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A Secular Age?

By Petrus Simons


Asking the question ‘What does it mean to live in a secular Age?’ opens up a huge subject.  We will consider the matter here by introducing the subject as it has been tackled in the book A Secular Age (published in 2004) by the Canadian author, Charles Taylor. One important thing about Taylor’s book is that, in spite of its length and scholarly breadth, its contents are actually very relevant to all of us. To illustrate this we will begin with some down to earth comments that have an important bearing upon the question at issue.  


It may surprise you, for example, to realise that the almost axiomatic meaning of the word ‘secular’ as ‘non-religious’ is unique to the modern world. As such, because of the way in which the rest of the world has been so dominated by the colonialism of the West, it has contributed to the current climate of Islamist terrorism. These people believe that the West, by its promotion of secularism, has threatened their religion and way of life. They further believe that they have a divine mandate to retaliate. For their part, such atheistic secularists like Richard Dawkins [The God Delusion] and Sam Harris [The End of Faith] consider that this kind of Fundamentalism allied with the Creationist Fundamentalism prominent in the United States is of the very essence of religion, as it constitutes a threat to civilization.  Hence they, in their turn have embarked upon their own crusade ‘to get rid of religion.’


However, we need to begin by recognising that when the word ‘secular’ was used of the ‘secular clergy’ in mediaeval times, it had a different meaning. It referred to bishops, priests and other officers of the church who lived and worked amongst people, in towns and cities, whose main pre-occupations were with the secular pursuits of farming, milling, tinkering, tailoring, shoe-making and exploring the ideas of Aristotle and the Bible.  The word ‘religious’ referred to those persons who lived their lives in a religious/monastic setting.  But even their lives were generally not all prayer.  Much of their waking life was concerned with both work in the field and garden as well as in the reading and writing of manuscripts in the context of a monastic community. 

In the course of his timely investigation of the subject in his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor gives three slightly different takes on the word ‘secular.’ The first of these, ‘secular1’, relates to ‘the classical’ background illustrated by the ‘secular clergy’ and the ‘religious orders’ just discussed.  In this conception ‘the secular’ is distinguished from ‘the sacred’ in the sense of ‘the communal expression of worship’.  We might say that ‘Priests’ attend to the sacred, while ‘butchers, bakers, politicians, farmers and scientists’ carry out secular work. From this point it is only a short step to describe ‘the sacred’ as religious and the secular as ‘non-religious.’  Although Taylor himself doesn’t make the point, we might seriously ask ourselves the question ‘Is it not the case that these secular callings of the baker, the banker, the garbage collector, the scientist, the businessperson etc are all callings to serve and worship God in the six days of the week we don’t usually go to church?

By ‘secular2’ Taylor seeks to identify a more modern definition of the secular as a-religious (as opposed to both religious and anti-religious) that carries with it the connotations of a ‘neutral’, ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ perspective upon such secular spheres as politics, education, welfare, science, the arts, commerce, farming, philosophy and technology as they are pursued by all citizens, regardless of religiousness. This kind of ‘secular2’ meaning has, in its wake, spawned the idea of what Taylor describes as an ‘exclusive humanism’ as a world view that seeks to account for all of the meaning and significance of human life in a way that dispenses with ‘the divine’ or ‘the transcendent’.

He very helpfully emphasises the point that religiousness, in the last three or four centuries in the Western world, has been virtually reduced to beliefs functioning, for all  intents and purposes, at an intellectual level that does not actually involve the actual living of the fullness of life.  This, in turn, gives rise to Taylor’s ‘secular3’ meaning, as it speaks of our age as one that involves the mutual interaction (and contest) between ‘religious’ and ‘secular2’ life perspectives in which ‘secular3’ connotes the reality that large numbers of people (especially in the Western world) are more than happy to live out the fullness of their lives in ways that dispense with any ‘openness to the divine or the transcendent.’ Furthermore, a significant feature of Taylor’s project is that of trying to trace the historical unfolding of this kind of ‘secular3’ meaning. 

