The Ethic that Haunts the Secular

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 the 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 itself, in that it redefined what it means to be human.

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 an 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 not so much about a sudden disappearance of certain virtues from a culture as much as it is 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.

Theological understanding thus 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 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/flesh antithesis of 2 Corinthians 3, Gal. 3–6 and its development in Romans 7–8 and flesh/spirit antithesis in Gal. 3–5 and Rom 7–8.

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. James K A Smith succinctly summarizes Taylor,

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].

Thus reformation, which was intended to amplify the belief that “God is sanctifying us everywhere” [A Secular Age, 79] in declaring the priesthood of all believers, 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 an evacuation of God, but also that its “denial” (of transcendence) is a psychological defense mechanism— a refusal to accept the truth within the cultural psyche, because of being haunted by Christian ethics. Prodigalization therefore almost turns proverbial in that it recasts the moral vision of a culture. The culture shifts from defining moral freedom predominantly as the power to choose against one’s natural inclination to defining it as a right to choose according to one’s inclinations. As Taylor argues, “It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseparable from stifling convention. Morality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires.” [Ethics of Authenticity, 65].

In short, the picture of secular as the prodigal [see my previous post Secular– The Prodigal Child of Christianity] 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. Conspicuously absent from engagement on this matter are practically every non-Western nation, including majority of the Arab countries which are among the richest in the world, 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.


“Thou, my Fellow Traveller as I Go”

Normally, I use this blog space to rant about random thoughts that cross my mind. The random thoughts are still there, but I could not write as much as I would have loved to. Partly, it is because, over almost the last couple of years, the thoughts have turned inward– toward failings, disappointments, and inabilities.

Becoming acutely aware of the need for a mentor, I went ahead and found one. He passed on to me an old copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, which has since become a treasure. Tucked in this morning’s prayer, I found these sweet words.

It has pleased Thee to withhold from me a perfect knowledge; therefore deny me not the grace of faith by which I may lay hold of things unseen. Thou hast given me little power to mould things to my own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desires to pass within me. Thou hast willed it that through labour and pain I should walk the upward way; be Thou then my fellow traveller as I go.

So then, I reflect. The epistemic humility that we are forced to acknowledge, for “our knowledge is imperfect” and so are we (1 Cor 13:9), need not be resisted. The calm assurance of the fellow traveller will suffice.

“Secular”– The Prodigal Child of Christianity

A helpful way to understand secularity is to see it as the prodigal child of Christianity. It helps not only by giving a location to the “secular”, but it also provides a way to make sense of the cultural conflicts that increased secularization brings. In its infancy, the secular was merely an internal categorization that was primarily used to differentiate between the mundane tasks, such as, farming, plumbing, or playing a game from the sacred tasks, such as worship, baptism, or reciting ecclesial liturgy. Irrespective of whether we now think that such a separation is warranted or not, we can understand the rationale for such a categorization within its historical context.

From being an internal ecclesial classification, “secular” has now come to to be understood as “exclusion” of religious belief, especially in the West. Alongside this morphing of the meaning of the term, the secular as a movement has now reached the stage of rebellious adolescence, where it is understood as being against religious belief.

Following the story of the prodigal son, the secular gathers all that “rightfully” belongs to it– the cultural and moral import of the Judeo-Christian worldview: the incontestable value and rights assigned to each individual, the conception of self as a volitional being (this is changing with the increasing influence of naturalistic determinism), and despite how strange it may sound today, conceiving frugal living and humility as virtues etc.– and walks. It embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from the family of Christian orthodoxy.

The Secular Age and the Loss of Transcendence

The fading of childhood and the dawn of adolescence is something to be celebrated. Yet, it would be bizarre to imagine that one always remains an adolescent. The child of orthodoxy, through the denial of the transcendent, moves away from under its authority. To become secular is to become prodigal. The uniqueness of a secular age is its denial of transcendence unlike at any other time in human history.

The secular age is uniquely a prodigal child because of a condition, which Charles Taylor calls, “exclusive humanism.” Exclusive humanism dispenses with the very idea of transcendence and thus with it, dispenses with the idea of God, the miraculous, and a divinely instituted moral order. In short, it redefines all of life purely within the framework of immanence.

One may ask, ‘If we find opposition to orthodoxy in every cultural milieu, why should we isolate contemporary secularity as the prodigal child?’ Contemporary secularity is unique precisely because “unbelief” is naturalized within the contemporary culture as in no other. Even the pagan Greco-Roman culture retained a strong idea of transcendence. As Taylor argues,

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true (A Secular Age, 18).

Secularist Nostalgia

The process of prodigalization, first and foremost, pertains to belief itself. Viewed from Orthodoxy, the process involves a choice (of the culture as a whole), to walk away from its home of faith. This creates a condition of brokenness and an unhappy separation, leaving orthodoxy with a sense of loss, even mourning. The secular, on the other hand, celebrates its newfound freedom from the clutches of Judeo-Christian morality.

