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.