The Troublesome Term ‘Secular’

A wide chasm yawns between the two terms “secular” and “secularism.” By contrast with modern terms such as “secularism,” “secularization,” and “secular humanism,” the term “secular” is actually a Latin Christian word, following up on Christ’s rebuke to the Pharisees: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21). Not everything belongs to Caesar. The same text further suggests that neither the state nor the Church is a total institution, embracing everything. Each is limited. Each has its own habits, practices, institutions, and realms of discourse.

This teaching is the first great barrier to the totalitarian tendency of states, since not everything belongs to Caesar. It is also a barrier to the Church, since not everything comes under the jurisdiction of religious authorities. In secular things, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes in Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, it is better to obey the secular authorities than religious authorities.

John Finnis suggests three different meanings for “secularism,” which I will restate in my own words: (1) The belief that there is no God; (2) the belief that there may be a God, but he is utterly indifferent to humans, their destiny, and their actions; (3) the belief that God’s concern for humans is easily appeased, so that no demanding reform of human morals is required. In this third version, no ultimate divine judgment is to be feared, and having liberal opinions on social policy pretty much exhausts the obligations of religion. Briefly stated, these are three variants of atheism an intellectual and willful atheism in the strict sense, a pallid deism, and not necessarily an intellectual but, rather, a practical atheism.

Some secularists in America today prefer to call them-selves agnostics rather than atheists, on the grounds that no one can prove, one way or another, the existence of God. Yet it soon becomes apparent that, in practice, no one can act agnostically. Action implies a choice. Either one acts as if God exists, or one acts as if God does not exist. In practice, agnostics usually act like atheists. Some agnostics, however, are quite opposed to atheism and would like to believe in God, but simply feel they have not been given that insight, that gift, that privileged way of seeing.

Secularism in all of these senses is an ancient, a medieval, an Elizabethan, and indeed a perennial system of belief. Plato was moved to argue against it, as were philosophers and moralists in every subsequent era.

By contrast with “secularism,” the word “secular” arose in Christian circles by way of contrast with the sacred. The secular marks off what properly belongs to this world as opposed to the kingdom of God, the Church, and the larger external world, within which time and space and human history are enveloped. To take a pedestrian example, those monks and nuns who give their whole lives to God by some sort of retreat from the hurry and rush of daily life are called “religious” clergy, but those priests who live among the ordinary people in parishes far-flung across the world are called “secular” priests. In many senses, then, these two worlds of the sacred and the secular overlap. God’s presence penetrates the world of time and space at every point, not only as its Creator “in the beginning,” but as its Sustainer through every staccato moment of time. He is Sovereign over both the sacred and the secular.

Prior to the modern age, the community of faith saw itself engaged in a cosmic clash between God and Lucifer, preceding the beginning of time. The Christian view contrasted that eternal order with the present order. In other words, it contrasted the eternal simultaneity of active participation in God’s love with worldly (secular) preoccupation with the temporal order. Faith is concerned with that which belongs directly to God, such as the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. The secular is concerned with building a good city for humans during the span of their temporal lives. In the view of Christian humanism, these two are not necessarily adversarial, and they are not mutually exclusive. People of faith also live in this world and contribute to its betterment, bringing into it dimensions of fraternity, liberty and equality, compassion and hope, which, in ancient Greece and Rome, for instance, were scarcely to be found. They build libraries, copy ancient manuscripts for the sake of posterity; found great universities; endow churches to commission immensely talented painters and sculptors, architects and masons, as well as musicians and grammarians.

From the other side, secular thinkers and secular institutions have, at times, opened up vistas for people of faith—about hygiene, medicine, the overcoming of poverty, democratic governance, the abolition of slavery and torture—that during the earlier centuries of Christian life were either unknown or not achievable. St. Augustine, for example, wrote that neither slavery nor torture belong in a Christian civilization, and yet both practices were so universal and so deeply entrenched that he did not foresee how they could be eliminated, but only partially and inadequately tempered by mercy.

