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Why secularism must fail

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A discussion of secularism is confusing from the start because the word is derived from the Latin word for time. Like many words with an obvious derivation, its meaning over time has changed and has come to refer to a realm that excludes the sacred. "Secularism" has taken over the use of "profane" as in "sacred and profane" and often refers to political atheism. Rowan Williams, in his Faith in the Public Square distinguishes two kinds of secularism, procedural and programmatic. Governments who use practical reason to govern a nation whose people have a diversity of religious allegiances typify procedural secularism. This is the only way that, for example, India could be governed. This exercise of the two powers is not a problem for the Christian Church and is clearly established by Paul who, in Romans13, accepted the role of government as serving God by ordering society aright. The state has the power of coercion and Christians are urged to pay taxes that are appropriate to it. The second kind of secularism, the programmatic, is a problem for the Church because it sees the government's role as removing all religious practice, symbolism and debate from public life. The French model is a good example. The state assumes a position of negative tolerance and religion is relegated to the private sphere.

Having said this, the word "secular" may be used to indicate a certain kind of time thus bringing it back to its roots. There is secular time and sacred time. For example Bach's cantata 106 proclaims that "God's time is the best of all times. In Him we live, move and are," The idea that there are two kinds of time, the secular and the sacred, came from the Christian understanding that God existed outside of ordinary time. The latter is the time measured by clocks,and is the time of human affairs, of train timetables, and the Julian calendar. Secular time is physical time, a mysterious process by which one event follows another in an order that cannot be altered. This time is integral to the idea of cause and effect. By contrast, sacred time is the time of the Church calendar and is not limited by temporal sequence; it is eternal time in that events in sacred time exist in all time.

For secular time, eternity is simply unending time, whereas all sacred time is eternal because all time exists simultaneously in the mind of God. In the calendar of the Church past events become present. Christ is born again at Christmas, dies again on Easter Friday and is raised again on Easter Sunday. D.H. Lawrence describes the Christian year as "the epic of the soul of mankind." Thus the Church year is carried on in eternal and repeatable, sacred time. Sacred time is essentially storied time, as are the gospels. Of course, as creatures we are embedded in secular time and as such our existence is bounded by death. Sacred time touches secular time during the gathering of Christians around Word and Sacrament. Sacred time modifies secular time as it exists as the great "nevertheless" even in the face of death. "Even though we die, yet we will live." Similarly, sacred authority modifies secular authority in the interaction between Church and State. In the West this dialogue removes the possibility of theocracy.


Sacred time is the time of revelation. This is its primary distinction from secular time. Revelation teaches us that things are not as they seem. The child born in humble circumstances is revealed as the Lord of Heaven and Earth. The man in destitution on the cross is the image of God. While secular history is, as they say, "one damn thing after another" sacred history tells of events that infect all of time just as in our memory a phrase, a look, a turn of affairs is captured by memory because our minds are attuned to salience. Salient events are events that contribute to the narrative of the self, the story of the soul. Nations who write their own history act in a similar way. They record events that advance a narrative. Facts that do not fit into a narrative have no power and are forgotten, like every breakfast we have ever had. This reveals us to be narrated creatures in that our minds are attuned to the revelation of the hidden that contributes to the narrative that tells us who we are and is the engine of our action.

Sacred time allows a different view from what is superficially apparent; it offers the different view of the other as art offers us a different view of the world or a person or an event. On the other hand, secular time takes things and events as they appear, as does a photograph. While sacred time is open to the existence and view of the other, secular time is univocal; it is impersonal, bound to one obvious point of view. The view of events in sacred time is open to surprise and wonder while the view of events in secular time are purely descriptive of what actually happens. There is a relationship between secular time and fundamentalist religion in that both insist on evidence and on an exact, literal view of events. The events stand for themselves; they are not vulnerable to interpretation. Fundamentalism is thus a product of modernity and of secularism.

