How Christendom gave us Secularism

In my last post, it was suggested that I was taking common human experiences, like love, beauty, art, and awe, and assigning them to God. It’s assumed in the accusation that there’s some inviolable separation between them. Interestingly, we owe a lot to the rise of Christendom for this assumption. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s all from God in the first place?

First, if you’re a Christian, understand that there is no such separation in a Christocentric worldview.

16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Col.1:16-17 *)

Frankly, it was in no worldview before the rise of Christendom in the fourth century.

Before I go further, I don’t want you to confuse Christendom with Christianity. They’re not synonymous terms. Christendom, in the historic sense, was a geopolitical religion that dominated medieval Europe and profoundly impacted the modern West.

So, how did Christendom invent secularism? K.A. Smith has a good layman’s book on this subject titled, How (Not) to Be Secular, where he explains Charles Taylor’s more scholarly tome, A Secular Age. I also mentioned this book in my post, “Why does the secular age still seem haunted?” I will provide some quotes from Smith’s book in order to show how we got here.

According to Taylor, in the premodern view, people saw themselves in a “porous” world. They saw the natural world subsumed within the spiritual world, and themselves as part of the whole. But after the rise of Christendom, this mindset slowly shifted from “porous” inclusion and community to “buffered” separation and individualism.

Smith, explaining Taylor’s thesis, describes how this modern development “lowered the bar” for what it means to be “Christian” while creating the separation.

Taylor identifies a critical third element that we might describe as the mundanization of the ne plus ultra —a sort of “lowering of the bar” in how we envision the requirements of a life well lived. Especially in Christendom, Taylor recalls, there was a unique tension between “self-transcendence” —a “turning of life towards something beyond ordinary human flourishing” —and the this-worldly concerns of human flourishing and creaturely existence. (p. 31)

As the Roman church-state began to dominate every aspect of life from peasantry to royalty, a prevailing mindset formed for the need of a division of labor, which became what we now think of as sacred and secular.

The spiritual disciplines of the saint are a lot to ask of the nursemaid or the peasant laborer who is pressed by more immediate concerns. This equates to a tension between “the demands of the total transformation which the faith calls to” and “the requirements of ordinary ongoing human life” In Christendom this tension is not resolved, but inhabited. (p. 32 *)

So, a whole new version of “Christianity” is invented in order to facilitate this tension:

By making room for entirely “religious” vocations such as monks and nuns, the church creates a sort of vicarious class who ascetically devote themselves to transcendence/ eternity for the wider social body who have to deal with the nitty-gritty of creaturely life, from kings to peasant mothers….We miss this if we retroactively impose our “privatized” picture of faith upon abbeys and monasteries and imagine that the monks are devoting themselves to personal pursuits of salvation. The monks pray for the world, in the world’s stead. So the social body lives this tension between transcendence and the mundane by a kind of division of labor. (p.32 *)

In short, the “sacred” became the purview of the priests, monks, and nuns. The secular was the everyday world of kings and peasants. Their “mundane” lives were vicariously deemed holy via the praying clergy class, being sanctified by observing seasonal religious obligations at the parish (regional) abbeys and cathedrals.

On a side note, Smith also relates how this vicarious separation creates a moral cognitive dissonance which allowed kings and peasants alike to commit all kinds of un-Christlike, even evil, deeds in their “everyday life in the world,” while being considered a “good Christian” in society.

Holy wars and all kinds of atrocities can now be justified because they’re being done in the name of “God and King.”

Even today, many still look to their pastor or priest as the vicarious “holy man” who goes to God on their behalf, rather than the biblical model of the priesthood of all believers.

This is the residue of Christendom.

This modern innovation (or departure) also changed how we understood the world itself, as Smith explains:

The final aspect of the shift involves our view of the natural world; in the premodern imaginary, we live in a cosmos, an ordered whole where the “natural” world hangs within its beyond. It’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle…In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being. Taylor significantly expands on this theme later in his argument, and we’ll return to it below. At this point, we simply recognize that the shift from cosmos to universe —from “creation” to “nature” —makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.” (p. 34 *)

I’ve talked about this before, but one of the reasons why scientific methodology is so effective is because of the limits imposed upon itself. By necessity, all things spiritual or “supernatural”, whether real or not, are not considered. And while this was a major breakthrough which resulted in the prolific rise of modern science, it also created a wider chasm in the Western mind between the sacred and secular, to where now we just assume there actually is one.

I bring this all up, not to argue the point, but to give historical context for how we got here…and, right or wrong, this notion of separation is a modern cultural mindset, not necessarily “reality.”  And I’m certainly not arguing for some form of theocracy. Quite the opposite. In my opinion, the “church-state” paradigm has been the bane of Christianity from its inception.

