“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!

Epilogue

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.

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 is 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 today. 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

When we Become Slaves to an Idea of Freedom

There is a subtle difference between decriminalization of a moral behavior that is socially contested and the legalization of it. Earlier I had argued that the Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code should not criminalize homosexual behavior as it was a question pertaining to freedom of conscience that did not significantly affect public order among the citizens. (a case to the converse may be legitimately made about health and morality). However, it would be shortsighted to conclude that our personal freedom always overrides all other social compulsions.

An inevitable part of the social evolution in democratic contexts is the demand for greater personal freedoms– demand for legalization of prostitution or homosexual marriages or legal access to mind altering drugs, abortion rights, etc. The push seems to be towards greater personal freedoms– to do whatever one wishes with oneself so long as it does not affect other individuals. Such a push is loaded with problematic anthropological assumptions, that needs to be historically situated. It instances human social propensity to run into larger subsequent problems in the effort to escape a visible problem. Undoubtedly, a democratic society would have to uphold individual freedoms simply because the very idea of democracy is undergirded by a strong notion of individual freedom. That is, if there is no personal freedom, there is no democracy.

However, there is another side to this story: recognition of an equally important polarity on the other side of the spectrum that people in a society should honor—the question of corporate responsibility. It may be unfashionable to say anything that even remotely competes with the notion of individual freedom and the assumption that personal autonomy overrides all other compulsions. However, as “autonomy/autos-nomos” indicates self-governance; when applied to individuals, it has the potential to degenerate to where one becomes a law unto oneself.

Our notion of personal freedom is often derived from within a framework of a) defining who we are as humans and b) what it means to be individuals in the world. These are two equally important factors: 1. Individuality— which emphasizes personal freedoms, allow us to believe, say, and do what we want. 2. Being in the world emphasizes the reality that we share the world with others and are, therefore, accountable to communities. Every society (not just the land of the free and home of the brave!), is moving from being communities to being autonomous individuals—thanks to the ever-dominant influence of modernity! But when a culture is obsessed with personal freedom where each and every question is raised, argued and defended from a certain notion of freedom, that notion of freedom may have very well enslaved the culture. It has become common to demand personal freedom at any cost, often forgetting that each individual also carries a corporal responsibility.

While the earlier emphasis on communal life often constricted individuals into social conformity, modern autonomy frees us to the opposite extreme—self-obsessed, cloisters with no social connections or obligations. Both are problematic! Likewise, an emphasis on freedom at the expense of communal accountability and the emphasis on communality at the expense of personal freedom—both enslave us and the society will pay for it sooner or later. It is crucial therefore to keep the balance. Let our idea of freedom then be tempered by the idea of communal accountability.