In a way, both Jewish-Christian faith and secular reason have brought fresh energies into human progress, and both have experienced periods of decadence and violence.

The tracing of the boundaries between these two kingdoms, the things of Caesar and the things of God, was perhaps the central project, carried out by trial and error, of the entire Christian era for its first 2,000 years—a project that continues today. From Augustine’s magisterial account of the interrelations of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, right on through the age-old struggles between emperors or kings and the pope of any given period, certain historical markers were set down, and certain institutional forms were tried and sometimes abandoned under the lashings of experience. To trace out all these changes would take us too far afield—it deserves a book-length summary of its own.

Yet it is worth mentioning one or two dramatic moments. In the year 385 A.D., a Roman legion was under orders to surround the cathedral of Milan and enter it. The bishop of the cathedral, later to be given the title St. Ambrose, stepped out on the front steps and, in all his vestments as bishop and with a great voice, forbade them to enter, for the reason that the cathedral was a place of God, off-limits to Caesar. The troops did not enter. Thus were the two realms marked out in the world of practice.

“Secular” is that realm which is not the primary responsibility of the Church or ecclesiastical institutions, but the realm which is tackled by reason and experience alone. Reason and experience have a lot to do with the Church and its historical development, too, but the main business of the Church does not belong to reason alone or to the secular order alone. Rather, it belongs (through faith) to those hidden dimensions of reality that are illuminated sub specie aeternitatis (under the light of eternity). By contrast, those concerns of human temporal life that draw upon a more worldly light, such as the building of the polity, the economy, and even a great swath of cultural artifacts, more properly belong to the secular order, which has its own autonomy. Yet it is also ordered, whether its members are blind to it or not, toward its Creator and self-revealed Friend.

In the Christian view, especially since the time of Aquinas and Dante, who might be thought of as the progenitors of a new Christian humanism, faith ought to work in the secular world as yeast in dough. In this respect, Aquinas and Dante were mightily helped by being the first to use the works of the empirical Aristotle to help articulate the Christian Faith. They were far better off than their predecessors of the preceding thousand years, who had access only to the works of Plato, in the long tradition of Christian Platonism.

Irving Kristol spelled out in Commentary some years ago the most common contemporary secular view of history— common, but quite incomplete:

As any respectable text in European intellectual history relates, “humanism,” in the form of “Christian humanism,” was born in the Renaissance, as a major shift occurred from an other-worldly to a this-worldly focus, and as the revived interest in Greco-Roman thought shouldered aside the narrow Christian-Aristotelian rationalism endorsed by the Church.

He deploys this brush stroke far too fast. Aristotle was, for the millennium, a lost and forgotten part of Greco-Roman thought. Only during the last quarter of the twelfth century, in Toledo, Spain, hidden in old pottery, many important works of Aristotle—the Politics, the Nichomachean Ethics, the Metaphysics, several of the empirical books on botany and geology, and the treatise on nature—saw the light of day for the first time in a thousand years. Under the guidance of an unusually farsighted local bishop, Nicodemus of Toledo, a team of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars was assembled to begin translating these works and diffusing them.

The new horizon found in these books dramatically altered the intellectual history of the West. Before that time, the West had relied on studying Aristotle in Arabic translations done before the time of Mohammed by Christian monks in Syria and other Arab lands. Thus, it was only in the 13th century that Aquinas and Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch (a century later), and hundreds of others began putting the new Aristotelian empiricism to work. These novelties were resisted mightily by the dominant stream of Platonists. (The textbooks contrasted “the divine Plato” with “the atheist Aristotle.”) The works of Aquinas were burnt on the square in Paris not two decades after his death. One fails to grasp the originality and crucial importance of Aquinas to the later history of the West if one overlooks this earlier “revived interest in Greco-Roman thought,” this earlier and hard-fought Renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Both Aquinas and Dante rejoiced in Aristotle’s emphasis on the five senses (Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu—Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses) and on down-to-earth empirical evidence. They found Aristotle more hospitable to the human body, to the concerns of the temporal city of man, and to the world of time, space, and material things than the more spiritually inclined Plato. In fact, Plato’s imbalance on the side of the spirit, to the neglect of the body, had actually been a danger to the Christian Faith. The creeds of the Church had always affirmed that the human being is both body and soul, not soul alone. Thus, Christian Platonism faced certain intellectual embarrassments in trying to explain how and why Christ would take on human flesh, and why Christianity promised the resurrection of both the body and the soul. Plato had so severely demoted the body and uplifted the soul that the Christian message, squeezed through his filters, came out overly spiritualized, off-kilter, out-of-tune. Plato aimed too high. Aristotle pointed to the lowly earth.