But for us, as followers of Christ, to see our everyday natural world separated from the spiritual, or God, is not a biblical worldview, not even a premodern view. So, when we talk about love, beauty, art, and awe, even science, we’re ultimately talking about things divine, things expressing God’s very essence from which all good things derive. I’ll finish with James’ affirmation in this regard:

17 Everything good comes from God. Every perfect gift is from him. These good gifts come down from the Father who made all the lights in the sky. But God never changes like the shadows from those lights. He is always the same. (James 1:17 ERV *)

* New King James Bible Translation unless otherwise noted. All emphasis added.
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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 38 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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16 Responses to How Christendom gave us Secularism

  1. That was a well written article. Oh that we may all see that every perfect gift comes from God.

  2. tildeb says:

    By necessity, all things spiritual or “supernatural”, whether real or not, are not considered.

    Bollocks. Of course anything that refers to anything in reality, anything about reality, anything related to reality, IS considered by science. It’s fair game. Your claim about <i.consideration to the opposite is not true if we are talking about anything that can be Known about reality. This is the boundary – between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ – that religious accommodationists like to hide behind and insist there really, really, really is a border. So, it’s true that if only dealing with ideas that do not cross into reality, then theism and all beliefs no matter how absurd about this supernatural realm is fully defended from scientific consideration.

    Fine and dandy.

    The problem, Mel, is that the religious utterly refuse to stick to this boundary when it comes to importing their beliefs to reality! Theists like you make all kinds of claims about reality involving this supernatural aspect that has no evidence from reality for it. These claims – according to the study of reality by science – come from baseless assumptions imported by believers and smeared all over reality. When science reveals these assumptions to have no merit from a complete lack of evidence AND an absence of evidence where it SHOULD be if the claims were true, the theists quickly runs back behind the boundary and accuses science of being the wrong tool because it – unlike the tools of assumption, superstition, and magical thinking theists must rely on – cannot cross the boundary.

    This is the hypocrisy revealed by theists in order to elevate their faith-based assumptions to be somehow and magically equivalent to evidence-based knowledge. But reality demonstrates otherwise. That’s the problem you face. It’s not a lack of consideration by science whatsoever. Claiming as you do that everything in reality derives from the divine is demonstrated to be equivalent to an imported assumption that has zero truth merit because it has zero knowledge value. There’s your problem, Mel: reality refuses to cooperate with your faith-based beliefs about it.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for making my point, Tildeb. And thanks for reminding me why I moved on from this exercise in futility. I know you possess all truth about what is fact and reality, and nothing exists outside of your understanding. We get that. It’s time to let it go. Good luck with that.

      Your comments are inappropriate here and disrespectful, so good-bye.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Oh, and one last thing…

      I said…

      By necessity, all things spiritual or “supernatural”, whether real or not, are not considered.

      To which, you said…

      “Bollocks. Of course anything that refers to anything in reality, anything about reality, anything related to reality, IS considered by science. It’s fair game.”

      Someone who actually knows what they’re talking about with regard to science said…

      “Science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons.”
      – Eugenie Scott, former Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education

  3. A huge amen, Mel! Lots of food for thought in this post. It is in response to Christiandom, secularism, and “science,” that I so often find myself crying out in favor of the spiritual. Western culture has really tried to compartmentalize our lives, our very existence, so whether it be the ultra reformed religionists or the science minded cultians, what is so often missing is truth and beauty, the spiritual, the mystery of the unknown.

    “Supernatural” simply means, “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature” and “spiritual” simply means, “affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

    I tend to suspect we’re all a bunch of fear driven, control freaks. I know I am sometimes! 🙂 It can be uncomfortable sometimes to confront the fact that there can be things in the universe we don’t fully understand and that they affect the human spirit. But on the cheerful side of things, that is actually joyful and good, things like music, art, love, mystery, wonder, awe.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “I tend to suspect we’re all a bunch of fear driven, control freaks.”

      That pretty much sums it up, IB. 🙂 We like our certitudes, whether it be in our beliefs or denials. That’s the appeal of scientism (as opposed to pure science) and extreme religious fundamentalism. No undotted “i”s or uncrossed “t”s. And, for some reason, we think everyone else should agree with us or they are wrong. Sounds like politics to me. 🙂 No real communication going on at all.

      We drank the kool-aid of enlightenment as a culture and now our heads are so big, we have no room for the heart, which has made us dumb in so many other ways. We don’t like mystery so we flatten the world out and make it bow to our understanding. Of course, you also lose the wonder and wildness of mystery in the flatlands. That’s why people rebel against our flattened world today. Why there so much obsession with fantasy and the supernatural in entertainment. There’s no enchantment in our flattened world, nothing bigger than ourselves to belong to. It’s not a world where we can live with any real deep satisfaction. It’s certainly not a world that would interest me.

  4. Thought-provoking post. What made you think of writing about this? Just curious. You seem to be a very deep thinker. Cheers!

