element to life with God, it seems to me that there is something very secular about “relating” to God in such a privatized way. Worse, I fear there may be something very misleading about this kind of presentation of what should be expected of a life lived with God.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    I too share a concern regarding the secularization of the faith but for very opposite reasons, Ryan. My concern is that our corporate worship has become permeated with political expressions, of all manner and orientation, mostly because well intended individuals work first for political/material outcomes, without a proper interior relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I point to the fact that Jesus was a contemplative. His ministry doesn’t begin until a 40 day fast and solitude is completed. Likewise many of his major discourses and miracles, even His Crucifixion, are prefaced and or conclude with solitude and prayer. The one prayer Jesus gives us to engage with the Father, calls for solitude and privacy. The foundation of Jesus’ ministry IS His personal, private relationship with the Father.

    |I’m open to the idea that there is a lot of misunderstanding as to what constitutes a real interior relationship but this relationship in of itself is the essential first cause of God’s will being done. Any other priority seems secular to me.

    November 5, 2012
    • I don’t think your approach and an appropriate understanding of a spirituality that encompasses all of life are by any means mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think they depend on one another.

      November 5, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I agree, I think…lol . Forgive me if I’m not being clear. I was responding to Gil’s argument that a private relationship with God is mostly secular in nature and misleading. I disagree, I think it is the essential antecedent to corporate worship. Further I’m asserting that without a real interior relationship with Jesus, Christian worship becomes secular. Ethical but non religious. With regard to your point, Ryan I’m advocating a right ordering not exclusivity.

    November 5, 2012
    • I don’t read Gil as saying that a private relationship with God is inessential, just not that it is the sum total of Christian spirituality.

      Re: a “right ordering,” I won’t presume to make a definitive statement. I think that an interior relationship with Jesus can be (and often is) a necessary prerequisite to a robust spirituality that comprises all of life (as Jesus’ did). I think it can (and does, if not as frequently) work the other way as well. One can follow Jesus’ teachings and, gradually, come to learn about the world of the inner life. God is gracious, and he meets us from wherever we begin.

      November 6, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes, God meets us where we are and as you say that meeting can and does, “work the other way as well”. Perhaps what I’m really suggesting isn’t where God meets us so much as where we meet God. Ultimately my belief is that the realization of the “kingdom on earth” is wholly dependent upon relationships. Ours with God, ours with self, ours with each other. This is to me what I mean by, “right ordering”.

        By definition then, secularism is debunked as the whole truth given it’s rejection of the primary mover, that being an individuals relationship with
        God. It can offer insightful, half or partial truths, regarding relationships with self and others and one could even make the case that sufficient are these truths that a person can find the outcome of such a compromise acceptable. That is until death comes. And all that is left is fear and loss and abandonment… and a hope in what? Nothingness! That all that was you and all that mattered to you is just over, just dead, lives no more. To what end are people living if death just leads to nothingness? Nature is a crueler “God” than ours could ever be if all the complexity and intensity of living adds up to nothing in the end…. I digress… 🙂

        So I really do have to take issue with this post. Advancing the idea that a private relationship with God is mostly secular, is dangerous and wrong. The private relationship is essential so that the public relationship be made true.

        Perhaps one could say the private relationship deals primarily with justification, while the public, communal relationship we have with God and one another, speaks more about sanctification.

        In fairness, if there really are communities of Christians who speak solely to private relationships without and commitment to community then I suppose some of Gil’s concern is warranted. I just can’t imagine such communities exist.

        I think the greater truth that Gil points us too is the mistake made in wholly uncoupling “church from state” and in my worldview, not Gil’s, the mistake made at the reformation of “uncoupling” the Body of Christ.

        November 6, 2012
      • I don’t know what else to say, Paul. I think you are misunderstanding Gil’s point. His point is not that an interior relationship with Christ is not important. He is simply saying that if the life of faith begins and ends with that, then we have accommodated ourselves to the logic and organizing principles of secularism—that religion belongs exclusively in the private sphere (along with other harmless personal preferences). From my perspective, this is neither “dangerous” nor “wrong.” It is a helpful call to reconsider the fully-orbed spirituality of Jesus…

        … a Jesus who did not, incidentally, teach or demonstrate that one’s interior relationship with God was the only thing that mattered. That’s not the kind of teaching that gets someone executed (then or now). The kind of teaching that calls you to reorganize and reconsider all of life—private and public—under the Lordship of Christ, that calls you to refuse popular allegiances, that calls you to reject violence, that calls you to live under a different king and a different kingdom? That’s the kind of teaching that can (and did) cause trouble.