Unfortunately, the conservative Western culture has often displayed a resentful attitude of the older brother, who is filled not with concern over the loss of a brother but with scorn and hatred toward the prodigal. One is left to think that such hatred combines an explicit self-righteous attitude with an implicit “he’s having all the fun” sort of gripe. This has led to an obsession with the hatred of cultural expressions of the prodigal.

However, there is also the haunting memory in the prodigal of how life used to be within the Father’s household. There is a tacit acknowledgment of the loss of transcendence and what that implies to human significance, purpose, and meaning. We thus have a prodigal who is nostalgic about the past.

The audible secularist voices that express such nostalgia– “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”, as Julian Barnes puts it, unintentionally announce the advent of the “post-secular”. Voices such as that of Alain De Botton’s, in acknowledging the loss a culture, take upon themselves the task of filling the void left by the absence of transcendence.

Driven by nostalgia, the secular philosopher is tempted to claim the position of the chief priest, called to his spiritual service as the culture suddenly senses that with the dismantling of God, it has also obliterated the framework for moral reasoning. Botton’s Religion for Atheists is an effort to redeem the virtuous aspects of religion– the sense of community, respect for the other, kindness and love, etc., but entirely from within the logic of immanence without the “baggage” of those strange religious doctrines about the supernatural and the transcendent God.

The Moulding Power of Liturgies

There are pivotal issues beyond direct acknowledgment of the absence of transcendence. To understand this, James K A Smith summons us to look beyond religion. He asks us to look at anthropology and acknowledge how we are inescapably “liturgical animals.” Looking at “secular liturgies” not only helps us recognize that we shall never get rid of liturgies and a heart of devotion but also helps us understand how we take the shape of the object of our worship!

The reasoning is this: If humans are structured in such a way that we are essentially lovers and worshippers, the dismantling of the transcendent God merely replaces God with something else; only that what we replace it with is from within immanence. It is a way of making idols. But to have idols, we need myths. A Secular Age creates its idols and weaves its myths, and those myths, in turn, make us more secular, for they are mutually interdependent.

The wisdom of the Psalmist recognized the essential connection between the worshipper and the object of his worship thousands of years ago. The words of the Psalmist in Ps 115, “those who make them (idols) are like them; so are all who trust in them” (v.8), essentially mean that one’s object of worship has the power to shape the worshipper in its image.

If “at core”, as Thom Wolf argues, “every worldview is a worshipview. Also, every worldview or worshipview creates . . . a worldvenue: core ways of conceiving the world result in regularized ways of conduct in the world” (Wolf, “Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures”, 40), then nothing has the power to shape our lives and societies as gods do, as the object of human worship. Likewise, Moltmann argues that our imaginations of earthly kingdoms / governments are not too far off the mark from our imaginations of the kingdom of God (See The Trinity and the Kingdom). In short, we are inescapably lovers and worshippers and the object that evokes our greatest admiration has the power to shape us. But that is both wonderful and tragic at once!


While secularity may have dispensed with belief in a transcendent God, it hasn’t dispensed with the liturgical human nature. This calls us to examine not whether we have an object of worship or not, we all do. Rather, it calls us to examine the shape and character of the object of our worship and whether it deserves our devotion. The replacement of the transcendent God with something far too inferior might just be the greatest tragedy of the secular age.

The Curious Case of Plurality within Secularity

I was pleased to read this well-argued piece: Women’s-Only Swimming Hours: Accommodation is Not Discrimination, co-authored by an orthodox Jew and a Muslim. It is a critique of the secular liberal vision that tends to “level” the public spaces rather indiscriminately. For the risk of offending someone, the public spaces in the West seem to be increasingly becoming unlivable unless one is willing to sacrifice one’s beliefs and what one holds as sacred.

An obvious blind spot that rationalizes the undermining of religious belief is an underlying erroneous presupposition that religious beliefs and practices are detrimental and certainly not necessary for human flourishing. Hence, if at all allowed, it ought to be relegated to one’s private life. As James Smith elaborates,

The standard picture, we might say, sees religion as a sort of addendum to being human: all humans eat, sleep, breathe, have sex, wear clothes, are citizens of some nation, and engage in play. Then, in addition to that, some (perhaps even many) homo sapiens are ‘religious’: they are ‘believers’ who participate in religious rituals and practices, identify with religious communities, and hold religious beliefs. These beliefs and practices are generally taken to be tied to certain established traditions and institutions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). Those who study ‘believers’ are often those without this extra-human supplement: they are ‘just’ human, that is, ‘secular.’ ‘Believers,’ to them, are kind of exotic; they have conspicuous growths, like two heads. From the perspective of the secular scientist, who lacks such growths (who has been healed of such lesions, as it were), this religious addendum is a curious supplement to being human—a kind of deformation. (See, James K A Smith, Secular Liturgies and the Prospects for a ‘Post-Secular’ Sociology of Religion).

The secularist therefore zealously commits himself to the task of exorcising religious belief from the public spaces and discourses. By paying his homage to modernistic beliefs and commitment to enlightenment doctrine’s use of “pure reason”, this exorcist commissions himself as the apostle to (to use Taylor’s imagery) disenchant the world.