The most frequently painted theme of the early Renaissance was the annunciation to Mary that she would become the Mother of God. This scene filled viewers with awe that God should become man—and through the flesh of one woman who could be seen and described, a woman of feeling and of pain. The most touching image of God in Christianity after the Thomistic Renaissance, and its emphasis on the five senses, is the infant suckling at his mother’s breast in the stable of Bethlehem, breathed upon by farm animals and visited by humble shepherds. Paintings of this scene were to proliferate among the great painters of the next three centuries. Soaring cathedrals were thrown up to the sky, made of good solid stone, worked with great care to bring both sensory and spiritual pleasure. Yet the image of God become man seemed like idolatry, even sacrilege, to Jews and Muslims. It seemed so, too, to the Albigensians and many other perennially arising communities clinging to a more “spiritual” (gnostic) understanding of Christianity. Underground, as it were, Plato still lives.

For Aquinas, as we have seen, all knowledge begins in the senses. What philosophy could be more nourishing to a poet such as Dante? Sense knowledge, images, flesh and blood and bone—these are the stuff which the poet flashes before the imagination while, like fireworks, his insights into the mysteries of human living, suffering, and aspiring explode in the night. It was the same with Giotto and a great rush of other painters. This early Renaissance did not have to disown Aristotle; Aristotle had liberated them, and taught them to breathe, to smell, to listen, to touch, to celebrate the Lord’s creation, and the resurrection of the flesh.

As Professor Richard Rubenstein explains in his brilliant book Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt, 2003), which in part inspired several of the preceding paragraphs, one of the greatest contributions of Christianity to the West was the enthusiastic welcome the Church gave in the early 14th century to the new Aristotelian point of view. Aristotle helped mightily to “ground” the Christian West in the secular, attentively studied. Rubenstein chronicles this Western breakthrough into empirical studies:

Farsighted popes and bishops . . . took the fateful step that Islamic leaders had rejected. By marrying Christian theology to Aristotelian science, they committed the West to an ethic of rational inquiry that would generate a succession of “scientific revolutions,” as well as unforeseen upheavals in social and religious thought.

Thenceforward, the West, which had been in the 13th century at a level of civilization below the beautiful cities of the Muslim Middle East and Confucian China, experienced an enormous leap forward in science, the arts, astronomy, mapmaking, political philosophy, and many new fields of inquiry. In some nations, the monasteries led the way in launching many new industries and technologies, taking advantage of the disciplined labor force of the monks and the practicality of a universal system of ecclesiastical law. Some monasteries became, as it were, the first multinational corporations, selling their goods to far-off nations.

In due course, heads of secular states attempted to squeeze God out of public life altogether—as they had always tried to do in every century since the beginning—that is, to take control over and to domesticate the Church. One can see this process vividly under the French Revolution and again under Napoleon, whose special pleasure it was to stable his army’s horses in churches and convents, their human inhabitants having been slain or driven away in torment.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb has taught us in The Roads to Modernity (Random House, 2004), there was by the 18th century more than one Enlightenment; there were actually three, in Germany, France, and England. The French and the Germans especially imagined the Enlightenment as a gigantic effort to construct the world as if God did not exist. They aimed to build a purely secular civilization, to generate a religion within the bounds of reason alone, to establish a universal ethic based upon universal reason. They aimed—by strangling the last king with the entrails of the last pope—to construct a more perfect world, experiencing endless progress.