        November 6, 2012
    • Gil #

      Sorry for coming to this one a bit late. I could add my own thoughts but Ryan has summarized them well already (shocking, I know!). In particular, the following statement gets pretty close to the heart of it for me.

      “His point is not that an interior relationship with Christ is not important. He is simply saying that if the life of faith begins and ends with that, then we have accommodated ourselves to the logic and organizing principles of secularism.”

      I would also heartily affirm your last statement Ryan. As you say, it’s very hard to understand how “Jesus the contemplative” could have got himself executed. Jesus’ message, then and now, was a very political message. But it seems to be political in precisely the opposite way that that Paul imagines above.

      I would consider wistful longings for a “recoupling” of church and state to be quite dangerous. The immediate question that is begged is “which state?” And once that question is answered it is very hard to prevent that state from swallowing up one’s loyalty to Jesus. As a theological child of the Reformation, I am ready to concede many errors but the decoupling of church and state is not one of them.

      November 7, 2012
  3. mike #

    My take on this post is that it’s refering to the self centered individualism of emerging christian humanism thats sweeping all of evangelical Chrisendom,even as we speak…However,from my observations,the admonishments of “hearing Gods voice” and “finding God’s will for your life” originated from behind the pulpit and were originally crafted to psychologically manipulate support/submission and cooperation for the egocentric pipe dreams of entrepreneur type preachers..Unfortunately (or fortunately) this tactic backfired,as many followers realized the con,so now you have these ‘homeless’ confused christians out searching for Gods will for their lives while listening for His voice in a sea of noise and contradiction..Enter,the new christian contemplative mystic…. 🙂

    November 5, 2012
    • Yes, this view of faith has certainly been actively nourished from pulpits across North America (and beyond). Undoubtedly, there was “psychological manipulation” involved at times; just as often, I think, it was a path chosen because it is easier. It’s easier to preach that the most important thing is your private inner relationship with Jesus than it is to preach discipleship.

      It’s easier and, as Gil says in the post, it is fundamentally an accommodation to secular assumptions—that religion belongs in the private domain and nowhere else. Your spiritual life is what you do on your own time, nothing more. It’s about as significant as the choices you make for recreation or entertainment. To each his/her own… just keep it where it belongs.

      November 6, 2012
  4. mike #

    ‘Your spiritual life is what you do on your own time, nothing more. It’s about as significant as the choices you make for recreation or entertainment. To each his/her own… just keep it where it belongs.’….LOL.hahaha……. *Ouch!

    November 6, 2012
  5. mike #

    Ryan, I feel as if i have reached the pinnacle experience of ‘community’,brotherhood and even Discipleship,in the rooms of AA..We enjoy the most extrordinary sense of fellowship and comraderie that i’ve ever experienced anywhere,including ‘church’…in fact,It’s occasionally mentioned in our meetings as to WHY we can’t experience this same bonding phenomena within our respective church congregations of all places…I dont think the church model of the past 1600 years is even conducive to being a close knit Diciples,much less a ‘community’..I’ve explored all variety of christian groups,Traditions and denominations(Catholicism,Orthodoxy,Emergent/Charismatic,Quaker and ChristianScience) in search of what i found in AA. and im very sorry to say..It’s not out there.

    November 6, 2012
    • I agree, MIke. I’ve not experienced AA personally, but I’ve hear your sentiments here echoed by many. You might find this quote from Frederick Buechner that I posted a few years back interesting.

      November 8, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Gil, I think you and Ryan need to be a bit more reflective here.

    I don’t have the same writing skills as you. (though they are getting better 🙂 ) Ultimately you and Ryan can pick apart sloppy or ambiguous rhetoric; the structural and stylistic deficiencies in my presentation, and rebut my presentations. Sometimes though, this may only amount to a Pyrrhic victory. Please consider that truth may be the loser.

