Comprehensive doctrines that a culture nurtures provide a framework for societies to live by even if they merely approximate it and individual behavior don’t always correspond to the highest ethic of the society. That is, religious doctrines (or something similar) are not entirely lived by but are only approximated in cultures.
To understand what haunts the Western secular society in its post-Christian avatar, it is important to locate the shifts in moral reasoning that Christianity introduces within cultures where it first began to take root. It has become a common belief to imagine that the advance of moral reasoning was achieved against the regressive religious morality. Often, the progress of secularization is mistakenly seen as the victory of secular morality over traditional religion— an attitude that continues to inform the current mood against religion in the West.
Although it cannot be fully developed here, the nature of cultural shifts in the conception of virtue accomplished by Christianity is pivotal, precisely because we would then locate what haunts the secular about Christianity. Christianity does not own all the virtues of secularity, nor do all virtues originate within the New Testament. However, clearly what the world had identified as virtues underwent a dramatic shift with the influence of Christianity.
The cardinal Greco-Roman virtues: temperance, prudence, courage, and justice began to shift to include the unlikely ones such as mercy and charity that became socially visible, in addition to (the more spiritually visible) faith, hope, and joy. As E A Judge observes of the ancient time, “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders” [“The Quest for Mercy in Late Antiquity,” 107].
Humility, a rather unlikely candidate within the Greco-Roman virtues came to be highly valued within the Christian culture. Humility was, after all, the very nature of Christ, (Phil 2:1–11) who the faithful were called to imitate. Despite it being repeatedly abased by some great thinkers like Nietzsche or Freud [and some not so great thinkers like Ayn Rand? :-)], humility continues to be seen as a virtue today. In short, these “new virtues” of Christianity would permanently transform cultures and societies by altering not merely what was seen as virtues but the very conception of humanity. As Rodney Stark notes, “[P]erhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death.” [The Rise of Christianity, 1996, 214].
The impracticality of Christian Ethics and its Consequence
Societies influenced by Christian ethics, as in the case of other societies, do not always live according to its highest virtues. However, throughout the history of the Church, Christian influence of cultures was not by way of determining everyone’s choices in favor of a higher ethic. Rather, its influence was in the manner it plagued Christians to practice an impossible ethic. That, in short, is the lure of Christianity! As David Bentley Hart observes, “It is the sheer ‘impracticality’ of Christianity . . . its extraordinary claims, its peculiar understandings of love and service, which down the centuries have not so much dominated Western civilization as haunted it, at times like a particularly engrossing dream, at others like an especially forlorn specter” [Atheist Delusions, 222].
Yet, it is precisely the ideals that haunt a society that shapes its culture. It is in holding certain virtues as the ideal that the culture approximates the value, however poorly. Thus, the secularization of the Western cultures does not mean a sudden absence of Christian virtues from the society but in the gradual shifts toward deliberate numbing of that which haunts them. Hart expresses such nostalgia when he writes, “the question with which I find myself left at the far side of my narrative is what must become of our culture once that benignant or terrible spirit has finally departed” [Atheist Delusions, 222]. Loss of Christian morality is thus about the disappearance of the lure of an ideal, which had always remained humanly impractical.
That the ethical standards of Christianity are so high that they are humanly impractical entails a certain course at least along two tracks: a theological track and a cultural track that move in quite the opposite directions. Theologically, it leads to a form of pietism that relocates the moral and epistemic capabilities from the human to the divine. Ethical life in this classical theological frame would be understood as a form of divine-enablement and not as a human accomplishment.
Theologically, Christian ethics tends to focus on God/Christ/Spirit as the ethical enabler of humans; the central idea being that humans are inherently incapable of meeting God’s moral demands. Particularly important is the Johannine focus on the “I–am” sayings of Jesus, which explicates Christian living as derived from Jesus rather than as inherent within a disciple and the understanding of Jesus as the Spirit-baptizer who enables a believer to live a spirit-filled life rather than a life led by the flesh. Similarly, pivotal are the Pauline explications of Torah/Spirit antithesis and flesh/spirit antithesis, both indicating that the ethical life of a believer is a consequence of the Spirit’s function.
Culturally, particularly as instanced within the “secular culture”, it tends to have quite the opposite effect in that the culture tends to deal with an impractical ethical requirement by redefining it to more attainable levels by lowering the moral bar to the realm of human possibilities. Søren Kierkegaard accuses the Danish culture of his time to have precisely done that. Using his typical irony, Kierkegaard argues that the people turn against the ideal and ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.” [Judge For Yourself, 156–7].
This can be seen as the flip side of Protestant Reformation, which as Taylor argues was “a drive to make over the whole society to higher standards” [A Secular Age, 63] but in reality, it did quite the opposite. Prior to the Reformation, Western societies functioned by a different calculus. Of the late medieval period, James K A Smith (summarising Taylor) writes,
What had been intended as a division of labor between religious and lay vocations had taken on this hierarchical ordering and become a ‘two-tiered religion” (p.63), a ‘multi-speed system’ (p.66) with monks and clergy on a fast track, looking disdainfully at the domestic slowpokes mired in ‘the things of this world’ (even though their labor and profit sustained the monasteries and abbeys). Conversely, because spiritual pressure was sequestered to the religious vocation, the ‘weight of virtue’ was relaxed for the wider populace. Carnival was effectively generalized, and some felt that the laity was being let off the eternal hook [How (Not) to be Secular, 35–36].
Reform, intended to amplify the belief that “God is sanctifying us everywhere” [A Secular Age, 79] also entails the opposite: “If people aren’t meeting the bar, you can either focus on helping people reach higher or you can lower the bar. This is why Reform unleashes both Puritanism and the ‘60s” [How (Not) to be Secular, 37].
The recasting of traditional morality in the West may thus be understood not merely as resulting from the evacuation of God, but also that its “denial” of transcendence itself may be a psychological defense mechanism—a refusal to accept the truth within the cultural psyche, because of being haunted by Christian ethics. The swing of the Western cultural pendulum towards individual autonomy may be understood as a process of cultural prodigalization, entailing a shift in its moral vision (after all, the son becomes a prodigal by becoming autonomous!). Concurrent to the cultural shifts towards individual autonomy is the redefining of moral freedom from its classical sense as the power to choose against one’s natural inclination to defining it as a right to choose according to one’s inclinations.
In short, the picture of secular as the prodigal is one where the secular inherits its share of (Christian) values and embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from Christian orthodoxy, shifting cultural variables within the society in the process. While this alienation instances a loss of transcendence, to a large extent, the virtues borrowed from Christianity remain (at least for the present), although purely within the realm of immanence and are often the very stick that the secular uses to beat traditional orthodoxy with.
It is interesting to note that people all over the world tend to hold “Christian civilizations” to a higher standard. This may be instanced in the debates about immigration of refugees that predominantly remain a battle within the West and even when articulated elsewhere, it strangely is about the West. Conspicuously absent from engagement on this matter are practically every non-Western nation, including majority of the Arab countries—a good number of which are richer than the West, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and we may add India to this list as well, given how we are dodging any humanitarian responsibility toward the Rohingya refugee crisis.