This project entailed compressing biblical religion into the solitary regions of the individual heart, so that dealing with religion no longer meant dealing with a church, but individual to individual. In this newly empty space, the state waxed ever stronger. Losing the public weight of a church, Christianity was driven into the solitary individual soul. Given that much, the Enlightenment could advance rap¬idly into regions of the soul formerly occupied by biblical faith. The “tolerance” of one individual for another would be quite enough.

The secular humanist vision of history may be summarized in this blunt maxim: Secular enlightenment must grow, biblical faith must diminish. This is the succinct form of the “secularization thesis” of the social sciences between, say, 1950 and about 1990. As Kristol points out, this set of beliefs is no longer rooted in science; this is ideology, even a new metaphysics, a new theology, a new faith.

In this way, the Enlightenment gave rise, obviously, to a new meaning of the term “secular.” From marking a realm of life distinguished from the realm of the sacred, there now was born an ideology: secularism. To be secularist now meant to exclude religion, or at least any religion whose sources come from beyond the bounds of reason alone. In this sense, the tireless work of the American Civil Liberties Union today in driving religion out of public life is exemplary secularist work.

But of course, in the real world, both of the worldly order and of Christianity (or Judaism), it is not strictly necessary for the secular to exclude the religious, or to set itself up as a direct adversary in a zero-sum game. That is merely a matter of choice. As Himmelfarb shows, that was neither the British nor the American way.

Yet even in thinking of all three Enlightenments together, it is amazing in retrospect how much this broad new civilizational movement accomplished. The Enlightenment was a noble, at times heroic, effort, and it has brought much good into the world. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that in recent times, the secularist movement has begun to en-counter rather severe limits to its own capacities. Without wishing in any way to denigrate the huge achievements of the Enlightenment, or to turn back the clock by weakening it, an increasing number of writers, not themselves men of Christian Faith, have begun to give warning of certain incapacities within the secular Enlightenment. They urge that people of reason pry open the unnecessarily self-enclosed horizons of secularism.

Let us return to the definition of “secularism” or “secularization,” which we broached only provisionally above. Two new features have arisen in modern times—ever since Darwin, Freud, Comte, and others of the “moderns”—to alter the meaning of the term in some interesting respects. The first is the conviction that the only valid form of human knowing is science, proceeding both by way of mathematical reasoning and empirical investigation (narrowly considered).

The practical effect of this epistemological choice is to make knowledge of God impossible for humans: This method confines human knowing to searching for hereto-fore unidentified bits of furniture in the universe with sensory evidence. But God is not a sense object. God is not an object in space and time like other objects. Such a conception would fall far short of what religious people mean, expect, and take to be the signs of the presence of “God.” If God were just another item in space and time, God would be a pitiable thing. Indeed, if God were simply proportioned to human knowing, and were not to be found, as it were, on a far more powerful wavelength, far exceeding our power to grasp, such a God would fall far short of traditional intimations and inquiries.

The first feature of modern secularism, then, is that by its very definition of what knowing is, it excludes under-standing of God from the realm of legitimate human knowledge. The second feature is that it seeks to relieve human conscience of the heavy moral burdens imposed by the expectation of divine judgment at the end of time. It relieves humans of the burden that an undeceivable God sees and knows all things, even those done in secret, even those hidden in the depths of the heart. Modern secularists frequently burst into paeans of praise for the feeling of liberation attained by breaking free from this notion. One is then free to do and to be whatever one wants, without any supervening judgment from another. One is alone in the universe, yes, but with the consolation of being truly un-mastered and on one’s own. Milton’s Lucifer captures this sentiment perfectly: “Non serviam!” I will not serve; I prefer to be alone.

