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 *)