Central to this problem is how “secular” is defined as “exclusion” of religious belief. As Smith argues, what the secularists fail to recognize are the faith-like epistemic framework and the secular liturgies that operate  within their anti-religion calculus. Worldviews that are presupposed are nothing short of beliefs, which are religious in its form. And with increased secularization, Christian beliefs, for historical reasons, have come straight in the line of fire of the liberal exorcists.

However, belief is not bigotry and accommodation is not discrimination.

What causes disgust to a community need not be shared. Yet there needs to be a way in which a society understands that there is something innately right about not expecting a Muslim to sell pork at his meat shop or stipulating women’s only swimming hours at public pools! Civility ought to recognize that discrimination could go both ways and seek to allow people to hold views that they feel persuaded to hold. A secularity that shuts differing beliefs, religious or otherwise, is marked by a medieval calculus of coercion rather than a calculus of engagement.

Thankfully, the West with its newly imposed condition of religious plurality, is forced to reevaluate the idea of the “secular”– the survival of which, could depend on how it works through some tough readjustments. In this sense, the new wave of immigration may just about help open its eyes in more ways than one.

Divine Inversion: Power in weakness

I am stirred to ramble a bit as something I read this morning reminded me of the fantastic picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelations chapter 21. For the sake of those who avoid reading this book because of its imagined incomprehensibility, let me repeat what a preacher recently clarified as being the simplified message of the book. It is, ‘Jesus wins!’

Chapter 21 pictures a grand finale towards which God orchestrates his purposes. It is a brilliant show of His sovereign will that brings to completion what He began in Genesis. As though it is a mirror image of what the world- here and now- is witnessing, there is a change from a farming Eden to a mega city. Eden is pictured with its rivers, trees, animals and birds; precious stones of gold, bdellium and onyx are yet raw materials. But unlike Eden, where the divine-human sharing of spaces couldn’t be sustained, the holy city is pictured as the dwelling place of God with humans, made of “pure gold, clear as glass.” Raw stones are polished sidewalks!

Besides this new city being impressive, is the more spectacular testimony that in God’s economy, no human error is wasted! Edenic fall—disobedience, dishonesty, lack of trust—is a story that ends differently: “to the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.” So then, as we specialize in messing up, God specializes in turning our mess around, almost assuring us that our mess were necessary blocks for God to showcase his power. Perhaps we could even say, thanks to the fall, we have the holy city.

This is divine inversion! That human sin, which brought death does not end in deprivation but with the glorious New Jerusalem that is far more splendorous than the Garden of Eden. While historical errors could be done without, they are nevertheless not wasted. The worst within humanity is turned into a splendorous opportunity for God as His ‘power is made perfect in our weakness’ [2 Cor 12:9].

Grace, Works and Kierkegaard

Now that we have fully embraced Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and have left behind a penitential version of Christianity, we love to hate the term ‘works’. Unsurprisingly, we have various phenomena such as ‘free grace’ and ‘hyper-grace’ that are shaping the theological landscape of the contemporary church, where only ‘grace’ finds a mention within its vocabulary. One may ask how the concept of grace can be overstated given how central it is to Christian faith. After all, isn’t Christianity all about grace?

The error is not in the emphasis on grace in the life of a Christian, but in how today the term is construed to mean something totally different. To many a Christian, ‘grace’ seems to mean a ‘lack of requirement’, which, at the practical level, often translates into a casual approach to Christian formation or a license to define sin in culturally acceptable terms.

“There was a time” (read, before Luther) Kierkegaard writes,

when the Gospel, grace, was changed into a new Law, more rigorous with people than the old Law. Everything had become rather tortured, laborious, and unpleasant, almost as if, despite the angels’ song at the advent of Christianity, there was no joy anymore either in heaven or on earth. Through petty self-torments, they had made God just as petty—in this way it brings its own punishment! . . . . Everything had become works.[1]

As a corrective to a culture of ‘earning’ redemption through atoning penitential works, Kierkegaard thinks, Luther’s Sola gratia was necessary.

The error from which Luther turned was an exaggeration with regard to works. And he was entirely right; he did not make a mistake—a person is justified solely and only by faith. That is the way he talked and taught—and believed. And that this was not taking grace in vain—to that his life witnessed. Splendid![2]

However, 300 years since Luther, Kierkegaard fears the world of Christianity has swung like a pendulum to the other extreme—the exaggeration with regard to grace. “The world”, writes Kierkegaard, “is like a drunken peasant, who, if you help him up on one side of the horse, falls off on the other side.” He laments that unlike Luther, the Danish church had lost “the conception of the unconditioned requirement.”

The moral reasoning of Kierkegaard’s times is echoed by contemporary Christians. So we 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.”[3] In short, we have changed the goal post and redrawn the rules of the game, morphed Christianity to look like secular humanism; we have abandoned the transcendent and have turned Christianity into an immanent human project.

Correlation between Grace and Guilt

Characteristic to today’s culture of autonomy and individualistic thinking, we define the ‘requirement’ of God according to our likes, tastes, and orientations. When self-interests conflict with the scriptural teaching, we either pretend indeterminacy of scriptural meaning (this, of course, is easier if you have a PhD! Continue reading