At a later stage in the development of this website, we hope to include an extended review of Taylor’s book as one of several substantial contributions to understanding our Secular Age.   For now we simply refer you to the various offerings included here, mentioning that a very  important feature of our understanding of the gospel is its appreciation that ‘secular concerns’ need to be considered as ‘spiritual’ if not religious. By this we mean that, normatively, the human heart should be open to the transcendent work of the Holy Spirit directing the regeneration of human hearts, as the centre of what makes us human, opening them up to a whole-hearted vision for serving God in all of life.  If our hearts remain closed in this sense, then this means that we are then open to spiritual or religious forces of an idolatrous character. It is in this way that the ‘secular’ concerns of daily life are infused with some kind of all-pervading religiousness. This is very helpfully exemplified in Taylor’s discussion of the way in which both ‘secular3’ and reformational (generally speaking what Taylor refers to as transformational) are related to mainstream secularization theories. Thus, he writes:


So we could zero in on the following proposition as the heart of 'secularization': modernity has led to a decline in the transformation perspective. So far orthodox secularization theorists would agree with me, even if they have no interest in singling out transformation as a central issue. So what beef do I have with (orthodox) secularization theory?

A difficulty in this whole discussion is that there is some unclarity as to what exactly the 'secularization' thesis amounts to. There are in fact, thinner and wider versions. What I'm ca1ling the mainstream secularization thesis might be likened to a three-story dwelling. The ground floor represents the factual claim that religious belief and practice have declined, and that 'the scope and influence of religious institutions' is now less than in the past. The basement contains some claims about how to explain these changes. In Bruce's case, [Bruce is one of the mainline secularization theorists] the account is in terms of social fragmentation (including what is often called 'differentiation'), the disappearance of community (and the growth of bureaucracy), and increasing rationalization.

Bu this does not exhaust the richest versions. These add a storey above the ground floor, about the place of religion today. Where has the whole movement left us? What is the predicament, what are the vulnerabilities and strengths of religion and unbelief today? Here we are in the domain that I have designated secularity3, and of course, it is the answers in this domain, the upper storey, that interest most people, non-scholars, but not only them. [Taylor, A Secular Age, pp431-432]

In this light we can, for our present purposes, give a very brief summary of the major points con-cerning a Reformational Christian Response to the advent of our secular age in the following points:


In the ancient Empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and China, followed by the Hellenistic Empires following Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire in the latter part of the fourth century BC - the Seleucids (in Syria and beyond), the Ptolemies (in Egypt). These were followed by the Roman Empire (begun by the Emperor Augustus), in which political power was sustained by the divine powers of the gods – who were sometimes represented by Kings and/or Emperors, and were sometimes themselves deemed to be divine. In general terms, during and following the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, this pattern was adopted both by the Christian Emperors of Rome/Constantinople, the Great Kings of Persia and the Umayyad and later Caliphates of Islam, not to mention that of Genghis Khan and those following him in  Mongolia between 1200 and 1400 AD.  This was also the religious background shaping the then dominant idea of the divine right of Kings central to the social and political character of Western Europe that, apart from the Republic in the Netherlands, had only begun to be seriously undermined in mid-seventeenth century England.

The Exodus event – from the Biblical story of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt until the time of the settling of the Hebrews in Canaan – counted as a major challenge to this kind of religious form of autocracy in the ancient world.  This is clear from the character of the Sinai covenant - in all of its various forms set out in the Pentateuch of the Hebrew Tanakh or Christian Old Testament.  The religious ideology of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian kingdoms involved a pact between the King/Pharaoh and the gods of the cosmos.  In this respect, the primary responsibility of the King was to the gods, with the people more or less their lackeys.  The basic character of the Hebrew covenant, however, was between YHWH and the people of Israel as a whole;  it also entailed covenantal bonds between God and individual Israelites as well as covenantal obligations/ blessings flowing from the ways in which such individuals fulfilled the offices of prophet/judge/priest/ parent/ farmer/king/shepherd in responsible and faithful ways. Moreover, it was upon this basis that the prophets – in times of serious disobedience – called the people in general and those in authority, in particular, to account before God in the terms of this covenant.

