The medieval church spoke of life in two ways: sacred and secular. The English word secular comes from the Latin saeculum, meaning that which is of the present age, or that which draws its meaning or justification from contemporary or transitory values. Conversely, the Latin word sacer, from which we derive our word sacred, implies that meaning or justification for being is drawn from eternal values, from a source beyond human invention.
In medieval thinking, to be secular was not necessarily wrong or evil, it just was not, by constitution, immediately guided by religious rule. But we must remember that as the church established this dichotomy it was also aware of it far reaching authority and influence into all of life. Given the medieval church’s strong moral influence among the people, its broad political power in society and rulers, its control of education and literacy, even things secular were accountable to the discipline or influence of the sacred and its agent, the church. So it could be said that of that time that all things existed under the “canopy of the sacred.”
Of course, this assumed that the church operated in principles of faith and not on the premise of political power and economic gain. Certainly the church as a moral and spiritual force did much good with its power to influence monarchs, spoke for the poor and gave meaning and inspiration to world prone to poverty, uncertainty, superstition and fear.
But the church as a political institution often collaborated with kings and nobles in the control and acquisition of wealth and in human exploitation, such as the feudal system. The church also resisted the advances of great minds such as Galileo and led in military folly, such as the Crusades.
One could say that the Renaissance was, among other things, a revolt against the control of institutional systems: both the medieval church and the feudal system of government. It was the human soul breaking free of bureaucratic oppression, institutional hypocrisy and cultural and intellectual control. The Renaissance was a protest against political and religious structures that no longer had the spiritual or moral integrity they professed. It was in some sense the triumph of secularity.
But the Renaissance was also a protest against the idea that God was the source of value and purpose in everyday life (politics, education, economics, law, culture and the sciences). It was not simply a matter of having relative values, values that stemmed from the circumstance of a given age. But a revolution seeking freedom to redefine values that would justify human potential, social freedom and economic success without accountability to any pervasive or spiritual morality. If truth was relative, then the ends could always justify the means.
Sadly, today we continue to live in the full bloom of such a philosophy. We live in a context where business can rape the earth to satisfy our market appetite for more and more fossil fuel. We live in a world where science can experiment without any sense of duty to the ethical or practical consequence of their work in areas such as embryo research, genetic engineering and synthetic life forms. These are all important areas of human development, but the feeling can be that the ethical concerns are left to ethical societies or religion and the practical problems to government. As ridiculous as it may seem, we live in a time when we debate what is art. Is it Picasso, Van Gogh, or Tanner or can it be a crucifix in a jar of urine?
The triumph of secularity was the triumph of transient values, of relative truth and the freeing of every sector of life to have its own value system, its own justification— apart from God.
Yes, today we live in the full bloom of that secular legacy. From Marx’s axiom that “Religion is the opium of the people” to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” to the “post-Christian era” proclaimed by modern social critics. A specific contemporary expression of the so called “post-Christian era” is what I call “spiritual agnosticism.”
Many would argue that this is an age of great spiritual hunger, especially among young and middle-aged professional adults. And I must say that from my experience this is true. However, I also hasten to say it is a hunger that many seek to satisfy without God, thus, “spiritual agnosticism.” Agnosticism is not necessarily a denial of God, as is atheism, rather it is a sense that if God does exist God is not essential or relevant.
I see evidence of this cultural agnosticism in the desire to cultivate a personal spirituality or a private sense of peace amid the trophies of success and to do so without God. It is a kind of polytheism. The cross or saint’s medallion sits on the table beside our checkbook, our diploma, the keys to our SUV (sport utility vehicle), our computer and other idols upon we which we daily depend for meaning, worth and effectiveness. Even our CD of popular monastic chants (which are all the rave today) are randomly mixed-in with our recordings of Yanni and John Tesh. This is not necessarily intentional, but it is poignantly symbolic of our spirituality. We don’t want faith or God, we simply want peace in a hectic and complicated life that we treasure.
The German feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her book, The Window of Vulnerability, wrote:
Many middle-class people are seeking today for a new spirituality. They want to add something to what they already have: education and profession, upbringing and secure income, family and friends. Religious fulfillment, the meaning of life, food for the soul, consolation—all that is to be added on top of material security, as a kind of religious surplus for those who are already over-priviledged. They seek spiritual fulfillment of life in addition to the material blessing from above to supplement their riches. But Jesus rejects this pious middle-class hope. (p. 16)
Professor Soelle is referring to the Jesus who said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures [or secular values] on earth, treasures which will not last, but store up heavenly treasure [eternal values] which do last. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we treasure success and the hub-bub of a YUPPIE life (“Young Upwardly-mobile People”), then there is where our heart will be and spirituality is simply an accouterment, a vitamin to sustain the exercise of things of greater important. And like a vitamin supplement, we purchase the cheapest brand effective to our need.