Through the experience of sacred time we become more than ourselves, more than our physiology and psychology and digestion. We come to belong to a people who are enlivened by narratives that set them free from a life limited by death even though they are limited by death. Thus sacred time exists in a paradoxical relationship with secular time. Life limited by the secular is identical to Paul's life in the flesh and life in sacred time to life in the Spirit. Life in sacred time is life inwardly and outwardly directed so that the truths existing in the self and in the other are sought.

The aim of programmatic secularism is to abolish sacred time so that only secular time is left. From the above description of sacred time, it is obvious that such abolition would coincide with the abolition of what is essential to humanity. It would be the case of the death of God bringing about the death of man. The Catholic historian and philosopher Christopher Dawson wrote: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture." And culture, as the biologists remind us, is life.

True art exists in sacred time because it reveals hidden truth. Art is essentially religious because of its function in revelation; it transcends the prosaic. The decline in the fine arts from the beginning of the twentieth century, although not complete, speaks of the abolition of sacred time. Art has become a showcase of the superficially extraordinary and no longer reveals the truth of the world. Much modern art is the result of the death of sacred time.

Secularism was born in the European Enlightenment when it was proposed that there is only one kind of reason, that of formal deductive and descriptive thinking applied to the natural world. All other forms of reason, especially that nurtured for centuries in European monasteries and the early universities were excluded. Secularism was given its weaponry when it claimed to represent a universal form of rationality; the kind of rationality that has been so successfully used to describe and manipulate the natural world became the only source of truth. This became the creed of every geek who thumbed their noses at the humanities and proudly claimed a monopoly on truth.


This is the origin of programmatic of secularism that insists that all language spoken into the public square must be free of religious notions because such speech had to be accountable to a certain kind of reason that could be accepted by any reasonable person. All public speech had to be of the one kind. It was to be based on evidence and reason alone. While religious belief may be held in private, on no account may it be introduced into politics or education or the affairs of state. The privatization of religion, while on the surface is a guarantee of religious freedom, is in fact a removal of religious notions from public life. In essence, programmatic secularism is the enactment of the Enlightenment view that all ancient authorities must be replaced by autonomous reason. This has led to the prevailing view that we know nothing unless it is established by research. Isaiah Berlin tells us that "those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones."

One result of the new thinking has been an over optimistic view of ourselves that would have it that we all spring into life pure and unstained and ready for a triumphant life. Sin was deemed to be a tool used by the Church to keep us all in subjection. We only have to see a production of Macbeth or Hamlet to see that is not true. We are beset by powers within and without and life is complex and infected. The heart is full of conflicting desire, we are damaged by experience and we fear death. In order to survive we need culture and culture has religious roots.

Secularists are antagonistic towards Christianity not only because they see it is irrational but also because they see it as illiberal. They have a point. It is true that traditional religion has been and is coercive and impersonal and this has alienated a great deal of the population. It is also true that, on the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church would take its place as the Holy Roman Empire with the expectation that it would rule Europe in its entirety. The Church came, from understanding itself as a local parallel society of the baptised who co-operated with Roman rule in all things except for the worship of the gods of the State, to the putative ruler of the whole of Europe in things both secular and sacred. This led to its blunder about Galileo and produced resentment from the new nation states that would govern their own affairs free of Roman interference.

The power of the Roman Church was challenged by Henry VIII in England and by the Reformation. This was a challenge to the Pope's assumption of universal and sacred authority. The situation of the Church today is becoming closer to its condition in the first few centuries. It has little or no political power and exists as a parallel community within the secular state.

In our time, secularism insists on a "language of rights and liberties, law and equity, a language to transcend the various forms of murderous tribalism which afflict our world." Since religious language does not fit this universal system it must be relegated to the private sphere. The Church is less and less a partner with secular authorities, a situation that has, especially in the twentieth century allowed the rise of unfettered totalitarianism often in the name of universal reason.

Secularism must fail because it is unable to address the human dilemma, it knows nothing of grace, would reduce humanity to the result of evolutionary process and is in danger of producing a new totalitarianism of universal reason.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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