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your comments. It was something I had written a while back but some comments from the previous post had prompted me to post it now. I was accused of trying to attribute common human experiences to God, as if one cannot affect the other. A little history shows how we came to this compartmentalized mindset. If there’s any borrowing going on, it’s probably us trying to separate our human experiences from their source. 😊

  5. Lily Pierce says:

    Very interesting, Mel! I learned a lot from this post. The part about monks and nuns being holy on behalf of “people who have to deal with the real world” is sad but makes total sense. Cognitive dissonance is still alive and well in the church. Isn’t the whole point of the Bible’s teachings so that we can apply it in the real world?

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your comments, Lily! I don’t think we really understand the idea of community in that world from the viewpoint of our individualistic culture. For instance, the monks and nuns didn’t see themselves as individuals but the praying part of the community. So, for them, there was no disconnect between them and the people. But, as you said, the carry-over was the sacred-secular compartmentalization in our culture, which did create the disconnect.
      And, yes, the point of following Christ, reading the Bible, is to renew our minds in order to live, act, and love like Christ does on the earth, and in very everyday, practical ways.

  6. Hi Mel,

    About 8-12 days ago I submitted a comment here and another comment on the linked post, “Love, beauty, art, and awe.” I’m following up on these unseen comments. Is there a reason why they are not appearing? Thanks.

    P.S. If the reason why is the reason I am thinking, then I’d appreciate your upfront, public, honest explanation.

    • Mel Wild says:

      That’s very simple, Professor Taboo. They do not appear because they were moderated. I reserve the right to moderate or delete comments I deem inappropriate to the topic. Just so you know, your comments would’ve probably passed if you hadn’t gone into your copy and paste anti-Christian history spiel again(which you’ve already done about a half dozen times here already).

      As you already know, I’ve moved on from arguing with anti-Christian antagonists on this blog. I stated this at the end of 2018 here. Here’s the thing. I let you and your ilk say whatever you wanted for over 2 years. I’ve heard or read all your arguments and, in my estimation, they’ve been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They’re not very interesting to me. Not to mention, it just irritates the majority of my followers who want to talk about deeper things that are more pertinent to the main theme of this blog.

      I’ve also read your extremely long article on your blog that you seem to think totally debunks historic Christianity. While I could debunk just about every point (it already has been on this blog and by other people), I don’t have the time nor the inclination to bother with it. And it wouldn’t do any good, because we both know we will just believe what we want to believe anyway. I will simply say the following two point to you. You can take or leave it.

      First, to this type of anti-Christian polemics, I will just refer you to Walter Wink’s, “The Bible in Human Transformation.” He pretty much sums it up with his opening line, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.” You can read the book to see why he says this is so.

      Second, from a philosophical standpoint, I find the anti-theist position ontologically incoherent and the arguments vacuous. I don’t mean this to simply be dismissive or arrogant. It just is, from a purely philosophical point of view. You can read David Bentley Hart’s summation which pretty much explains my philosophical view here.

      Finally, I’m sure you have an argument for everything I’ve said here. That’s fine. I’m just not interested in hearing it (again). In the future, if you have a constructive comment that’s more germane to my posts, without the polemics, I’m always open to that. 🙂 I just won’t be a depository for your anti-Christian propaganda anymore. Sorry if that sound offensive. I don’t know any other way to say it honestly. I do wish you the best.

      • Nan says:

        Mel, when you write: the majority of my followers who want to talk about deeper things that are more pertinent to the main theme of this blog. … I can’t help but wonder about the actual number of your followers since it seems only about 8-10 people comment since you cut off your detractors. This is a majority?

        I can understand your desire to eliminate argumentative discussions, but isn’t teaching and explaining your viewpoint part of your mission as a pastor?

        • Mel Wild says:

          Nan, as you probably know, most people who read blogs don’t comment at all. I currently have over 1,400 followers, so I certainly didn’t mean most of them, but most of those who actively participate in the discussion. And I would add here, only a handful of those who have disagreed have commented here also. But people (like Zande in particular) have commented literally hundreds of times, which gets very obnoxious to the rest of us. They don’t seem to know when to stop talking. I’ve also gotten many private emails from followers, who don’t comment, thanking me for moving away from posts that attract such combative and belligerent people who aren’t the least bit interested in understanding our point of view (like Taboo). So, I’m moderating them now. The point is, they think they know better and are only interested in copying and pasting their same position over and over again in the comments. I’m not interested in their dogma, I don’t find it compelling, and I don’t have the time to refute their assumptions.

          But I’m not at all against people who respectfully engage in disagreement IF they actually understand the subject. Also keep in mind that a lot of my posts have been written specifically for people who already believe and want to grow in their faith. If someone doesn’t want to believe in God, that’s up to them. But they don’t need to comment on something that has nothing to do with them either (I don’t when I read such things on other blogs like yours and others). That’s called being respectful. So, my point is, condescending and insulting comments are not appropriate for that particular subject (or any subject, really). Besides, I’ve entertained their vitriolic anti-Christian rhetoric for two years. I think we all clearly know their opinion by now. We don’t need to hear the same thing copied and pasted over and over again in the comments. It’s time for them to move on and let other people who are actually interested in a conversation talk. 🙂

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