Yes, whether YUPPIE or Gray Panther, if we can have a spirituality without God, we’ll take it. The pieces of our lives are not knitted together by a godly faith because what we treasure most are secular values and the dividends of moral independence. There is were our heart, soul, mind and strength is invested. But Jesus invites us to invest all of our being upon a spirituality that draws its meaning from “Loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” A faith that both demands and nurtures a place in every part of our lives.
But we want a spirituality that has no accountability to God or faith; one that does not have to get in the way of our professional and social life; which does not call into account our lifestyle, our attitudes, the use of our resources and all that we value most. Yes, if we can have a spirituality with God, we will take it.
Recently I had a conversation with a young non-profit executive. He is a bright and attractive person who has done a marvelous job in his state. While talking about personal growth and the quality of spiritual life he said, “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Being myself a dog-lover and having had some very devoted dogs, I joined him in laughter. But what I realized after leaving this very fine young man was that among the things he wanted or valued most, God or matters spiritual beyond the adoration of his dog was not mentioned. When he thought about being a better person, his dog was the ideal measure of character, not the teachings of Jesus or the expectations of God.
Yes, what we treasure most are secular values and a spirituality that will give us peace without accountability to God. This is spiritual agnosticism, and it is a by-product of a secular society.
In this age in which secularity dominates, I believe Christianity has two very important challenges if we are not to repeat the failures of the medieval church. First, the church must not become so consumed with its institutional interest that survival is its vocation. We must be careful that we are not consumed with internal politics over who’s in and who’s out, can we pay the bills, are the rules codified sufficiently to control people.
When institutional survival becomes our “raison d’être,” we have lost our soul and we have nothing unique to offer the world in Christ’s name. Churches must be centers of hope and spiritual meaning and moral accountability that affirm not only the reality of God but the love of God. The church must be a community that preserves faith in eternal values in a changing world. Jesus said of the church, “You are the salt of the earth. If the salt has lost its flavor what good is it.” If we have no unique quality to offer and affect the world, what good are we? Godliness is our uniqueness.
The second challenge is to the individual Christian. We must not submit to secularity! We must not submit to a culture that extols relativity as the ultimate measure of truth. And we must not submit to the fear or the pressure that our faith will offend the secular values of our time. Values of relativity, privatism and radical individualism. We must not be afraid to be Christians!
Stephen Carter is a Yale professor of constitutional law, popular author and devout Christian and Episcopalian. In his very popular book, The Culture of Disbelief, he address the plight of the Christian in a secular society. He writes:
The message of contemporary culture seems to be that it is perfectly all right to believe that stuff…but you really ought to keep it to yourself, especially if your beliefs are the sort that cause you to act in ways that are a bit [different]. (p. 25)
I have an Evangelical minister friend who likes to tease this liberal Protestant priest. Once he said to me, “Nathan, if you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?” This is a poignant question, one that we must all ask: Is there sufficient evidence in our public and private lives to establish for our community, our friends, our family, that we are Christians? To be a Christian is not to be just anything, it is to demonstrate a special quality of faith in the simple, mundane experience of everyday living.
What about Christians and marriage? Everyone seems to want to be married in a church. What about the vows, the Christian commitments we have made. We make them not just to one another but to God as well. Do we have a sense that God is invested in our marriage, that faith matters, a belief that God can guide us and sustain us in troubled times? My late father, a minister for more than 40 years, used to say there are two rings in marriage, the wedding rings and the “suffer-rings” (as in suffering). The way of the world is to give up if it is not convenient. Give up without fighting to working to hold on to this sacred relationship; without seeking professional or pastoral help; without looking to God for strength to seek or receive forgiveness. For too many couples God has no place in marriage; the church is only a romantic setting for a secular ritual.
On this Labor Day, what about the workplace? As Christian managers and administrators, what about commitment to the spiritual quality of work place? Are harassment policies, fair labor practice or employee safety simply legal precautions or good for business? Or is it also because we believe in the dignity of human being? That all, regardless of their station, gender, or color are children of God and thus your sister and brother?
And what about prayer? Do we ever pray when we are faced with a hard business decision? Do we, in addition to research, consultants and task groups also pray, either in our hearts or where appropriate invite the other decision makers to pray?
Do we every hold a troubled co-worker in our prayers? Do we ever say, “Jim or Jane, I know it is a difficult time for you; I will keep you in my prayers”; or do we simply wish them good luck and tell them we hope it all works out? To be a Christian is to live and relate differently.
And in our homes, do our children see us as Christians? Is our faith, our Christian values evident to them? Or do they simply see us as professional or ambitious people, as soccer moms or karate dads harried with the demands of life and the care of their children? (Are we even the person our dog thinks we are?)
People of faith draw their ultimate worth not from their professions or ambitions but from a desire to be faithful to God in every aspect of their lives. Remember, the aim of the Christian life is to live our values as a seamless garment of faith and not a patchwork of secularity.
And what does that mean? One of the clearest contemporary expressions of Christian faith are our baptismal vows. I invite you now, Christians, to stand and join me in recommitment to our Christian faith in the words found on page 416 of the Book of Common Prayer…. </P