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Pulse
5 February 2024

For several decades, numerous scholars have devoted much time and energy to studying and analysing the phenomenon of secularism in modern society and culture.

In the 1960s, sociologists such as Peter Berger forwarded what has been described as the ‘secularisation theory’ which postulates that the march of secularism in Western societies will result in the eradication of religion. However, thirty years on, in 1999, Berger could admit that ‘a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely called “secularisation theory” is essentially mistaken.’

Yet, the phenomena of secularisation and secularism – however they are analysed and understood – simply refuse to go away. Scholars are also beginning to see that the relationship between religion and modern culture is not as straightforward as was originally envisioned. In an essay titled ‘The Desecularisation of the World’, published in 1999, Berger could write: ‘To say the least, the relation between religion and modernity is rather complicated.’

Some scholars – including Christian writers and theologians – have understood the secular as the antithesis of the sacred. This, according to the late Robert Markus, an eminent historian of early and medieval Christianity, is mistaken. It results in a fundamental misunderstanding of the secular, especially in the way in which the Church has understood it since the Patristic period.

According to Markus, in antiquity, the opposite of the sacred is not the secular but the profane. In fact, in ancient times there were only the notions of the sacred and the profane – the idea of the secular was non-existent until Christianity came into the picture.

In his insightful book Christianity and the Secular Markus writes: ‘The sacred and the profane were both familiar in antiquity; but until it was imported by Christianity, there was no notion of the “secular” in the ancient world. The word and the concept are both alien to the Greco-Roman religion.’

In recent decades, a number of Christian theologians and scholars have given attention to the concept of Christian secularism, which, according to Markus, can be traced to the work of Augustine (among others). In fact, in his great work Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine (1970), Markus hails the Bishop of Hippo as one of the founding fathers of a Christian tradition of ‘secularity’.

What, then, is Christian secularism?

The first thing that must be said is that we are here referring to the Christian theology of secularity, which must be distinguished from how the ‘secular’ is understood today. In the context of the Christian vision, ‘secular’ has nothing to do with the marginalisation, exclusion or eradication of religion, which is how the word is commonly understood today.

According to the Christian understanding, the concept of secular or secularism is rooted in the saeculum, which Markus describes as ‘that intermediate and temporary realm in which human affairs unfold before the end.’ Put differently, the secular age is the period of human history which precedes the return of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom of God.

The Reformed political theologian, David VanDrunen, describes the secular age as ‘the life of this present age that is distinct from the life of the age to come in the new creation.’ The secular arena is for VanDrunen a ‘common social space’ where both Christians and non-Christians live their lives and conduct their various affairs.

Theologians following Oscar Cullmann have often described the present age in which we live, which is bracketed by the first and second advents of Christ, as characterised by the already and the not-yet. The kingdom of God was inaugurated when the Son of God was incarnated in the man Jesus some two thousand years ago. Yet, this kingdom will only be fully consummated when the risen Jesus – now seated at the right hand of the Father – returns ‘to judge the living and the dead’, as the creeds put it.

Thus, the age in which we live – characterised as it is by the already / not yet – is the period which Christians, following Augustine, have termed as the saeculum. This is the period where the new and the old overlap. But the presence of the new serves as the promise that the old will eventually pass away.

The secular age is therefore the current age, not the eternal age. This means that it is penultimate and transient. As Robert Markus explains:

The secular is that which belongs to this age and will have no part in the age to come, when Christ’s kingship will hold universal sway. Political authority and institutions, with all the agencies of compulsion and enforcement, are destined for abrogation when the rule of God in Christ is finally revealed.

 

In his book Divine Covenants and Moral Order, VanDrunen therefore describes it as a ‘penultimate secularity’ or ‘finite secularity’.

Using his famous metaphor of the two Cities Augustine puts it like this in his magisterial City of God: ‘In this world the two Cities are inextricably intertwined and mingled with each other, until they shall be separated in the last judgement.’

The saeculum is therefore the shared space where both the bishop and the civil official have the freedom to act according to their respective roles and functions. It is, as Markus again has explained so brilliantly, ‘a space that is at the same time a territory in which each of the two parties can allow the other to occupy its own distinct and proper positions.’

To be clear, Augustine is not suggesting that the saeculum is a ‘third City’ between the earthly and the heavenly. He is envisioning the state in temporal life where the two cities are ‘inextricably intertwined and mingled with each other.’

Through his conception of the saeculum, Augustine has relativised all political institutions, social practices and customs by restricting them to their own spheres, so to speak. However, he has also given them autonomy and influence within the confines of their restricted spheres.

Furthermore, Augustine argues that in the secular age, political institutions, laws and customs are finite goods that the members of both Cities can use. But he is quick to emphasise, that they are used for different ends, with ‘a different faith, a different hope, a different love’.

The significant paragraphs in City of God that elucidate this are well worth quoting in full:

The heavenly City, while on the earthly pilgrimage, calls forth its citizens from every nation and every tongue. It assembles a band of pilgrims, not caring about any diversity in customs, laws, and institutions whereby they severally make provision for the achievement and maintenance of earthly peace. All these provisions are intended, in their various ways, among the different nations, to secure the aim of earthly peace. The heavenly City does not repeal or abolish any of them, provided they do not impede the religion in which the one supreme and true God is taught to be worshipped.

 

So the heavenly City, too, uses earthly peace in the course of its earthly pilgrimage. It cherishes and fosters as, as far as it can without compromising its faith and devotion, the orderly coherence of men’s wills concerning the things which pertain to the mortal nature of man; and this earthly peace it directs to the attainment of heavenly peace.

 

When the theological (Augustinian) concept of the secular is interwoven with ideas of the Noahic covenant and common grace, we get the distinctive contours of the ‘present age’. This picture in turn will enable us to better understand the relationship between the Church and the State, the significance of religious liberty, and the important role of natural law.

Most significantly, it will help the Church to understand the purpose, possibilities and limits of Christian engagement in a religiously and philosophically pluralistic society that exists in that space called the saeculum.

As Oliver O’Donovan has arrestingly put it, ‘Secularity is the stance of patience in the face of plurality.’ The Church must learn to cultivate this patience.

The concept of the saeculum should not prevent Christians and the Church from fulfilling the divine commission of being God’s witnesses in the world. It should not cause Christians to shy away from pursuing the endeavours that seek to promote the common good of the society to which they belong.

But it urges Christians to adopt a theological realism, especially with regard to the extent of their influence and impact. As Andrew Walker puts it:

Christian secularism does not mean that Christians should throw up their hands or give up declaring [quoting Carl Henry] ‘the criteria by which nations will ultimately be judged, and the divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilisation is to endure.’ It means, instead, that Christianity acknowledges the reality of the secular age and works within it, regardless of what level of dominance it achieves.

 

In this way, Christian secularism has a sobering effect on the Church and puts a check on every triumphalistic impulse, every temptation to declare Christian triumph over society or culture prematurely. For – to reference Augustine again – in the present age ‘the two Cities are inextricably intertwined and mingled with each other, until they shall be separated in the last judgement.’


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.