A key feature of this covenantal arrangement was the absence of any one overall office claiming to represent YHWH amongst the people. God alone was King, in the sense of the meaning of ‘kingship’ in the Ancient Near East, a feature that needs particular emphasis with regard to the Hebrew offices of both King and Priest. Indeed Henri Frankfort, in his major work concerning a comparative study of the ideas of Kingship and their relationship to the gods in the Ancient Near East, makes the following comments regarding the difference between Hebrew kingship and that of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians: 

In the light of Egyptian, and even Mesopotamian, kingship, that of the Hebrews lacks sanctity. The relation between the Hebrew monarch and his people was as nearly secular as is possible in a society wherein religion is a living force. The unparalleled feature in this situation is the independence, the almost complete separation, of the bonds which existed between YHWH and the Hebrew people, on the one hand, and between YHWH and the House of David, on the other. YHWH's covenant with the people antedated kingship. [Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, p341.]


The terms of the Sinai covenant, as expressed in the terms of the book of Deuteronomy, make it very clear that there was considerable latitude in the actual terms of the political system to be adopted by Israel in the land of Canaan. At the same time, if kingship were to be adopted as an option, then it was to have a very different form from that instantiated in Egypt and Mesopotamia. [Refer to Deuteronomy 17:14-20]. Furthermore, it is clear from a study of the text of this same book that there should be checks and balances upon the legitimate extent and manner in which power exercised in the offices of the different spheres of social life that had thus far differentiated in the course of history. All sovereignty belonged to God alone. However, each social sphere had its own particular calling: the (wider) family to nurture its members in love, compassion and material support; the political power was to establish and achieve a just legal order for all its citizens regardless of rank; the priesthood to keep and oversee copies of the Tanakh and to maintain the sacrificial system; economic life was to function in such a way as to prevent the build-up of a permanent underclass of the poor; the prophets to speak the prophetic word of God, with a group of them focussing upon wisdom and the teaching of wisdom literature. 

For much the greater part of Christian history, the question of Kingship in the Old Testament was read through the eyes of it justifying the kind of tradition that traced its roots back to Egypt, China and Mesopotamia. A significant break with this mode of reading the Bible took root in some branches of the reformation. This played an important role in England, especially amongst the Independents. In turn, this influenced the freedoms of all Englishmen as it was enshrined, first in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, and then in way in which the American colonists responded to the various initiatives of King George III and the British Parliament in the eighteenth century, leading to the American War of Independence, the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of US Constitution.  


From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries there were a range of factors in the Kingdoms of Western Europe that produced a secularising process that led away from the centralised autocratic civilizational pattern that existed elsewhere. The first of these was the ongoing see-saw of the tendency for overall power – as representing God on earth – between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor (sometimes usurped by the Kings of France or England); the second was the growing differentiation of the social/cultural powers of politics, economics, philosophy/science and the arts. Finally there was the impact of the Protestant Reformation. 

In the midst of all of this, a new path was struck by a small group of philosophers – Descartes and Spinoza in particular. These emphasised views of the relationship between God and Nature that had profound effects upon the thinking of many educated people in Western Europe – through such people as Voltaire and Diderot - in the eighteenth century.  From Spinoza we inherited the Naturalism that, in effect, dispensed with a Creator God entirely; from Descartes we inherited a form of Deism that considered Nature to have been created in a way that was complete with its set of laws.


