Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sacred and Secular

The late R. A. Markus, a former colleague at Liverpool, author of Saculum: History and Society in the Theology of St.Augustine

'Sacred and secular'. A well-used phrase. But what does it mean? Does it make a contrast between the religious and the non-religious?  Between the church and the world? The public square where everything that matters are discussed, and the private world of religious observance, imagination  and make-believe? You may suppose that members of the National Secular Society think like this. Their website says ‘Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law’. So then ‘sacred and secular’ would mean ‘church-affected’ and ‘’church-unaffected’. It is a society that wants to keep separate things separate, and to uphold the rights of all, religious and non-religious, before the law. That seems to me to be admirable, but I don’t think it helps us much with the meaning of ‘secular’.

This is what Wikipedia says about that word saeculum from which our ‘secular’ is derived;

saeculum is a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of a human population. The term was first used by the Etruscans. Originally it meant the period of time from the moment that something happened (for example the founding of a city) until the point in time that all people who had lived at the first moment had died. At that point a new saeculum would start.

A life time, or a series of lifetimes. The secular is concerned with what falls under this period of passing. By this measure, the NHS is a secular society, besides the Secular Society itself.  A hundred other secular societies come to mind. It seems helpful if we keep that bit of history in mind. From it it’s easy to see that the word ‘secular’ means ‘of the present age’ or perhaps it’s not stretching things to use ‘contemporary’. Not so much a political or social arrangement or stance, but pointing to the fact that such a thing is associated with the passing, and with the passing away of such an arrangement. Secular refers to the sort of things that news bulletins report.  The idea is that the secular is the mundane, the everyday, the ‘passing’.

The New Testament uses ‘passing’, too, in reference to the ‘world’, but in contrast with the affairs of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As in I Jn. 2.17.’…this world is passing away along with its desires….’ Similarly with ‘fashion’. Fashions of their very nature pass away. By contrast the activities of the Christian church are ‘sacred’. Set apart.  Writing to the believers in Corinth Paul urges on them to become ‘…those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it’. (1 Cor. 7.31) I like that ‘as though’ We have dealings with the world, inevitably so, but we are to live as though we had none. No. Paul thinks that it’s not make believe, but the honest truth about being a Christian.

As for sacred, the dictionaries say things like, ‘Made holy by association on with a god or other object of worship’. I say nothing to undermine the doctrine of the ‘common grace’ of God, nor of Christ’s Lordship over the passing world. But this is not the emphasis of the NT, is it? In the case of the sacredness of the Christian church, this is tied to ‘association’ (not quite the correct word) with the eternal God. With his word if promise. If the secular is concerned with the passing, then the sacred is concerned with what abides, abides because it is eternal. So the sacred is concerned with eternal matters, and with human concerns about these matters.

Paul contrasts Christian wisdom, the ‘secret and hidden wisdom’ with  ‘the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away’. None of the rulers of this age understood this secret and hidden wisdom, ‘for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…’ 1  Cor. 2.6f.

Two systems of lordship,  one which rules this age, passing away, and the lordship of the Lord of glory. In doing what they did, the crucifiers, Roman and Jewish,  unintentionally served God’s eternal purposes, for this Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age’. That which is so characteristic of this present age, an act of political expediency, nevertheless has eternal consequences. To this God belongs the ‘glory for ever and ever. Amen’ Gal. 1.4.

So the contrast between sacred and secular by itself does not mean spiritual versus non-spiritual, but ‘of eternal moment’, of eternal  weight (‘an eternal weight of glory’) by contrast to the passing lightness ‘of the present age’.

Is this escapism? Well, it could be called that. Except that Christian people have continuing responsibilities and enjoyments,  including responsibilities and enjoyments of the eternal Christ. But Christ’s disciples have their treasure in heaven, where there are no moths, or thieves. They are to flee from the wrath to come. There’s more than a tinge of escapism in this teaching, isn’t there?

Though we may be confessing Calvinist Christians, we rather neglect or forget the doctrine of the eternity of God that is at the heart of our faith, and thus of our worship. Let us remind ourselves –

The Lord our God is but one living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

The places where this God is to be worshipped, in which the apparatus of worship is situated, and the people of God gather, are to be distinct from the secular world. In the present age and yet not of it. That’s a hard balancing act.