03 March 2013

Christianity: Ground of Secularity?

D.G. Hart here posts the provocatively titled "What If Christianity Itself Is Secular?" He's onto something. With the advent of Christianity there was for the first time (so far as I know, anyway) a "space" between the political/social world and that of what today goes by "religion." The unity of state/empire and Roman devotional practices (primarily public but certainly carried on in private by many) was the pattern that held sway in the Greco-Roman world and beyond. It was inconceivable to the followers of Augustus's Romanitas that public devotion to the gods and emperor could be separated from social life. To do so, as did the Christians of the first three-plus centuries, was anti-social, blasphemous, and to commit treason.

With the accession of Constantine (and more so his son Constantius) roles were reversed: the Church, rather than the imperial pantheon, and state were united. This should hardly be a surprise given the lack of any other models of contemporary social and religious practice. Of course, imperial interference in the affairs of the Church gave many pause and with fits and starts the later Medieval world found itself with a relatively clearly defined Church over against a variety of "states." Secularity, I would call it. The Church fought for freedom from political powers during the Investiture Controversy and its subsequent assertion of universal political authority notwithstanding, never had political control over most of Europe.

The boundaries between the Church and the empires, monarchies, principalities, etc. of Medieval and early modern Europe was ever shifting. As I describe in my review of David VanDrunen's Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (abstract here), the jurisdictions of the Church and various entities of "the world" has been and will, I believe, remain contested. Yet it is in the reality of this very contest that space is created for the secular. Thus, to that extent, Hart is correct: Christianity created the secular.

Where I believe Hart overstates his case is in his collapse of secularity into contemporary secularism. The rise of secularism, an understanding of the world and human orders entirely and relentlessly apart from the transcendent claims, is well-documented by Charles Taylor in This Secular Age (on which I  posted here, here, here, and more in between). Secularism is as all-encompassing as was Roman imperial ideology and modern political Islam. Hart's testimony to the spirituality of the Church notwithstanding, it is implausible that Christianity created its most vociferous and pressing Western enemy.

One need not subscribe to the insouciant cultural transformationism of some one-kingdom folks, the usual recipients of Hart's best barbs, to understand that culture powerfully impacts the Church. Even Hart, in his less pugnacious moments, would acknowledge as much. Identification of Christianity with secularism leads not only to reduction of the impact of Christianity on society but--sadly--increases the reverse.

The Christian faith has made room for the secular. Let's hope that the secularists will leave room for Christianity.

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