Throughout the eighteenth century, the leadership of the thirteen North American colonies that subsequently became politically independent of Britain showed a very high degree of erudition that, for much the greater part did not imitate the critical stance upon the Bible initiated by Spinoza and later reiterated by Voltaire.  The Articles of the US Constitution make very little mention of religion. Even the much vaunted ‘separation between church and state’ is only mentioned specifically with regard to the Federal Congress. It is an interesting question to ask just what was in the minds of those developing the ideas of the broader ‘nation of the US.’  Should the separation between ‘church and state’ be understood along the lines of a distinction between ‘the political authority’ and ‘the priestly authority’ as developed in the book of Deuteronomy?  Or does it mean a separation of everything concerned with Religion - identified as Church – from public life (whether civic life or state life). It is undeniable that the book of Deuteronomy played a very significant role in the broader thinking of most Americans in the formulation of the US Constitution. [Refer, for example, to Constituting the Community, edited by John T. Strong and Steven S. Tuell; Created Equal, by Joshua Berman].  From a study of the nineteenth century history of the US – a good example is provided by Abraham Lincoln – it is clear that the Bible continued to play a significant role in the on-going shaping the public virtue of the US. This, however, became extremely problematic after the way in which the prominent politician William James Bryan (a three-time Democratic candidate for the Presidency)became embroiled in the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial in Ayton, Tennessee in 1925, with evolutionism becoming a public issue with regard to state education in the US ever since. 

There was little of no genuinely reformational response to these naturalistic religious emphases in the roots in the philosophies of Western Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Science and philosophy were considered neutral, autonomous and secular enterprises. Traditional religion remained strong amongst a range of sections of ‘ordinary’ (unlearned) people – influenced by the Evangelical revivals in Britain and America especially. However, the naturalistic and humanistic emphases introduced by Spinoza and Descartes to the better educated people in the seventeenth century and after, became much more influential in the nineteenth century. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, together with the unleashing of the Higher Criticism of the Bible in Theological Colleges, the secularising (in the sense of secular3 of Taylor’s analysis) influences began to have a very strong influence, and spread much more widely.

There have been some very important and significant contributions to Western culture outside of these trends.  One of these is the reformational movement in the Netherlands, with the development of what has come to be known as Reformational Philosophy linked with the names of Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd. Central to this philosophical movement is the Biblical conception of the human heart as the core centre of all human functioning – including the way in which the religious roots of our lives are either in a closed or open relationship to the transcendence of God, providing the roots for the transform of our hearts and lives so that we may be the better equipped to engage with the powers that drag us away from our calling to live out our humanity as the image bearers of God. Significantly, although both Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven point to the significance of this insight concerning the integral character of the human heart for proper Christian philosophising, it was brought top their attention by a man who was himself a primary school teacher and an independent scholar of the Bible. As he tried to deal with the Gnostic-like conceptions of spirituality and worldliness in Zeeland, his native province of the Netherlands, he came to the realisation of the significance of this Biblical idea for dealing with the basic problems involved.  His name was Antheunis Janse and later, after his contact with Dooyweerd and Vollenhoven around 1922, he developed some significant philosophical contributions of his own. [See Anthony Tol, Philosophy in the Making, 2010.]


Suffice it to say that we should seriously consider a response to the climate of our Secular Age that is reformational or transformative – in the sense that its spiritual roots are genuinely transcendent, arising from the work of the grace of God through the Holy Spirit’s working in our hearts and lives in the day-to-day circumcising of our proud and stony hearts to bring forth the fruit of the gospel in all areas of life. We need to learn from the vision of the kind of social order set out in the book of Deuteronomy, making it clear to the Dawkins’s and the Harris’s of this world – by our actions rather than our words – that the religious character of the ancien regime was not Biblical. Moreover, we should also demonstrate that the stance taken up of these ‘new atheists’ has a lot more in common with the ‘religious’ fundamentalisms they despise than with a genuinely transformational form of religiousness. This may be tall order, but it is nonetheless one that comes from Our Master himself: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-48]


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