But here another division within modern secularism starkly appears. Some secularists go on serving the old morality (or most of it) and nourishing in themselves the old virtues—Aristotelian, Stoic, Republican—such as a jealous regard for freedom of conscience, fraternity, equality, com-passion, justice, honesty, courage, and so on. Among such secularists, a few have historically been pointed to as “secular saints”—David Hume and Albert Camus, for instance. We may call this school the smiling secularists. There is no God, but the search for truth and fidelity to good morals goes forward, perhaps even better in a secular than in a religious age.

Down quite another route go those who take Nietzsche seriously: “God is dead” means not only the passing of the divine element from the human cosmos, but also the death of truth and the death of morality. All is truly relative. There are no values, only your preference and mine.

Add to this a strong view of natural selection, the view that gives free rein to the powerful and the fittest, so as to confer upon them (for the good of the human race) the obligation to triumph over the weak and the unfit.

At the headquarters of the German General Staff in World War I, for instance, an American professor of biology at Stanford, a pacifist, reported with painful candor in Headquarters Nights (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1917) how the German commanders, some of them his own graduate professors of biology, boasted of their war aims and their superior culture and morality, using as their justification the “hard” Darwinian view of natural selection. By this definition, which is not quite that of Darwin, natural selection means that evolution is random, and that there is no transcendental point of view on human destiny, purpose, or morality. In its place, rather, is an imperative of nature that dictates that the fittest will survive at the expense of the weak, and that somehow by this triumph of the strong the future of the human race will advance ever higher.

We may call this school the “hard” secularists, the pessimists, the celebrators of the dysfunctionality of human intellect, the champions of a hard and unsentimental will to power. This may be a vulgar school, but in the 20th century it was all too powerful under communism, fascism, and Nazism. The more reasonable, liberal secularists would call it an aberration. But it was all too real, and all too secularist, and its arguments are not easy to refute, as Camus found out in his exchange of letters with a young friend who became a Nazi.

“Secular” is therefore a term that marks out its own realm of goodness, purpose, and morality, with its own proper and distinctive autonomy. It stands face-to-face with the eternal realm within which God dwells. For Christians and Jews, the Creator offers His friendship to women and men in freedom. They may accept or reject it.

From the beginning, a division according to these choices appears. Adam and Eve choose against the one single commandment of God. Cain slays Abel. By the time of Noah, hardly a godly man is to be found. Thus, humans choose the “city” to which they give ultimate allegiance. Yet to choose friendship with God does not entail devaluing the goodness and proper autonomy of nature and time; exactly the contrary.

The Psalms of David exult in the beauty and majesty of the earth, and give God thanks for it. The seven Christian sacraments, instituted by Christ to give grace (a way of sharing in God’s world, while still in time), are each constituted by physical objects becoming symbols of divine realities: bread and wine, holy oils, a ring and a promise, a laying on of hands, a light slap on the cheek, the pouring of water over the head. In these ways, the things of God—the “sacraments,” the sacred acts—interpenetrate the legitimate goods of the secular world. They act as yeast in dough. Yet the dough retains its own autonomy, and its ability to resist or to be infertile. (“I am just not very religious,” one hears people say. Or, “I never feel that I need God, or am missing anything.”)

In sum, prior to the ideological secularism of the last three centuries, there was a Christian humanism, deeply knowledgeable about the ways of this world, often highly sensual, and with a great lust for life. Christian humanism had emphatically a dimension of worldliness. Yet it retained an awareness, as modern secular humanism does not, of participating simultaneously in a far more spacious and dramatic world, that of God’s grace and human weakness and fallibility.

In this sense, secular humanism dwells within a far- narrower circle of consciousness than Christian humanism did in the past and continues to do in the present. Christian humanism may be more modest in its claims for itself, and properly humble, since all that it most cherishes among its strengths is an undeserved gift, accepted by and through the dark night of faith.

Of course, there have always been arrogant and haughty churchmen. But it is easily pointed out that such men are living contrary to the example of their Teacher. Our Lord would have Christians converse with all others in humility and with mutual respect. For now we are entering a new post-secular age. On what other basis can we learn from one another?


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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