Pentecost, Deism, and Secularism

Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. That descent changed them. It made a difference in their lives. The Upper Room had previously been a chamber of fears. “Surely not I, Lord?” (Mt 26:22) was the question on a certain Thursday night. About 72 hours later, it was a locked room “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). And, for 9 days—from the Ascension to Pentecost—they were back there (and my guess is that the last one in the room probably locked the door).

The difference of Pentecost in their lives was that they finally took seriously the Lord’s injunction: “Be not afraid!” (Mt 14:27). Finally, the locked door was no longer a security blanket but a barrier: they had to get out, speak out, do things, change things.

Pentecost also changed the Church and world. From an initial Church of 13 (tradition holds the Blessed Virgin was in the Cenacle), the Church has grown to a billion. From a couple of Jewish guys, the Church literally reached the ends of the earth.

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Nothing here is particularly remarkable to a Catholic. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power, of transformation, the giver of life and grace, which makes our good possible and sustains it. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95: 7-8). The voice is the voice of the Spirit, and hardening one’s heart to the Spirit’s inspirations is the one unforgivable sin (Mark 3:29).

We know that theoretically. How much we really believe it is, I suggest, another question.

I say that because I think there are a number of factors in American culture that affect that depth of belief. The two I want to talk about are deism and secularism.

You might understand secularism, but why deism? Let me explain.

Deism is, of course, the doctrine that God is uninvolved in the world. God made the world, but made it according to certain rules. Those rules are self-perpetuating, and keep the whole mechanism running. Indeed, the classic Deist model of God is that of a clockmaker, who makes the clock, winds it up, and the clock runs by itself. God is not he who “rested on the seventh day.” He is on a permanent leave, disinterested in the world he made to run on automatic pilot according to input rules. Jefferson could speak of man being endowed by a “Creator with certain inalienable rights,” not a God involved in the day-to-day of human life. For the deists (like for Protestant Eucharistic theology, albeit for different reasons), God is the Real Absence.

I think that Americans understand the implications of deism on a macro-level: God wound up the universe and it runs according to inbuilt laws. In some sense, that vision jibes well with an evolutionary mindset—some rule (say “survival of the fittest”) keeps everything on trajectory, without having to get God into the picture. (This obviously has great implications for the notion of creation which—for Catholics as opposed to deists—is a continuing work of God, in which man—as God’s image—shares through procreation and work. Is this disbelief in Providence also responsible for contraception?)

Where I think the problem comes in is on the micro-level. If God doesn’t do anything in the universe at large, why would he do anything involving me? If God took a vacation from creation, he isn’t going to interrupt it to tend to my individual crises, my hopes and fears, aches and pains, etc. In other words, buy into deism and throw out Providence. Either God is lovingly and benevolently interested in us (in which case, deism and all its variations go out the door) or God is apathetic, absent, disinterested … in which case, the Holy Spirit has nothing to do.

Now I venture to say that, at the big crisis moments in life, people—especially Catholics—wouldn’t say anything quite so foolish (“the fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God above’”—Ps 14:1). The old adage says, after all, that there are no atheists in foxholes.

But I would venture to say that some folks seem to forget that either God is interested or he isn’t—and if he is, that interest is not just a passing phenomenon. Once upon a time, good Catholic parents could remind their children “God is watching.”

But does the average Catholic today believe “God is watching?” Does he believe God is constantly involved in our lives? Or does he have a notion of prayer as a kind of spiritual 911—God has to be alerted to our needs, because he’s otherwise “taking his rest” at the divine command center in the sky?

I dare say that if a person were to say publicly that he thinks God guides him and that God put him in the world here and now for some purpose, many people would smile, perhaps take a step back … and try to make sure that person was not dangerous. He sounds too much like a holy roller.

But that is exactly what Orthodox Christianity says! The God who created black holes and galaxies has also counted the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7). I remember being struck by that idea one time on a long-distance flight from China: the God who is responsible for everything in all its complexity that I am soaring over at 11 miles/minute for the past 15 hours also just noticed I got a tad bit balder.

To the degree that we fail to shake loose of that deist heritage on the micro-level, we will never really take seriously a personal, loving God who is there for me and with me. We will not know the Holy Spirit.

Deism is part of our cultural baggage that loads down a vibrant acceptance of the Holy Spirit in my day-to-day life. Secularism is another.

By secularism, I mean a certain kind of “separation of Church and state.” Religious freedom is a basic human right: we are called to know, love, and serve God in conscientious freedom which, by its nature, cannot be forced.

But that does not mean, as some try to contend, that we should live in what the late Richard John Neuhaus called a “naked public square,” where society feigns agnosticism about God and moral value. Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion.

Yet, no small swath of contemporary American culture confuses precisely those two things, in which the notion of the “wall of separation” becomes a kind of Berlin Wall, complete with no-man’s land keeping the believer from clambering on to the public square. That vision has roots in a variety of places, from the Enlightenment writ large to heresies like Gallicanism and Josephism, which gladly kept religion in the sacristy, under lock and key tended by the Big Brother State.

That privatization of religion—that de facto secularism—takes various forms. In its simplest form, it is the split between the Sunday Christian and the Monday Christian, a Jekyll-and-Hyde that sees no relation between the man in church on Sunday and in the office on Monday. In more sophisticated forms, it takes the model of a John Fitzgerald Kennedy (appropriate to recall on this centennial of his birth) who laid the foundation for all the “personally opposed” of the world (and especially of his party) that were ready, in the name of gaining political office, to put their religious and moral convictions on the shelf.

What that secularism shares with deism is the desire to fence off parts of one’s life from the Spirit’s scrutiny. It also does not “hear the Spirit’s voice” because it carves out a zone of autonomy supposedly immune from the Spirit’s work. But, as Vatican II reminded us, this is not Catholicism (even if its advocates can produce baptismal certificates). It is practical atheism that alienates people from God, that constitutes a kind of anti-Gospel: a bait-and-switch that only pretends to know and serve the Spirit.

“If today you hear his voice ….” There are subtle influences in our cultural heritage that dull our spiritual auditory nerves. In this Pentecost season, we might consider how best to remove those obstacles.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Pentecost” painted by Luis Tristan de Escamilla (1585-1624).


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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