    It is clear to me that for Jesus’ ministry and for us (based on my personal experience and my reading of the lives of many saints) that the pivotal priority (not the exclusive priority) is an interior relationship with God. It is here God is met. I mean really met! Not thought about, not spoken about, not defended or denied but truly encountered! It is here we meet the (true) person of ourselves as God intends us to be. It is here that the right understanding of our commission to, “love one another as he has loved us” is given right context. Where our expression of love to one another, through communal relationship is pointed in the right direction. I agree with Ryan that communal relationships and the interior relationship need one another and can and do work in a circular fashion. I would also affirm that the communal relationship is especially crucial for the young but will only reach the fullness of it’s potential when that exterior relationship becomes indissolubly interior. If any of what I have just written resonates with you as truthful can you really say your assessment of the interior relationship (any way you slice it) affirms this truth?

    I read suspicion and mistrust. I read a false understanding of where the interior comes from. It is in no way a a secular construct. It is intrinsically Christian.

    Perhaps I am over reacting, Not giving what others can sometimes, and with some justification say, “give enough attention to the nuance” of an argument. But I tend to look at what any of us concerned for the faith writes and ask myself how will someone of a less certain faith be affected by the subjects under discussion? Intentionally or not, I see you weakening the argument on behalf of the interior relationship, not affirming or defending it. So, however awkwardly, I come to that defense.

    I’ll leave the above as my last and best defense of the discussion as it pertains to secularism and the interior/private relationship.

    Honestly, I don’t think secularism in of itself, is much of an issue at all. At least in the sense that if you really subscribe to secularism than be honest to your “creed” and leave the church. You are definitively non-religious. And for the rest of us, if this gang persists in staying, stay firm in the truth, convert where you can, keep being hospitable….yes they still get free coffee and muffins after service…but as for ourselves, we must continue to grow in our personal experience of God, this means DAILY, PRIVATE prayer, just you and Jesus, Father and Holy Spirit. The length of this prayer time isn’t the first essential rather, as the expression goes, just “keep it real” the amount of time will take care of itself, it will be as long or as short as the relationship needs to become…what was that word I used earlier…. Indissoluble!

    Grow in commitment to communal worship and praise. Remember your first purpose in whatever Christian service you attend is to collectively encounter, praise and worship the Risen Lord. As important as our relationships with one another are and there will be time later for meaningful fellowship and the aforementioned coffee and muffins, remember your first priority; the first reality of church service. Jesus Christ is in the house! React and behave accordingly.

    Lastly let your experiences of interior and communal relationship inform and direct your choices. Every day presents dozens of interactions with the world and the people around you. Dozens of opportunities to be loving or indifferent to love. Jesus is with you. A community of believers is with you. What will you do today? What choices will you make?..,

    Funny thing as I began the last three paragraphs my intention was to quickly segue from secularism into observations about what I see as the real enemy here. That being pluralism, and to better explain my sloppy misuse of the term, “recoupling church and state”…maybe another time…this is enough for today. 🙂

    November 7, 2012
    • Gil #

      I am not interested in scoring rhetorical points. Nor do I have any basic need to point out stylistic deficiencies in other people’s comments (especially on a blog of all places!). I don’t remember actually debating anything about the style of what you’ve written. No, my disagreements with you are exclusively theological. I’ll try to be brief.

      I am not trying to downplay the significance of personal encounter with God. I believe this is possible, I believe it is necessary and I have even experienced it from time to time. I just don’t think it is the whole story.

      Both Israel in the OT and the church in the NT are fundamentally social, political entities. This tells me that communal, social life is very important to God. It is very difficult to read vast chunks of the Bible if your only lens is “private encounter with God” because then much of what you read becomes incidental to that basic pursuit. Texts that don’t give guidance for the goal of personal union with God get screened out before they are even heard.

      So my only point in this post is that an overly privatized understanding of the faith (here I’m thinking of evangelical versions of “Jesus in my heart and nowhere else”) CAN be an accommodation to secular assumptions. I am not saying this is a necessary connection but it is (in my experience) a very common one.

      If you heard me trying to downplay or marginalize the need for personal encounter with God, then I wasn’t clear enough.

      One more thing, as I reflect on this conversation, it strikes me as interesting that you (a Catholic) are trying to remind me (an evangelical) about the importance of personal encounter with God. I suspect this says something about each of our contexts. This could also explain why it seems easy to talk past one another. I can’t speak for yours, but I know that in my denomination we have tended to talk about “personal encounter” to the exclusion of the socio-political implications of the gospel. Maybe this will help you understand where I’m coming from.

      November 7, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks, it does help me better understand where you are coming from, Gil. The context then, that I earlier imagined not to be true, seems true to your experience. I can’t imagine a group of Christians thinking a real interior relationship with Jesus would exclude any “sociopolitical implications”. I suppose if that too were my experience I would be somewhat cautious in my approach to interior prayer and the notion of, “personal encounter”.

        I would be curious to hear someone explain how sensing God’s voice wasn’t also a simultaneous experience of deeper love of neighbor. Personally I cannot separate the two.

        With regard to my comments regarding “deficiencies”, I made the reference based on past, not present experience. I seem to recall us frustrating one another in previous discussions. The gist as I remember it, was you being (legitimately) frustrated by my sometimes disorganized exchanges that were (probably most of the time 🙂 ) long on critical opinion and short on supporting argument. In hindsight I can say truthfully that I wish I had been more sensitive to your proper frustration then I am trying to be now but I do have to also say that I can still hear that other voice that says something like, “c’mon man, your the smarter better informed guy here, we both know that. I think you know what I’m trying to say. Help me out, don’t shut me down with procedure.”

        Gil, I’m not trying to argue that the above quote is either fair or accurate in it’s assessment, or that I am not accountable for what I write but it is how I felt and I hope it better explains, what on the face of things must seem peculiar to you.

        As for your theological points made here, I agree. What I “heard” in the beginning made me think, as you say, that the interior life was being

        In the end, not having experienced what you have experienced, the ironies regarding the secularization of faith don’t seem to matter much to me. The greater concern, as I see it, is if we forget that the only distinction between between the whole truth of what faith is and any lesser truth that secularism at it’s best might inform, is the presence of Jesus. The real presence of Jesus.

        November 8, 2012
      • Gil #

        Thanks Paul.

        November 8, 2012
  7. mike #

    I think its interesting how differently/individually we experience the sense of Gods presence and intuit His voice.Its even more interesting the extent to which we equate His presence with emotion or ‘feeling’..The most effective method of conscious contact with God,for me,is through Meditation..Nature is a close second. “hearing from God”,in a direct way,almost always comes by the mouth of another Human Being unawares and thats why,in my opinion, the AA model provides the optimal platform for the Holy Spirit to freely speak through someone.AA,in essence,is about personal growth and the overcoming of character defects,something i’ve rarely ,if ever,heard taught in christian communities…

    November 8, 2012
    • Interesting, I just listened to a radio program on meditation on my way in to work this morning. One of the consistent themes that popped up seemed to be, “it’s effective, but it’s difficult.” It takes discipline and patience. We don’t like to be alone with ourselves. Maybe we’re afraid of what we might hear, what might be asked of us—from God, from ourselves, or both.

      November 8, 2012
      • mike #

        Yes,thats so true,Ryan.We’re not comfortable in our own skin for good reasons)…A residual effect of Meditation is that it permits Conscience to catch up with us,which can be quite disturbing initially. i see this all the time in AA.I think this is the fundamental reason that we drown ourselves in ‘noise’.

        November 9, 2012
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for this, Mike. While it isn’t apparent in any of my responses. I’m a big believer in meditation. For me as a Catholic it is, among other things, the essential predisposition before receiving the sacrament of reconciliation/confession. Contemplation seems to take the meditative experience one step further. In the silence it seems as if Jesus is responding to and consoling your meditative efforts.

    November 9, 2012
  9. mike #

    Paul,I’ve experienced some intensley potent spiritual encounters with Christ inside the walls of a Roman Catholic cistercian monastery during personal retreats,The rich contemplative aspects of your Tradition has taught me fact,a book by Fr.John Main was instrumental in the deveolpment of my Meditation technique.

    November 9, 2012
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Fr. Main is a wonderful resource. Very straight forward and helpful “how to’s”. Paul T Harris has a great book, “Frequently Asked Questions About Christian Meditation”. In it he draws from Fr. John Main, Fr. Thomas Merton, and many others.

    November 10, 2012

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